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The Origin, Diffusion, and Globalization of Riesling

Authors:
  • Disobedient Spirits llc

Abstract

The Riesling grape variety first appeared in the Rhine Valley about 1350 AD. It is the only noble grape variety not native to France. Beginning in 1386, Riesling was repeatedly selected over other varieties, first by Cistercians, then by nobles, and finally by commoners after 1750. The variety spread to Alsace before 1477 and to Austria before 1700. European emigrants brought Riesling with them to the Eastern United States before 1650 where the vines failed. During the mid 1800s, Riesling was successfully planted in three far-flung regions: Chile, Australia, and California. Since 1955, Riesling further diffused to New York, New Zealand, Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Riesling is the only variety to have its own international association of advocates and promoters. Today, Riesling grows on over 90,000 acres across six continents. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012. All rights reserved.
The origin and diffusion of Riesling
The Riesling grape appeared in the Rhine drainage basin no earlier than 1300.
Repeatedly selected over other field cuttings it came to dominate the landscape. When
Rhinelanders left Europe, Riesling cuttings accompanied them. In most of the new locations the
Riesling, like most other grapes, grew poorly. The climate was obviously too warm, too cold,
too wet, or too dry. Of the remaining places only testing could verify likely sites. Of these many
had intermittent environmental conditions that devastated vineyards every seven to ten years,
inappropriate soils that drowned the vines, insect pests, fungal infections, and voracious
vertebrae at the leaves and fruit. In those even fewer remaining places intervening economic
opportunity and lack of labor prevented viticulture. After contraction of international Riesling
production from 1870 to 1970 the grape is re-emerging and taking its rightful place among the
noble white wine varieties.
The Riesling, always at the poleward fringe of grape production, thrives around the
world. Riesling vines in their thousands grow in South Australia, British Columbia, Ontario,
Washington and New York. Secondary regions include New Zealand, Oregon, South Africa,
Western Australia, and Virginia.
Place of Origin
The story of the Riesling variety began hundreds of years before its birth when Romans
brought viticulture (the growing of grapes for wine) to the Rhine drainage basin. The Rhine
basin (Southwestern Germany and Alsace) is underlain by a sedimentary plain of non-marine
origin laid down in the Devonian. For the most part the bedrock is sedimentary shale or
metamorphic schist, slate, or gneiss. The hills are rounded because these stones readily crumble.
Were the rocks harder, this would be a region of canyons and spectacular cliffs. The crumbly
nature of the rocks probably prevented the people from building terraces. Still hillsides often
exceed 50% grade and rise 500 feet above the rivers in many places.
The soil residing on these slopes is rocky. Small particles of soil are easily eroded
downslope and after centuries of cultivation crumbled rock fragments dominate. Depending on
the substrate the rocks are finger-sized shale, dinner plate sized slate, or fist sized gneiss and
schist. Without the possibility of horizontal terracing rows were oriented vertically. Each vine
was trellised to a pole. At some point, the practice of tying the two fruiting canes in a downward
loop creating a heart-shaped outline became standard practice. For centuries the people have
hauled fertilizers up the slopes to nourish their rockstrewn vineyards.
Riesling flavors and aromas are affected by soil composition more than any other grape
with the possible exception of Sauvignon Blanc. The following table identifies the soil substrate
and the characteristics it imparts to the Riesling by region. The pattern of dominance and
quantity reveals that Riesling production concentrates along the Riesling from Koblenz at the
mouth of the Mosel upstream to Lake Constance (Bodensee) in the Baden region.
There is great soil variability within the larger wine regions. Still, we can identify several
co-varying traits from the data on our table. The German regions with slate are dominated by
Riesling. The wine style descriptor identifies these wines, and by inference, the effects of the
soil as racy with fruity acidity. Loess also appears a good substrate for Riesling vines as it
provides deep rooting opportunities, but it does not produce wines racy with acidity. Limestone
is not preferred.
Table 1: German wine Regions, their soil composition, and resulting wine style
(Deutches Weininstitut, 1997, p. 10) and
Region Soil Type Wine Style %
Riesling
Riesling
Hectares
Ahr Volcanic, Slate Velvety red and racy
whites
0 0
Mittelrhein Slate covered slopes Racy, fruity acidity 81.8% 380
Mosel-Saar-
Ruwar
Slate covered slopes,
mineral rich
Piquant, racy 69.3% 5,219
Rheingau Loess, loam, weathered
slate
Elegant, fruity acidity,
racy
84.6% 2,422
Nahe Loess, loam, quartzite,
porphyry
Subtly racy, fragrant,
fruity
50.9% 1,061
Rheinhessen Loess, limestone, sand,
schist
Mild fruitiness, round
full-bodied
15.6% 3,194
Pfalz Loam, weathered
limestone
Round, full-bodied,
aromatic
28.6% 5,066
Franken Loess, sandstone,
limestone
Earthy, robust, fresh
acidity
0 0
Hessiche
Bergstrasse
Loess Elegant, fruity, good
acidity
73.2% 213
Wurttemberg Shell-limestone, marl,
loess
Robust, powerful,
pronounced acidity
21.9 2,086
Baden Loess, loam, volcanic
soil
Full-bodied whites,
velvety and fiery reds
8.6% 1.193
Saale-
Unstrut
Shell-limestone,
sandstone
Mild fruitiness, round 0 0
Sachsen Sand, porphyry, loam Dry, fruity acidity 31.8% 62
Fine intraregional distinctions are discernable within the resulting wines. In the Mosel,
“the slate has different colors, for example, brown at Brauneberg, black at Bernkastel, blue at
Whelen, and pink at Erden, and there are recognizable differences in the taste of the wines.”
(Price, 2004, p. 22)
Rivers twist through the soft rock eroding steep sided, deep, and fairly broad valleys.
The rivers create the steepest and longest slopes on their cut banks. Low sun angle and the
twisting river valleys create an environment with sharp temperature distinctions between sun and
shade. The south facing slopes on the incised meanders create locations receiving high volumes
of perpendicular summertime solar radiation. Sites angled towards the sun receive intense long
hours of bright sunlight during the long summer days. For six weeks, from the beginning of
June to Mid July the days are over 16 hours long. A short distance away, in the deep shade of a
north facing slope the day feels short and cool. The south facing slopes above rivers are
regarded as the best locations for growing grapes.
Riesling takes advantage of the prevailing climatic conditions of its homeland. It
tolerates cold well. It buds late to avoid late spring frosts. The clusters hang long into the fall in
order to fully ripen. When exposed to warmer environments, “Riesling can be harvested earlier,
but the more rapid ripening there tends to make for wines with less aroma, elegance, and finesse.
Here a big problem is that the hot ripening conditions result in grapes with thick skins…
contain[ing] bitter-tasting tannins…In the Barossa valley of South Australia…the skin…can be
up to seven times as thick as in Germany’s Rheingau region! ” (Pigott, 1991, p. 13)
The region receives about thirty inches of rain annually, evenly spread throughout the
year. June, July, and August each have mean daily temperatures over 60F. These high
temperatures result from the long summer days. The differences between land and water
temperatures lead to the formation of morning fogs in the late summer and early fall. These fogs
create conditions suitable for the sprouting of Botrytis, a beneficial mold that withers the berries.
The little Ice age, which ended about 1850 and began in the 1600s, intermittently hindered grape
production and ripening.
History of Riesling
Viticulture was an integral part of Roman culture. When they conquered the Rhinelands
they brought their need for wine with them. Bringing wine over the Alps was expensive and
difficult but they did it for centuries. Slowly, however, the Romans tamed the land and the
people and their vineyards began to succeed. After decades of trial and error the Romans
succeeded in identifying locations that receive adequate direct solar radiation to allow some
grape varieties to ripen. These varieties thrived and those that did not ripen disappeared. After
hundreds of years, each vineyard consisted of multiple, successful, varieties.
Attempts to fit the grapes to the terroir continued for over 1000 years. 
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Charlemagne, it is claimed, ordered planting on the steepest slopes of the Rhinehessen because
he believed the grapes would ripen best there. The Rhinelanders of the Dark and Middle Ages
intercropped red and white wine grape varieties and vinified them together. In 1386
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It was into this time and this place that the Riesling sprouted. Initially there was only one
plant descended from the Gouais Blanc (Weisser Heunisch) and Traminier previously crossed
with an unknown wild variety. The original Riesling probably sprouted within 30 years of 1350.
More significant than its sprouting was its selection by an unknown grower! Something
about this one vine appealed more than those surrounding it. The grower propagated and
distributed cuttings of this new vine. There is suggestive evidence that the Riesling was growing
in Kintzheim, Alsace in 1348. The first reliable reference to Riesling vines, however, comes
from the Rheingau region in 1435. The 1435 reference is a receipt for the sale of cuttings,
proving its existence. Significantly it demonstrates recognition that the Riesling vine was
something special. (Free cuttings of inferior varieties were widely available). Within twenty
years Riesling references abound in the Rhinelands.
Through the next two centuries, Church and secular authorities promoted Riesling
production above all other varieties.
Before the thirty years war the vineyard area was over three times as large as it is today.
The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) devastated the Alsace and Rhineland vineyards. Before this
war the population of Europe was 30 million; at its close the population was 20 million. Riesling
grapes were widely planted in the French Alsace and German1 Rhinelands in replacement. The
feudal fragmentation of German politics within the Holy Roman Empire and reduced population
suppressed trade.
Before the mid 1700s there was a 50% tax on German wines. “Only after this tax was
removed did Riesling begin its takeover of the Mosel.” (Clarke, 2007, p. 201) This economic
constraint encouraged high volume varieties. The poor growers, therefore, focused on growing
the white wine grape Elbling. Elbling had the advantage of being a large producer, yet its wines
are both low in acidity and alcohol. Prior to the tax being repealed, wealthy and church growers
began shifting to Riesling. “In 1672, the St. Clara convent in Mainz instructed its tenants in
Geisenhiem, in the Rheingau, to replace their red vines”, with Riesling. (Price, 2004, p. 17)
Because, “the red wines made there are poor, and will turn sour from the slightest cause.”
(Redding, 1836, p. 170)
From this time until the Napoleonic sale of the church lands in 1803 one monastic
landlord after another ordered the eradication of first all red grape and then all non-Riesling
white grapes. In 1721 Schloss Johannisberg (Castle on St. John’s Mountain) became the first
estate to plant only Riesling. It was, in fact, the first to introduce varietal monoculture into the
region. This was, “because of their delicacy of aroma, Riesling wines don’t show the typical
*German is a misnomer because at that time Germany consisted of approximately 2,000 separate
states.
character of the grape variety if even as little as 5% of other aromatic varieties are blended with
them.” (Pigott, 1991, p. 18) Speyer (in the Pfalz) followed in 1744. In 1787, the Elector of Trier
(Mosel region) ordered the eradication of lesser varieties and the planting of Riesling.
From this period come two events, portrayed as accidental discoveries, that secured
Riesling’s place in Germany; the discovery of spatlese in 1775 and icewine in 1794. Each
represents the culmination of 1500 years of grape growing experiences. During those 1500
years, early frosts, Botrytis, and late harvesting must have occurred and the grapes vinified.
Knowledge of the properties of the resulting wines was, therefore, widely known. But until then
the wines were not made as separate products. The FABLED discoveries led to the legendary
codifications of harvesting-vinification techniques and defined new high value products.
The fable for the discovery of Spatlese, and ultimately current German wine quality
categories, highlights the orderly side of German culture. The story begins on the steep slopes of
Schloss Johanisberg. By 1700 grapes had been growing on this slope for a 1000 years. By law,
established in 1718, Johanisberg growers were forbidden to commence harvest before the Prince-
Bishop of Feuda2 decreed it. The decree kept growers from making wine from under ripe grapes.
More importantly, it kept anyone from getting a jump, by picking early, on the other growers of
the region. In 1775 the Schloss Johannisberg bound courier with the ‘Pick the grapes!’ decree
was waylaid. Couriers to other communities were, apparently, not so delayed. With great
concern the people of Schloss Johannisberg awaited the courier. As they waited, they watched
their ripe grapes succumb to a rot that spread across the vineyards as quickly as the morning fog
was burned off. When the poor courier arrived fourteen days later the people frantically picked
what grapes remained of their harvest. In desperation, they even pressed the rotted fruit, while
no doubt cursing the courier. Several months later, their curses supposedly turned to praise when
they discovered that the wine from the rotted Riesling grapes was exceptional. Today, there is a
statue of the FABLED courier in the Schloss Johannisberg courtyard to bemuse the large number
of tourists who visit the site annually. It is also why Johannisberg is regularly associated with
Riesling.
The first tale of icewine comes from 1794 or 1835 or 1842. The story is very similar to
Spatlese. After a cold wet summer some growers near Wurtzbergen, Franconia (Franken) left
their grapes on the vine late into the fall to achieve maximum sweetness. The technique learned
at Schloss Johannisberg twenty years earlier having spread across the nation. In early November
the first hard freeze of the season struck. To save the vintage they picked and pressed the grapes
in the bitter cold. They wisely fermented this must separately, lest it spoil the rest of the vintage.
(Schreiner, 2006)
Undocumented Ice wine harvests probably occurred several times previously (Schreiner,
2001). Icewine production was intermittent and limited quantities made before the 1960s. The
proper environmental conditions to produce it occur naturally only a few times each decade.
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Germans defined and codified icewine vinification requirements and production methods in
1961, and modified in 19__. Under the new rules, the German government encouraged icewine
production. It has been a successful policy as demand regularly exceeds supply.
The preceding innovations took place under church auspices. Much of the land was in
church hands and the political leaders were also clergy; hence the title prince-bishop. This
changed in the early 1800s with Napoleon’s invasion. After conquering much of Germany, in
1803 Napoleon ordered the sale of church lands. As in Burgundy this land sale led to significant
vineyard fragmentation.
When the Napoleonic wars were over the region was once again in ruin. Slow
rebuilding, the potato famine, and political turmoil led to massive German emigration during the
mid 1800s. Those emigrants who knew wine attempted to Riesling where they went. In some
places Riesling and other varieties thrived. In other places, conditions required them to adopt
other varieties.
Riesling Diffusion
The Riesling’s first rooting outside Europe may have occurred in the 1630s. It is possible
the Dutch planted Riesling at their New Amsterdam (New York) colony. If so, they quickly
died. Further attempts, and there were many, in eastern North America failed for the next three
centuries.
In Australia James MacArthur was the first to plant Riesling in 1838. MacArthur invited
Rhinelanders to work his vineyards. The success helped inspire a wave of German immigrants.
Most of the immigrants settled in South Australia near the city of Adalaide. Many established
vineyards.
In South Australia wine boomed and then broke. In 1866 there were 6,629 acres of
vineyards there. Production peaked in 1870 with nearly 900,000 gallons when supply
superceded demand. Eradication followed and in 1879 there were only 4,114 acres producing
313,000 gallons. (Conigrave, 1886, p. 90) The abandoned land reverted to sheep pasturage. The
Eden and Clare valleys are famous for their quality Rieslings.
Until 1992 Riesling was the most commonly planted white grape variety in Australia
when it was eclipsed by Chardonnay.
Riesling cuttings made their way to California in 1857. “Mr. Charles Krug…a
native of Mainz, on the Rhine…In 1858 he entered into the wine business in Sonoma…at
present it [vineyards] covers 68 acres and has 60,000 vines among which are Johanisberg
Riesling.” (Menefee, 1879, p. 204)
The Haraszthy wine company had a 360 acre Riesling Vineyard near Esperanza,
Yolo County, California in the late 1800s. (Anon, 1892, p. 245)
The results were, and remain, generally disappointing.
“The Rhenish grapes were among the first to be tried in California, and
they have been tested, perhaps, more widely than any other. Very little wine,
however, has been made in California that at all resembles the true Rhine wiens.
Many of of our Riesling wines bear a much closer resemblance to Sauterns than to
Rhine wines. This is to some extent due… to the high percentage of sugar which
the German grapes attain here at maturity… the slow cool fermentation which the
wines of Johannisberg and Steinberg undergo… The best results are obtained with
this variety in the coolest localities.” (Hilgard, 1896, p. 180)
“The earliest record of grape growing in Washington can be traced back to 1825.”
(Zraly, 2008, p. 46) The first Riesling cuttings came to Washington State in 1871. The
modern age of Riesling wine production began in 1967 with the opening of Chateau Ste.
Michelle winery.
Riesling descendants
During the Phylloxera outbreak of the late 1800s German law forbad grafting. Unable to
employ the grafting solution used in France, they set about breeding new insect resistant
varieties. A number of varieties were emerged from this effort. The most famous, widespread,
and detrimental to the German wine industry was the Muller-Thurgau. Muller-Thurgau was
created in 1882 by Hermann Muller who lived in Thurgau, Switzerland. He created it by
crossing Riesling and Silvaner. Silvaner is a variety of ancient origin and used to make
Liebfraumilch.
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