By Sunny Brown on September 30, 2005

Category: Winery of the Month

This article is dedicated to the memory of Pete Mager, a man whose talent and passion for his craft were surpassed only by his talent at being an all-around nice guy. Thank you, Pete. We'll miss you.

It is not enough to call the wines of Weingut Selbach-Oster great. They are more than the sum of their parts. They are the expression of the Noble grape of Germany, Riesling. Combine this with the slopes of solid slate in which they grow, sprinkle in meticulous care in the vineyards, and add a liberal dose of restraint in the cellar as the wines are coaxed to their fullest height by the experienced touch of Johannes Selbach. The wines positively sing with fruit, terroir, and complexity. They cry out to the heavens of wine with a voice that is loud and true, that speaks of their heritage and their future. That speaks of elegance, grace and beauty. All this from a glass of Riesling?

You had better believe it. Despite a history that dates back to 1661, Selbach-Oster produces wines that are modern and fresh. From a stretch of the Mosel River that encompasses some of the best spots in all of Germany, Johannes Selbach and his wife Barbara produce quality wines that reflect the philosophy of the family: Let the fruit and the soil do the talking.

Winegrowing in the Mosel is no easy task. The vineyards are steep, with up to a 70° grade in some places, making mechanical farming or harvesting impossible. Everything from pruning to harvesting to securing the vines with stakes must be done by hand. The slate must be carried back up to the top of the vineyards after heavy rains. The flooding that once occurred once a decade is now a bi-annual event. Even the light switches in the cellars are above eye-level. This labor intensive process has helped forge the focus for Johannes in creating his wines: “Hands on in the vineyard, hands off in the cellar.”

In the vineyard modern practices of green harvests and careful grape selection lead to ultra-low yields, a situation magnified by the fact that 60% of all Selbach-Oster vineyards are planted with ungrafted old vines which produce tiny, albeit tasty, amounts of fruit. Once in the cellar the fruit is merely guided towards completion, with wild yeasts, cool fermentation and gravity flow transport for the juice. Fermentation occurs in 1,000 liter neutral oak casks called “Fuders” and stainless steel tanks. The wine spends one to two months sur-lie to add just the slightest bit of cream and richness to the finished product. This mix of old world and new represents the idea of great Riesling. Subtle and powerful, dry and sweet, soft and firm all at once.

“We know how to make reductive fruit-bombs that get high scores and stand out in big tastings,” says Johannes, “but the problem is everyone writes about those wines but nobody drinks them. We want to make wines for food, that people use in their everyday lives.”

This is not to say that they do not score well, as the 2003 vintage, like many others, has yielded a bevy of praises from the international press. But a score is just a score, and it does not speak of the wine’s soul. Noted importer and German wine lover Terry Theisse calls Johannes’ wines the most “honorable,” of the Mosel, and that he “trusts Johannes as he trusts few other people.” This is indeed one way to describe the wines of Selbach-Oster. They will taste as they should, like the delicious Riesling fruit and the slate soil from which they are made. The wines will taste of the Mosel. They will taste of the back-breaking work that went into their harvest. Of the many trips through the vineyard at harvest time so that only the ripest fruit was selected. Of the decades of care and hard work that went into the wines of Hans Selbach, Johannes’ father, whose quality and passion set forth not only a legacy for Johannes, but also a tough act to follow.

But it is to the soil that we must return, as evident by the slogan posted on the Selbach-Oster website: “As wine producers, we have not forgotten that we are people who live from the land, who are dependent on nature.” Their sites are some of the best and most famous in the Mosel, perhaps some of the best in the world. Each of the vineyards faces to the south, gobbling up the sunlight from both above and the reflection off of the Mosel below.

The gentle slopes of the Bernaksteler Badstube vineyard offer sleek and racy wines, the most famous being the Doctor vineyard. Heading north we reach the town of Graach, with the excellent sites of Domprobst and Himmelreich. The soil here is heavier and rich with loam. The wines are lighter in style than Badstube, but always intense and full of spirit, not to mention long-lived. Further up the Mosel is Wehlener Sonnenuhr, one of the finest spots for graceful and refined Riesling in all of Germany. Furthest to the north is Zeltingen with its famous site of Sonnenuhr. The soil here is very dry and shallow, and the vineyards lay very close to the Mosel River and soak up much of the sun's reflected rays.

In addition to the estate wines that have delighted many a Riesling fan over the years, since 1920 the Selbachs have owned and operated Weinkellerei J. & H. Selbach, a cooperative that specializes in excellent yet affordable wines from both the Mosel and beyond. The intent is the same as Weingut Selbach-Oster, provide quality wines reflective of both their fruit and terroirs at affordable prices. This is possible through long-standing relationships with small high-quality producers. The grapes must meet the same standards of excellence that Johannes Selbach puts forth for his own wines. Consistency and affordability are hallmarks of the cooperative.

This should be of no surprise as Selbach-Oster has always had a high quality to price ratio and was one of the few producers to lower their prices when the dollar weakened against the Euro. Of course, the same could be said for all German Riesling, as what was once on par in price and quality with Bordeaux can now only claim quality, with only the mavericks Dönnhoff and Müller-Catoir producing what could be considered expensive wines. The beautiful expressions of Riesling that flow into the United States will continue to be the greatest value in quality wine.

Johannes’ wines have a seductive creaminess that shines through in even the driest versions. The Auslesen can even take on a Crème Brule aspect that will leave you scratching your head and patting your belly. The fruit is always ripe and rich, running the gamut from white-fleshed nectarine to black currant, with many a peach, apple and tangerine reference in between. The slate soil is always present, manifesting itself in flavors and aromas that slide from subtle and soft to salty and strong, all the while acting as a travel guide to the different vineyards in the Mosel. Don’t believe me? Try a Kabinett and an Auslese from the Graacher Domprobst next to each other. Or better yet two Zeltinger-Sonnenuhrs from different vintages. The similarities are amazing. That is all soil, baby.

Fortune has smiled on Germany in the form of excellent weather as of late. 2001 was considered a classic year, while 2002 will be known for the balanced wines it created at all levels of sweetness. The hot 2003 vintage is something of an anomaly, while the Kabinetts and Spätlesen are unbelievable, only time will tell if the unheard of heat will provide wines for the cellar. The 2004 vintage promises a return to normal, with excellent levels of quality reported from all of the major winegrowing regions.

The market is absolutely flooded with great Rieslings right now, but how will this affect the U.S. market that is seemingly oblivious to the beauty of German wines? This remains to be seen. Times have been tough for Germany. The dollar has been down. Sales have been off slightly, and labor has been scarce for what is some of the most labor-intensive of wine regions.

One thing is for certain though. As long as Johannes Selbach continues to produce fine wines at affordable prices there will be at least one fan overseas.