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Selbach-Oster Riesling: Return to Eden

By Terry Theise |  January 14 2022

Selbach-Oster Riesling
Riesling in the Selbach-Oster vineyard. Photography courtesy of Selbach-Oster

In the second part of his immersion in the latest releases from the great Mosel estate Selbach-Oster Terry Theise switches to Riesling (and Gewürztraminer) moving up the sugar gears from dry to Kabinett.

Click here for Theise’s notes on Selbach-Oster’s Spätburgunder and Pinot Blanc.

Selbach’s marked success with dry Rieslings

First a small note that, as I write, the range of top “GG” from 2020 has yet to reach me, and when it does (I hope in the next couple weeks) those notes will be added herein.

It doesn’t surprise me that Johannes “gets” the parameters for successful (ie, delicious) dry Rieslings, but I asked him to detail what those factors actually are, in the vineyards and the pressing and the cellaring.

He says: “What one does do for flavorful dry Rieslings is to go for perfectly ripe, healthy fruit and to process it gently, ferment cool but not cold, give the wine slack in finding it‘s course and never force it into dryness.” (TT: my emphasis)

He continues: “Obviously there is the risk of stuck fermentations, but one has to accept it when nature decides ‘this is it,’ rather than employing all different kinds of “remedies“ to force it to dryness.”

So, I continued, you may have an idea or a plan that a wine should be dry, but ultimately the wine needs to go along with your plan! Can you tell me more about your starting-out point? When you’re considering the grapes, what makes you think These could make a good dry wine, assuming they co-operate?

“The grapes for the juice for our dry wines must be ripe, shouldn‘t be over-ripe. The juice must always be flavorful and literally ‘juicy,’ with an engaging fruit-acid balance and, very important: It has to have mid-palate umami. In other words, the flavors of the juice should ‘grow’ on your palate, fill out the palate and then be escorted by crisp but never screechy acidity.

“As a Mosel producer who has seen unripe vintages with aggressive acidity, we try to make sure the acidity is present and alive, but plays a supporting role, to give structure, without taking over the wine.”

I asked, assuming you’re tasting the grapes, when and how do you “know” something is indicated for dry wine?

“When you like to eat them. Those flavors are a big deal! When you have perfectly ripe fruit and you like those flavors, it goes without saying that the smell and aroma of that ripe fruit should also be perceptible in the end product, be it partially fermented or totally fermented. Even a totally dry wine, if made the purist way, without oak, vanilla and butterscotch seasoning, should certainly fly the flags of both the aromatic potpourri and the wholesomeness of the ripe fruit and the soil the vines thrive in.

“Above all, reigning supreme, is the interplay of fruit and soil, is balance,  is the equilibrium of the different olfactory and sensual offerings a wine can make.”

The journey from repugnance

My own opinion about dry German Rieslings has evolved as they themselves have. There was a time when most of them were truly repugnant. In the last 12-15 years, and for various reasons partly but not entirely due to global warming, the “community” of fine dry German Riesling has grown and grown, and as I myself had begun to prefer drinking “dry” much of the time, I was happy with this development.

It would be easy to taste the GGs and conclude that the “problem” with dry German Riesling has been solved. It hasn’t. Those GGs are very often excellent and sometimes really supernal—as they should be—but lying below them is a group of wines whose successes are more…let’s say hit-and-miss. The “hits” are wonderful, especially at the estate-wine level, and it could lead you to believe that all is well now, but you will continue to find thin, sour, shrill dry Rieslings, even from fine growers, and this is why we need to examine why many succeed and some still fail miserably.

What’s Johannes’ take on this? “Unfortunately many of the much heralded dry wines of today are aggressively dry with not much flavor at all, often bordering on acidic, mouth drying and with a certain harshness or even bitterness in the finish. I have started to speak up and share my observations since I do not want those aggressive, angular, often sour dry wines to become the new gold standard.

“The lack of flavor in in those wines is often covered up by the use of the new buzzword “salty”. The description ‘saltiness’ IMHO often stands for a barren emptiness  or absence of flavor.”

Amen.

2020 Zeltinger Riesling Kabinett Trocken

I don’t (yet) know what went into this but it tastes like Himmelreich in stainless steel. The fragrance is delightfully available and offers an un-affected welcome of green apple, conifer and jasmine. It’s a demure sort of being, with 11.5% alc, which makes the mineral assertiveness on the mid palate a bit of a (happy) shock. The finish runs a little phenolic but that’s okay, because we’ll all be glugging it, not preening over it with our discriminating palates.

Obviously I don’t know every Mosel grower, but among the ones I do know, no one has a deeper understanding of the parameters that go into making successful and delicious dry Mosel Riesling than Johannes Selbach. This sparrowy being has more charm and balance and minerality than many wines of far greater pretension (and cost)…and well yeah, you know me, I get verklempt over cheap wine that over-delivers.

2019 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Trocken ++

First tasting in June 2021. Lots of (silvery-straw) color for a young Mosel wine. The fragrance is uproariously good, and the palate has the attitude of a long fermenter, though it doesn’t smell especially leesy. It’s powerful by Mosel standards, more impressive than delicious, and it tastes headier than its 12.5% alc would imply.

In fact what it most closely resembles is a Renner GV from Gobelsburg, which, if you don’t know, is a GV that feints decisively toward Riesling. This idiosyncratic and remarkable wine is markedly savory, and doesn’t jump through any of the usual hoops for Mosel Riesling. It is hard and grainy; it tastes like drought, like tough skins.

Yet it’s possible the fruit is suppressed, as the Jancis glass reveals furtive bolts of TCA. My impressions may be distorted by an improper bottle.

Re-tasted two days later at cellar temp (currently 62ºF), if there is below-threshold TCA it’s pretty well below. The wine’s still savory, salty and crusty, muscular and balanced in its way. Yet I am almost certain a healthy bottle would show more fruit. I shall seek to obtain one.

It is nearly December now, and a second bottle has been obtained. And cellar temp is now 52ºF.

The fragrance remains “horizontal” and my cognate with Renner GV isn’t unreasonable. Zeltlinger Sonnenuhr does have a savory side, and a long-fermenter could easily take on the meadow-flower thing. But the basic structure is more vivid from this bottle, and its adamant grip gives a sort of rhetoric to the fruit. It has the Gesture-Of-Importance of the “GG” genre, and I don’t intend that to sound derisive. (It’s fine for important wines to taste important…) But if there’s one single element that makes this wine marvelous it’s an essential wildness, an almost feral vitality. It is unconcerned with politeness because it is busy being good. And it rattles things as it moves about the room, and it tangoes with your suddenly spinning palate.

Finally there’s this crazy butterscotch thing, like a perfect piece of Comté. This wine wasn’t babied along; I’m sure it was always willful and out of control and yet, it turned into a snorting noble beast, and I’m so glad I tasted it again, because it is a complete and total blast.

2019 Gewürztraminer Trocken

Johannes says:Since my late teenage years I always had a secret love for good Gewürz’  that draws you in for more, which hasn’t been (and still isn’t) easy to find.

“I had a wish that I was finally able to fulfill myself, to plant Gewürztraminer in a good Mosel site with slate but also ample humus, fine-earth and water retention and to make the ‘hard to make’  elegant, dry, crisp and, yes, neither bitter nor fat nor overtly perfumed ‘Traminer.’ It took some learning and we are finally where we want to be with vintages 2019 and 2020. A great asset and help was [son] Sebastian with his Geisenheim training and his internship in Tramin proper.”

This wine is truly wonderful. If you’re looking for a Gewürz’ you could plausibly call “ladylike”—and please understand this doesn’t refer to the prevailing cliché of “feminine,” but rather just one single way some women can sometimes be—ladylike—then you have found your wine. If you enjoy the whole rose-and-lychee thing but don’t always like the sultriness (and high alcohol) (and sweetness) that often accompany them, this is your wine. It’s like a sorbet of lychee!

I’m stoked that Johannes plans to continue with this variety, because this vintage constitutes an achievement. To get to 13% alc in a dry Gewürz’ without finishing bitterness, and to combine the classic varietal profile with something almost sprightly, that is something very few people have done.

Selbach-Oster Riesling

Barbara and Johannes Selbach. Photography courtesy of Selbach-Oster

He wanted me to keep it for eight days open, but we were disobedient and drank some with dinner last night, and now we’re down to a quarter-bottle. “Tasting” it again, it’s less lacy and more overtly rose-like, but it’s still silvery and spectral for Gewürz’, and I’d imagine the 2020 is even more so.

2020 Riesling feinherb  + (and glug-glug-glug)

A charming fragrance is almost to-be-expected from this smart domain. It’s a Mosel template (slate/apple/lime/herbs) with some of the malic sprightliness I associate with Kinheim, where Selbachs have some land providing wines that go into blends such as this.

It’s no secret I find this amount of RS to be the platonic ideal of balance for most Rieslings, and if this wine doesn’t achieve “perfection,” it embodies that Ideal as well as any wine can, and poignantly in this instance, as it’s so “basic” and affordable.

Riesling can achieve the loftiest of resplendence and the noblest of purposes—some of them are reported on lower on the page—but if there is a scale of preciousness, defined by a feeling of life affirmation, then this wine is at its pinnacle. What a relief such a wine is in the world! What a friend it is to all who drink it! How happy the home that owns it! How reassuring to envision it there, waiting for you, as you walk in your door after a grumpy day and you need something to cheer you up.

Drink, and come again to life, to relief, to gratefulness.

2020 Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken +

It is steadily excellent, with small variations based on vintage and more compelling variations based on vinification, specifically the proportion of Fuder to steel that goes into the cuvée. This feels like a larger proportion of wood (and the tertiaries and textures it brings), which would make sense in a year like ’20, with its neon green zing.

We have, as always, quince and ginger and lemongrass, and we have a bit of spiky jazz on the finish, but we also have fragrance and poise and intelligence, and a thrilling balance, a tautly stretched cable on which flavors quiver in a stiff wind.

If you know the en-bloc wine from the ANRECHT, you will see this wine is the germ of that one. They share a DNA, only that wine is a giant, and this is a little squeaky sprite. And we can really taste the dance of the two components, the suavity from the barrels and the little celery-leaf spark of green from the steel.

2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Feinherb “Alte Reben” ++

The back label indicates “Spätlese” along with feinherb

It is truly hard to fathom how a wine could combine such sophistication with such atavism, yet this (and its sister the Sonnenuhr Ur-alte Reben) do so in some incomparable way.

You have the pistachio crunch of Domprobst, all the sponti fragrance you could ever crave WITHOUT THE STINK, the herbs and oolongs and foresty green and all in a framework of determined grip and spice. The Sonnenuhr is more suave and light-footed; this boy’s wearing crampons.

It’s naked slate, the Nth degree of Mosel-ness and yet it isn’t even a tiny bit steely. It’s a pudding of primary rock!

I have to ask a question, me being me and all: Do we need wine to actually be drier than this? What if someone told you “I have an element that will add to the fragrance, bring more color to the flavors, extend the life of the wine, lower the alcohol, and make it more flexible at the table,” and you replied, “I don’t use additives in my wines.” And then this someone says—“It’s not an additive; it’s already in the wine.” Wouldn’t you be insane to refuse this???

2020 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Feinherb “Ur-alte Reben” ++

Back label indicates “Spätlese,” and alcohol is 12%

The parcel is called Kackert, and the (ungrafted) vines are truly ancient, most over 100, and the oldest date back to before planting records were kept at the estate. The idiom is to replicate the style of cellar work prevailing at the time—much as Loewen does with their “1896” (though Selbach’s done it for longer), which means ambient ferments (viz. yeast and temperature) in Fuder and aging on the primary lees until bottling.

The result is nearly indescribable, unless you’re willing to imagine an amalgam of verbena, Mirabelle-plum, “orchid” style oolong teas, wintergreen, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. You also need to surmise a creamy texture having nothing to do with whatever usually creates it. Here it is made by density of extract alone.

And yet when you get the wine on your palate, all that richness shimmers away into a tactile jab of pure slate, a thousand tiny needles of it, an acupuncture of terroir. I know of nothing else like it. And while this wine is always important, when it is great it is incomparably great, a glowing being that squares the circle between meditation and drinkability. Indeed it’s so drinkable you reach and reach for your glass, but when you actually have it in your mouth it stops you cold with its intricacy and its melody. You want to follow it, even if you lose the way, even if the world is darkening and the words of the poem dissolve on the page.

Because wine is a certain kind of gift. The painting you like holds still for you, and you can look as long as you desire; the music you play you can play again; the words on the page are there when you look again—but each sip of wine is like a note struck on a piano, it fades into silence as soon as you strike it. If you pursue that strange lost music you can enter an ecstasy of longing that feels a little like death. And that is where the music lives.

Returning to the prosaic … this is the best vintage since 2016, and while I love it with all my soul, my actual palate registers a tiny concern. The finish begins with the exotic echo of the mid-palate fruit-richness and then seems to solidify into a kind of parfait of slate, and after that, at the very end, there’s just the smallest pointedness. I’d exaggerate if I said it was “sharp” or had a “bite.” It’s probably the green element of ’20. And then that thing fades and you’re left with all the gorgeous warmth of the primary flavors. Which linger, by the way, ridiculously.

This was only apparent from the Jancis glass and when tasted outdoors (on a 30º evening), and it’s quite possible I imagined it. Just trying to hold my head above the haunting water.

2020 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett

I’m having A Moment.

I have a Mosel paradigm in the glass. And I sniffed it, and almost cried.

I love German Riesling in all its guises, but somehow it is the Mosel whose wines return me to Eden.

They’re saying the ‘20s are crisp and cool, and this one is like phyllo, or like croissant layers, a latticework of stones so slim and brittle they crumble if you stare at them hard enough. The sleek blue fruit of Wehlen skiffs over the top of the grainy slate. The acidity might make you notice your gums. It tastes like one of their stainless-steel wines. It blazes with vitality and transparency and candor.

I don’t know if I’d have selected it; that would have depended on how the other Kabinetts tasted. I almost never “rejected” a Selbach wine; I only sought to restrain the offering to a manageable size. But that doesn’t really matter here.

There is something about Mosel Riesling, when it is true and unadorned, that shows the world before it was corrupted. Going further, it seems to show oneself before we were corrupted by all the things that obtruded upon our basic decency. We don’t have to go to virtue, and we don’t even have to talk about “goodness.” We can pause at simple basic decency, and we can wonder that wines like these can remind us what that looks like, or looked like, before the world trampled it with its clamor, and twisted us into beings who would do almost anything to get the things we were so sure we needed to have.

On day-2 the wine is more overt; the NacNeil fresh and crisp glass makes it almost creamy, like mascarpone studded with cold blueberries. Still, it’s a wine of the sideways glance, aloof and suave, compelling you with its icy blue flame.

2020 Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Kabinett +

In my merchant days, we had Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Kabinett as an always-in-stock item, and I’d approach this wine hoping not to love it. Often I didn’t succeed, as Schlossberg is my favorite among the Zeltingen Crus, and one of my most beloved Mosel vineyards, period. So, okay, to the matter at hand. Now I can love it as much as I like.

It’s a classic Selbach Kabinett, which is to say it is balanced along feinherb lines, with sweetness so well integrated it feels invisible. It is invisible. The wine is mostly steel, or tastes that way, and it’s quite a portrait of the flavors of the site. These run to shade and green and leaf and lime. (This wine smells like plum blossoms on a peyote binge.) It’s more aloof than the clement yellow welcome of its neighbors, but for me it’s a refreshing glade away from the sun on an over-warm day.

All I know is it’s complex and delicious and articulate and it shows the difference between a “little” wine and a delicate wine, and why we should understand that, and learn to notice it, because believe me, it is a vanishing species.

2020 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett  +

Well I admit the aroma’s more enticing than the Schlossberg’s. Fair is fair. That fragrance is more singular but this one’s more tempting.

A little spritz here. Agreeably. Still on the dry side, but RS is at least a discernible player now. It’s surprisingly tensile and scrupulous. It is concerned with balance and posture, and it has a softer voice. And yet it has a classic slatey energy, and while it’s less particular than the Schlossberg, it is more discreet and classical.

The word “discreet” is subject to smithereens as the wine warms and breathes. These came from the fridge, but when I re-taste I’ll do it at cellar-temp. Meanwhile, first impression—the wines are equal in quality, and I happen to like Schlossberg more. But many of you will feel otherwise, as this is an especially vibrant and buzzing kind of classicism.

2019 Zeltlinger Schlossberg Riesling Kabinett  +

This ’19 is subtle and lovely, and tastes as it sometimes does in outstanding vintages, where the sexiest fruit went into the more “important” wines. Don’t mistake me, there’s nothing wrong with a quiet wine, and in my religion we worship inference, but you should anticipate flavors that wrap around you almost unseen. Maybe even unseeable. Seekers of the direct approach—Here I am! Here are my many flavors!—could be frustrated by this wine’s reveries and quietude.

This could simply be a phase. That second-year after the vintage is famously inexpressive. The bottle could be mute for a number of reasons. But I don’t actually find it “mute.” I think it is keeping its powder dry. Its length is sneaky—and if you really pay attention you’ll find a finishing cling you had little reason to expect. It’s a creature of deception, this wine; it only seems remote, but what it really is, is allusive. I wonder if it will be more overt over the days. I expect it will, though I do love it now.

Two days later I poured it into three glasses, my basic Spiegelau (from which is was matter-of-fact and fine), the MacNeil “crisp & fresh (from which it was overt and giddy and almost buttery), and finally the Jancis (from which it was searching and incantatory). In each instance the wine had awakened and yet remained introverted. Fine by me! Behind that shroud is a wonderful face.

A note on scores by Terry Theise

I disapprove of points. I don’t recognize measuring wines against a notion of “perfection,” I think it’s a fool’s errand to assign absolute value to an ephemeral impression, and the more precise a scoring system purports to be, the more it actually misleads.

That said, my mind forms hierarchies of its own volition, and special wines warrant special attention. So I’ll revert to my deliberately inexact system of plusses—one, two, or three—to recognize the most remarkable wines. My plusses are sort of like Michelin stars. One plus is a wine that stood out. Two plusses is a wine that made me stop and consider the depth of its beauty. Three plusses is a wine that tingles with greatness, and offers a moment of profundity. Feel free to superimpose whatever scoring system you deploy; the point-systems are harmful but the folks who use them aren’t evil, so if you want to conflate my three plusses with a scoring range that makes sense to you, be my guest.

Extracted with permission from Terry Theise’s Tasting Protocols.

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