Riesling Ages for Ages, Top Wine Swillers Say

Why aged rieslings are even better than young rieslings

So what’s the deal and why would you age something that is already so freaking delicious? Well, maybe you shouldn’t. Just sayin’…

Riesling does age very well and for a long time, that we all know and understand. But what exactly does very well mean? If you like your riesling full of petrol aromas with a lean, focused feel and salty minerality, then you might just love your riesling good and old. But for many people, the appeal of riesling in particular, and wine in general, is the rich fruit that a wine exhibits in its youth.

There are very few grapes that can challenge riesling’s versatility. From dry to sweet and all of the stops in between, riesling produces wines that are generally delicious on release and yet in many cases, if not most, improve in the bottle for a little while at least. I recently took a look at some of the wines from one of my favorite German riesling producers, Weingut Hermann Donnhoff, to see how his wines are aging.

I’ve had plenty of old rieslings, mostly from the late 1970s through early 1980s, and I certainly have enjoyed many of them for their complexity and delicate textures. I can’t say that I had enough perspective on where the wines came from to decide whether time in the cellar had allowed them to reach some mythical apogee or simply allowed them to change and evolve, but not necessarily improve.

Even while enjoying many aged rieslings, I’ve had my doubts about the whole "riesling is super age-worthy" premise. There is something to be said for the explosive fruit of a young wine. While I prefer my rieslings on the drier side, finding the balance that age lends to a wine as the sugar disappears while preserving that explosiveness can prove to be quite the challenge.

Donnhoff produces a particularly zesty, fruity wine from vineyards in the Nahe region of Germany, known for this fruity, round style. There have been many grumblings of late in the wine geek community that Donnhoff’s 2001 wines were falling apart, serving as the poster child for a burgeoning "riesling can’t age" movement. When I heard this my first thought was, "Sh*t, I better start drinking my Donnhoffs!"

Once reason got a hold of me, I thought more along the lines of how nice it would be to drink my Donnhoff wines. Then, it sort of hit me. Many of the members of this "riesling can’t age" crowd never actually watched a vintage age. German rieslings experienced a renaissance of sorts beginning with the 2001 vintage, a spectacular vintage of perfectly ripe wines. Could it be that people were just experiencing what actually happened with aging rieslings for the first time and were unhappy with the results?

I put a lot of stock in this theory. I’ve seen it over and over again, people declaring a wine to be on its down-slope because of a lack of a familiarity with what the end of the up-slope actually looks like. All wines go through changes as they age, just like we do. Who among us can honestly say that there wasn’t a period during adolescence when we might have scared our own parents just a little bit? So that’s where I was, needing to check out some Donnhoff wines, duly cellared since or near release, to judge for myself whether or not the wines are going to crap or are just in an awkward phase.

My tasting notes can be found below, but my brief impressions can help answer this question. I’ve listed the wines I tried with just enough detail to draw some conclusions, which will follow.

Click here to find Gregory Del Piaz's top picks for rieslings.

— Gregory Del Piaz, Snooth