Sunday, March 9, 2008

Selbach-Oster Rieslings: An Interview with Johannes Selbach

Johannes Selbach, right
(Photo courtesy of the Selbach-Oster website)

At a recent trade wine tasting for the Vienna Wine Company in San Francisco, I had the good fortune of meeting Johannes Selbach. Meeting the man of the husband-wife duo who runs the highly celebrated Selbach-Oster family winery in Mosel, Germany was especially elating for a couple of reasons. First of all, when I met him, he was pouring his (twelve, by the time I got to the table) Rieslings, from both of the 06 and 07 vintages, which are amazing examples of Germany's main grape. I've been taken with the wines of Selbach-Oster since I first had a sip of this bottled nectar, and being able to taste so many of them side by side was, frankly, slightly overwhelming and a mind-blowing Riesling experience. Secondly, the experience was standout because I was lucky enough to secure an interview for Vin de la Table with this very busy man. Not only does Johannes run his own winery, he acts as a negociant and broker/importer of German Riesling and at any given time can be found in a different part of the world representing and pouring his wines.

Well, I sent him some questions that reflected my curiosity about his wines, the future of Riesling, and food and Riesling pairings, and his answers pretty much floored me. To my straightforward questions, Johanne Selbach provided some of the most poetic, clear, and compelling responses that a man as busy as himself has ever taken the time to give.

That said, I'm very happy to say that this interview with Johannes Selbach of Selbach Oster kicks off the first of many forthcoming interviews with winemakers and winery owners at Vin de la Table. What a start!

Like this one, future interviews will touch upon winemaking, wine as nature, wine as a drink, wine as a commodity in the global economy, histories of wine, and wine as an accompaniment to food on the table.

My questions are in bold, and his responses follow

Although more people in the U.S. are developing tastes for German Rieslings, some still insist that they "don't drink sweet wines." How would you respond to a statement like this? What are these people missing?

The word "insist" hints of stubbornness and that is too bad because it precludes giving anything but what they think they know a try. With that attitude we'd all still be eating maccaroni & cheese or sausages with kraut and would never have discovered the intricacies of Asian cuisine or the delight of "raw fish", sashimi or sushi.

First, what is the definition of "sweet" ? Is a soda pop, sweetened with corn syrup or a diet pop sweetened with aspartame or another sweetener sweet ?? Most likely everyone would agree that such a beverage is sweet, very sweet.
Is a September apple, plucked ripe from the tree sweet, ... or a peach in July, ... or a vine ripened tomato from the garden in August ? The answer will also be yes. Is there a difference between sweetness in root beer and in vine ripened fruit ? I believe even the most stubborn " I don't drink sweet wines" blockhead would agree.
At the same time that people insist they don't like "Riesling" they reflect on their experiences with artficially sweetened beverages ( or food ) and forget that the quality of an "un-dry" wine with varying degrees of residual sugar, as long as it is balanced, has nothing to do with that feared thickly sweet, cloying sensation.

Myself, often confronted with this rather silly ( because it shows people haven't tried many Rieslings, leave alone good ones ) prejudice, usually ask them two questions:
One, whether they eat fruit.
Two, if they do, whether they prefer their strawberries green and their peaches hard or rather red and juicy.
I cringe when I imagine that these people think the poor, usually cheap most likely sweetened wines they had ( be they Rieslings or blends ) are "it".
Riesling, like no other grape, is capable of showing the full spectrum of dryness/sweetness from bone dry to very sweet and everything inbetween. Fine Rieslings, like no other grape, can weave the wine's natural sweetness, derived from ripe fruit ( not added ), into the multitude of aromatic expressions this delicately aromatic grape offers ( depending on where grown, how cropped, when and how picked ) and pack it into an always noticeable, sometimes vibrant, sometimes juicy acidity that leaves the mouth salivating in the finish even after it has tasted a touch of sweetness upfront.
That's a long, complex sentence and doesnt come close to describing the sensation a fine, balanced fruity Riesling leaves on the palate.
Pity for those who think they know it all and who, after possibly a bad experience with a cheap specimen, don't give their tastebuds another chance....
When it comes to Riesling, balance is the key. And a well balanced Riesling has almost always won determined Rielsing avoiders over into the Riesling camp as believers. You watch....

Long answer to a short question !


Your family has been making Riesling since 1661 and are said to be traditionalists. Have there been many advances in winemaking within the past 20-30 years that you have incorporated within your practices, or have you found that the way your family crafted high-end Rieslings for centuries is the way you will continue making your wine indefinitely?

Some but no radical changes. Most notable changes have occurred with the canopy management, certainly the reduction of yields and the sanity of vines and fruit. Less is more is a simple formula and it works well, also concerning our "input".
The overall vineyard work itself has become a bit more labour intensive, with more attention paid to smaller details. Everything has become "greener", geared towards a more organic approach though with the reality of viticulture on very steep slopes in a narrow river valley we are still "conventional".

The Riesling Grape is considered one of the finest grapes in the world, but demands a fair amount of attention from the winemaker. What are just a couple of the hardships Selbach-Oster experiences trying to cultivate Riesling that you believe people working with other grapes may not encounter?
Sorry but I beg to differ: The winemaking part is the less important part as there is not so much "making" in the cellar necessary but the quality of Riesling is rather determined in the vineyard. For obvious reasons, the place, the soil, the mezzo- and microclimate are of the utmost importance but apart from those, the differences are huge when comparing viticultural practices throughout the year and, now comes the most important part, the harvest.
For me, the vineyard work has to be planned and executed with a certain quality and type of Riesling in mind. Then, of course, Nature has to cooperate but it all culminates in the harvest. How to harvest ( when to pick, where to pick, what to pick and how to pick ) is immensely important. How one handles the chosen fruit and how one processes fruit and juice are of equal importance. Of course one needs to know what's needed in the cellar but the simple formula applies : The better the raw ingredient, i.e. fruit, the better ( potentially ) the end result, the wine.
Inbetween one has plenty of opportunity to screw this up but if gently pressed juice from top quality grapes runs into the barrel, most of the groundwork for delicious Riesling has already been laid. No need to spend sleepless nights over the choice of forest for the oak or how it's been dried and which toast the barrels need. No need to worry about whether or not or when to induce a malolactic fermentation. The fruit is "it" and the purer, the better.
Hardships occur when the weather doesn't want to play in tune. Hardships also occur when we gamble for 100% and overshoot the "perfect" day for picking a certain vineyard when the grapes have reached heir optimum.

It's said that Riesling truly expresses the terrior where its planted. You have many vineyards from which your grapes come. Which vineyards most expresses their terrior in the final product?

I firmly believe that Riesling truly expresses the terroir and have had ample opportunity to put this to the test.
However, caution is to be exercised: "Terroir" has become a buzzword and that horse has almost been ridden to death.
If there is too much "winemaking", forget abut terroir because many manmade interventions from aroma-inducing enzymes to the choice of yeast or new oak can override the terroir - and so does too much of a usually good thing - botrytis.
Overcropping, over- and underripeness each override much if not all of the terroir.
Where we make wines, in the heart of the Mosel, the vines thrive in a mineral rich, relatively soft and crumbly soil that is very old and dates back to the Devonian age, some 450 to 500 million years ago: Blue Devonian Slate. It's the silt from the ancient single ocean that surrounded the single continent, Pangea. The weight of the ocean compressed layer after layer of silt, forming a deposit that looks like a thin wafer, rich in minerals and with water trapped in the molecules ( which gives our slate such a smooth feel when you crumble it with your hands ). When the continents divided and tectonic plates drifted and collided, the former sea bottom was lifted and pushed, twisted and turned until it surfaced in our area where it formed a mountain range through which eventually the Mosel river cut. The roots can force their way down, courtesy of the relative softness of the rock and it's being cracked, twisted and turned, so we have rootsystems in our old vineyards where it is not uncommon to find 10 meter ( 32 feet ) deep roots. With roots deep in the mineral rich soil and with dry farming, with low yields plus a hands-off approach in the cellar, the potential for wines to show their "terroir" is excellent.

From my own tasting experience in our cellar I can say that the differences between the villages, from Bernkastel down to Graach, then Wehlen and finally Zeltingen are indeed noticeable. From amongst those, I find the different expressions of the Schlossberg in Zeltingen and the twin Sonnenuhr vineyards in Wehlen and Zeltingen ( with minor differences between the two siblings ) the most exciting. Zeltinger Schlossberg probably comes in with the most expressive "fingerprint" of minerality with some "crunch".

How do you feel about oak in Riesling?

Large casks of old oak - wonderful, they permit the wines to exhale some of their fementation aromas and also permit a tiny bit of oxidation, something that the "nouveau" winemakers have rediscovered and now artificially induce in their stainless steel tanks ( microboullage ).
New oak only once in a while and only for lending some exotic to a blend but this has to be done very skillfully or else the otherwise subtle and delicate Riesling carries way to much makeup and smells of foreign perfume...and becomes hard to recognize ( and enjoy).

Some readers may not be familiar with the superior aging abilities of German Riesling. Why are they such excellent wines to age? What is the oldest Riesling you've tried and do you have some set aside for younger family members or friends? How long do you plan to age them?

High quality German Riesling can indeed age for a very long time and often baffles even experts with it's relative freshness and added complexity it develops over time. Here, "don't like sweet" drinkers listen up, the wines with residual sugar greatly outperform their dry counterparts. Why ? Because sugar is a preservative just as acidity is. It's the combination of good acidity, relatively low pH, usually moderate alcohol and a varying degree of residual sugar which make for a winning combination for longevity.
The fact that the grapes in the northern German wine regions ( that Riesling calls home ) mature over a long time in a moderately warm climate, rather than a hot and arrid one, make for a unique concentration and diversity of flavours, always healthy acidity and, at the same time comparatively lower than average alcohol levels.
The oldest Riesling I have been privileged to enjoy was an 1864 Schloss Vollrads which the late Count Matuschka Greiffenclau opened and shared with a number of colleagues in the summer of 1986.
We have some old bottles, certainly from all family members' birth years set aside, though no serious quantities as we adhere to my late father's advice that fine wines are made to be enjoyed while both we and the wines are alive, rather than to be locked away from their destiny ( that is to be consumed and to give pleasure and stimulation of the senses ).
Having said that, I hope I'll live the day to drink the best bottles and the big question - always - is to find the "right" opportunity.
Seems I am on a good path to find more and more "right " opportunities.


Due to the success of your winery, you have had the opportunity to travel all over the world, talking about, pouring, and enjoying your wines with people of other countries. At the wine tasting where I met you, I heard that you and the other winemakers at the event would be enjoying a dinner later at a celebrated San Francisco restaurant. With what different foods do people pair your wines in various countries?
France, Germany, United States, Spain, Italy, China, for example...

With almost everything they eat. Riesling, contrary to widespread belief, is an immensely versatile companion at the table. Ask any chef in a top notch restaurant and you'll be surprised how often Riesling comes up when food friendly wine or the wine of choice is mentioned. The question is not whether Riesling but rather which Riesling with a certain kind of food !
Many people still confine Riesling to the ( very wide ) spectrum of Asian cuisine. Because the yin of fruit and yang of acidity marry so well with the multitude of flavours and preparations of Asian or Fusion cuisine this is understandable but the choices are many more. I dare say almost everything but a thick, bloody steak or leg of lamb & Co. works with a Riesling but you have to have some selection.
Think American traditionals from turkey with all the trimmings to crabcakes to simple pleasures like summer greens with a mild vinaigrette or just sweet corn on the cob and I can think Riesling from left to right.
Go to Italy and think of sweet, vine ripened tomatoes ( which always come with a nice dose of...acidity ) and think the unthinkable...Riesling. Fettucini Alfredo with that creamy Alfredo sauce that certainly has a touch of richness and sweetness...Riesling and when you eat Gorgonzola or melt it over meat or fruit, think Riesling again...
It is not just duck liver or goose liver for sweet Rieslings but also rustic, flavourful patés and, of course, aromatic cheeses, particularly ones with a soft, washed or cured rind ( ... ever tried ripe Epoisses with mature Riesling Spaetlese ? ) and the whole range of blue cheeeses from Stilton to Roquefort. Fruits and dishes prepared with fruit, redcutions sauces, caramelizd things, you name it...Riesling works.

What has put Riesling back on th food map are several things:
One, it's delicacy and relatively low alcohol ( compared to most other wines ) and the fact it is unoaked and with a crisp finish let the food live that's served with it. No competition but live and let live - if not complementing each other. That is why chefs and sommeliers and "foodies" love Riesling.
Two, it's diversity: Most kinds of food and even preparation styles find a matching Riesling and that can range from austere and pure and dry to flamboyantly exotic, rich and sweet.
Three: The much better availability of high quality Riesling . Today's consumer has much better access to more choices of quality Riesling than 10 or 20 years ago.

But, beware of cheap Riesling. It can be as one dimensional and flavourless as a "middle of the road" Pinot Grigio.

What is the worst Riesling pairing that you've experienced, perhaps because someone was so smitten with your wines, they believed they would fair perfectly with everything?

My biggest fear in wine dinners where the pastry chef doesn't know Riesling or thinks ( like many) that riesling is syrupy sweet: Elegant, regular Riesling Auslese with it's traditionally moderate level of residual sugar put against opulent, super sweet desserts ....

With what foods do you eat with your Rieslings at home, and are these typical Riesling pairings in Germany?

Almost everything and that explicitly includes roast red meat where we use aged Riesling ( at least a dozen years old ) .
Same here as said before: The rack of lamb or he thick steak grilled rare usually come with matching reds.


Who do you count among your favorite winemakers in Germany? In the U.S? France?

Germany: Helmut Doennhoff, Hans-Guenter Schwarz
France: a plethora of Burgundians, too many to single one out and I can't afford DRC...
US: Warren Winiarski for his ability to make lasting, impressive Cabernets at 13% vol and below .
Paul Draper for his Zins but more so Monte Bello Cabs for their "terroir" and relatively moderate alcohol.
Steven Kistler and Mark Bixler for big but balanced and very long lived single vineyard Chardonnays.
Larry Turley and Ehren Jordan for always puzzling me with delicious, aromatic alcohol bombs, big but still elegant Zins, that belie their analyses and don't tasted the slightest bit alcoholic nor hot but rather fascinating.

PS: I must confess I have been bitten by the Zin bug and I believe this is the truly unique "American" wine.

At least in the U.S, Austria has been receiving much attention lately for their Rieslings. What are your thoughts on their Riesling style?

Very fine examples of big, aromatic, dry Rieslings that carry their high alcohol well. The best in the league of the "heavy hitters" from warmer climates.

Are there Rieslings in the U.S. that you particularly like or dislike? Any thoughts on the Rieslings from the Fingerlake regions or from Washington?

I greatly dislike the abundance of simple, cheap domestic ( and imported ) Rieslings, semi-industrially made made from overcropped vines planted in unsuited terrain and too hot a climate with no finger to point into one particular region. The sweet cheap ones are the worst since they ruin the image for the entire category!
However, I do want to point a finger to a region whose Rieslings I have been following since the early eighties and that is the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Great potential there, never understood why they weren't known by a larger crowd.
I believe there is also still unexploited potential for Rielsing on the West Coast, in cooler areas. If the valley floors are too hot, there are higher altitudes or the proximity to the ocean. It will take a few more years and some more people with a vision and a will ( and the stamina to hold on for several years - - after all it didn't happen in just two generations over here !) .


The typical Riesling style in Germany has residual sugar. At the tasting, one of the ten or twelve Rieslings I tried of yours was dry. How long has Selbach-Oster been making a dry Riesling, and what inspired you to do this?

We have been making dry Riesings for as long as I can remember and that's the answer I got from my father, too. Speaking of my father, who was one of the true grand old men of the Mosel with an immense wealth of knowledge and even more experience, far beyond the valley, he, like his father, firmly believed in the regional and single site typicity of the wines and also of maintaining a consistent style rather than going with the "Zeitgeist", hence they made the whole range, from dry to sweet, depending on what the individual vintages yielded. So the question dry versus sweet ( or instead of sweet ) never was an issue here and dry wines coexisted with sweet wines for as long as I can think.
Dry wines, trocken by definition of the German Wine Law, however, have never accounted for 50% or more at Selbach-Oster. Roughly a third of our production qualifies as dry wines today.
What he and I always considered "typical" Mosel and I still prefer as our house style, are Rieslings that offer ripe but not overrripe fruit ( the French would say "à point" ) with an infusion of (slaty) minerality and a similarily present, invigorating and balancing acidity, where the wine pleases with a blend of fruits and stones, a refreshing touch of acidtiy but never lets sweetness nor acidity become obvious or take over the palate. None of the ingredients should dominate: ...inner tension...balance ... pleasure. The ideal reflex is "swallow"... and ..."more!" .
That unique sensation of a wine drawing one's attention and being fruity but not sweet is most easy to experience in very good Kabinett from a ripe but not overripe vintage.

I overhead someone asking you about Boony Doon Rieslings at a tasting. What is your involvement with the company, and what inspired you to work with them?

Both Randall and I are nuts about Riesling. In 1996 Randall and I started, after he visited and on his initiative, blending Mosel Riesling ( occasionally from yet another German region, like the Nahe ) with his California and Washington components to make an even better "Pacific Rim Riesling". It worked!
Randall is a man with a vision and it was he who forecasted the coming out of Riesling a long time before that happened. We also published the "Riesling Manifesto" together with André Ostertag from Domaine Ostertag in Alsace in 1999 and stuck our head out and our bodies in straightjackets in the "Riesling Asylum" in Bordeaux during Viexpo in 1999.


Which German wines do you hope will receive more attention abroad in the future, and why? Do you think red German varietials such as St. Laurent or Lemberger could develop a large fan base in the U.S, for example?

My focus and hope is on Riesling, Riesling and Riesling. That's where Germany is unique and where I dare say we ( the northern German regions ) lead the rest of the world. German reds may get a little more attention in the future because the quality is still making progress but for quality I believe this to be Spaetburgunder/Pinot Noir.

Why do you think that you don't see more German Pinot Noir in U.S. wine shops? Where do you see them, besides Germany?

I believe you don't see more German Pinot Noir in US wine shops because
a) most of them, certainly the majority of the top tier, are bought and consumed in Germany
b) prices for the high end Pinots Noirs from Germany reach Burgundian levels and whilst a German wine lover is willing to spend that money, an American would ( understandably ) think twice .

If touring the wine areas of Germany for the first time, what major areas or wineries would you suggest people visit?

Major areas to visit first: Mosel, Rheingau. Mittelrhein as cradles of Riesling with the added benefit of a breathtakingly beautiful landscape but the remainder of the German wine regions is definitely also pretty and worth a visit.

Winery visits are difficult as the system here works much different from what you know in California. Most wineries are small, family operated businesses who do not give tours and who don't have a hospitality person or a tasting room where one can pop in for a tasting or tours. When the family is in the vineyard or in the cellar or on tour, nobody will be available to answer the door, leave alone do a tasting or a tour. There are producers who are set up to receive guests, offer tastes and sell wines and they advertise with signs "Weinverkauf - Probe " ( Wine Tasting - Sales ). The better, more desirable estates, however, are solely by appointment and, due to the fact most are small shops, run by the family, they are hard to get in.
Always try to make an appointment in advance to avoid disappointment.

Many restaurants, wine bars and little shops, however offer the opportunity to taste a selection of the village's or vicinity's wines.
In Zeltingen we have the Weinbar "Ratsschaenke", near the church and marketplace which not only serves a great number of Selbach-Oster wines but wines from top estates from all over Germany, incl. a selection of Pinots Noirs, The Ratsschaenke also serves tapas and local delicacies that complemet the wines and offers three very comfortable guest rooms in their recently renovated 1550ies walls. Contact: ( hosts: Andrea & Willi Settelmeier ph +49 6532-954273 ).

If people wanted to read more about German wines, is there a book that you'd suggest they read?

The English journalist Stuart Piggot has written a couple of nice books on Rieslings with special emphasis on German Rieslings which are higly recommendable. Then you have the German Wine Atlas by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson and certainly the yearly catalogues written by the venerable Mr. Terry Theise are certainly worth seeking out. Those are not available in book stores but rather through Michael Skurnik Wines ( ).

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Jason Lefler said...

Wonderful interview!

Christopher said...

Great job Kirsten...that was very informative! I came away wiser on German Rieslings.

Dot! said...

you're freakin' awesome...

Kirstin said...

thanks, but only deserve a high-five on the questions. The answers were amazing.