Riesling is a white grape variety grown historically in Germany. Dr. Ferdinand Regner, grapevine breeding and genetics expert, suggests Riesling wine history starts with one parent of Riesling, the Gouais Blanc (known to Germans as Heunisch Weiss), brought to Burgundy from Croatia by the Romans; the other parent being a cross between a wild vine and Traminer (Sauvignon Blanc). This is believed to be the start of Riesling wine history.
Riesling vine history traces back to the year 1435. Reportedly there were other “first plantings” in the history of Reisling wine: Wachau in Austria in 1232, Rheinhessen and the Alsace region with dates 1402 and 1348 respectively, to name a few. Riesling wine history presumes the Riesling was born somewhere in the upper valley of the Rhine, but with parents from either side of the Adriatic the cross could have happened along the way. The only documented evidence in Riesling wine history is from the cellar log of Count Katzenelnbogen at Ruesselsheim on March 13th, 1435. Klaus Kleinfish purchased six Riesling vines for the sum of 22 solidi.
From the middle fourteenth century, Riesling was becoming popular. Riesling wine history is cloaked in theory as to the name Riesling. One theory connects it to characteristics of the vine. “Russ” means dark wood and along with the grooved bark, gives the resultant root word “rissig”. Another theory relates to the Riesling’s poor flowering in cold weather described in German “verrieseln” or “durchrieseln”.
Riesling wine history tells us that interest in the varietals probably began in the early fourteenth century with gradual shifts of plantings from red to white grapes. About the seventeenth century, the monks of the Cistercian monastery at Eberbach discovered that transparent Rheingau reds could not compete with deeply colored French wines, thus ordering their tenant growers to use only white wine plantings and remove all others. The variety of grape the monks wanted planted is not clear but believed to be Riesling because the qualities of the grape had become known.
In 1464, twelve hundred “Ruesseling” vines were purchased by the St. Jacob Hospice, today part of the Vereinigte Hospitien of Trier. The specific vineyard “Ruessling hinder Kirssgarten” (Riesling behind the cherry orchard) was mentioned and described in 1490, and “Rissling wingart” at Pfeddersheim in the Rheinhessen in 1511, attesting to the grape’s spread.
Hieronymus Bock refers to Riesling in 1552 and in a later Latin version of his book on herbs, describing it with the modern spelling of the word. A later version of the book (1577) stated that “Riesling was growing in the Mosel, the Rhein, and the environs of Worms”. By the seventeenth century, “Ruessling” was planted throughout the Palatinate. In 1716, the Prince-Abbey of Fulda purchased the rundown Benedictine Abbey in Johannisberg in the Rheingau, an important development in the spread of Riesling as the “grape of Germany”.
The vineyards were in total neglect and completely restored, replanted with 294,000 vines between 1720-21 purchased from Ruedesheim, Eberbach, and Floersheim. It was Schloss Johannisberg that set the standards for the grape, and other areas soon decreed Riesling the grape that should be planted. The legend of sweet Riesling is accredited to Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau who accidentally created their first Spatlese (late harvest) in 1775. Legend tells us the messenger carrying the official order from the Abbey of Fulda, which owned the vineyard, to start picking was robbed on the way. When he finally arrived the grapes had rotted, became infected with Botrytis (occurs when drier conditions follow wetter, and can result in distinctive sweet dessert wines) and given to the peasants. The peasants brewed wonderful wines with it, helping create the rich Riesling wine history.
Riesling wine history includes Clemens Wenzeslaus 1739-1812, Elector of Trier, who on May 8th, 1787, proclaimed all inferior vines be dug up and replanted with noble (Riesling) varieties. A Riesling boom in the Rheingau and the Mosel was started from the examples of Johannisberg and Wenzeslaus with wines so successful that by the century’s turn the Benedictine Monk Odo Staab at Johannisberg claimed that “other than Riesling no other varietal should be used to produce wines in the Rheingau.” By the end of the 19th century it was the dominant grape in the Rheingau, and made significant inroads to all growing areas of Germany.
A trend reversal decline in Riesling wine history began in the early 20th century. German growers, spurred by the new science trends, began experimenting with varietals such as Silvaner. By 1930, only 57% of the vines planted in the Rheingau were Riesling. This trend was reversed during the rest of the century. Riesling wine history will record that Riesling wine is treated as a national treasure and is reflected in the strong buying patterns from Riesling fans. willamette wine tours