Johannes Selbach on why Riesling is the best white wine on earth

"Like many of the other contemporary top producers of the Mosel, its vineyards have grown dramatically during the past decades to its present 50 acres/20 hectares, but unlike many of them Johannes never succumbed to the temptation to increase the sweetness of the wines to please the critics." Stuart Pigott on Selbach Oster's leadership role in developing a dry style in his book The Riesling Story: Best White Wine on Earth.

The Selbach family’s wine heritage in the Mosel dates to the 1600s. Their vineyards are steep, with up to a 70° grade in some places, making mechanical farming impossible. All of the farming is done by hand. Half of their 21 hectares of vines are on their original rootstocks. Working with natural yeast and minimal intervention, the Selbachs make some of the world's most expressive Rieslings.

Johannes Selbach is also a partner with American winemaker Paul Hobbs in an ambitious Riesling project in the Finger Lakes. The 65-acre project located on the east side of Seneca Lake started in 2014 and is expecting its first harvest in 2018.

Grape Collective talks with Johannes Selbach about his role in the Riesling story.

Chrstopher Barnes: Johannes, you make Riesling, the best white wine on Earth. How long has your family been involved in the wine trade?

Johannes Selbach: The history of my family goes back as far as we can trace it in printed record, to the year 1600, which seems like it's special but it's not because everybody, or almost everybody in the area where I come from in the Mosel has been growing grapes and making wine for a long time. We're in the southwest of Germany, prime Riesling country.

So viticulture has been around for more than 2,000 years. It's not the Romans who brought viticulture, but the Celtic people who were there prior to the Romans. They already knew how to make intoxicating beverages using grapes, but the Romans brought it to perfection. Then the barbarians came, the Germans, they appreciated good wine, and so many things got smashed but the viticulture survived. It just changed hands.

And so, the long tradition of viticulture has been maintained through today, and written records haven't always been kept, but in our case we have documents back to the 1600s. And the current generation and the next generation, daughter and son are in the wings because they've also been bitten by the Riesling bug.

SelbachWhat is it about Riesling that makes it a wine that people get so passionate about?

Riesling is one of the great noble grapes. If you look at any wine book that was written a hundred years ago or longer, and even today, you will find that Riesling ranks at the top of the chain for white wines. You could argue Chardonnay too, so let's be fair, say Chardonnay and Riesling share the rank. If you ask me, I'm biased about that but Riesling comes before Chardonnay. And for the reds it's Cabernet and Pinot Noir.

Riesling, unlike Chardonnay, is very fickle. It's like his cousin in mind, if you will, Pinot is very fickle. It doesn't like to be transplanted in climates it doesn't like, it doesn't like to me overcropped, it doesn't like to be misinterpreted. Riesling is like a ballerina, you need to treat her like royalty, you need to put her in the right place, and then you get great results. If you do not, you get not so great results, down to not good results at all, which is a tragedy because there's a lot of Riesling planted worldwide, and some of it is great, and some of it is not so great, and many people get the not so great Riesling. And this is why many people I meet have a jaded view of the category. But if you go to the right places, if you go to where it likes to be grown and is grown well, you get fantastic wines.

And Riesling is one of the grapes like no other, that can produce the whole spectrum, from bone dry to very sweet and everything in between. Basically, it's not the color blue or the color red or the color yellow, it's the colors of the rainbow. The whole spectrum. And what makes Riesling fascinating, is that you can make it from delicate and light to rather full-bodied.

And what makes it or breaks it, is balance. Balance is the key element, and you can make a balanced dry wine which is delicious, you can make a balanced off-dry wine which is delicious, and you can make a balanced sweet wine which is delicious. And Riesling provides you with the skeleton and the bones of acidity, and then you can wrap the fruit around it and you can do it in a light way and you can do it in a bigger way.

There's very, very few grapes, I dare say none, that can do the same like Riesling. Now that's the blessing, that's for people like you and I who like fine wines. If you drink wine occasionally, you want to have a safeguard, you want to have a guard rail, and Riesling doesn't provide that. You need to really have a trained palate, you need to be adventurous, you need to trust your palate, and then you find the good stuff, and you can distinguish the good from the bad. And that, Riesling does not offer, which is why it has become a marketing problem for those who want to sell it, because it takes a lot of explanation. And once you put it through the horse's mouth, most people go, "Wow." The trouble is, many people buy inexpensive Riesling, and inexpensive Riesling usually is cheap and sweet, and that's where the problem lies.

SelbachWe did an interview with Terry Theise, and I asked him if he thought Riesling will always be a niche wine appreciated by wine geeks and people with a strong interest in wine, or whether it had the potential to be a more popular mass-market wine. And he kind of said he thought it was like the indie movie theater that played sophisticated, quirky, interesting movies, that it was there for a certain type of person, it wasn't for everybody. I asked Stuart Pigott, the author of The Best White Wine on Earth, the same question. And he thought that no, Riesling does have the potential to be an extremely popular wine. It just hasn't quite gotten there yet. What's your feeling on that?

I would agree with both. Terry is right in the sense that for now, people who have a deeper understanding of food and wine, usually well traveled people with an open mind, appreciate quality Riesling. It is also an intellectual palate versus a mainstream palate. If you look at this group, and this is not a coincidence that sommeliers, the wine people, the people who are really into wine love artisan, quality Riesling. And then we lose it when it goes to people who occasionally drink wine, and why do we lose it? Because there's too much choice and by far not all the choices are good stuff.

So it's not derogative, and I see that as a potential, because those people who have not had so much wine haven't had somebody to take them by their hand and guide them through the maze of Riesling. There's huge opportunity to taste and find something that they do like. And so, I, bottom line, agree with Stuart, I do think that Riesling will have a greater appeal for more people, because it's delicious, and there's nothing wrong with deliciousness, it's just that so many people are afraid of it, because, speaking of German wines, the nomenclature is confusing, it's tongue-breaking if you don't speak German, and this is why many people are scared and make their way around it.

If we do blind tastings and we blind taste Riesling, dry German Riesling, people go, "Wow, I like this, what is this?" Then you reveal it and they're shocked. Like, "Oh, this is Riesling, I thought Riesling was different. It's all sweet." Yes, so I think it's a matter of time, it's a matter of getting people to try and get people to be open. And we will see more people coming to the table, and I think it does have the potential for a much broader appeal.

SelbachWhat is it about the Mosel that makes it such a great place to make Riesling?

Well, there are certain places where certain fruits came from. If you want, you can call it indigenous fruit. Riesling is certainly something that grew in the central European river valleys, long before nations were brought up, and it has adapted to the soils, it has adapted to a long growing season with some cold, it can take some frost, and so it's the grape of the place. And I think this is why Riesling does very well in the Old World in cold climates, and Mosel is the largest, I should be honest, the Pfalz has overtaken the Mosel by a few hectares, but Germany, the northern parts of Germany are the world's largest Riesling growing areas.

The difference between Mosel and Pfalz, this is why Mosel is special, we have a different soil, we have a very unique soil. It's an ancient sea bottom, going back to the Devonian age, long before Jurassic. Jurassic everybody knows because of the movie, but Devonian is much older, it was 400 to 440 million years ago. Ocean floor deposit, layer after layer after layer, compressed by the weight of the water makes a wafer-like rock, which is soft, breaks easily, and is low in pH. Low pH means tart, lip-smacking. This is what later drifted north and folded up, and this is the hills and the mountains that we grow our grapes on. So, slate soil, low pH, mineral-rich soil, lending crispness and zippiness to the grapes that you grow in them. And this is why Mosel Riesling is unique; you will never mistake a Mosel Riesling for a Pfalz Riesling, because the Mosel Riesling will make your lips smack.

And this is why, in the Mosel, we can make wines with a light body, with low alcohol, but still full flavor. This is a very rare treat! You can make a wine that doesn't hit you with high alcohol, but you still have a mouth full of flavor, and your mouth salivates when you swallow. Even when the wine has some sweetness, this is what some people don't believe because they've had the thick sweet wine, and so they're afraid of sweetness, but when you come to the Mosel and you have a well-made Mosel wine, with natural sweetness, not added sweetness, it's balanced and it's a wow wine. Only, there is very little of it and you have to know where to go.

And the Mosel, when you see pictures of it, it looks very steep.


SelbachIt's hard to believe that people can perform agriculture in that sort of terrain.

It's good and bad. The river cuts, it hits the slope, and it cuts off the fertile soil. And on the south-facing slopes, where the fertile soil is gone, you grow grapes, and the grapes have to make a living by drilling deep into the brittle soil, which limits the yields. And if you have low-yielding vines, you get high concentration. And so steep-facing barren slopes are hard to navigate as far as human beings walking up and down, but for grape and grape production, they produce fantastic fruit.

You can have double the yields in the alluvial soil where the river drops off deposit, or in fertile soil, but you wouldn't get the same result. The grapes are plumper, the wine has more dilution because it's just more juice, and it's night and day if you compare them side by side. And so that's why the steep south-facing slopes are the prized slopes. Those are the famous vineyards, and this is where the great wine grows.

In Stuart Pigott's book, The Best White Wine on Earth, he talks about you and how you were one of the pioneers in creating dry Riesling, and how there is this sort of group of younger winemakers who have followed you. How has that whole transition occurred?

This goes down from grandfather to father, and to the next generation. We always liked to make what we considered classic or traditional Mosel, we did the whole spectrum from dry to sweet, and very rarely really sweet. So the spectrum was covered from A to Z, and so dry wines were part of the regular deal, and we've always made bone-dry wines. But we've always made off-dry wines as well. But we made them with restrained residual sugar, even when the trends went towards more fruit, more sweetness, more everything, I remember my father in the 1980s saying, "Well, I'm not going this way." He stayed course, and basically this is something that I adapted because I like this style, and I like to drink the wines. We don't want to make wines that you look at as an academic exercise, but rather something like, "Give me another glass because it's so delicious."

And fruitiness, or sweetness, is a natural ingredient in ripe fruit, be it apricots or peaches or grapes. So you have fruit, you have acidity, and certainly you can ferment grapes and grape juice into something dry, which you will serve alongside food, but you can also make it into something that is not dry. But, the sweetness should serve the wine, and not the other way around. And that was something that was really the gold standard at home, which I full-heartedly agree with, so we always made wines with restrained residual sugar. So even our sweet wines were less sweet than everybody else's, which maintained the fruit friendliness, it also maintained the drinkability.

And this became out of fashion when the hunt for points and "bigger is better" became the rage, but we stayed course, and many people have come back to, you could say the roots, and so you find many more balanced wines today and many more wines that are enjoyable on their own, but also food friendly. And I think this is also opening the door for many more people to come in and enjoy Riesling, who think today it's all sweet and the same. So that was a good thing. It was hard, especially when the sweeter, richer style was more en vogue, but we're a family business, and how should we say, you can only eat one schnitzel, maybe two schnitzel, that's good enough. So you can weather, I would say, even lesser times, without changing course or changing style.

It's also a matter of principle. If you like what you're doing, and you know it's good, why change it, because the fad changes or the trend changes? In that sense, we're very much traditionalists, but traditionalists with an open mind, which means if we go elsewhere and we taste wines that are delicious, we're interested in why it tastes delicious, what's in it, and how do people make it. So you can be a traditionalist with an open mind and improve. And that's what's happening with the next generation with the son and daughter being interested and they're going more places and they're bringing back ideas which will enhance the wines at home.

SelbachSo you talked a lot about tradition and staying away from fads. Are there areas that you look at and you say, okay, well we're actually going to do something progressive, and we're going to change things? How do you balance change with tradition?

We always look. For example, I was in Australia for the first time in 1988, I saw they did minimal pruning. Minimal pruning makes a lot of sense if, number one, it's saving you a lot of work in the foliage. Number two, it holds back the ripeness a little bit, and this is perfect for us if we want to make sparkling wine, or the basic Riesling that is crisp and not so high in alcohol, so we introduced minimal pruning into some of our vineyards in the 1990s.

Everybody said, "Are you crazy? The vineyards are going bad," which they didn't, you just get a little tarter fruit, you get a little less fruit. Once they reach a certain age, the yieds go down. We learned about what you call gentle pruning, which has been practiced a hundred and some years ago, and now it's coming back via Italy. So we're implementing, we're changing the pruning system so as not to disrupt the flow of sap, which will enhance the health of the vines and the longevity of the vines, which will give us better fruit in the long run. So we're always looking to improve, even though we're traditionalists. If something's better, we will certainly look into it and try to adapt it.

So you made a natural wine, Johannes.

Yes, because I've had many natural wines, some of which I liked and more that I didn't like, and then there was a big buzz about it. Still is a big buzz about, what's natural? If you live on the land and your ancestors have lived on the land, you want to treat it well, keep it alive and protect it so it keeps nourishing you. By the way we grow most of our vineyards organic, and the remainder close to organic, it's called controlled sustainable farming. It's a program sponsored by the state. I look at it from a practical view point, not a political correctness viewpoint. And what really, really disturbed me was the political fervor that went into natural wines, because I don't think we make unnatural wines, if they're not orange.

So we said okay, let's take very good grapes and do it by the book, no intervention. We ferment, by the way, with natural yeast. We do not fine. We leave all our wines on the lees, we try to minimize any mechanical disruption, that's standard practice. But we went a step further, we said okay, we'll open-top ferment them, with the crushed grapes, we'll drain the juice, we do everything by the book, we won't sulfur them, no yeast addition, what have you. Let the wine take it's course, 2015 excellent grapes, auslese level and we'll probably bottle it in the spring of 2018. And all of that was done because we were curious.

If you take excellent grapes and do everything meticulously, what will be the end result in your own cellar? If it sucks, I know it sucks, that was a one time experiment. If it tastes delicious, maybe I'll consider making another one. But if you want to be part of the discussion, if you want to have a judgment of something that's becoming a hot topic, then it's very good to try to make it yourself so you can have a founded opinion. That's why we made a natural wine. If you want, I'll ship a couple of bottles so you can try it.

SelbachI can't wait. That sounds awesome. Johannes, you were involved with Paul Hobbs in a project in the Finger Lakes, and I interviewed Paul several years ago about this. And he kind of described it as viticulture on the edge. And from what I understand, from talking to some of the other winemakers out there, it's a very challenging piece of property in terms of the vines getting their rootsfully developed.


And also dealing with frost issues.

Yes. And not only frost, also something I learned is the term "gully-washer," the downpour in the Finger Lakes when it pours, it pours. It's something of a dimension that we don't know in Europe, at least not in my part of Europe. So yes, it's on the edge. I think for a statement, and happily state it again, the Finger Lakes has the biggest potential in the United States of America for making great Riesling. The West Coast will hate me for that statement, but the Finger Lakes has better potential.

Having said that, the risks are higher, the cost is higher, the infrastructure is not yet established, which means it's a challenge. But there's also potential in the future. And since I've spent some time in the Finger Lakes, I must really credit my colleagues or our colleagues up there with the enthusiasm and all the work that goes into the wines, and I wish more people would realize in their backyard, there's something precious. Obviously, you have to look, you have to taste, not everything's equal. There's room to improve, no doubt. And I think in that sense, Paul, because he comes from upstate New York, was interested in the project. I helped him and still do help him, and this is something that will probably advance the whole region a little bit. Hopefully it will. If we sit back here 20 years, I hope you will see more wineries, you will see more wines, and I think you will also see an even higher level of sophistication and quality.

Nature is tough. I was there in, '14 or '15 in January and I have never seen frost or experienced frost like this. You could hardly breathe. It was so cold it hurt. So that is something we don't ever experience. The gully-washers we experienced, we have massive erosion, even though we have a stony soil. The slate, or the shale that is up there in the Finger Lakes, low pH, nice, which you like for Riesling, is much harder. So it is indeed harder for the roots to penetrate. Ours is brittle, upstate it's hard. So yeah, it's a tough climate, but tough means you get fruit that has flavor, and that's what the wines show, and this is why I think it's a great area to grow Riesling. Possibly also some other similar grapes. I think if it doesn't freeze to death, you could do some nice Pinot Blanc. I think you could do some nice Gewürztraminer provided it doesn't freeze, and obviously there is already some nice Pinot Noir.

And where is the project now?

We're looking at Watkins Glen. We're the southernmost in what the locals call the Banana Belt. So we're in Burdett which is three miles up from Watkins Glen. We're on a steep incline; Paul likes the Mosel Rieslings, fell in love with the steep incline. I tried to talk him out of it, but he was set on it, so this is where it is. And it looks a little bit like the Mosel. It's not as steep as the Mosel, but there's some similarity, and I think 2018 by the way will be the first vintage. We'll make some good wine.

How much wine do you think you'll make?

Ask me when we have the first harvest, very difficult to say. It's too early to say. Because we've had some inclement weather, and this year was the first ton of grapes, next year will be the first real harvest, and then we have a much better idea.

For more on Riesling buy Stuart Pigott's book: The Riesling Story: The Best White Wine On Earth

Check out Dorothy J. Gaiter's interview with Terry Theise.