Johannes Selbach: loess is more, Tim Pawsey photo

Johannes Selbach: loess is more, Tim Pawsey photo

Warning: This post is NSFNRL (Not Safe For Non-Riesling Lovers) … 

I’m not sure what it is but the last couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to break bread with Johannes Selbach, it’s been in a Chinese Restaurant—which makes absolute sense.

That’s because Selbach Oster is (mainly) all about Riesling—good Riesling at that. And more than a few folks agree that Riesling—or German wines in general—make for pretty good partners with Chinese cuisines.

An (almost) all Riesling evening. Hooray!

An (almost) all Riesling evening. Hooray!

The other night we were invited to join a few folks from Vinoscenti and the BC Wine School, who welcomed Johannes to Sun Sui Wah for a Chinese New Year’s wine dinner. It was an evening filled with good tastes and conversation—and no shortage of useful information from Johannes, expertly translated.

(It was also an eye opener for me in other ways because it made me realize just how rapidly Chinese Canadian interest in wine is growing. A decade or so ago you’d have been hard pressed to find much more than a (litre) bottle of Kressman in most Chinese restaurants—although Sun Sui Wah was one of the very first to make an effort to become more wine savvy. (Actually, truth be told, it was also one of the first Chinese restaurants in Vancouver to go completely bilingual … but that’s a whole other story.)

Sun Sui Wah’s early move to take wine more seriously is evidently starting to pay off. We’ve enjoyed a couple of memorable tastings there—one in particular with Andy Gebert of  St. Hubertus. Several premier Chinese restaurants now have extensive lists—and I also heard mention of one that works on a flat $20 mark up: smart move. I need to track it down.)

The best vines struggle to establish, especially here, Tim Pawsey photo

The best vines struggle to establish, especially here, Tim Pawsey photo

Lots of winemakers travel a fair bit but I suspect Johannes Selbach has more air miles than most: He’s been tirelessly spreading the Riesling gospel for years—and showing people how you really can gain a sense of place from wine in a glass. I’m lucky enough to have climbed the steep, rocky shale vineyards above the Mosel and never fail to be excited by what I taste in these wines.

Deep fried salty spiced crab stole the show

Deep fried salty spiced crab stole the show

One thing intrigued me: everyone politely wrestled with their two pronged forks and chopsticks so as not to use their hands to pick up the lobster.

Lobster with superior sauce ... not so much

Lobster with superior sauce … not so much

However, the Dungeness crab (which actually has more flavour, and is just as tricky to eat).

Somehow, the Dungeness wasn’t accorded the same ceremony, as most of us did pick up the crunchy pieces. I guess lobster still has more cachet. Maybe it’s all about the  bigger claws … But the crab has more flavour.

Selbach Pinot Blanc - Subtle oak makes this an ideal seafood companion

Selbach Pinot Blanc – Subtle oak makes this an ideal seafood companion

Nor is it always entirely about Riesling. One big revelation was the minimally oaked Selbach Pinot Blanc QBA 2010. It sports a gentle creaminess that went nicely with the scallops and sautéed shrimps but was an absolute slam dunk with the flavours and texture of the egg white fried rice. Selbach Pinot Blanc plantings amount to about two percent—the result, says Johannes, of a misguided early attempt to grow grapes for sparkling wine.

As the meal was served ‘family style’ it offered a chance to pair the wines with any number of flavours, which I think only added to the adventure.

Food friendly "Fish" label Riesling

Food friendly “Fish” label Riesling

For instance, I’ve always reckoned Selbach ‘Fish label (2011, BCLS 15.95) as one of the most flexible and food friendly wines around, but who would have thought about pairing it with spiced jellyfish, which plays perfectly off its juicy, fresh fruity apple tones? My notes say, “Seriously, you could drink this wine with just about anything you want …” And we did, as it came with the hot and cold platter, that encompassed everything from bean curd to garlic short ribs, all of which went along nicely. Even the orange slices would have probably worked …

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Kabinett totally .. rocked the cod

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Kabinett totally .. rocked the cod

Steamed rock cod and braised noodles with abalone sauce were paired with the wonderfully mineral Zeltinger Schlossberg Kabinett 2011 (BCLS 08, $32.99), which really shows the slate in the terroir. One of the night’s highlights, it was superb—although I have to confess the thought did cross my mind that a light red would also have been a good match for the mushrooms or the braised noodles.

Chinese Shiitake mushrooms. Not for the chopstick challenged!

Chinese Shiitake mushrooms. Not for the chopstick challenged!

Oh, and about those mushrooms. They’re the absolute test of chopstick dexterity. Either that or you need to have an iron grip equivalent to a plumber’s wrench, so as not to catapult them into your neighbour’s blouse. Happily, I did notice not a few people having a similar challenge.

The citrus and pronounced stony notes of the Zeltinger Schlossberg Spatlese 2011 (BCLS $38.99) played well off the ‘famous roasted squab’, although it was even better as a counterpoint to the deep fried pork chop with garlic, while the baked apple notes and opulent richness of the late picked Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslese 2007 (BCLS $27.99, 375 ml.) was perfect with dessert.

A case for cellaring Riesling, if ever there was one

A case for cellaring Riesling, if ever there was one

As he often does, Johannes had a surprise in store, treating the group to his 1993 Selbach-Oster Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese, which underscored just how well (properly stored) Riesling can age. It’s turned a beautiful gold, in contrast to the pale yellow where it would have started out, and is now quite dry with some smoky and dried fruit notes. Makes me want to run out and put some 2010 down right now! (BCLS $27.99).

Speaking of re-tasting that sense of place, I went back and found my notes and a previous column that recalled my last visit.  The material below has now all but vanished into the internet ether (although you can find it published with my byline deleted on an old Canwest site. Thank you Canwest … )

I still think it conveys a lot about Johannes Selbach and a little about what makes the amazing Selbach-Oster estate unique …

***

Reward found on steep slopes of Mosel

Tim Pawsey / North Shore News

High above the Mosel, Tim Pawsey photo

High above the Mosel, Tim Pawsey photo

We’ve hiked a few vineyards around the wine world, even trekked the upper slopes of the Rhone by Quad, but all that pales by comparison with a visit to Selbach Ostler, high above Germany’s Mosel river.

Just downstream from the impossibly picturesque burgh of Bernkastel, Johannes Selbach leads us on a precipitous vineyard climb, up shale and slate covered, south-facing slopes that make the Grouse Grind look like child’s play.

As we steady ourselves into the safety of the hill, wedging our soles against the slipperiness of the slate, the passion in the winemaker’s voice is readily apparent, as he explains the role played by geology.

A dramatic site, with vineyards in the family since 1661, TP photo

A dramatic site, with vineyards in the family since 1661, TP photo

Selbach (whose family has been making Riesling around these parts since 1661) explains how the river below acts as a mirror, reflecting heat back up to the hill to create a unique microclimate that yields some of Germany’s best wines—often depending on the steepness and geology of the slope.

It’s the steepest slopes that produce the most complex wines, says Selbach, who says the wines made predominantly with grapes from more alluvial soils are less elegant.

“The differences between a few hundred feet are difficult to comprehend. Even 100 or 200 metres can make a difference,” says the winemaker as he pulls big chunks of slate from the vineyard that’s little more than a rock face.

“Dig only a metre and you’ll hit solid rock. Once the roots have broken through the slate they need to penetrate the rock itself.”  And it’s from here that the wines’ complexity and minerality evolve.

"You can see the Devonian", Johannes Selbach, TP photo

“You can see the Devonian”, Johannes Selbach, TP photo

 

Tending the vineyards comes with its challenges! (Cartoon in Selbach tasting room)

Tending the vineyards comes with its challenges! (Cartoon in Selbach tasting room)

“When we talk about minerality you can actually see it in the Devonian slate, which has veins of iron that run when exposed to the elements,” says Selbach, breaking the layered slate with the ease of a cracker. When consumers taste mineral he says it’s not just a figment of their imagination. Just like tasting chalk, you can taste the slate, he says.

“ I get excited by this because it’s something that makes the wines uniquely different. This is the basis of our wine making philosophy. If you want to make expressive Riesling it’s a hands-off grape.  What you screw up in the vineyard you cannot fix in the cellar.”

However, tending this precipitous, unforgiving slope comes with its own peculiar set of challenges. It can be a real struggle to establish new vines, which need five or six years to produce their first crop. Sometimes, using a Caterpillar with a winch from the access road above is the only way to plant or tend the vineyard, which is all hand farmed and harvested.

Irrigation is impossible (even though the river is right below it would be too expensive to pump); and rainwater just runs through the rockface—which in parts is secured by two metre anchors. No wonder, over one third of new vines don’t make it.

Some wines have a distinctly salty component—and that’s no surprise either, says Selbach, who explains salinity in the soil from the pre-Jurassic ocean (evidenced by maritime fossils such as sea-horses) translates into the wine.

“When we had the soils analyzed we found iron and copper but also water—in the cell structure of the slate—which explains why it’s so smooth and breaks so easily,” he says.

The descent is easier ... Tim Pawsey photo

The descent is easier … Tim Pawsey photo

“This is how I like to see the soil. It gives the vines a head start; it’s very brittle, like jade, very soft, like silica.”

When people ask what makes Mosel special, it’s all about the soil and microclimate,” says Selbach.

As we make our way down the couple of hundred steep stairs hewn into the rock (a welcome descent) we’re convinced—and even more so by what’s in the bottle.

Later, after a tasting that spans over 30 years, it’s apparent why Johannes Selbach, along with so many winemakers—insists that Riesling is the world’s most versatile and complex grape.

• Selbach-Oster Kabinett Zeltinger Schlossberg 2007

From old vines on a steep slope.  “Fruity but not sweet,” says Selbach: mineral aromas, immediate, luscious apple and citrus notes, bright acidity—and indicative of the ripeness that now typifies Mosel—even compared to some of the older great vintages. “Quality in Germany has made a giant leap in the least 20 years,” says the winemaker. ‘You get much more bang for your buck than you used to a few decades ago.’ Superb now but come back in 20 or 30 years, ‘when they’ve shed their baby fat’, says Selbach, who pours the 2001 (now showing more slate and complexity) to make his point. “As they age, the sweetness retracts, and more of the core minerality comes through, along with the citrus and apple. Taste it with anything from Asian fusion to summer greens.  BCLS $32.17

• Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslese 2006

‘The best year ever for botrytis’ and this is indeed ‘heavy duty botrytis’. Old vines, super-ripe, yield baked apple and caramel, along with superb minerality, vibrant acidity and clean, balanced viscosity.  “The poor man’s TBA ” from a stellar vintage—another baby, says Selbach—who proceeds to uncork a rare ’76—just in the name of research, of course. $27.76