Guide to Riesling


A popular German varietal, Riesling grapes produce a luscious aromatic wine with flowery aromas and relatively high acidity, offering an explosive citrus tang on the palate.

Depending on the terroir, it produces a dramatic array of styles from bone dry, semi-sweet, very sweet, and even sparkling.

It holds its own as a stand alone varietal and it is therefore unusual and unnecessary for it to be blended.

New Zealand bats above its weight producing succulent, acclaimed Rieslings, all ready to enjoy at your next dinner party - ideally over a spicy Thai takeaway.

Riesling flavour

You’ll find a ‘base’ profile of fruits like nectarine, apricot, honey crisp apple, and pear. Besides fruit, you’ll often smell things like honey, jasmine or lime peel.

Rieslings are known to offer exceptional potential to age, and the varietal has emerged as one of the most collectible whites among wine-lovers. Vintages are said to develop smokey, honey notes, with some even developing a aroma similar to petrol and diesel. The latter may sound strange, but on the nose, it’s truly delicious.  

Some say the best Rieslings are in the form of dessert wines, which are produced by letting the grapes hang on the vines well past normal picking time, termed a ‘late harvest’. These grapes are purposefully exposed to the magical fungus called Noble Rot (Botrytis cinerea) and the resulting wine offers increased sugar, balanced with more acid, a rich flavour and loads of complexity.

New Zealand Riesling

Riesling from here in Aotearoa displays a range of vibrant, aromatic characteristics full of acidic zest.

Increasing in popularity since the 1980’s and attracting international attention ever since, it’s the fourth most planted white wine grape, producing styles ranging from dry table wine to lushly sweet dessert wine.

The climate in the South Island offers bright days, cool nights and long autumns - perfect for this succulent variety. There are three main regions to know about, all resulting in slightly different notes:

  • Nelson - stonefruit and spice.

  • Marlborough - lemon, lime and spice.

  • Waipara Valley and Central Otago - crisp green apples and citrus.

Dessert Wine Styles

Riesling is one of the few varieties capable of producing a wide spectrum of styles, from bone dry to lusciously sweet dessert wine. It's brisk acidity and high sugar content makes it ideal for highly concentrated ‘sticky’ wines.

Noble rot dessert wines are made using grapes left on the vine to ripen and go mouldy with Botrytis cinerea. This fungus actually sucks water out of the grape whilst imparting flavours of honey and apricot in to the future wine.

Our Tohu Raiha Reserve Noble Riesling tasting notes describe something special:

A brilliant gold hue in the glass, this single vineyard Noble Riesling displays luscious botrytis aromas of apricot and wild honey. Generous and mouth-filling, the palate bursts forward with abundant sweetness balanced with zesty lemon meringue and sweet citrus flavours. Concentrated, rich and viscous, this wine leads to a long, smooth finish.

Storing Riesling

Riesling will generally last from between three to five years, though the very best vintages can have a much longer lifespan and age beautifully.

When you’re planning to serve your prized Riesling, remember that an unopened white wine should not be refrigerated until one to two days before drinking. This is not always possible of course with many whites from supermarkets or liquor stores storing wine in fridges these days.

Storing opened Riesling

To maximise the shelf life of an unopened bottle, store in a cool, dark area, away from direct heat or sunlight. Try your best to keep the temperature steady.

Once you twist the cap your wine is exposed to oxygen and bacteria which begins to alter its colour, aromas and flavour. Always sit you open wine in the fridge, with the cap back on.

If you’re concerned that it has turned, look at the wine in a clear glass for changes in colour and trust your sense of smell. Then taste it - it won’t ever hurt you, even if it has turned. If you detect an ‘off’ odour, flavour or appearance, it should be discarded, unless you want to turn it into wine vinegar, which is becoming more popular (and is remarkably easy).

You can of course use your discarded Riesling for cooking as well, in fact it’s perfect for most dishes. You can even freeze it in an ice-cube tray and use later to offer some “bite” to any sauce.   

How to serve Riesling

Serve chilled, at around seven degrees. Although the more sweet styles should be served a little warmer than this.

You’ll want a white wine glass with a small bowl in both width and height with a fairly small capacity. There are specific glasses made for Riesling, but a Sauvignon Blanc glass works well.  

Younger whites are better with glasses with a slightly larger opening, so the wine hits the tip and sides of the tongue to really taste the sweetness.

However, some experts say aged Rieslings are best served in a wide Burgundy-style glass, in order to capitalise on the “big” aromas - for a more herbal hit on the nose.

If you have the time, sip your wine from some different glass shapes, and see how the flavours change.

Nutritional information

Riesling will vary greatly in terms of nutritional breakdown, especially as the fermentation process differs from brand to brand, season to season, and bottle to bottle, and depends greatly on the age of the grapes and style of wine.

Calories in Riesling

But, experts suggest that a ‘standard’ glass of young Riesling will contain around 120 calories.

Alcohol content in Riesling

Because Riesling is fermented from grapes some of the calories will be carbohydrates in the form of sugar, but the majority of calories actually stem from the alcohol content itself, which is usually around 11-14%.

Late harvest dessert style will contain much more alcohol, at around 15-17% ABV.

Preservatives and additives in Riesling

Mass-produced wines often from overseas are more likely to be additive-rich. We recommend always checking labels.

In New Zealand, strict food safety regulations control the use of wine protectants or preservatives and all wineries are audited on this annually.

At Tohu, the concept of caring deeply for our lands and their rich and fertile condition create wines of personality and purity.  We therefore use as little additives as possible and adhere to the strictest of standards. Our vineyards and winery are certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand.

Pairing Riesling with food

Because of this wine’s sweetness and acidity levels, it pairs beautifully with spicy food. Try it with your next Indian or Thai takeaway, or other strong Asian spices.   

Also pair with vegetables that are naturally sweet when roasted, such as red onion, capsican, eggplants, butternut and carrots. Even better, try sprinkling some Asian-style spices on these veges before putting them in a hot oven, such as cayenne pepper, allspice, turmeric, or madras curry. Perfect with your next young New Zealand Riesling.

For a mouth watering end to a dinner party, pair your sweeter-style Riesling or dessert wine with delicately flavored soft cow’s milk cheese (nothing too stinky), and some dried figs or apricots.  

How does Riesling compare to other white wines?

Sweet to dry to rich – New Zealand’s white varietals cover a large spectrum.

Here are some characteristics to expect from Aotearoa’s most popular commercial varieties.

  • Sauvignon Blanc: Unique, vibrant fruit flavours

  • Chardonnay: Concentrated citrus, tropical fruit, rich fullness

  • Pinot Gris:  Mouth-filling, refreshing acidity and marked fruitiness

  • Gewurztraminer: Breadth and weight, smooth texture, subtle acidity

  • Sparkling: Nutty, balanced with fresh fruit.