Aging Riesling

The aging potential of Riesling is a discussion that seems to come up over and over on the Internet, even though German Riesling producers proved a long, long time ago that Riesling is not only a noble grape variety, the wine has as much staying power and elegance as many of the best red wine grapes.

Newbie wine critic/bloggers must be forgiven for not knowing the aging potential of Riesling; many of them simply haven’t been around the wine world long enough. But it is heartening to know that bloggers are asking the question. On one New York-centric blog (see link below) the question wasn’t only asked, it was explored over the past few weeks, with bloggers attending Finger Lakes wineries and other venues for a taste of older Rieslings that were cordially drawn from the winery libraries.

My good fortune found me along with a blogger visiting with Fred Frank at Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars (VWC) on Keuka Lake—just a grape’s throw from my home.

Fred lined up ten Rieslings representing a 24-year period. It was quite an experience.

We started with the unreleased 2008 Dry Riesling, as a benchmark new wine that could help us follow wines as they age. Because of its youth, the wine is still austere yet it is beautifully balanced between acidity and fruit, it’s clean and fresh, and its middle structure is held together with a mineral streak common to Keuka Rieslings.

We followed with the 2007 Dry Riesling. Let me stop here and say something both particular and general about Riesling.

Most avid Riesling consumers know of the wine’s capacity to take on a definite petroleum-like aroma as it ages. An Australian, Jonathon Luestner, is working and studying at VWC this year. He finds that Keuka Lake Rieslings don’t seem to take on as powerful a petroleum aroma as their Australian counterparts. When asked why he thinks that is so, Luestner shrugged and replied rhetorically. “Different phenolic structure?”

In any case, the VWC 2007 Dry Riesling gave a hint of petroleum in the aroma. But more pronounced was the smell of lemons. The taste was incredibly full and creamy and underneath it all lay that mineral-like streak connected to Keuka Rieslings. Still, the wine is young.

Things started to get interesting with the 2005 Dry Riesling. It was similar in many ways to the 2007 version, especially its lemony quality and creamy-mineral structure. But I detected no hint of petroleum in the aroma, perhaps giving strength to our Australian friend’s comment.

The bone dry 2001 Reserve Riesling showed a definite change in style, and that was attributed to it having been produced by a different winemaker than the ones producing the more recent VWC wines—in the past few years, the winery has shifted from a one-person winemaking responsibility to a consensus style that assigns one winemaker to oversee an assigned grouping of wines or styles and then a team discusses each wine before it is finished.

With a hint of petroleum aroma, the 2001 Riesling was lean with forward acidity, and a finish with a bite or grip. This wine still needs aging to calm down.

The 1991 Dry Riesling was without doubt the most interesting in the bunch. It wasn’t dominated by petroleum, but it was aromatic, in a butterscotch way. In fact, in the taste its lush, thick body came in layers of butterscotch, minerality, and fruitiness. The winemaker for the 2001 did not produce this wine.

The 1988 Dry Riesling was aromatically subdued, and its structure was more single dimensional, but at 21 years old, the wine was still very much alive. The 1987 Dry showed signs of fading in the slightly oxidized aroma, but its taste was lush and full, with a short finish. Unfortunately, the 1985 Dry was done in by a slightly shriveled cork that allowed leakage, which allowed oxygen to nearly kill the wine; these three vintages were produced by yet another winemaker.

The 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling is a lovely wine, with an herbal lemon balm aroma and a creamy, lush structure. The 1995 Semi-Dry, produced by the same winemaker who gave us the 1991 Dry, had an almost caramel aroma untypical of Riesling, but its creamy structure and trace of mineral in its spine was ever so enjoyable.

It was too bad about the leakage and oxidation of the 1985 Riesling. I’m old enough to remember that vintage—it was my first in the Finger Lakes—and I know it was a good year. Still, tasting these wines proves once more that Riesling can age well when the wine is made well, and that truth holds for the Finger Lakes region just as it holds for Germany.


If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2009. All rights reserved.


14 Responses to “Aging Riesling”

  1. What a tasting. Even that Dr. Frank proberly is one of the best wineries i Finger Lakes and also makes wine with long aging potentiel, do I think a lot of “normal” winedrinkers would prefere the young fruity Riesling. Mainly because they are used to the taste and the “old” Riesling doesn’t taste like they expected.

    We had a few weeks ago a similar tasting with Chardonnay (A know it’s a little bid diffrent from Riesling) going 20 years back. The Chardonnay was from a well known winery in Piemonte. We had similar results with the chardonnay, where the old vintages tasted like Champagne with the sparkling.

    There is defintely an potentiel for aging white wines, but it surely depends on the wine and winemakers.

  2. Thomas says:


    In general, I think wineries release their wines too young and we all drink wines too young, but I also know that wineries need the money and can’t hold inventory.

  3. Thomas,

    I do know! It’s a matter of cashflow. I have just been offered 1400 bottles of Chardonnay from 1997 from one of the big houses in Piedmont for 1 euro. The normal price is around 10 Euro, but their clients wants the young freshnes from Chardonnay…. This is an offer I can’t refuse – I prefere “old” wines.

    At the moment are we seeing a trend where some of the good winemakers in Piedmont let the wine stay in the celler untill it’s ready. But I also have to say that these winemakers are all in a position that the can afford “to play” and still get butter on the bread.

  4. very interesting post, Thomas. Despite having written about wine for almost 25 years, I have very little exposure to Finger Lakes wines because they’re just not available in the rest of the country. you don’t even often see them in Manhattan stores and restaurants. I would love to try some of those rieslings.

  5. Thomas says:


    So true. There isn’t much to go around, and this isn’t much in the way of savvy promotion either.

    I doubt the funded promotion arm of the industry does much to reach out to bloggers. Maybe you need to schedule a trip up north. I’ll be your guide.

  6. that would be a trip worth taking….. we’ll have to work it out sometime. i was born in rochester and haven’t been back since 1955, when my family moved to memphis. perhaps i could combine trips (though i see on Google Map that my boyhood home has been replaced by a warehouse!)

  7. Thomas says:

    In this economy, I’d bet the warehouse is in default!

    So you left in the fifth grade or so. That means you probably remember something about the area. Of course, there were fewer than a dozen wineries then in the Finger Lakes region–it’s hovering 100 today.

    Look up Keuka Lake on your Google map–Vinifera Wine Cellars. My home is about 1/4 mile from the winery. Keuka Rieslings are spectacular, and you cannot beat the beauty of this place, too (except in February).

    I have a few near-extinct bobolinks nesting in my meadows behind the house. Got me some nice pics of them.

  8. Mitch says:

    Nice article Thomas.
    Here’s a link to some info about petrol notes and “partial rootzone drying” I posted you know where:

    Wikipedia covers it also.

  9. Thomas says:

    Thanks, Mitch.

    Are you still posting on those sites???

  10. Mitch says:

    Beserkers a fair amount and once in a blue moon MS’, e.g., Victor’s subprime thread or a tannin thread. The last few weeks have been real eye-openers for many casual readers 😉

  11. Mitch says:


    Update according to Drs Richard Smart and Caroline Gilby (Wine Report 2009, p. 384): Nitrogen and TDN (trimethyl-dihydronapthylene) — It seems that increased levels of nitrogen fertilizer lead to lower levels of TDN, an important component of the kerosene-like aroma in Riesling), according to German research looking at various fertilizer treatments carried out over several vintages. Cheers !

  12. Thomas says:

    Thanks, Mitch.

    I had heard of this before, but have not seen data on it.

    Is TDN considered a phenol?

  13. Mitch says:

    According to Tom Stevenson ( “Riesling’s so-called petrol aroma has been identified as trimethyldihydronaphthalene or, to be precise, 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene (Simpson, 1978). TDN is a C13 norisoprenoid, which some class as a terpene, but others do not. It is a moot point; a semantic argument upon which chemists continue to differ. TDN is rarely found in grapes or, indeed, young wine, although its precursors are, and they are primarily carotenoids (may chemists state definitely beta-carotene, others probably alpha-carotene, while some think quite possibly both). Beta and alpha carotenes (and lutein a by-product of alpha carotene metabolism) are all antioxidants. These precursors exist in all grape varieties, thus TDN can be found in almost every wine, although the ratio of lutein to carotene is usually low, thus the TDN potential for most wines will be well under the perception threshold level of 20ppb. However, the ratio of beta carotene to lutein is higher in Riesling than for any other grape variety. If ,as most scientists believe, beta carotene is the primary precursor for TDN, this may explain why, after lengthy bottle-maturation, the wines from this variety can accumulate as much as 200ppb TDN, ten-times the perception level. This is why mature Riesling is famed for its so-called petrolly aroma.
    TDN can also be produced by the hydrolysis of two megastigma-3,6,9-triols linked to a sugar molecule (Strauss et al, 1986) and it has been theorised that the hydrolysis of a sugar molecule called 2,6,10,10-tetramethyl-1-oxaspiro[4,5]dec-6-ene-2,8-diol can create TDN (Winterhalter, 1991; Silva Ferreira & Guedes de Pinho, 2004)”

    See also:

    In short, TDN isn’t considered a phenol because it doesn’t possess a hydroxyl group (-OH) on an aromatic ring though it does possess an aromatic ring. TDN is a degradation product of carotenoids (think carrot pigments) and Stevenson notes other potential precursors.

  14. Thomas says:

    Thank you, Mitch.