Riesling – an historical grape

two glasses of wine side by side, one red and one white

DNA studies by Ferdinand Regner indicates that one parent of the modern Riesling vine is Gouais Blanc, known in Germany as Weißer Heunisch , brought to Burgundy from Croatia by the Romans[1].  This was widely grown by French and German peasantry in the Middle Ages.  The other parent is a cross between a wild vine and a Traminer, which also has a long documented history in Germany.  As both parent plants appear on both sides of the Adriatic, the actual cross could have happened anywhere along the way.  It is also possible that a red-skinned version of Riesling was the forerunner. [2]  The Rheingau and Mosel regions have the longest Riesling tradition. [3]   Interest in Riesling appears to date to the early fourteenth century, when there was a gradual agricultural shift of planting from red to white grapes.[4]

A number of grapes incorporate the name Riesling but are not true Riesling, including Cape Riesling, Gray Riesling, Welschriesling and Schwarzriesling. White Riesling, or Johannisberg Riesling (named after Schloss Johannisberg, not the city in South Africa) and Rhine Riesling are ‘true’ Riesling.  Othery synonyms include Biela Grasevina, Edle Gewuerztraube, Feher Rajnai, and Uva Pussila.[5]  The derivation of the word is unclear.

There are several written references to Riesling dating from the fifteenth century.  The earliest dates from March 13, 1435, when a storage inventory of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen in Rüsselsheim (close to today’s Rheingau) shows a winery invoice at the Cistercian monastery in Eberbach/Rhiengau[6], in which Klaus Kleinfish sold the Count six fines of Riesling for 22 solidi: “22 ß umb seczreben Rießlingen in die wingarten” (“22 shillings for Riesling vine cuttings for the vineyard”)[7] [8].  Others compete for the honor of “first planting”,  including Wachau in Austria (1232), Westhofen in Rheinhessen (1402), and the Alsace region (1348) (.  In 1477 Riesling was documented in Alsace under the spelling Rissling[9]).  In 1464 twelve hundred “Ruesseling” vines were planted by the St. Jacob hospice, now part of the Vereinigte hospitien of Trier In 1490 a particular vineyard in Worms had “Ruessling hinder Kirssgarten” , or Riesling behind the cherry orchard[10].  The first use of the modern spelling (one ‘s’) is first documented to 1552, when it was mentioned by Hieronymus Bock in his Latin herbal.[11]

Brief History of Wine

Brewing as we enjoy it in the West originated in the Middle East – all of it: wines, beers, and distilled beverages all came to Europe from the Middle East.  This region is now predominantly Muslim, a faith that prohibits alcohol.  It hasn’t always been, and there are still many, many distinct cultures and a vast variety of practices and beliefs in the region.

The Levant was a drinking culture, primarily of wine, if one is to judge from the sheer volume of drink required to support royal palaces and the homes of the wealthy.  We have clay tablets, papyri, and archeological finds supporting the numbers:  when the Assyrian king Assurnasirpal II (ruled 883-859 BCE) inaugurated his new capital at Nimrud, on the Upper Zab tributary of the Tigris river, he provided 10,000 skins of wine, 10,000 units of beer, and 100 units of a “fine, mixed” beer, which McGovern writes probably had wine and special flavorants added.  Assyrian kings called this “irrigating the insides” of their subjects.[12]

Amphoras make the distribution of wine relatively easy to track.  Until barrels were invented by the Franks around the 3rd century BCE, and discovered and spread by the Romans several hundred years later, amphorae were the universal vessel used in the Mediterranean and Levant to ship wine, oil, and vinegar.  Distinctive shapes, maker’s stamps, and sometimes receiver’s stamps help identify where the vessels were made and where they were shipped to.  Amphorae and their sherds give us many of the clues we have about where wine was traded.

The wine industry is ancient and a major economic force.  In order to produce wine, three things must be in place: this grape, cereal crops that would provide year-round sustenance, and pottery to store it in (and for us to find).  By 5400 BCE, Hajji Firuz wine was produced in the Zagros Mountains north of Mesopotamia (modern northern Iraq and Armenia).  Patrick McGovern estimates that domesticated grapevines was well established in the northern Levant by this time.  The fifth century BCE Greek playwright Euripides’ The Bacchae has the wine god Dionysos (Roman Bacchus) coming from the west coast of Anatolia (Lydia and Phrygia).

Winemaking spread from the northern Levant to Greece, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel, and thence to Egypt.  Domesticated transplantation there may date back as far as the sixth or millennium BCE. (the wild grapevine still grows throughout Lebanon and coastal Syria ).[13]  By the fourth millennium BCE, both wine and vinegar are known to have been introduced and well established in Egypt.  From there they spread to Mesopotamia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria.  McGovern believes Phoenicians were primarily responsible for bringing Etruria, now Tuscany, “into the wine-culture fold” via trade from their colonies on Motya, off the coast of Sicily, and the Lipari islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  By 4000 BCE wine was regularly shipped from the Zagros to Mesopotamia.  Gaza, the Jordan Valley, and the southern Levantine hill country had been planted with domesticated vines by circa 3500 BCE, and was so well established that in 3150 BCE  this region supplied King Scorpion I of Egypt all the 4500 liters (700 amphorae) of wine for his afterlife.  By 3000 BCE there was limited grape production in Egypt; it would eventually become one of the major products shipped to Rome, as many thousands of amphorae smashed on the ground and resting at the bottom of the Mediterranean attest.    Etrurian vineyards established by Phoenicians millennia ago have become the Italian wine producers we know and love today.

By 600 BCE Etruscans had become the principal exporters of wine to southern France.  Romans continued to carry production of their preferred beverage (Romans were never much for drinking beer) north across trans-Alpine Burgundy and the Mosel until they reached the climatic limit for domesticated vines.  When thirty thousand or more liters of wine were lost in the wreck of the Tanit and Elissa, two ships sailing out of the Phoenician colony of Carthage in the late eighth century BCE, they represented a very small dent in the enormous amount of wine shipped out of Phoenician ports like Tyre, Biblos, and Sidon (north of Jerusalem) and Berytus (modern Beirut).[14]


[1] As recorded by Jordan Ross, enologist with a degree from UC Davis: http://www.yourloveofwine.com/rieslingwinehistory.php  accessed 1/04/2012

[2] Wein-Plus Glossar: Roter Riesling, accessed on February 23, 2008

[4] Cellars International, Inc.  San Marcos, CA  http://www.rudiwiest.com/knowledge/history_riesling.htm  accessed 1/04/2012

[5] Maul, Erika; Töpfer, Reinhard; Eibach, Rudolf (2007). “Vitis International Variety Catalogue”. Institute for Grapevine Breeding Geilweilerhof (IRZ), Siebeldingen, Germany. http://www.vivc.de. Retrieved 2007-08-29.

[6] http://www.myriesling.com/history6.html hosted in Germany, accessed 1/04/2012

[7] “The History of the County of Katzenelnbogen and the First Riesling of the World”   http://www.graf-von-katzenelnbogen.de/ accessed 1/05/2012

[9] Freddy Price, Riesling Renaissance Mitchell Beazley 2004, pg. 90-92 ISBN 1-84000-777-X

[10] Cellars International, Inc.  San Marcos, CA  http://www.rudiwiest.com/knowledge/history_riesling.htm accessed 1/04/2012

[11] Oz Clarke, The Encyclopedia of Grapes Websters International Publishers 2001, pg. 192 ISBN 0-15-100714-4

[12] McGovern, Ancient Wine, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2003.   p. 190

[13] McGovern, ibid., pp. 205, 295, 301

[14] McGovern, op. cit., p. 190-1


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