Johannes Selbach has become synonymous with Riesling over the last several decades. He has made many great strides to bring appreciation of this misunderstood varietal to the United States as well as the world. The wines of his family estate Selbach-Oster are extremely delicious, and are some of the most well respected in all of Germany.
The Selbach family has been in the German wine business since the 1600s. Their ancestors were involved as negociants and would buy grapes or juice from farmers and then make wine to sell on the market. After several generations, the family bought land on the southern facing, sun soaked slopes of what is now known as Mosel’s Golden Mile. This area is located on the banks of the historic Rhein river and is made up of steep hills of slate that stretch for a little over a mile. The slate soil gives the grapes a very distinct minerality that is unique to Mosel. Due to the steepness, no machinery is used in the vineyards, so hand picking – though difficult – is a necessity. In 1961, Johannes’ father, Hans, created the label Selbach-Oster to differentiate wine of the Selbach estate from that of their negociant business. Today, the family owns 50 acres of Riesling vineyards on the Golden Mile. Many of these vineyards are on their original root stock with an average age of sixty years old. The oldest vines are over one hundred years!
Johannes’ connection to the US began with his mother. In the 1950’s Johannes’ mother lived on a farm in Ohio as a part of a student exchange program. Twenty years later she returned from Germany for a reunion there, and along with her she brought Johannes. Along the way, they toured and enjoyed much of the Northeast. This trip is what sparked Johannes’ fascination with the United States. Over summer break in 1983, Johannes returned with several friends to tour the US. In an old beat-up Ford Granada, he and his friends traveled from Canada all the way to Mexico stopping to meet new people and enjoy the landscapes along the way. The following year, he went to Penn State to complete a master’s degree. Quite appropriately, his thesis was on marketing German wines in the US.
During his time at Penn State, Johannes met the now famous German wine importer, Terry Theise. He and Terry found they had much in common as they felt much of German Riesling was under appreciated and that some of the more “prestigious” German Riesling producers had recently had a drop off in quality for their American imports. Part of this was due to the American’s palate and its propensity for rich, sugar driven Rieslings which lead to the now common misconception that all Riesling are sweet.
At Selbach-Oster in 1993, Hans took a step back and allowed Johannes to run the winery. Johannes embraced the family philosophy of making elegant crisp wines with exceptional ageability while attempting to let the fruit speak for itself.
In 2003, Johannes had a revelation. All of this time, when it was time to pick, they would make two or three passes through the vineyards – a common practice in the Mosel. This great labor produced excellent wines; however, it did not show the true strength of the “terroir”. By hand selecting grapes at ripeness, they were essentially designing a wine to their specifications. At this time, Johannes decided to experiment with a single parcel of vineyards where he did a single picking. He found that the mixture of grape ripeness created a much more complex, interesting wine. While he still does multiple pickings for the majority of their wines, Selbach-Oster has become known for these single block selections that are mind-blowingly good. They are fascinating wines that can vary flavor from vintage to vintage, but truly showcase the purity of the fruit and the uniqueness of the terroir.
As we previously noted, Selbach-Oster takes a minimalistic approach to the winemaking. A light press is used to extract the juice from the grapes which is then gravity fed into the fermentation tanks. More often than not, it is cool fermented on the lees utilizing indigenous yeast. The wine is then finished off in large neutral barrels and bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Johannes speaks of the greatness of Riesling being a blessing and a curse. The magnificence of Riesling is that it is so versatile. It can be very sweet, very dry, or anything in between. If you like crisp, elegant white wine, there is a Riesling out there for you. The curse, however, is that the general population still considers Riesling to be a sweet wine, and those that know it can be a variety of different flavors find it hard to distinguish which is which without having a college degree in German. Johannes decrypts it for the masses by telling us to simply pay attention to the alcohol content. The sweeter the Riesling the lower the alcohol. The higher the alcohol the dryer your wine will be.
Today, the family winemaking tradition continues with the addition of Johannes’ children, Sebastian and Hannah. They have joined their father in the vineyards mastering his craft and continuing to carry out his commitment to wines that are made in the vineyards with minimal post-harvest intervention. Selbach-Oster will be in good hands as it steadily changes hands to the next generation. Meanwhile, Johannes will continue to weave his legend of “The Man of Mosel” in the years to come.
Selbach-Oster Riesling “Feinherb” 2014
An off dry reisling. The nose on the Feinherb shows light citrus, tropical fruits and minerality. The palate is slightly sweet with crushed oyster shells, tropical fruits and candied orange zest braced by moderate acid.
Selbach-Oster Rotlay 2015
The nose is fresh and fruity with sweet floral tones. On the palate silky textures displaying ripe mango, apple and lemon, before turning floral tones and spice. The finish is long with palate-coating tropical fruits, yet wonderfully fresh at the same time. A perfectly balanced wine.