Every month, ‘Whose Wine is it Anyway?’ profiles a German winemaker to give you a behind-the-vines look at the world of German wine. This month, we’re highlighting the Selbach family of Weingut Selbach-Oster. Located in the Mosel, Selbach-Oster is one of the region’s most recognized estates, reflecting the deep roots of its ancestors in the Mosel and the area’s unique terroir.
Whose *Wine* is it Anyway? Meet the Selbach Family
Selbach-Oster became an independent business in 1964 when the family’s estate vineyards were separated from the family wine business, J & H Selbach. Until then, the estate vineyards were part of the family’s larger winemaking operation, making wines from both their own vineyards and from grapes purchased from smaller growers along the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer, in the Burgundian negociant tradition. The Selbach family’s winemaking and shipping tradition dates all the way back to 1600. The Osters, Johannes’ grand-maternal line, were wine growers and coopers going back to the 1700s.
Johannes Selbach, current owner of Selbach-Oster, was raised in Zeltingen, where the estate is located today. Johannes grew up around his family’s vineyards and made his first wine in 1975 at a very young age. As part of his education, Johannes interned at the State Research Institute for Viticulture and Oenology Trier, then studied business administration at the University of Mainz and the University of Cologne. Johannes and his future wife Barbara met in 1984 both on scholarship at Penn State’s Graduate School of Business, where they were writing their respective master’s theses – Johannes’s being a study on the U.S. wine market with an emphasis on German wines. He stayed on to work in the U.S. until 1987 before returning to Germany to work in the family’s wine business.
Today, the family resides in the Mosel, where their children Sebastian and Hannah were born and raised. While both have played a role in the viticultural and winemaking process, Sebastian has especially developed a passion for wine when he began working in the vineyards during summer vacation. Sebastian completed apprenticeships at the Dönnhoff and Müller-Catoir estates and went on to receive a bachelor’s in Business Administration at Regensburg University, ultimately studying enology and viticulture at Geisenheim University. After internships at wineries in Italy and Australia, Sebastian joined the family estate in 2019.
There are no official titles among the Selbach family at their estate; each day is a joint effort from both the family and the winery’s employees. Being a small family business, the Selbachs are steeped in the multitude of daily duties the business brings, with Sebastian assuming a bigger role in coordinating cellar and vineyard management with the family’s excellent and dedicated staff.
Selbach-Oster owns and farms a total of 24 hectares of vineyards located on the “golden mile” of steep slate slopes between Zeltingen and Bernkastel. These vineyards are almost all rooted in crumbly, blue Devonian slate in the heart of the Mosel. The winery’s vineyard sites have been farmed continuously since Roman times, with a centuries-long track record for producing top quality wines.
The sun shines directly and at a steep angle on the mostly south-facing slopes and vines, and the river and slate stones reflect sunlight onto and store warmth for the vines. This, combined with the rocky, sparse slate soil, forces the vines to sink its roots deep into the solid bedrock, creating the classic Mosel profile and minerality that marks Selbach-Oster’s wines.
The Selbach family follows a low intervention approach in both the vineyards and cellar. The vines are gently pruned in early spring before bud break to limit the risk of grape disease. One-fourth of the vineyards are farmed organically, and sustainable viticulture is practiced on the rest. This is part of a program of controlled sustainable farming, which is supported and regulated by the State of Rheinland-Pfalz.
The unique conditions of the Mosel region – a narrow river valley along the 50th parallel with old vines – make for remarkably elegant, flavorful wines. Characteristically, these have low to moderate alcohol, multifaceted aromas and an intensely mineral expression. Selbach-Oster’s wines are vinified in a combination of traditional oak fuder barrels and stainless steel tanks, using natural yeast without enzymes or fining agents.
Selbach-Oster’s Rieslings are flavorful, yet elegant and well-structured at the same time. They can be found in fine wine shops, restaurants, hotels, and even on international flights and cruise ships in many countries around the world. The estate’s wines are never made according to “Zeitgeist” nor recipe. Instead, they are anchored in the tradition of crisp, mineral and mouthwatering Mosel Riesling, just as the vines are deeply rooted in the 400 million years old slate rock of the region’s steep hills.
A “perfect” wine is not about dryness or sweetness, about weight or concentration, but rather about balance and the harmonious collaboration of a multitude of flavors and smells that draw you in and make you want to take another sip.
— Sebastian Selbach
Grandpa’s Golden Rule
The Selbach family has always focused on the heritage and ”simplicity” of what precious fruit grown to perfect ripeness in a great terroir can bring without “winemaking” by remembering the words of their grandfather, Hans. His golden rule: “You can’t make gold more golden.” In other words, when you have perfect fruit from the vineyard, there should be no extras or additives, nor attempts to make it better.
This philosophy of letting the vineyards express themselves has remained with the Selbach family to this day, who live by the concept of enjoying the “fruit of the land.” That includes cooking, baking, gardening, harvesting mushrooms and even harvesting and eating the animals that prey on grapes in the vineyards. From farm to table and vineyard to glass, the Selbach family delights in sharing simple pleasures with family and friends.