AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHANNES SELBACH
I have written often about Johannes, his family, and their wines, in both of my books and in every catalogue I created since I started representing the Selbachs in 1985. The family are essentially just about everything we want human beings to be. The estate is so deeply anchored to its place – or Place – that the anchor itself dissolves, and the people and the place become a single being. It stands to reason that deeply truthful wines would emerge from such a thing, just as it makes perfect sense that such richly interior wines would appeal to an introvert like me.
But that’s not our topic for today.
Wines of terroir will ineluctably find their homes in what we call “small-batch” thinking. And small-batch thinking is incompatible with things like efficiency and with “sound business principles.” This we all know. But it’s hard to look at it unblinkingly, because we love these little micro-terroir wines, we love the secrets they tell, the particular melodies they play, and their beautiful stubborn distinctiveness. We get to love them because vintners defy all mercantile logic in order to produce them. The melancholy truth seems to be, that we obtain our moments of meaning for costs we do not pay ourselves. They are paid by the grower in the form of inefficiency and poor business practices.
It takes some doing for them to manage. It takes derring-do, a lot of creative amortizing of costs, and a certain amount of determined loneliness. Why loneliness? Because often all the people around you are sure you are mad.
In Selbach’s case their relatively large size (by Mosel standards) casts these questions into high relief. Johannes seeks to find answers by consolidating his “everyday” production into fewer wines made in larger quantities, and reserving the micro-bottlings for his top vineyards. It’s an elegant and common solution, but not a perfect one, and I wanted to dig into it a bit with my old pal.
If it seems like “inside-baseball” I assure you it isn’t. The larger subject is whether the business of small-batch wine is sustainable, and if so, at what cost?
Thus I began by asking Johannes to talk a little about the challenge of reducing the number of different wines he makes while at the same time maintaining the identity of his many distinctive terroirs. How does he manage it, and does he think the approach is successful?
JOHANNES: Oh man, Terry, that has been a sore spot forever, and a bone of contention with the female part of the family and it doesn’t stop. Both Papa and I relished the diversity the different vineyards had to offer and we wanted to explore each and every one that seemed interesting. In doing so, and adding the different ripeness levels, that leads to a great number of different wines, different bottlings.
TERRY: That’s a good way to put it, as a process of exploration, motivated by curiosity.
JS: Both Papa and I were / are absolutely fascinated by the intricacies of wine, the multitude of variations and nuances a grape and a vineyard can express, though the same varietal, Riesling, but still all different. So we made wines for wine lovers, covering the entire spectrum of terroir and ripeness, with many different choices / bottlings. ...and Sebastian follows in the same footsteps.
The flip side of that coin is obviously a great number of individual bottlings which can be a wine enthusiast’s heaven, but a marketing person’s hell. To make a long story short: We looked at wines that were signature wines in each category and needed, (even better, deserved to be) presented, and over time we phased out others that weren’t as unique (or important ). So all but one of the Bernkasteler Badstube bottlings went away, all but two the Zeltinger Himmelreich went away (except for the icon Himmelreich Kabinett halbtrocken and „Anrecht" ), even the occasional barrel of Graacher Himmelreich and Bernkasteler Schlossberg disappear into the Selbach-Oster Gutsriesling / Estate Riesling.
TT: Having anticipated that answer <wink>….If you collapse wines from your “B-class” terroirs into fewer larger-volume wines, you have in effect created two tiers, the “basic” wines and the “Crus.” Agreed? So my question is based on David Schildknecht’s view that “classifications” of vineyards will do more harm than good because they are subjective and because the criteria can’t be adequately established. While I myself have a different view, my question for you is, can you take me “inside” your thinking about what makes a Grand Cru a Grand Cru? At least in your estate?
JS: Woohoo, potential dynamite!
TT: I’m an explosive guy.
JS: What makes a Grand Cru ? There are several approaches to answer this question, which isn’t easy because this very quickly becomes very political (not big politics but wine politics ).
If one does this systematically, one deals with the established facts (historical site, historical track record, historical reputation) plus the dynamic portion, that is, organoleptic impressions gained from tasting the wines over a long time until today, and definitely also taking the “market" ( i.e. demand, and thus prices for certain appellations etc. ) into consideration. A new element emerges and this is climate change, something that wasn’t even a factor when the Bordeaux classification or the Prussian classification of Mosel vineyards were established in the 1800s.
In the last 25 years the discussion about vineyard classifications ( initiated by the late Count Matuschka Greiffenclau and the late Bernhard Breuer with the Charta wine concept in the Rheingau, continued by the various chapters of the VDP club and also the Bernkasteler Ring club ) has intensified in Germany and strong dynamics have developed. There is the old establishment which has been known and written about historically (the vast majority in the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, Rheingau, Mittelhaardt ) and there are “new” vineyards that are becoming recognized as top quality Grand Cru sites.
Two examples: one can go way back in history to the famous legend whereby Charlemagne from his residence in Ingelheim noticed that in the spring a certain slope across the Rhine saw snowmelt and greening of vegetation much earlier than neighboring land and he ordered a vineyard to be planted there (in what is now Schloss Johannisberg). It can be as “young” as the recent emergence of vineyards with a Grand Cru reputation in Westhofen in Rheinhessen, whereas for more than a hundred years only a couple of towns on the Rhine proper, notably Nierstein, played in the same choir as the top sites of the Mittelhaardt, the Rheingau, the Mosel and the Saar.
Still, despite the fact the terroir itself usually doesn’t change, the perceptions about it certainly can and do change! What few people know today is that the Altenberg in Kanzem ranked on par (and some say above ) the Scharzhofberg for a very long time (read good old Frank Schoonmaker’s book ).
TT: Interesting about Altenberg versus Scharzhofberger, since it suggests that vineyard “genius” may be incipient and may not reveal itself until the right “narrator” comes along in the form of a person. Which strengthens David’s case that to codify a “classification” is to admit the inevitability of errors based at least on the unknowns of how great a vineyard might be if it’s tended poorly. But would you agree with me that quality will always reveal itself in the fullness of time?
JS: Yes, quality will always reveal itself in the fullness of time. Both you and David are right: Without great “terroir”, a gifted vintner can still make very good wines from, let’s say, standard vineyards, though great vineyards in the same able hands will make a difference, in that they will make more complex wines.
If, however, the proprietor of that same great vineyard is “indifferent”, he/she won’t develop nor exploit the full potential of that site. Aside from sheer luck, it usually takes the symbiosis of those two. The ideal “combo” is a great terroir and a passionate, gifted vintner who goes the extra mile to extract everything this terroir has to offer.
The third factor to reckon with is the consumer, of course, because consumers are the ones whose support we all need. Some are happy with an “easier” to understand “popular” wine, others seek more complexity and thrive on nuances.
Obviously, economics, revenue, prestige are all important factors that drive the business of high end wine, hence the “Grand Cru” image is certainly helpful and desirable for the wine producers.
This leads to more and more Grands Crus popping up and it highlights the importance of your initial question of what constitutes a Grand Cru and how does it come about.
In the Mosel we have the old, 1868, Prussian vineyard classification by Mr. Clotten, a tax man, which was put together to give the authorities a solid base to collect taxes. The higher the value of the land, the higher it would be taxed. As a side-effect this ensured nobody would lobby for their vineyard to become Class 1 (out of 10) simply because if they did, it meant they’d pay higher property taxes AND high inheritance taxes.
But there are a number of factors that one should take into consideration and they are objective facts : Soil, exposition, microclimate, water supply and weather data from many years. The longer the records, the better.
Then there is a factor nobody reckons with, the perception amongst locals and fellow producers. A Grand Cru vineyard is admired and respected beyond the village’s or the region’s boundaries simply because other growers acknowledge it is special, they love to taste and drink it simply because they know it is a great vineyard that produces great wine. Today’s Mosel producer who enjoys fine wines has tasted Ihringer Winklerberg from Baden or Forster Jesuitengarten from the Pfalz and, if he/she could afford it, has probably tasted a few Grands Crus from Burgundy. If you consider all those factors, you clearly have a good idea if a piece of land qualifies as more desirable than another.
There are a few bumps in the road concerning Grands Crus : 1) in Germany today there is no regulated, official classification….2) there is no “neutral“ governing body.
We have the aforementioned growers' organizations who, over the course of the past 30 years, declared Grands Crus from amongst their members holdings and when they registered new members, those people declared their own additional Grands Crus. There is a logic to this, but the numbers of Grands Crus keep growing, some of them rather far fetched even with a benevolent view, and there is a certain dilution!
TT: Cru-inflation. Yet also a process of discovery driven by people who wish to show that their land is better than it was presumed to be?
JS: Yes and yes. There are certainly additional vineyards that deserve to be honored as belonging to the “AAA” class, though this is an ongoing process and the status must be founded on the objective facts already mentioned: it must be unique and limited geographically and in production. Ideally it has a long, unbroken track record; it has a following, a long established recognition in the market and its wines have recognition amongst consumers and in the press.
TT: Sure, ideally, but that precludes the element of discovery and the time it takes for that knowledge to spread. Can you speak to that?
JS: The factor time is obviously relative if you compare many vineyards of the Old World, where we have had centuries to codify which vineyards produced better or more valuable wines than others, versus the New World where the process is much younger, but where there are certainly great locations whose wines are significantly more unique and complex than others and belong to the world’s best. To name one, the “Hill of Grace” vineyard in Australia is a great example for a Grand Cru in the New World, where we can even evaluate the factor of consistency over more than a century.
An argument in favor of new Grands Crus is definitely the climate change or the fact that many great sites had not even been planted a hundred years ago, but are still holding the potential for making wines of exceptional quality.
Above all, no matter where: top quality terroir must consistently make unique, fantastic, ageworthy wines that stand out. Bingo.
TT: Though it may seem that we’ve drifted off topic, I think we actually haven’t. Because what I hear you saying is that it is necessary to honor your Grand Crus by making separate bottlings from them, and it being Germany, they’re going to vary by ripeness levels as well as residual sugar. Not to mention those few extremely old-vines cuvées you bottle separately. This is in effect the counter-argument against what I’m calling efficiency. So let me approach the question another way. Pretend you came to Selbach-Oster as a stranger, with no experience and no memory. You’re tasting your first bunch of wines. Clearly some are better than others, and some are also obviously stellar. What makes them so?
JS: The place. The location in the slope, the soil, the microclimate, in short Mother Nature. With our “hands-off” philosophy certainly nothing we ourselves do!
TT: Here’s an insider-question. As you’ve recently bottled the micro-Cru Bömer as a stand-alone wine, what effect (if any) has that had on its “parent” wine, Zeltinger Schlossberg Trocken?
JS: It has accentuated the exceptional quality of the Schlossberg slope as a grand cru vineyard that produces fantastic wines and in particular dry wines. The Schlossberg is small but beautiful. It’s a vineyard for connoisseurs, for insiders.The “Bömer“ piece sits in the filet mignon part of the slope, is neighbor to the famed “Schmitt“ parcel. We were intrigued by the question how much personality this prime piece of vineyard would bring, if kept solitary, and it has produced standouts ever since we first vinified it “alone“ in 2011.
TT: So you are not only separating the Grand Crus for their own bottlings, you are also separating remarkable bits of them, old parcels called “Cataster” names, and taking what was already a detail and reducing it to yet another detail? The family must be gnashing their teeth. Do you envision further development along lines of offering a small number of blended “practical” wines in convenient volume, so that you can continue to make many small lots of Crus and micro-Crus? Does one group subsidize the other? Does the “practical” range actually make possible the “connoisseur’s” range? (Or does it work the other way?!
JS: Both don't conflict, but rather complement each other. Luckily we are in a position that we have a home base of truly excellent vineyards, many of them still old and ungrafted. I am very grateful to be born in this part of the Mosel, which the English often call “Golden Mile", that has the highest concentration of top terroir, lined up along that long , steep south-facing mountain-“ramp" like in a continuous chain of “pearls" between Bernkastel and Zeltingen. It means we have no “inferior“ vineyards and so all of the single vineyard bottlings, even the “larger“ bottlings ( which are still very small in the big picture), are of such high quality that they make “stand alone“ wines.
To say it differently: The cumulative quality of our vineyards in Schlossberg and Sonnenuhr (or Domprobst for that matter also ) is so high that those small, individual bottlings of the microparcels don’t make a dent. That's a wonderful situation to be able to afford a range that offers distinctive terroir wines (which we get excited about) and still have a few unique jewels that shine even brighter.
Mind you, those “jewels” are made slightly differently in that we do not practice selective picking but rather pick everything together, bringing home a snapshot of the entire parcels, “au naturel”, if you will.
On to your question whether one side of the range subsidizes the other. I would rather phrase it differently: They create a nice symbiosis, complementing each other. The fact that the vineyard base is composed of a very high proportion of excellent, steep slope parcels with a high proportion of old (often ungrafted) vines, is obviously a boon for the “non vineyard designated" wines, be they village wines or simply varietally labeled wines, all of which should be reliably delicious and also affordable. Papa Hans always told me to think of the future customer who might not have a big budget to begin his/her vinous life with – to make sure that even the entry level wines are of the highest possible quality. He always told that to judge a winery’s quality, buy their cheapest wine. That has certainly stuck with me.
On a sidenote: the climate change has shifted our perception of what we rank is a good or a not so good site because with more heat and drought, the vineyards higher up the slope or on the flanks of the hills are delivering the kind of crunch and mouthwatering acidity that the very warm sites may be missing and this is why the wines that are made from several parcels, up and down the slope, can and will always stand steady, even in the context of the microparcels.
TT: So the system works, let’s say aesthetically, to the benefit of the wines and as a practical means of consolidating certain lots so that a few wines are available in (relatively speaking) volume. Does this system work as sustainably in terms of running a business? Or do you have to rely on the family looking dubiously at you, and thinking “This would all be a lot easier if Johannes wasn’t such a purist?”
JS: The system works and you can see this at a large number of our colleagues where you have the basic varietal “Estate” bottlings, then the village wines and on top of those you either have the “Grand Cru” bottlings from the respective estates’ top-rated vineyards, or you have a prestige cuvee with a given name.
At the same time we have a large number of producers who produce varietal wines and blends with hip fantasy names and hip labels, in copious quantities, and they not only have a market, but the wines are also easier and cheaper to make.
Would I want to give up what you provocatively call the “inefficient”, more demanding, labor-intensive, complex and to a degree complicated terroir wines ? Those that have character, thrive on nuances, aren’t always obvious, but rather develop more and more complexity over time ?
You know the answer, Terry. I am much too fascinated by terroir, by the intricacies the joint “efforts” of land, weather and human labor can provide and it helps that (wife) Barbara and (“kids”) Sebastian and Hannah share the same curiosity and passion.
Yes, those small volume, individual terroir wines are more demanding, arguably also more confusing by sheer “numbers”, in the sense of extra bottlings, but they add the extra dimension and are so much more gratifying!Those small batches are being helped by what you call our “wines of volume”, which enjoy the benefit of coming from excellent vineyards, too, and are being made by people like to drink good wine and who make them with the same love and tender care as the more rare and expensive “flag bearer” siblings.
TT: If I may have the last word, it would be this: When we look at it cold-bloodedly it is obviously inefficient, it causes a ton of extra work for those around us, some of whom resent our “purism” for causing all that work. And so the enterprise is built on a kind of continual tension, our idealism versus the logic of efficiency. Selbach is a microcosm of the entire “fine wine” business, which in my opinion is inherently inefficient (and categorically necessary for humankind!), and all this preamble leads to the final question… Is it sustainable? Can Johannes-the-idealist withstand the pressure from the people around him – not just in Zeltingen-Rachtig but also from customers who fuss about “too many skus,” or will he in particular and the fine wine business in general have to buckle under the pressure?
Happily, it seems not.