Weingut Selbach-Oster & Merkelbach
NOTE: THIS IS AN UPDATED VERSION OF THE REPORT THAT RAN IN DECEMBER IN THE WORLD OF FINE WINES WEBSITE, INCORPORATING A FINAL TEN WINES I RECEIVED MID-FEB 2022.
They’ll catch on, those raters and reviewers, eventually; not always, but sometimes. I think perhaps Selbach’s moment of arrival was last summer, when the important German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemein did something it almost never does, and devoted its wine column to a single producer – Selbach-Oster.
Johannes Selbach himself is a conspicuous sort of gentleman. He travels the world selling and promoting his wines, as his estate is sizeable by Mosel standards, and also Johannes likes to travel. Johannes’ wines, however, are the opposite of conspicuous. Though far from modest or retiring, they avoid all the gestures by which wines seek to attract attention. You and I know all too well, what those gestures are, and how tiresome they can be.
I wouldn’t describe Selbach’s wines as “introverted” but I would call them interior, because they focus on texture and their north star is authenticity. I’ve drunk them in detail for nearly fifty years, and never had one I’d describe as “gaudy.” They are to my mind virtuosic, but there’s more than one expression of virtuosity. One way is,you play your instrument, and the instrument plays the music. The other is you move through the instrument like a ghost, and play the music directly.
I’m not sure I’d describe Johannes Selbach as “modest” but I’m very sure I’d describe him as self-effacing as a vintner. If he is any sort of personage in the wine world that’s more a matter of exposure and articulacy. But he doesn’t enact a visible imprint on the wines. When I taste them I feel like I’m inhaling an ether of pure undiluted Mosel-ness, and I know they’re Johannes’ wines but the man himself is off to the side.
I’ve written much about this domain. They are a beacon of meaning to me in my wine life, and in my life as a whole. Much of what I’ve learned about honor, integrity and authenticity, I have learned from this family, and these wines.
Among more prosaic (but no less important) considerations, Johannes Selbach was the first Mosel vintner who was able to solve the “sponti problem,” an issue in which ambient-fermented wines were often hidden behind stinky veils, stubbornly unapproachable in their youth. This was exactly when I was trying to taste them, and not long after, it was when I was showing them to my customers, and while I knew (and argued) that it wasn’t a “flaw,” it was certainly a nuisance. So at one point – it must have been around fifteen years ago – I asked Johannes whether there was any way to preserve the virtues of spontaneous ferments while reducing or eliminating those annoying early odors. He said something like “Let me work on that,” and within a few vintages the problem appeared to have been solved.
Tasting these little baby ‘20s, most of which are spontis, I was reassured and delighted to find all the things I love about that kind of wine. As will you. It’s helpful to lock these wines in as a paradigm of how the style should (and can) be, because believe me, you won’t need to travel far to find young Mosel Rieslings that hold you on the other side of a wall. At times I’m willing to wait (or to swirl the hapless wine for minutes on end), but sometimes it just pisses me off. I’m sure no grower intends to display contempt for his customers, but he is issuing a consumer product that isn’t ready to be consumed, and which is sometimes marred by truly objectionable aromas. When such growers say, as they sometimes do, “You pay this price now for something superior later on,” I want to ask Why should I pay that price?
So kudos to Selbach for solving the problem for us! Even the most militant sponti in this collection – the en-bloc bottling from Rotlay – is entirely beautiful and standing by to give youthful pleasure, if that’s how you wish to drink it.
Tastings of Weingut Merkelbach is at the end of this report, you can jump to it here.
Limpid garnet, like a ripe-vintage Beaujolais. Fragrance is dusty and pretty from a Spiegelau (the large white-wine stem that’s actually better for light-bodied reds), and more precise and definitely pretty from the Jancis. But the palate is impressively charming from either glass!
It is not, however, merely charming. The wine has some “ideas.”
Johannes tells me: “It is grown partially in Zeltinger Himmelreich not too far behind the church in Rachtig. The other portion comes from Kinheim. Both have soils that are slate with loam and humus mixed in. The vines are a global “potpourri“ of German ( Marienfelder and some Geisenheim ) and Swiss clones.”
“Hand harvest of picture perfect fruit, grapes mostly destemmed, however about 15% were left with stems. The grapes underwent classic open top fermentation with punchdown of the cap. Transfer of the dry wine into mostly 3rd and some 4th year Francois Frères barriques to finish fermentation and undergo malolactic fermentation. Long ageing on the lees. Unfiltered.
Obviously no chaptalisation.”
The Jancis glass reveals some angles and corners and a spiciness that veers toward black pepper. Oxygen lets loose some tannin from both glasses. In both cases the fruit is morello cherry, with a little background funk from the Jancis and more grilled Portobello (with many shavings of a bold peppercorn, like Penja). It’s quite a shape-shifter, and if I say it’s “charming” you might receive it as firm and peppery – and vice-versa.
It is both ambitious and sensible; that is, it isn’t overly ambitious for its environment. Nor does it strut a lot of extraction and wood; it’s light but not slight. I’m curious to see whether the fruit moves forward or backwards over the next few days.
48 hours later there is discernibly more fruit, I.e., oxidation seems to help the wine if fruit is what you’re after. Decanting might be useful. Structural elements remain much as before; if anything the wine’s a bit tougher than it first seemed. Johannes may be trying to respect the tensions of steep land and the lightness of the northerly latitude, while not surrendering to an assumption the wine should be slight and (merely) attractive. Of course if you want to make the Pinot Noir gods laugh, tell them your intentions!
But that’s not the end of the story. I hate discarding wine, and the 1-2 glasses worth left in the bottle sat in the cellar for two weeks, before I pulled it to supplement a dinner bottle we’d finished too quickly – oh yeah, that happens – and all this Selbach needed was to be drinkable. Right! Shall I tell you what happened or do you already know?
2017 Spätburgunder Trocken glug-glug-glug
Johannes must have been pleased with my report on the above (which I shared with him per his request for a quick comment), because he’s sent the ’17 now, which, if I tasted it before, I don’t remember. It’s unfiltered and shows it; it also has a riper fragrance with a fuller middle. It’s fleshier than the ’18, but by no means corpulent. It smells good, a true Old-World PN aroma.
I must say, this wine is excellent, and right out of the gate. You’ll have seen my tasting saga with the ’18, but this hits the ground running. It has truly lovely fruit! It’s sensationally limpid and charming. It’s almost too polished for my “glug-glug” thing, but it’s also addictively tasty, which counts for a lot in my world. Are we ready to cherish the virtues of “little” wines when they’re this delightful?
There’s material to “consider” in the fruit, if you want to, but I don’t discern anything I’d call Mosel-ness, unless it’s a lucidity often imparted by steep slopes, or steep-ish in this instance. Nah, it’s just a chipper sort of wine that comes to you tail-wagging and ready for a game. If we are too sophisticated to appreciate such wines, then shame on us, because we’re wasting our relationships to wine.
2019 Spätburgunder +
“Trocken” on the back label.
Again a sensible and charming color, and in this case a truly fetching aroma, cherries and leather and a hint of cask. It’s lissome, an alto.
And on the palate it’s very smart indeed. More than smart; it’s valid in its symmetry, coherence and in the way it fulfills its ambitions.
In certain ways this recalls the way South Tyrolean wines used to be, before climate change turned them into alcoholic….the word I want is “freaks,” but I’m sure that’s unfair. Still, this wee snookums from the Mosel has better balance and more interesting flavors than many Pinots that affect “modesty” but are usually just tepid. And note the word “interesting,” because along with “delicious” it tells the story of an important wine that doesn’t need “important” flavors. You don’t need to affect significance in order to be significant, it would appear.
There’s such a sensible mind behind this! And there’s a lovely and unerring instinct of just how far to reach and still grasp your desired outcome. And while it’s miraculously gluggable – the way a perfect Fleurie can be – it also has things to say, about balance and articulation and about the true value of modesty.
I’ll taste it again over the days, if I can somehow keep my hands off drinking it. Yes, it’s that kind of wine.
2019 Pinot Noir +
Trocken on the back label. Heavy bottle (sadly) and wax blob in place of a capsule. Clearly the “reserve,” and we tend to know what that signifies, don’t we.
Yet the alc remains at 12.5, and the color remains attractively limpid, albeit a little denser. The palate, also, presents the kinds of flavors that signal a more ambitious wine. There’s a thread linking this with Dautel’s Forstberg GG, though we have the Mosel buoyancy here.
The supplying vineyards are the same in both wines, but Johannes says, “The 2019 Pinot Noir is made from the best, ripest grapes. It has a much higher percentage of grapes that were not destemmed (about 50% versus 10% in the “regular” Spätburgunder ) and it also has a percentage of new oak ( 40% ) in the elevageversus no new oak in the Spätburgunder (only second and third year barriques ). The Pinot Noir is 100% open vat fermentation with punching down the caps. The Spätburgunder was made in tank doing pump-overs.”
Both wines are in bottle, and will be released later in 2022. I’ma grab a bunch, and so should you, dear reader.
In fact we have an object-lesson in how to sidestep every single thing that might have gone wrong with a wine like this. It retains the virtues of its kid-brother while adding a seemly note of wood, sweet like a Crianza Rioja. Yet it has a different fruit than Tempranillo shows; more sandalwood and spice-box, and a curious note of wild blueberries. It plays at a higher volume, yet still sonorously.
Fresh from the bottle today, it’s not as seamless as the lighter wine, but that’s not to say it’s disjointed. You can see the joints and analyze how they fit together, but I expect this will change with air and time, as the tertiary notes come forward. What’s most compelling is how Johannes’ Riesling sensibility applies here also. A lot of German Pinot Noirs parade around in Liberace-garments, but the best ones – more and more frequent, happily – simply try to tell their truths, deliciously.
When so many growers are making wines to “get scores,” I can only be grateful for any grower who makes wines to be friends. This companionable, tactful, empathic being may be “modest,” but it will make you feel better every single moment you spend together.
2020 Spätburgunder Rosé Trocken
Not that Johannes would ever pander, but <sigh>….it had to happen, right? What Christian Dautel calls “the dreaded rosé.” On the other hand, the option to make a rosé gives strength to the Spätburgunder, and people like rosé, and there are some good ones along the Mosel (Adam!), and why not? Plus I have to say – and I mean this as a compliment – this rosé isn’t especially well behaved. This could be because it was bottled quite early, before the end of that year, and sometimes such wines have a sort of frozen adolescence.
It’s light but not innocuous. Finishes with a lot of grip. Shows a chewy structure under a surprisingly restrained fruitiness. Has a side-swipe of funk, the way Heidi Schröck’s rosé also has, though here the fruit is more orthodox. From the middle to the back palate you can even refer to minerality. Any more firm and I’d be calling it “stubborn.”
I love that it doesn’t satisfy expectations! No ooh-la-la fruit; indeed nothing blatant about this wine at all. At first glance it’s a subtle, structured and vinous wine yet with a gliding kind of lightness. But the wine straddles a fence, and I wonder whether it would better occupy one side or the other; either go on and make it “charming” or go all out to make it as slatey and mineral as possible and trust that fruit will attend to itself.
2019 Pinot Blanc Trocken
Tasted from an opened bottle (on the day it was opened) back in June, and it strikes me as a superb vintage of a really surprising success for them, and that’s in part because it’s not bone-dry, and because it combines a slatey twang with a remarkably deft use of wood. And in this case, a lusty fruit statement that’s also sea-salty and even seems to have a little sponti element. I have long thought this was among the world’s more interesting (and tasty) Pinot Blancs, much to my surprise (as Johannes won’t hesitate to tell you…) when I first tasted it in 2015.
2019 Pinot Blanc Reserve
It’s in a heavy “significant” looking Burgundy bottle with a wax blob in place of a capsule. Nor does it say “Trocken” on the front or back labels.
I WISH THE BOTTLE WAS NOT SO HEAVY. IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE.
The wine is ambitious, and most of its ambitions are realized. I have the sense that my old pal Johannes wants to make his bucket-list wines now – the Pinot Noir, this, an orange wine he made a couple years ago, the upcoming Gewürztraminer….or maybe it’s the yawp of the young’uns and the envelopes they like to push. But I do know Johannes has a “thing” for big Chardonnays, to which this wine alludes.
Alludes, but doesn’t copy. It’s grown in the slatey Schlossberg, and it saw no newwood. It likes a round wide-ish glass. It has a charming fruit that’s slow to emerge. Put it this way: I had a 2018 St. Aubin Les Fionnes from Hubert Lamy last week, and that was good and this is better. It feints toward the smoky-oaky genre but keeps pulling back to a saltiness and structure girdling this subtle sweet-hay kind of fruit. I’d really like to make a shrimp risotto with a fresh stock from the shells and a few too many threads of saffron.
I’ll baby this for a few days and watch how it develops. Right now I’m feeling impressed with the audacity and generally happy with the booze, but I have a niggling sense that its reach exceeds its grasp. Tasted again – and very much enjoyed it with food – I do think it is – “ambitious”
JEEZ, NOW WE NEED A CATEGORY FOR SELBACH GEWURZ???
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.
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 Gewürztraminer trocken
Looks like I don’t have to imagine. As delicate as this was in the muscular ’19 vintage, it promises to be lacy and graceful here. And that promise is largely fulfilled, though this wine flirts with diffidence, and seems to suffer from the varietal tendency to a bitter finish. Though the alcohol isn’t high (13%) the wine isn’t “wearing” it very well. The refined lychee aroma is the best part.
We’ll see what the days bring, but right now this seems to be a misstep.
2020 Gewürztraminer feinherb
As though by telepathy, this wine read my thoughts – “The [above] needs some RS to curtail that bitter finish and lift the fruit…” And lo, it exists.
The typical conundrum for this variety is, it usually wants at least a little RS, for these very reasons, but it’s also low in acidity and the sweetness risks cloying. The poor Alsatians are still trying to suss how to make it work in a hotter climate.
Aromas are subdued here. It feels less fervently varietal. Yet the balance is infinitely superior, even if the pieces don’t quite line up. (Something is suppressing the aroma, something is snappy at the very end of the finish, yet the gestalt is more pleasing.)
But interestingly, the wine is much better from the Jancis glass; indeed it’s almost radically different. The wine is still more Savignin-like than Gewürz, but this glass highlights a swishy sort of elegance and a range of nuances the Spiegelau didn’t show. (This was not the case with the trocken version, by the way.)
Like the ’19, this is Gewürz of a type I think I haven’t seen before. Its delicacy feels natural, not unfinished; its fruit feels in the best sense careful, as if it’s walking on an icy sidewalk; it’s enlivening instead of fatiguing; it’s demure instead of voluptuous yet it shows a finely chiseled beauty.
Gewürz is a kind of environment one reaches for when the food asks for it, and in those moments it is irreplaceable. I need it in my cellar for those few times a year when I crave it, but this may be the first time I’ve tasted a Gewürz and thought “I’d serve this as a stand-alone, sit-and-sip kind of wine.”
SELBACH’S MARKED SUCCESS WITH DRY RIESLINGS:
It doesn’t surprise me that Johannes “gets” the parameters for successful (i.e., 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 coöperate?
“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.”
My own opinion about dry German Rieslings has evolved as they themselves have. There was a time when most of them were truly just bad. 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 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 so many succeed but 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 flavour 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.”
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 onehas 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.
2020 Riesling trocken glug-glug-glug!
I’m putting this after the ostensibly superior Kabinett Trocken because I tasted it much later. It smells beautiful. It smells, in the best way, unpretentious, and it smells better than any other Mosel estate trocken I’ve tasted yet.
You’d expect it to be chewier and more “rustic” than the Kabinett, and it is, but there’s a pleasure saturating its very rusticity because nothing about it is coarse or crude – and nothing is unbalanced. Johannes should establish a college, where he could teach students how to make delicious and addictively gulpable trocken Riesling.
A wonderful wash of salt trickles over the sides of the palate. For all Johannes is a Meister in the elevated realms of Mosel majesty, nothing in his production impresses me more than this unassuming and masterly little critter.
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 chirpy 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.
The grandest of Selbach’s Grand Crus, though like many Mosel sites the parcels are disparate. Yet we’ve learned how to perceive “stature,” and these wines make every gesture of significance. Among the crus, this makes the most savory wines, often redolent of exotic smokes, and while they are strong they are always elegant.
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.
Retasted two days later at cellar temp (currently 62º), 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 52º.
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.
2020 Sonnenuhr Riesling GG ++
Back label shows Zeltinger (not Wehlener) Sonnenuhr Riesling trocken.
Tasted after the Graben and Domprobst, this has what I think of as the “Selbach aroma.” Suave, understated, you bend your ear to it, and it haunts you.
It has a little to do with a new(er) fuder that’s in the mix, but also with a reliable intuition that the Sonnenuhr fruit would benefit from a breath of cask. It grew more conspicuous over repeated tastings, but the old-school ambience has always been soothing to me. “Modern” wines can be exciting, but it’s rare that you love them.
In the olden days there might have been a dry Sonnenuhr and then another one with one-star, and often I liked the “lesser” one better. Sometimes the affects of the GG class are like the home run hitter flipping the bat when he connects. There should be GGs we want to cuddle, not just worship.
This wine, also, has a certain self-importance and a kind of propriety, yet its parameters are fiendishly compelling and finally impossible to resist. There’s a kind of reduction of apple, apple butter maybe, and also a ghee that’s had a vanilla bean steeped in it, and also suggestions of jasmine, ginger and lime. But what moves me most is its firm interiority.
Yesterday we had a freakish warm day in Boston (a record-setting 60º on Feb. 12th!) and I walked in the Forest Hills cemetery. There were a lot of meltwater streams below not-yet melted snow, so you could watch the shadow of the running water shimmering weirdly below the ice. So when I say this wine is “interior,” I mean it has an urgent, streaming life below a cold carapace, and for me this is more numinous than wines that might be more exciting. The wine is beautifully melting and flowing, yet still cold. You pull it to your heart, as if to warm it.
2020 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Feinherb “Ur-alte Reben” ++
Back label indicates “Spätlese,” and alc 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 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett +
Well I admit the aroma’s more enticing than the Schlossberg’s, (which I professed to prefer). 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 obliteration as the wine warms and breathes. These came from the fridge, but when I retaste 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.
2020 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese +++
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.
2020 ROTLAY ++
See text for SCHMITT re. 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 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.
A great hero among the crus, this uniformly steep vineyard retains water and shines in dry years – well, it shines pretty much every year, if one is honest. Signature flavors include green apple, pistachio, melon and other exotic fruits, all with a tactile crunch and lift. It’s also time we acknowledged Selbach’s track record with this site. It’s a small-ish holding and they don’t crow about it, but they stand alongside the very best producers of Domprobst.
2020 Domprobst Riesling GG +
(aka Graacher Domprobst Riesling trocken)
Fragrances both profound and pretty. Palate almost minty, with site-typical notes of tropical fruits and pistachio. Seems like a fuder/steel mix, tending toward steel. If you ever wondered what I meant by a “Grand Cru aroma,” take a whiff of this – a grateful whiff of this.
Yet for all its excitement, it’s a cerebral sort of wine, an explication of Domprobst, written in needlepoint. It’s wonderful in its cool-blooded way, but I am more impressed than adoring. The vineyard often makes especially crunchy wines, but that crunch is most captivating as a backdrop to the sort of fruit we’ll see in the wines coming up.
Still, it’s a parade of giddy high-strung flavors, including eucalyptus and a kind of wasabi/apple business I really can’t fathom. Something says there’s a fruit eruption waiting to happen, so let’s wait and see.
Three days later, and there’s an eruption all right – but not of fruit. Rather, the entire wine seems incandescent, as if it were tripping. Its basic structure isn’t altered but the whole thing is teeming with life. But understand; dry Domprobst is going to be more pedagogical than hedonic. It’s cousin to the Pfalz’s Forster Kirchenstück; it’s a monk who speaks seventeen words in an entire year, but they echo in the ears of the heavens.
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 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 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 AUSLESES I HAVE HAD FOR AT LEAST TWENTY 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.
Selbach’s have holdings there, from which they make wines with the (small) Grosslage name Badstube and now a new bottling from one of the contributing single-sites, the outstanding GRABEN.
2020 Graben Riesling GG +
(aka Bernkasteler Graben Riesling trocken)
Bernkastel is cooler than Zeltingen, as one can see with snow-melt, which is always several days later there. Yet Graben is one of the warmer sites in a cooler commune, and I was always a little sad that it disappeared into the Badstube bottlings. (One year I begged Johannes to bottle a Fuder of Graben by itself, it was so outstanding, but he broke my fool heart by pointing out, sensibly, “It’s just a single Fuder; how many different wines do you want me to make, you who always say there are too many?”
Bernkastel often enacts a theme of flint and cherry blossom, but here we have scents of quince that feint toward the Saar. And on the palate we have the brash yet scintillatingly explicit minerality that suggests stainless steel. It’s about as overt as a Selbach wine ever gets – and I love it. The implosive internal intricacy takes me way-y-y back, to Hans-Günter Schwarz’s heyday at Müller-Catoir.
We have incipient “fruit,” tart apple and (again) quince, as a low note in what’s otherwise a crashing din of mineral, sponti and plum blossom. It’s finely balanced, without a hint of the sharpness afflicting a number of 2020 Mosel Trockens, and its extravagance seems to shake you by the shoulders in a revelry of expressiveness. Thrillingly atypical, it isn’t what I’d call hedonistic, yet you have to be astonished by this much sheer torque of flavor with just 12% alc!
My second look is three days later, and in the interim I learned that all four of the GGs were made in fuder after all. Now I’m probing them like a crazy person looking for a clue to that. I’m not finding it here. The wine has more middle, that stands to reason, and it shows more apple now, but cask aromas? Invisible. But if ever you wondered what we all mean by “high-toned,” this wine is what we mean. It doesn’t sing; it whistles. There’s a lusty screech of mineral in an almost peppery zing.
It’s good in both the Jancis and the basic Spiegelau, though I enjoy it more from the latter, which encourages a juiciness that mitigates what might otherwise feel steely. Though admirable in many ways, it’s coiled and frosty. To Johannes this is a facet of the vintage, and he’s confident the wine will melt and uncoil. I have about 60% of the bottle remaining, and will decant it the next time I taste it.
2020 Bernksteler Badstube Riesling Spätlese +
For whatever reason, this wine has always spoken to me, especially in big ripe vintages where its tendency to steeliness is welcome.
Nice to see a Spät with 9% alc – it won’t be over-sweet. But Selbach’s wines are never that way. And this wine is best described as “doing its thing, “ assuming you’ve tasted thirty vintages and know what that “thing” is.
It’s crisp, etched as stainless steel wines usually are (at least I’m guessing it was done in steel; it tends to be.) It’s certainly complex and scintillating, with everything in proportion and all signature flavors in place. Not so much angular as rippling hither and yon in a steely wiggle, as though it’s straining to dance.
Spiced apple, cherry blossom and flint are the signature flavors, and they’re shown here with the almost finicky clarity of ’20.
“Needs no introduction,” except to remark that Selbach’s holding is small here, but the wines are true, with Wehlen’s creamy delicacy, herbal nuances and “blue” slate flavors, adding up to a refined prettiness that’s visible and easy to understand, yet no less exalted for all that.
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 is 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 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.
2019 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 2-star ++
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 disavowwhat 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.
As I will say (and say and say) this is my own favorite among the crus, for its deep inscrutable greenness. Fruit runs to quince and Asian pear; herb runs to oolong and balsam fir. Pithier than Zeltinger Sonnenuhr, less ingratiating than Wehlener Sonnenuhr, more limpid and silvery than Domprobst, it envelopes you in its swaddle of shade – except when it’s one of the cadasters near the village (such as SCHMITT or BOEMER) which give more adamantly mineral wines.
2020 Schlossberg Riesling GG +
Back label says Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling trocken
This was the last GG I tasted, because I knew before I “knew” how it would be. My heart is leaping now….I should wait a little before I start to write! This is also the first GG to indicate cask, but it took a while to emerge.
The wine itself is juicy yet firm, smoky and charred-slatey, with the tertiary hyssop finish I’ve seen from the Bömer/Schmitt environs – though in fact it hails from elsewhere, in two cadasters, one called Dilsbock, mid-slope behind the village and quite steep, and Rodt, another steep-as-hell parcel that rides above the Sonnenuhr. In the hyssop family, we also see chervil and fennel-frond as nuances here.
A couple years ago there was a feinherb wine from Schlossberg, that ought to have fermented further but stopped where it stopped. It took a place alongside similar wines from Domprobst and Sonnenuhr, but perhaps that country was overpopulated. I mean, I was giddy with joy, but still….
I think of it now, because as much as I find this wine superb and remarkable and admirable, I also sense a lost opportunity. While the wine is balanced and does not need to be “corrected” with RS, it is also a little obtuse and one-note. To be clear, the flavors are many and run to herbs and apple-skin – it’s not a simple wine – but I feel it calling and waiting for a response that doesn’t come. The voice that’s calling is lovely, lovely and alone. Calling toward the thing that will fill its heart.
I wonder if Johannes will read this and think I have three screws loose. I wouldn’t blame him. I’m tasting a juicy, herbal and malic wine with all sorts of things to appreciate, and here I’m fussing over some missing sense of completion that only I understand? Fair enough. He makes a lot of wines, and maybe it really is senseless to make (yet) another feinherb from this material. So I sit, amazed at the complicated deliciousness of this wine’s finish, and think myself a fool.
Three days later, and like all of the GGs this is unfolding slowly, as if reluctantly. Still, I like demure wines, as long as they’re not too aloof.
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.
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.
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, i.e., 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 4th time, from the Jancis glass, it remains clear, a little tart, mineral, perhaps somewhat pedagogical.
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 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 gestaltsophisticated; 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 ismerely “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.
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 Uerzig. Nor is there any reason to. Merkelbach has slowly become generally beloved – not just among my customers in the U.S. – 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 Uerzig, 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 a 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 Uerziger 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 Uerziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese (A.P. 004-21) ++
2020 Uerziger 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 Wurzgarten 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 A.P. 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’re 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, #4 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 Uerziger 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.