History of Riesling

Like that of most other grape varieties, the origin of Riesling is not clearcut. There are numerous “first” documented mentions of the grape. Some viticultural historians credit King Louis the German (843–876) as the first to have had Riesling planted along the Rhine.

One of the earliest authentic documents in which it is mentioned dates from 13 March 1435, in a winery invoice at the Cistercian monastery Eberbach/Rheingau. It refers to six Riesling vines in the vineyard(s) of the Counts of Katzenelnbogen. As early as 1392 the monks in the Rheingau had begun cultivating white wine varieties in vineyards that had been predominantly planted with red wine grapes. As such, one assumes that Riesling was also part of this transition.

Equally ambiguous is the origin of the name itself. Supposedly it stems from the 15th century and could be a derivative of Russling (Rus = dark wood) or Rissling (rissig = reissen = to tear or pull apart). It first appeared in its present-day form in 1552 in a Latin text in an herbal by Hieronymus Bock, reprinted in German in 1577: “Rieslings grow on the Mosel, Rhine and in the district of Worms.”

Riesling’s triumph began in the 17th Century

The expansion of Riesling cultivation in Germany began with efforts to improve quality. In 1672, St. Clara Monastery in Mainz ordered that red vines were to be removed and replaced with gutes Rissling-Holz (good Riesling vines). Some 294,000 vines, predominantly Rissling, were planted in the vineyards of the Benedictine monastery Johannisberg/Rheingau in 1720.

The cellarmaster noted the initiative as follows: “In the entire Rheingau, no grape variety except Riesling can be planted for producing wine.” Cardinal Franz Christoph von Hutten, a prince bishop of Speyer/Pfalz, decreed in 1744 that “no more Alben (Elbling) should be grown, but rather more noble varietals, including Riesling” in his vineyards in and around Deidesheim. In Alsace, the Jesuit college in Schlettstadt had Riesling vines planted in 1756, and Clemens Wenzeslaus, a prince bishop of Trier/Mosel, ordered on 8 May 1787 that “all inferior grape varieties were to be removed and be replaced with Riesling.”

The preference for Riesling had a lasting effect on Germany’s wine-growing regions and set the stage for the future – not only for the ongoing viticultural endeavors of the church, including the creation of many a famous vineyard site, but also for the development of a secular viticultural tradition that remains closely associated with Riesling to this day.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Rieslings from the Rhine and Mosel had reached their first peak of renown. By then, German Rieslings were highly esteemed by many European royal dynasties.They were bought and sold at very high prices throughout the world – often fetching prices far higher than wines of Bordeaux.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, German Riesling is once again recognized worldwide as an expression of high quality with guaranteed authenticity. It again numbers among the most expensive white wines of the world. Many of the best Rieslings in the world originate from German vineyards.