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Selbach-Oster Spätlesen and Auslesen: An underground city of silver

By Terry Theise |  January 18 2022

Selbach-Oster Auslesen and Spätlesen
Zeltinger Sonnenuhr at dusk. Photography courtesy of Selbach-Oster

Terry Theise concludes his immersion in the latest releases from the great Mosel estate Selbach-Oster with a look at the Spätlesen and Auslesen, as well as the wines of Weingut Alfred Merkelbach, where the Selbachs also oversee production.

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

And here for Riesling Trocken and Kabinett.

2020 Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese

Curiously, this has a different accent than the Kabinett, more overtly stainless-steely and precise and vertical. I know Johannes well enough to not assume this was deliberate. Sometimes they just run out of Fuders. In any case, this has the spine and crispness we often see in their (Bernkasteler) Badstube wines, usually done in steel, as indeed this was.

The wine is markedly straight-edged and mineral, without the sigh and tendresse of the barrel wines, and as such it’s another vein of expression for Schlossbserg, direct almost to a point of being clipped. But that impression is deceptive, and is likely to change over time.

Speaking of which; how much time does a wine like this need? In my experience they tend to feel inert for the first 5-6 years, and only start to indicate their adult forms around 9-10 years old. But their true adulthood—assuming proper storage—tends to flourish around years 17-20. The Spätlese from the excellent 2001 vintage are showing that way, though it will take them another fifteen years before they start to taste “antique.” I bring this up because the barrel-made wines are always more available and accommodating, ie, you don’t need to wait for them (though you should), in contrast to this fellow, where patience is mandated. It also helps if you tend to forget what you have in the cellar.

Tasting it now for the fourth time, from the Jancis glass, it remains clear, a little tart, mineral, perhaps somewhat pedagogical.

2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese ++

I’m having another ur-Mosel moment. Is it the vintage, or is it because I haven’t been there tasting the newborn wines for two years?

Think of a grey-haired man—or a woman if you’d rather—who has found an old photo album while cleaning out a closet, and picture this man looking at images of himself as a child, his old eyes regarding a young version of himself, and if you hear the whoosh of the years, as you consider this tableau, you’ll know how I’m feeling now. I gathered this scent to my soul forty three years ago, and here it is again, and there are no years any more, there aren’t even days or minutes, there is just this, as it always was.

Resuming our regularly scheduled consensual reality, if you know the Domprobst Spätlese #10 from Willi Schaefer, this wine is a lot like that one, notwithstanding any differences in vinification. It’s about crunch, it’s about shale, it’s also about dryness, as the wine is another Selbach classic of usefulness. Who is making Spätlese like this any more? It’s also about leaping, buoyant energy, and the exotic almost Nahe-like fruit we often see in Domprobst. Not a wine of repose, but one of pure giddiness.

2020 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese +

I missed that smell. That brash, absurdly vital reek of baby-Mosel wine. I’d experience it hundreds of times each year, tasting and selecting in late March.

Have you tasted wine that made you laugh spontaneously? I hope you have. We are, one might say, more overt than we were with the Kabinett. We are not thinking spiritual thoughts at all. We are thinking about the zingers we wish we could land every single time. Maybe we’re thinking about Wehlen’s weird blueberry flavor, or about the deep pool of quince and vanilla that’s like a cold gelatin that hasn’t yet solidified.

If we ever had a puppy, we’re remembering that vitality and cheer and the insane energy but also the love we felt when the little guy was all worn out and we watched him sleep.

This is a ’20 that catapults its flavors to where the ice clouds are. Small wonder we classicists adore it. This iridescent cool beauty is the beating heart of exquisiteness. And the contrast to the golden strength of the ‘19s is awfully poignant.

2020 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese +++

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr

This is one of those moments when one knows too much about wine, because it is an absolutely classic aroma from the vineyard, and that’s all there is to say. It’s site-plus-sponti, and I am of zero use to you—though my catalogues do have descriptions of the basic flavors from each of these crus—just sayin.’

Sometimes the ripe Sonnenuhrs can, let’s say, exceed themselves in velvety richness, though Johannes labors to retain their backbone. No labor required with this astonishing ’20, which is the very beating heart of what a Mosel Spätlese can ever be. The fruit is gigantic but discreet, and how can that be, you ask? Because the anchoring of cooly insistent slate just does not release its grip, and you are locked in its leafy green glade.

This is starting to feel like one of those culminating vintages for an estate, where everything that shines about them releases an achingly poignant glow, and you think “This is the vintage they were born to make.” It’s the antonym to another great Selbach vintage, 2012, which had authority and thrust and visible stature, but these ‘20s are like an underground city of silver.

Long-time readers will recognize when Theise-leaves-earth, so I’ll stop. Those readers will also know, even if they find my prose absurd, what kinds of wines send my soul free of gravity. They’ll find one here.

2019 Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese ++

A good vintage of this perennial favorite, yet from a random already-opened bottle it “read” rather sweet, possibly in proximity to a racier Hexamer. Seemed atypical for Selbach.

SECOND LOOK FROM AN UNOPENED BOTTLE: That’s more like it. Context matters! And this wine supports my theory that we’d see a leap from the rather demure Kabinett to this all-hands-on-deck Spätlese.

By Selbach standards this is outsized, even monumental. If you want to see Schlossberg showing all its attributes with little or no “interference” from botrytis, caskiness, or overt lees, this is your wine. And at its best—as it is here—these wines can make even our (properly) beloved Wehlener Sonnenuhrs taste … dare one say … relatively simple?

Fine, my “professional” palate acknowledges the preeminence of Zeltinger Sonnenuhr (and also Graacher Domprobst), but I like being washed in orgastic green. It’s like stumbling upon a plant in the deep woods that the guidebook says you can eat, and when you do you are filled with the most aching euphoria and also with a stunning, grateful calm. It feels like green to the very ends of beauty.

The wine’s like an Auslese from the 2001 vintage, and I expect it will taste as exquisite at 20 years old as the 2001 tastes today. Now I must defy the actuarial tables and see this for myself.

I did an EMPTY-GLASS experiment, after the wine was poured and tasted. My “control-glass” Spiegelau was by far the best residual aroma, an essence of the wintergreeny fruit of Schlossberg. The MacNeil, from which the wine itself was so overt, was almost devoid of aroma in the empty glass. Jancis was slatey and minty, not bad but less attractive than the actual wine. Why bother doing this? Two reasons: one, the smell of the empty glass is often a harbinger of the wine’s eventual development, and two, because I am fascinated by the various ways wines behave in different stems. In this case all three of them were suitable. It’s like you’re going to a party and your spouse is trying on different outfits. “This one?” “No, maybe the last one; you really rocked that one.” Same person, different clothes, different impressions.

Still, I gotta resist turning into wine-glass nerd boy.

2020 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Auslese +++

More time-travel here, as this smells like an Auslese I might have encountered from 1983. It’s ripe, of course, but somehow limpid and piping; it smells beautiful and asserts no richness whatsoever.

Unlike the sucrose parfaits that are too many modern Ausleses, this one starts from an essential dryness and then stretches upward, piercing skin after skin until reaching the point where the apple, at last, is ripe, that culminating moment before it gets too sugary. Indeed this wine is a silvery cold stream of divine fruit, or fruits set to some eerie celestial music, because whatever this is, it is like very few modern Auseleses I have had for at least 20 years.

Instead of the prevailing fructose-bath, we get a strange remote-feeling bat signal of fruit that has purified itself over a long journey through some twinkly schisty dust. By the time it reaches you it can no longer be fathomed. It is enormously numinous yet entirely silent. It gives you every possible scintilla of information by placing it so delicately into your hand you don’t feel it, and don’t know how you came to possess it. It is a room full of poets, whispering. It is some strange food that cooks over cold.

Will this moony being open into something more explicable and—dare I say “conventional”—over the coming days? We’ll see. I rather hope not.

I thought, after all these years, I was somehow equal to these Selbach wines. Looks like I need to think again.

2020 Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Auslese +

In contrast to the ethereal Domprobst, this is an earthbound beauty. It is a thing we know, have tasted before, and are reassured to be tasting again. In fact it recalls a great 1975, which we thought was the prototypical Mosel vintage; a delicate wine with the smell of golden ripe berries with a smattering of clean botrytis.

It is wonderfully refined and restrained. Nothing shouts and everything sings. It feels as though the slate is actually happy. The fruit shows the glow and relief of a runner crossing the finish line. “We made it…” The balance is seamless, the gestalt sophisticated; the entire wine is civilized and considerate. The finish is delicately honeyed, with echoes of malt, and sparks of slate.

In an era where we suffer from too many wines strutting some kind of machismo of must-weight, a wine like this, with its modesty and grace, is like a balm.

2020 Schmitt ++

Full name Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Auslese; it is A.P 015 21.

This great south-facing steep parcel is harvested in a single bloc at the end of the picking—conceptually the opposite of the idea of “Auslese”—and thus contains a full portrait of the vineyard, from green to yellow to gold to overripe and botrytis grapes, vinified together as a Whole. It was the first site to be thus harvested; two more have been created since then, a Rotlay from the Zeltlinger Sonnenuhr, and an Anrecht, from a parcel in the Zeltinger Himmelreich. The latter, distressingly, was corked.

This ’20 is quite a mosaic. I mean you really taste each little fleck of nuance here, from the not-quite-ripe to the overripe to the botrytis, not as a paint-by-numbers but rather as an entirety rendered so clearly that each element expresses. It feels on the dry side but that may be deceptive, because the minerality is just implacable.

Often I (and others) feel this is the great Selbach wine, almost every vintage, because it combines richness, clarity, concentration, and some X-factor of mystery to an exalted degree. Some years it’s really quite rich, other years it’s more cerebral, and this ’20 leans in a silvery shady direction and then leans the other way, toward little soft-skinned berries that burst in your hand if you grab them too hard.

There is, though a tension here. That’s fine if you like tense wines that don’t quite align. I think this is superb wine with some youthful dysphasia, and I’m hoping it is merely “youthful.”

It’s also one of the “drinky” vintages, though it helps if you crave the taste of geology. I like that it’s not quite this or that. It’s this vineyard in 2020—that’s all there is to it. It’s a professor of particle physics with a taste for butterscotch pralines. I’m hot for teacher.

2020 Rotlay   ++

See text for Schmitt on en-bloc picking; full name Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese A.P. 016 21

Rotlay, a crazy-steep parcel much coveted by Mosel insiders (as well as several proprietors who dearly wish they had more of it), tends to be the “smoky” one among the en-blocs. In light vintages (such as the heart-rending 2004) it is nearly unbelievably beautiful. In riper years it can flirt with too-muchness, which is when Schmitt really shines.

This ’20 is a wine in motion, a changeling, and of all the wines it was the one that continually surprised me. The headline is: it is much better than it first appeared. The fragrance is was always amazing, but at first the palate was a miasma of disparate elements. That changed completely.

Finally the wine absorbed its sweetness and reconciled all its facets and became a savory/sweet sort of bomb of exotic vinosity that relates more to the (feinherb) Ur-alte Reben than to its siblings in the Auslese class.

There’s a lot of verbena and lime, and a crush of mineral (in contrast to the more jagged minerality of the Schmitt). It’s quite a green wine, in terms of anise-hyssop and wintergreen, and as such it shows an other-ness in contrast to the usual smoke and yellow fruits. There’s a botrytis pungency I expect will recede.

Mosel wines are often called “apple-y,” but there’s a way they push through to different octaves of apple—apple-cellar, baked apple, even other malics like certain pears or quince. Some of that malic echo is here, as though it’s calling from across a chasm. Yet it’s haunting for all that, raising its hopeful voice through the omnipresent green.

It’s all anchored to a very long finish, which is entirely integrated. And my empty-glass smell-test shows a clement blend of malt and smoke and mulling spices.

2019 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 2-star     ++

Selbach-Oster Wehelener Sonnenuhr

Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Photography courtesy of Selbach-Oster

The impeccable malty botrytis fragrance calls to mind the best 2012s or even 2005s. The palate, too, is an extravagance of malt, chestnut and the butterscotch savor of aged Comté.

These kinds of wines age stupendously. Not because of how long they develop, but rather what they develop into. This will go all beeswax and chamomile when it reaches its tertiary life, and then its sweetness will be heart rending. Thus my two plusses. If you drink it now, it might seem attractive, even lovely, but also a little one-sided. Wait fifteen years if you can.

Climate change wines have spoiled us. Something like this would have been put on a pedestal in the 20th century, seen properly for the monument it truly is. Nowadays we’re jaded. But I remember tasting Selbach’s 2012s and liking them very much, but when I tasted them again just three years later I was terribly ashamed; how did I miss their profundity? I swore I’d never make that mistake again. I might have taken for granted the light-footed solidity, and I might have merely glanced at the purity of fruit.

But you know, those Auslesen were tasted in the late afternoon of an all-day tasting of Selbach-Oster. Forty wines would have preceded them. Often there were multiple Ausleses. The demand for that category had waned. I wasn’t in the mood! But today I’ve had just one Auslese and I’m thinking of a perfect peach pie where the fruit stands out and the crust is buttery and the salting is wicked, and I don’t disavow what I did as a merchant—it had to be done that way—but I am aware that tasting this way frees me to be grateful. And so I am.

Over the days it was marvelous to watch the wine become less generic—the “genre” in this case being Big Auslese—and more particular, and by the 3rd day it was clearly and definitely a Wehlener Sonnenuhr, referring back to its elemental form. It’s a kind of parting of the curtain, to look behind the monument and see the innocence.

Weingut Alfred Merkelbach

This old-school estate, run by the bachelor brothers Rolf and Alfred Merkelbach for many decades, had no heirs to take it over when they could no longer manage the work. But in a lovely example of the cohesion of the Mosel culture, the Selbachs, old family friends and long-term business partners, arranged to maintain the domain in as close to its existing form as possible.

There is no desire to make “Selbach” wines in Ürzig. Nor is there any reason to. Merkelbach has slowly become generally beloved—not just among my customers in the US—for their “virginal” style of Mosel Riesling. For the last several vintages Selbachs have helped out, and with 2019 and 2020 they have been doing it all, using the brothers’ cellar and Fuders and with only a few small adaptations to modern competences, which you won’t taste. These are still, recognizably, happily, wonderfully, Merkelbach wines.

Except for the dry ones, which are much improved!

2020 Riesling Trocken

I was never a fan of the brothers’ dry wines, and one time I shocked them by wanting to offer a Halbtrocken wine for which I’m sure they had other plans. “You want the Halbtrocken?” they asked plaintively.

This smells good, smells of Ürzig, actually, a lot of fir and ylang ylang. And the wine surprises me but actually being balanced, good, and original. That’s the Selbach touch, I am very sure.

But before I continue, what’s this “ylang ylang” thing that’s squatted in my notes the last few months? Simply this: I bought a set of “Chef’s Essence” flavor drops from the astonishing artisan parfumeur (and author) Mandy Aftel, who not only creates the finest scents I have ever experienced but also works with chefs to create a range of flavor bombs; a finishing drop or two will catapult a dish in a dramatically remarkable way. The set included a ylang-ylang essence, and as soon as I sniffed it I thought, “So that’s what I’ve been smelling in so many wines and having no idea how to describe.” So it’s crowded its way in, and I’m kinda leaning on it. Proportion shall be restored, duly, eventually. Maybe.

Meanwhile there’s this weirdly compelling critter. Quince, iron, herbs, aldehydic and almondy in a not-disagreeable way; I’ve never tasted a Mosel wine like it, and have barely tasted any kind of wine like it. It tastes like some autochon as yet unidentified that the Nikolaihof people discovered in an abandoned vineyard next to one of theirs. Finishes with a wash of esoteric salts, and a bit of that gin-tonic thing we saw in Dautel’s Rieslings.

I don’t know whether the American importer offered it, but I’ve tasted nothing more original than this in many months, and you should try to get some if you possibly can. It’s also a (rare) example of a wine with an acceptable flaw.

2020 Kinheimer Rosenberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken +

This is more “correct” now, it stays in its lane, and seems to have benefited greatly from some Selbach magic, because it’s the most successful Trocken wine I’ve tasted from Merkelbach—and I’ve tasted every one of their wines since vintage-1985.

It has that ur-quality that resists description because it is entirely pure and not very particular. It’s just Mosel Riesling in its virginal form—dry in this case. So forgive me for the clichés, but they exist for a reason, and we have green apple and slate and conifer, and no sweetness, and a firm but gentle harmony.

This is done without the mid-palate “fluffiness” we often see in Selbach’s own wines. What’s in its place is a deep and extract-drenched mineral savor. I’m sure acidity was left alone (there’s an off kind of creaminess in many deacidified wines which isn’t present here) but I can’t account for the utter lack of pointedness that seems to be … a factor in (too) many dry 2020s along the Mosel. (Including, alas, some with august pedigree … )

I admire this thoroughly lovely and companionable (and interesting) wine more than I can say. For me it’s a high spot among the 2020s.

2020 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett +

I was only sent one (there are often multiples), and this is A.P. 001 21.

This will maybe be my shortest note. The wine is impeccable. It is racy and vivid and shows every detail of each signature Würzgarten flavor. It has endless echo and mineral. For something so delicate it is stubbornly persistent. Beautifully persistent!

Back to the Eden of pleasure and wonder, before all our sophistication got in the way.

2020 Kinheimer Rosenberg Riesling Spätlese

Again impeccable, if at first the tiniest bit featureless after the Würzgarten mojo. But that may be deceptive, because it’s 45 seconds since I spat this guy out and the flavor is larger now than when it was actually in my gob.

In fact the wine is firm and dry-ish—which is a relief as the estate’s wines had become atypically sweet in 2017-2018—and while we don’t have the “erogenous” qualities of grand cru wines, we do have every possible goodness of good wine from a good vineyard. It pulls toward sternness without ever being stern; it is more adamant than its Trocken sibling, and its moderate RS is quickly overcome by the stampings of slatey feet.

2020 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese (A.P. 004-21)     ++

2020 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese (A.P. 006-21)     ++

There were many vintages when I was offered up to 8-10 Fuders of Würzgarten Spätlese, different parcels, different pickings, up the hill, down the hill, early in the harvest, late in the harvest … and while I sometimes found enough commonality in three or four casks to have suggested blending them, they were literally unable to, as their holding tank would only fit two Fuders! Selbachs seem to have solved this problem.

I asked for and received cadaster bottlings from sites such as Lang Pichter and Urglück, but perhaps these have been discontinued. No matter; there is enough wine. # 004 can be seen as the “regular” Spätlese and #006 as the “Gold-Capsule” sibling. I find #004 to be laugh-out-loud joyful.

It has the high-up flavor of Würzgarten where kiwi and sassafrass are preeminent over apples and strawberries, and where there’s a superb firmness in the wine’s core. And maybe when I get over giggling like a fucking lunatic I can try to tell you about this masterpiece of purity.

It’s a different purity than that of Dönnhoff or Schloss Lieser. It doesn’t shimmer and it isn’t mystic and it speaks to a different place in your soul. It doesn’t refer to “thought” or anything self-conscious, and it’s not ethereal. It is the reality when no one’s looking. “The world before people wrote poems about it” as I once said. It can’t be corrupted because there’s nothing to tempt it. All is as it should be. “Desire” hasn’t been born yet.

Merkelbach has never made Big Deal Look-At-Me wines, yet I know of no other wine grower who so regularly plugs in to the ur, to the origin, to the place where, to quote Spike Milligan, “The hand of man has never set foot.” (Or was that in Tintin??)

To AP 006 then, which adds those strawberries to the vineyard portrait; this leads toward fruit as-such and in general, with spice and mineral as supporting players. It’s the first wine where old vines seem to demonstrate their pithy interiority. It feels a little sweeter without feeling “sweet.” It’s easier to be fond of. It’s prettier. But as a pungency emerges we see the wine is more than one thing. An angular spicy paragraph of flavors set up astride the fruit. At first they were obscured; now they’ve thrown their coats on the bed and joined the party.

Which is the “better” wine? You can say #6 is more complete, if by that you mean it’s riper and fruitier, more refined. It is those things. And I love those things. We also pay more for those flavors, which I understand but still might challenge.

Put it this way, in the construction of a total flavor with spice, angularity and minerality and overt fruit in play,  is 70% angular/spicy/mineral and 30% fruity, and #6 is 60% fruit and 40% angular/spicy/mineral. You choose according to what tempts you, or you’re like me and you have to have both. (And if you’re like me, you may wonder what would happen if you combined the two wines. What indeed?)

2020 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese ++

(AP 002) This is the utter strawberry side of UW, with only a nuance of sassafrass riding below. Juicy and ripe for a Merkelbach wine, but none too sweet and with a really dramatic mineral wash on the mid palate. Tastes like it came from a site at the foot of the slope where the slate was crumbly, because unlike (for example) the Urglück cadaster-bottling, this leads with fruit—and the purest fruit you ever tasted—and then this gossamer slate just washes over you in an enveloping whisper.

And then with air it goes all salty and angular and hyssopy. And then the tertiary finish is stern and as good as dry. Over the days the wine grew even more herbal and mineral, until at the end it was the most rapturously beautiful Merkelbach wine I’ve tasted in a long, long time. A masterpiece, somewhere between the crispness of 2001 and the dreamy fruit of 2007, but better than either.

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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