Culinarily speaking, Germany is known best for its bratwurst, pretzels, sauerkraut and beer. But in the wine department, Germany is near-synonymous with riesling. Not to say that only Germany can make a decent bottle of their homegrown variety (as you shall see).
Riesling is a tough grape; it’s drought-tolerant, heat tolerant, and packs a relatively high acidity. And yet, its structure is determined by the terroir where it grows, easily manipulated by soils and climates.
It has a reputation for being a sweet wine, but there are plenty of dry rieslings to prove otherwise. It ages well, it’s a notoriously excellent food-pairing wine, but more than anything, it’s just tasty. Although it’s produced in Napa Valley, not Germany, the Palmaz Louise Riesling 2017 tops our list because of its high acidity and fruitiness.
The selections listed below are some of the best rieslings to drink right now.
Best Overall: Palmaz Louise Riesling 2017
- Region: California, Napa Valley
- ABV: 13.2%
- Tasting Notes: peach, green apple, wet stones, Meyer lemon
At the risk of rattling some German cages, the crown pick of our riesling list has to go to the 2017 Louise bottle from Palmaz, a true American beauty. The Palmaz family grow their grapes on land formerly farmed by storied winemaker and Napa Valley frontiersman Henry Hagen when the land was more wild west than wine country. Their vineyards are diverse in altitudes, soils, and sun exposure, enabling the winemakers at Palmaz free range to make many amazing wines. Their 2017 Louise Riesling is a star among stars. High acidity and crisp fruity sweetness make this bottle an exquisitely refreshing experience. A natural pair with lobster or crab.
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Best Sweet: Ojai Kick On Ranch Dessert Riesling 2019
- Region: California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
- ABV: 8%
- Tasting Notes: peach, pear, honey, buttered toast
Making iced wine normally includes plucking grapes frozen by winter, but in Ojai, California, where there is no proper winter, it’s a different process than in Germany. At the Ojai Vineyard, they commercially freeze their ripened riesling grapes, which helps maintain the fruity character for this compelling dessert wine.
It has expressive aromas of peach and honey with a splash on the palate that’s at once buttery and toasty. Toss in earthy minerals for texture. Its vibrant sweetness makes this a great side-kick to salted-chocolate-chip cookies and cheeses.
Best Medium-Sweet: Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Paterberg Riesling Kabinett 2017
- Region: Germany, Rheinhessen
- ABV: 9%
- Tasting Notes: smoke, petrol, stone fruit, kiwi, citrus zest, apple, crushed stone mineral finish
The Georg Albrecht Schneider winery is very precise and methodical with its vineyard placement, pursuing maximum sun exposure and warmth retention. Their Hipping vineyard, right off the Rhine River, is considered one of Germany’s finest and helps make this 2017 vintage a sturdy and spicy winner.
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Best Dry: Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling Reserve 2018
- Region: New York, Finger Lakes
- ABV: 12.7%
- Tasting Notes: apple, pear, lemon, pineapple
New York’s Finger Lakes are known for their rustic natural beauty, and with the help of more bottles like this one from Hermann J. Wiemer, they can be just as well-known as a bastion for riesling. Grown just off the banks of Seneca Lake this wine is a monument and could also fit easily into “Runner-Up Best Overall,” further cementing the fact that great riesling can come from the USA!
Pineapple notes make their way onto the palate, joined by a hearty mineral texture. This wine is dry as to be savory while remaining crisp with a pleasant buzz.
Best Splurge: Domäne Wachau Riesling Smaragd Achleiten 1996
- Region: Austria, Wachau
- ABV: 13%
- Tasting Notes: honey, peach, apricot, petrol, slight vanilla bean
Nearly a quarter-century ago, this Austrian outfit, Domäne Wachau, got started aging a riesling that’s only now finally hit peak maturation and is ready for you to drink. It makes you think about the passage of time and wonder if you’ve matured into your best self as well as this bottle of wine has. It’s the kind of existential anxiety that can only be calmed, ironically, with a glass of this fantastic bottle of riesling. It is exceptionally dry with high acidity. Aged to perfection, this wine is absolutely delightful.
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Best Under $20: Leitz Dragonstone Riesling 2018
- Region: Germany, Rheingau
- ABV: 10.5%
- Tasting Notes: peach, pear, citrus, wet stones, honey
With water flowing from the Swiss Alps and a quartz-based soil system, Germany’s Rheingau region is well known for its riesling production which makes up almost 80 percent of all wine grapes grown there. Taking advantage of the hallowed land is winemaker Johannes Leitz who has a reputation for being one of the top growers in the region. Much of that praise can be attributed to this Dragonstone Riesling, a mighty wine that packs a punch.
It is well-balanced and semi-dry with an exceptional finish, lending itself to serve beside pork and cured meats.
Best German: Dönnhoff Estate Riesling 2018
- Region: Germany, Nahe
- ABV: 10.5%
- Tasting Notes: apple, pear, peach, lemon curd, straw
We don’t mess around when it comes to naming the best German riesling. Four generations of Dönnhoffs brought their consistent winemaking expertise to the superb appellations atop their vineyard’s stony soils, the kind of soils that make a riesling shine bright. This 2018 vintage is a great reminder as to why the Dönnhoff Winery is loved around the world.
This wine has a slightly sweet taste with tropical notes while retaining a balanced acidity. Have a pour with roast chicken and crispy potatoes.
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Runner-Up Best German: Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett 2018
- Region: Germany, Mosel
- ABV: 8.5%
- Tasting Notes: lemon, lemon zest, apricot, pear, yellow apple
The Mosel River plays host to some of the world’s most extraordinary riesling wines, due in no small part to internationally-renowned Dr. H. Thanisch estate. Not only is their Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett a fine piece of work, but the best part is that you don’t need to know how to spell it in order to enjoy it.
This bottle has smoky petrol aromas with a tingly acidity. It's fairly dry with a medium-minus sweetness. If you prefer a more mellow flavor, hold off on this one for a couple of years.
Best Austrian: Prager Achleiten Riesling Smaragd 2017
- Region: Austria, Wachau
- ABV: 14%
- Tasting Notes: flint, honey, apricot, white peach, tropical fruits
The Wachau Valley strikes again with another one of its distinctive and enchanting wines, this time from Prager who takes a minimalist approach to winemaking—“Vom stein zum wein,” is their slogan (from rocks to wine). At Prager, steep terraces date back to Roman-era grape growing days and the flinty notes (reminiscent of gunsmoke) practically demand watching a Burt Reynolds movie while enjoying this pillar of Austrian Riesling. The lifted acidity makes for an inviting counterpoint to the creamy, oily texture. The finish is as long as a winter’s night.
Best Australian: Henschke Julius Eden Valley Riesling 2019
- Region: Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Eden Valley
- ABV: 11.5%
- Tasting Notes: lime, lemon, wet stone, green apple
Far from riesling’s ancestral home comes this 2019 Julius bottle from Henschke, an Australian enterprise that’s been pumping out brilliant wines for the past 150 years. Grown among the rolling hills and eucalyptus groves of Barossa Valley, the coarse soil there makes it a central hub for Australia’s prime riesling production. This wine is dry, crisp, fresh, and balanced.
Best French: Hugel Estate Riesling 2015
- Region: France, Alsace
- ABV: 14.07%
- Tasting Notes: pear, clementine, hints of lime, fresh kiwi, lemon-grass
In an attempt to contextualize the riesling variety in a manner more familiar to the French, the Hugel estate likes to point out that riesling is the “pinot noir of white wines” for its late ripening and its stubborn need for particular growing conditions. It’s wise of Hugel to get to understand the grape in order to make a delicious French-grown riesling like this 2015 vintage which was a banner growing year for the whole of the country.
This wine is a complex and medium-bodied delight that’s high in citrus notes and minerality. The floral and tree fruit notes add texture and a heady ripeness makes this wine a touch sweet.
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Jonathan Cristaldi has written about wine and spirits for over a decade. He regularly tastes wines from around the globe, and personally tasted every wine in this roundup, except for the 1996 Domäne Wachau. Cristaldi was named a "Wine Prophet" by Time Out New York for his witty and often avant-garde approach to wine education.