So exactly what is it about Austrian wines that we Americans just don't get? Why is it that they are not the fastest selling imports around instead of the things named Some Colored Tail or Some Colored Bicycle. In fact it seems that we like just about anything that has both a noun and a primary color in the name, so I will give Austria a strike when it comes to not having enough wines named after colored items.
Is it the shape of the bottle? The tall, slender Rhein-styled bottles make us immediately think of Germany and of super-sweet Rieslings. Okay, another strike. Then there is the proximity to Germany, which leads us back to the association with sweetness. Never mind the fact that Austrian wines as a whole are very dry compared to their northwestern counterparts.
Then there are the funky names. Blauburgunder, St. Laurent, Grüner Veltliner. "Holy crap! There is no way I am drinking something with those freaking dots over the U!" There lays the mindset. Austrian wine certainly has it share of hurdles for the American wine buyer to overcome, which is why despite a dramatic increase in exports to the U.S. over the last ten years most Americans still aren't familiar with Austrian wines.
But you should be. No, wait, let me rephrase - you need to be! As noted Austrian wine writer Peter Schleimer put it, "We have stuff other countries just don't have. We have grape varieties that are unique, yet delicious too."
Which leads me to one of the greatest wineries in all of Austria- Schloss Gobelsburg. Schloss means 'castle' in German though the winery with its Baroque styling is closer to a French Château than a moat-ringed throwback to the days of catapults and sieges. There is one exception to this: History. The castle Gobelsburg dates back almost 1,000 years and wine has been produced there since 1171, or not too long after the first discovery of America.
After changing hands many times the Castle Gobelsburg was purchased by a Cistercian Abbey in 1740. The Monks produced the wine and tended the vineyards continuously until 1992, save for a brief interruption while it was occupied by both French prisoners and the Russian army in World War II. The promise and quality of the wines of Schloss Gobelsburg rose and fell with the interest and talents of the monks over the centuries, but two things were always of the highest quality- the soil and the climate.
And so in 1992 when the Cistercian monks felt they could no longer effectively manage the vineyards they turned to the unquestioned superstar of Austrian wine Willie Brundlmayer. Brundlemayer brought along a young man by the name of Michael Moosbrugger and tutored him in all things wine for the first five years. In the time since, Moosbrugger and Schloss Gobelsburg have won countless awards in Europe and beyond. The wines are generally regarded as some of the greatest examples of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner not only in the Kamptal region of northern Austria, but in the entire world.
There is that name again: Grüner Veltliner. Pronounced GROO-ner velt-LEAN-ehr it is only the most widely grown grape in Austria. The wines are crisp and deliciously dry and fragrant like a spring rain or wildflowers. It is a grape that every couple of years major trade publications proclaim to be the next big thing. And while sales of Grüner as it is often called are up, it has never quite lived up to the rocketship ride it was destined for.
But why is that? It certainly isn't because of quality. Some of the best white wines in the world are made from Grüner Veltliner. As noted wine freak and Austrian importer Terry Theisse put it, "If Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc had a baby, it would be Grüner Veltliner." So is it the name? Thiese and many others in the wine industry much more hip than yours truly have taken to calling it GrüVe. Like groovy baby. I can dig it. So it isn't the name.
Maybe it is the immense diversity found in the styles of fine GrüVe, which can range from Granny Smith apple-inspired quaffs that are best at home on the back deck, to rich, robust and profound whites that can age for decades or longer. Wow. Have we become so jaded that too much quality and diversity have become a bad thing? "Think for a second of Chardonnay," says Theisse in his Manifesto/Catalog on Austrian wines. "It makes everything from tingly little Petite Chablis to great whomping Montrachet and nobody kvetches they can't 'get a handle' on Chardonnay. GrüVe does the same thing; it can be as sleek as a mink or as big as Babe the Blue Ox."
In fact in blind wine tastings some of the best old Chardonnays of Burgundy have been matched by some of the best old Grüners of Austria with surprising results. The Grüners have more than held their own and even been voted the better of the two wines. And among Grüner Veltliners there are none greater than those of Schloss Gobelsburg.
Though Moosbrugger started in the family hotel business, he soon realized that of he and his two siblings only one could take over the family's 5-star chalais located in the Swiss Alps. So in 1992 he traveled to the Danube to learn winemaking from "scratch" as Moosbrugger put it. "I did everything in the vineyards, and in the cellar and on the tractor."
But to develop his own winemaking style he would need raw materials to work with, so when Brundlemayer and Schloss Gobelsburg came calling a short time later his true life began.
Unlike many of their contemporaries that are packing as much new technology as possible into their cellars, Schloss Gobelsburg is not in a rush to forget their past. The vineyards are farmed organically. Many of the vines are very old and link their heritage to clones that were selected because they produced the best fruit, as opposed to the most fruit. According to the winery "In times when many large international cellars are attempting to produce uniform wines which cater to the widest range of tastes possible, Moosbrugger is convinced that the future of wineries like Schloss Gobelsburg lies in individuality and character."
"As a high level of technology is necessary to warrant uniformity, a maximum of individuality can only be achieved through a reduction of it."
This is not to say that innovation is scarce at Castle Gobelsburg. Moosbrugger developed what they call the "Dynamic Cellar Concept," a method in which the wine is transported gently through the winery in "barrels on wheels" instead of pumping it from one place to another which many winemakers feel dulls the wine. But each innovation is employed with a sense of place and tradition in mind. Even the barrels used at Castle Gobelsburg are hewed from the local forests instead of using French or American oak in a desire to achieve an "authentic personality from symbiosis between the trees that are grown under the same climatic conditions as the resulting grapes."
But at Schloss Gobelsburg it is all about the soil. The mix of volcanic rock, sandstone, broken granite and loess (a fine dust that is a mix of alluvial deposits left from the runoff of melting glaciers) is perfect for not only white grape varieties such as GrüVe and Riesling, but also red varietals such as St. Laurent, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Over centuries of trial and error the Cistercian monks determined which vineyards where perfect for which grapes, and that tradition holds firm today.
Schloss Gobelsburg is committed to producing outstanding wines of individual character and quality, and wines that truly represent the vineyard that the grapes hail from.
In tasting the wines I found three common themes: 1) The wines taste of tradition and location. They exude character and fragrance and nuance that speak of the grape varieties that they are crafted from and from the vineyards from whence they came. Call it terroir on steroids. 2) The wines of Schloss Gobelsburg are finely balanced. Fruit, minerals, depth, weight and richness are always kept in line by ample acidity, a rare treat in today's world of fruit punch wines. And 3) They are so freaking good that I had a hard time putting them down. On more than one occasion I found myself doing more "drinking" than tasting. A good problem to have.
The Brut Reserve Sekt Kamptal NV is comprised of about 70% GrüVe with Riesling and Pinot Noir making up the rest. It is sourced from only the best vineyard for each grape and is disgorged by hand after three years on the lees. A more fashionable bubbly with a bright orange label only spends 12 months on the lees, and frankly isn't as good either! Elegant floral aromas intertwine with notes of toast and spice. The mousse is long and the bubbles are tiny. Crisp and refreshing, but with considerable weight and concentration, this wine is the definition of both ethereal and elegant.
The 2006 Grüner Veltliner Gobelsburger is a blend from the single vineyard sites as well as a splash of fruit from outside of the property. This is the "entry level" wine of Castle Gobelsburg, though I think there are few better examples of dry and crisp GrüVe anywhere. A slight floral note on the nose is augmented by a big Granny Smith apple tartness in the mid-palate, which is then followed by a wave of cream and then finally a long, minerally finish. Medium-bodied, it is a wine of immense enjoyment and I can think of nothing better for a warm spring evening.
The 2006 Grüner Veltliner Steinsetz hails from a single vineyard located on an elevated plain south of the Castle. The soil is a unique mix of black loam, sand and alpine pebbles. It is also without a doubt in my top five GrüVes all time, and indeed one of the best white wines I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Aromas of wild mint, white pepper and a field of alpine flowers on a warm spring day lead to a palate that is juicy, crisp, linear and fruit-forward. Honeysuckle, spring peas, pink lady apples and a hint of cream in the center drag on and on. The finish just doesn't seem to want to quit. What an amazing wine!
The Steinsetz also travels in a Burgundy-shaped bottle instead of the usual Rhein-style of GrüVe. According to Moosbrugger this is because the bottle should represent its content. Light and lean styles of wines get the tall and slender bottles, while the broad feel and expansive palate of a wine such as the Steinsetz can only be contained in a more robust Burgundy bottle.
Moosbrugger also produces a line of wines called "tradition." This inspiration for this line came when he was tasting through the Gobelsburg catalog of wines, a cellar of Rieslings and Grüners that dated back some forty vintages. The question was raised as to what those wines tasted like when young since the winemaking process is so very different nowadays. And so Moosbrugger crafts the Tradition line in an homage to that previous style of wine. The wines are made in the same way that they were in the 19th century as opposed to the twenty-first. The grapes are given a long, slow pressing and then fermented without temperature control. After they are placed in large oak barrels and racked every four months for a total of eighteen months before bottling. The subtle exposure to warmer temperatures and more oxygen creates a wine that is more rich, expansive and yes, even a little oxidative upon release.
The 2005 Grüner Veltliner Tradition is broad and open, with a big, voluptuous mouthfeel and an abundance of clover, truffle honey and even a touch of caramel. Veins of bright acidity shoot through the weight to refresh the palate. This is what Montrachet tasted like before it new it was Montrachet. A long and lusty finish seems to linger on the tongue for an eternity.
The 2006 Riesling Gobelsburger is exactly what a great dry Riesling should be- Refreshing, crisp, medium-bodied and full of spice, vigor and flavor. Fresh citrus, peach notes and even a touch of quince in the mid-palate lead to a fresh finish that cleanses the palate and draws the taster in for another sip. Always one of the truly great values in white wine.
The 2006 Riesling Vom Urgestein, whose name literally translates as "from primary rock," is a study in Riesling complexity and minerality. Fresh raspberry and tree fruits mingle with a little honeysuckle on the nose, while the palate has richness, depth and length without feeling heavy. That is the true nature of a well-made Riesling. You feel the weight of the wine on your tongue, but it never feels heavy. A long stone-laden finish hints at the nature of the vineyards.
One of the great dichotomies in wine, Schloss Gobelsburg continues to produce fantastic wines from one year to the next, and gain fame and acclaim from hack wine writers like myself from one year to the next, and even win an award or two in the process, but the wines remain extremely affordable despite the tough European wine market. I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek these wines out because of their quality, tradition and unique nature.
As Terry Theisse always does he says it best: "Gradually, one step at a time, Moosbrugger has added new categories of excellence to his roster, until it seems everything he touches blazes into brilliance."