Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Selbach-Oster Riesling

"the juiciness of biting into fresh fruit"

The Selbach family has been cultivating Riesling grapes in the Middle Mosel valley of Germany since 1600. Johannes Selbach’s great-grandfather owned a Mosel steamship and shipped his wines in oak barrels down the Mosel and the Rhine to the North Sea ports. The barrels were made by Matthias Oster, a cooper and the great-grandfather on the paternal side of the family. The family still has three businesses – the vineyard, a négociant firm supplying a broad range of high-quality Riesling wines, and a brokerage agency.

Johannes Selbach and his wife Barbara are the latest members of the family to work the soil, and I spoke with Johannes when he was in Saskatoon with Doug Reichel of Fine Wines Sask.

Family Heritage
Johannes Selbach is the oldest of three brothers. There was an unspoken expectation that he would join the family business, but he says he was given a long leash. As he grew up, he was expected to help in the height of the season, and it wasn’t always voluntary. But, over time, he changed his mind.

“I can remember working with my father in the vineyard on a beautiful day when I was 17 1/2,” Johannes says. “I decided then that I would come home and join the family business, but I didn’t tell my parents right away because I wanted to keep my options open.” Johannes started working in the winery in 1988, and his father handed over responsibility in 1993, although they ran it together until his father died in 2005. Johannes’ wife and mother are also active partners.

Johannes’ son is 21 and has already decided that he will join the family business. He is currently studying winemaking at another German winery. “The wine business opens a door to the world,” Johannes says. “We export our wine to every continent except Antarctica. We entertain visitors from all over the world, and this sparked my children’s interest.”

Old World Approach
When he started working at the winery, Johannes was full of new ideas. “My father let me do my own thing,” he says, “but I soon realized that the landscape doesn’t change, and it’s best suited to Riesling.”

“There has been almost 2000 years of viticulture in the region and, in our family, several generations have worked out the best sites,” Johannes says. “If you go to the best land and farm carefully, you will have fantastic fruit. We practise hands-off winemaking: you want to taste the flavour of the fruit and the land.”

The Selbach-Oster estate is located near the town of Zeltingen in the Mosel Valley, quite close to Germany’s border with Luxembourg. A patchwork of small plots of land on steep, south-facing slopes overlooking the river adds up to 20 hectares (49 acres).

This is not soil as we know it on the Prairies. It’s rocky, with just the tiniest amount of loam and organic matter. Johannes explains that the area is comprised of old blue Devonian slate. Over time, the ancient ocean floor was transformed into compressed layers of rock that are very brittle. “It’s rich in minerals and has a low Ph,” Johannes says. “It’s ideal for growing grapes, particularly Riesling.” A moderate Atlantic- and Gulf Stream-influenced climate ensures a long growing season that is warm rather than hot.

Fruit and Minerals 
Riesling is a light, delicate white wine with a low alcohol content. It’s often presumed to be sweet or semi-sweet, but Johannes emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between sugary and fruity. “We’re trying to capture the juiciness of biting into fresh fruit,” he explains.

As the fields are in different locations and at different elevations, the grapes don’t ripen evenly, so the harvest extends over four weeks.

The first grapes that are picked are crisper and have more acidity. These grapes are used to make the Kabinett wine.

Next come the Spatlese wines. The grapes have had more time to ripen, so the wine is richer and has more body. You can expect the wine to be fruity with some residual sugar if the label doesn’t indicate trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (half-dry).

Finally, there are the late-harvest Auslese wines from grapes that have been carefully selected cluster by cluster. This is a dessert wine, and Johannes says it goes well with pâté or aged/blue cheeses as well as sweets.

Labels and Logic
At first glance, German wine labels are very confusing. However, the names are actually very logical. First, you will see the name of the nearest town, then the name of the vineyard, and then an indication of when the grapes were picked (Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese).

If the label includes the word “Prädikatswein,” you will know that this is a high-quality German wine. Chapitalization is illegal with Prädikat wines, so you are guaranteed that no additional sugar has been added during the winemaking process. QbA wines can employ chapitalization, but they don’t always do so.

Reliable & Consistent
Change comes slowly, one step at a time, in a long-standing family business, thus ensuring consistency and reliability.

As the winery’s public face, Johannes spends a great deal of time on the road. Although this can be tiring, he appreciates the opportunity to get feedback and to not lose touch with the public. “The right mix makes it fun,” he says.

In 2002, the Selbachs decided to commission a new label for their Kabinett wine. Customers had indicated that they were intimidated by the language barrier and the words, and the Selbachs wanted to make it easier for consumers to find their wines on the shelf. The fish label was created by a Vancouver designer and has caught on at home and abroad.

Selbach-Oster introduced a Pinot Blanc in 2003. “I was playing in the sandbox,” Johannes explains. “I wanted to make a sparkling wine, but the vineyard was too good, and the grapes were too ripe for sparkling wine.”

Johannes says that they may experiment with Gewuerztraminer. “But it will just be a hobby on the side,” he says. “Our land is too well suited to Riesling. That’s our serious crop.”

“I must like every wine that leaves the house,” Johannes says. “And we want high quality and a relatively consistent flavour. That is why we are still in business after 400 years.”

Photo credit:  Selbach-Oster

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