A vertical tasting of the Austrian estate Schloss Gobelsburg takes Margaret rand in the history of the estate.
When your estate dates back 850 years and there has been continuous settlement on the site at least since 1600 BC, tasting your wines since 1971 hardly seems like a blink of an eye. But it sums up everything that has happened to Austrian wine over the past 50 years. Not quite archeology, perhaps, but eloquent.
So let’s skip the first thousand years of Gobelsburg Castle history and move on to the end of the 20th century. At that time, this Kamptal estate belonged to the Cistercian monastery of Stift Zwettl, about half an hour north, since 1740. Father Bertrand was the administrator between 1958 and 1980, and always wanted to find a solution to long term. to the management of the domain. In 1980, Karl Burger, the son of a local farmer, took over; in 1990 he was replaced by Andreas Schmid, and in 1995 we entered the modern era with the granting of a two-generation lease to Michael Moosbrugger and Willi Brundlmayer. The latter does not play any active role; it’s Moosbrugger who runs Gobelsburg, and who recently came to London to present vintages dating back to 1971. The oldest vintage still in the cellar is 1945, but let’s not be greedy.
All the wines were from the Heiligenstein vineyard, which is a remarkable site. Moosbrugger describes this hill as a geological island, ZÃ¶binger Permian sandstones, arkose and conglomerates rising above younger rocks. It is not quite homogeneous: the rock is younger at the eastern end, older at the west. This is a Riesling site: in these regions, Riesling is planted on the hot, dry rock terraces, while the lower alluvial slopes are reserved for the GrÃ¼ner Veltliner, who enjoys the somewhat easier life they offer. The lower alluvial slopes of Heiligenstein on the east side have a different vineyard name – Lamm – which is as famous for GrÃ¼ner Veltliner as Heiligenstein is for Riesling.
Heiligenstein has around 34.9 hectares of vines divided between around fifty producers, and Gobelsburg has two plots: 2.2ha including 10 terraces (all Riesling vineyards are terraced) and 0.84ha on nine terraces. They grow in a continental climate with cool winds blowing from the north and heat from the Pannonian plain to the east. The two plots give slightly different wines but not different enough that separate bottling is a good idea. And while Moosbrugger himself does not use irrigation on these plots, irrigation on Heiligenstein has been permitted since the early 1990s and has tended to even out the differences between different plots where these were due to Drought. Drought was a major factor in the rocky and terraced vineyards of Austria. In the Riesling terraced vineyards of the Wachau, for example, about seven out of ten vintages were under water stress until the introduction of irrigation.
Gobelsburg is certified for sustainable production, but is not organic. “We are working on organic, but for the long term”, specifies Moosbrugger. But he does not use insecticides or herbicides. All plantations are mass selections, and always have been, he says. “When I took over, Father Bertrand was able to tell me exactly when the vines were planted, with what.” Riesling cuttings come from Ries Gaisberg, which owns some of the oldest vineyards on the estate. The yeasts are indigenous, but it keeps some selected yeast in reserve in case of fermentation problem; “they happen sometimes”.
In the cellar, simplicity and rigor, two principles of monastic life, are essential. Moosbrugger favors low intervention methods. He gave up pumping in favor of moving the wines around the cellar in barrels on wheels, and the wood, large and small, comes from Manhartsberg, north of Langenlois. Local wood is part of the regional character, he believes. There is also a new cellar on the occasion of the eight hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the estate.
Â© ChÃ¢teau de Gobelsbourg
A light touch
Moosbrugger is reluctant about the changes he made when he took office, but he’s been thrown into the deep end. His background is in hospitality – his family owns a Relais & ChÃ¢teaux hotel in Lech am Arlberg, in the Alps – and he apprenticed in wine with Eric Saloman and Josef Jamek. He wanted his own project, asked around, and one day the phone rang. Willi Brundlmayer had heard that the monks were looking for someone to run Gobelsburg. Brundlmayer himself couldn’t do it, but he was ready to come in with Moosbrugger, the agreement between them being that as long as the wines were as good or better than Brundlmayer’s wines, Brundlmayer wouldn’t intervene. They visited the estate on December 30 and a fortnight later Moosbrugger moved in. He was just approaching his thirtieth birthday.
The lease he had signed with the monks provided for keeping all the staff in place: there was to be no dismissal. Moosbrugger was therefore less a new broom than a new feather duster: the change had to be gradual and tactful. But this hotelier past had given him tact, and it is even now difficult to make him say what he did differently. Looking at the wines, however, it can be inferred that the selection has become more stringent and the hygiene of the cellar has improved. It was clear by the mid-1980s that Gobelsburg had some exceptional vineyards. The wines had that little extra something: energy, extra depth, extra liveliness. It’s even more pronounced now. But not all previous vintages have lasted well. With Moosbrugger wines we see a step forward, quite suddenly, and they have the focus and potency to last for a long time. We feel that today this great site has the winemaker it deserves.
Much has changed in Austrian wine over the years covered by this tasting. In the 1970s and until the 1985 crisis, Austrian estates relied on a large assortment of grape varieties, sold and consumed young. No one aged the wines: almost everything was drunk immediately.
Gobelsburg survived the crisis because she made Messwein. After the scandal hit the Austrian industry (caused by the addition of diethylene glycol by some estates to sweeten wines), consumers did not know what they could and could not drink. The announcement by the monks that Messwein – the wine made for consecration at the Catholic Mass – could not be tampered with was a great comfort, and skyrocketing sales kept the estate solvent.
After the crisis, the focus shifted to quality across the country. An unofficial, then official, crus system developed and Heiligenstein became an Erste Lage, or Premier Cru. Heiligenstein’s name, however, has always been on the label, even back in the days when consumers bought only by varietal and varietal. The labels of these wines said “Riesling”, but they also said “Heiligenstein”.
Can we take a break for a brief archeology moment? The name “Heiligenstein” was once Hellenstein. Nothing to do with Hell, except perhaps tangentially: a Hellen was a sharp ridge on which animals were hunted in prehistoric hunts. In 1304 it had become Haelenstain, and in 1703, Hailigenstain. Later, probably guided by the landowners and local clergy, who tended to be the people who gave place names, he became Heiligenstein, or Rock of the Saints. The tower that you can see in the photographs dates back to the 19th century, when it was built as a tourist attraction for travelers arriving by train.
Â© Herbert Lehmann
Back to wines. We tasted young to old, and here are some quick notes.
2019: Intense, grassy, ââpeppery nose. Silky, lively, structured palate, yellow fruits and pepper. A small sneeze: sulfur? Not something that I notice a lot until I sneeze.
2016: Nose of honey and smoke, leaner palate of lime syrup and herbs. Saline.
2014: Pepper and lime on the nose, nice silky texture on the palate. Great finish.
2010: Ripe and rich, yellow fruits, ample, silky and rich, tight too. Great structured finish.
2009: Yellow fruits and pepper, silky, lively, ripe, rich, concentrated.
2008: Silky and ripe, complex and harmonious, very full and tight. Restrained and subtle. Very great finish.
2004: Darker color. A little botrytis this year gives honey and a touch of mushrooms. Very thin and long.
2001: Honey nose, some notes of mushroom on the palate; broad but concentrated, tight, long, saline. Huge length.
1999: Honey and ripe and fresh apples. Round, honeyed, herbaceous palate. Lively, silky. A great year.
1998: Super silky, stony, mineral, lively and sparkling. Full and powerful finish. Another great year.
1997: Both calm and lively, intense. Fleshy, concentrated structure, very great finish. The first of three great years. It was the second vintage of Moosbrugger.
1992: Hottest summer since 1811. Neither bottle is quite clean, but the second is better, albeit scalped and lean.
1987: Not quite clean. Parsley? Citrus? Celery? Skinny, dryness. Karl Burger was the winemaker between 1980 and 1990.
1983: Mushroom nose, drying mouth. Much simpler, but still a note of liveliness and good length.
1983 SpÃ¤tlese: Nose of green nuts. Fresh mouth; smoother, but lasted better than the others 1983.
1982: The biggest harvest ever in Austria. Slightly hard, and TCA grows per second. Not the greatest era for corks.
1979: Drying up, but still there. Quite simple, but the dynamism of the site shows through.
1973: Dusty spice on the nose. Always together, not very complex but tense, fresh. The finish is saline, mushroom. Still good.
1971: Pale amber color. Mushroom and apricot nose. The palate has a high acidity, slightly unbalanced but still there. Too old, but not dead, and still stylish. This spark of the site still shines through.
Older wines sometimes seem like an archeology exercise. Younger wines will last much better, but maybe not 850 years.