It seems like they have always been there. For centuries, the monks have been rooted as firmly as their grape vines, watching empires come and go, tending their secrets as carefully as the grapes and the sacred wines they produce. Shrewd investment and politics have brought great wealth through the ages — palaces and vineyards, coffers and buildings. Not to mention the troves of knowledge. But time does not preserve all — neither fortunes nor knowledge — and one day, after nearly eight centuries of unbroken devotion to a place, and to the vines that grow there, the monks turn to you, and ask you if you will be the one to shepherd their winemaking tradition into a new age.
What do you say when nearly a millennium of history, not to mention the palace itself, is casually placed in the palm of your hand for safekeeping?
If you are Michael Moosbrugger, you take a deep breath, and say, “yes.”
In 1996, Moosbrugger accepted the offer from the monks of the Stift Zwettl monastery, a Cistercian order that had been farming the vineyards of Austria’s Kamptal region since they arrived in 1137, and whose winery had eventually become known by the name of the palace they inhabited: Schloss Gobelsburg. He accepted the offer, however, on the condition that his family would control the winery for two full generations.
“You have to think of being in a winery with a history of more than 800 years, and that you will only be a tiny part of the history. You will be responsible for twenty or thirty vintages, and then you will hope that perhaps one of your kids will take over. I want to make sure that if we invest our time and money in this project, that our children will benefit from it, and that we can do our best” says Moosbrugger.
Moosbrugger was brought up to be a hotelier. His parents ran small luxury hotel properties in the ski country of Austria, and so he grew up in the hospitality business, apprenticing as a machinist in high school before going away to university at Salzberg. At university, Moosbrugger explored many subjects including Philosophy, Music, Psychology, and Law, but his studies were interrupted by the unexpected death of his father. Moosbrugger (and his brother) returned to assist his mother in the family business, and closed the door on his academic pursuits, pursuing a career in hospitality.
After working in some of the world’s finest small hotels, and even returning to school for hospitality studies briefly, Moosbrugger was poised to become a hotel owner when his brother decided that he would be willing to take over the family business, and suddenly Moosbrugger had no obligations.
His father had been one of the founding members of the Austrian Sommelier Association, and in all his hospitality work Moosbrugger had gravitated towards wine, eventually buying wine for the hotels in the early Eighties. Wine drinking was a fine family tradition, but Moosbrugger got the idea that perhaps he might make the leap into winemaking.
After apprenticing at Salomon-Undhof and Weingut Jamek, Moosbrugger began looking around for a project he could take on. In the process of getting to know the Kamptal region, Moosbrugger had befriended the well known winemaker Willi Brundlmayer, whose family winery was one of the most prestigious in the area, and when the monks came calling to Brundlmayer, he told them to get ahold of Moosbrugger.
The latter half of the Twentieth Century was not particularly kind to monastic religious orders of the Christian Faith. With dwindling numbers of monks, the monastery at Stift Zwettl was finding it hard, both financially and logistically, to continue making their wine, not to mention keeping up the palace of Schloss Gobelsburg. So with Brundlmayer’s urging and the promise of a small investment in the venture, the monks turned to Michael Moosbrugger and asked the fateful question.
“It was pure luck,” says Moosbrugger cracking a smile, “but of course some people would claim it was a higher will.”
It’s fairly safe to say that there’s probably not another winemaker in the world that started their first solo gig by being handed a thousand year old palace done in the Baroque style, eight hundred years of winemaking tradition, and some of the finest vineyard sites in a country. It’s also fairly safe to say that there are few people that could have successfully handled such a task with the aplomb that Moosbrugger seems to have brought to bear.
Calm, collected, and strikingly thoughtful, Moosbrugger speaks with an unusual combination of gravitas and humility. He is at once both keenly intellectual as well as demonstrating that philosophical bent that marks some of the world’s most profound winemakers.
“As a winemaker I am more on the scientific side,” he says, “but I have to admit that there are transcendent aspects to wine. It’s not that science simply has all the answers. You have to find out for yourself what works at the end of the day. You have to try everything and see what works for you. That’s why I am trying everything when it comes to farming: sustainable, organic, biodynamic. We are in a constant state of experimentation, and we will never stop.”
Moosbrugger has managed what seems to be an incredible feat — exquisitely preserving the heritage (both in terms of knowledge, the vineyards, and palace itself) left by the monks, while at the same time bringing the right touches of innovation into the winemaking to continue to elevate the quality of the wines.
“When I took over the winery [in 1996] everyone was throwing out all their big wooden casks and replacing them with [stainless steel] tanks. There was nothing bad about that. It was good, as many people had bad casks. But I said to myself, ‘what are you going to do here?’ and I thought that I didn’t like the idea of throwing out that tradition in favor of modernity. So I explored other possibilities. For instance, instead of adding temperature control to the tanks, I decided to add temperature control to parts of the cellar itself. And then all I had to was make things movable,” he says.
Reaching back into his days as a machinist, Moosbrugger designed carts for his big wooden casks, so they could be rolled about into different temperature zones in the cellar. The thought of these massive casks filled with wine being rolled about like shopping carts in a grocery store made me wonder whether he had ever run over his own foot with one of these monsters, but since he didn’t walk with a limp, I just kept quiet.
The vast, ancient stone cellars of Schloss Gobelsburg have their share of mold covered bottles, but the library is special in that it still contains some bottles that were made before the war (most such cellars were plundered in World War II). These bottles have no labels, nor were the corks stamped, but Moosbrugger believes some date back to 1903.
“You have to ask yourself, when you have a collection like this, what is it telling you,” he muses, when asked the obvious question of how far back he has explored into this treasure trove. “It is the story of a place, a place before the war. Back then, everything was planted randomly. Most wines were field blends of 15 to 25 different grape varieties, all made together and sold as what we would call a ‘village’ wine. That changed after the war, as farmers went to replant their vineyards so they could be worked by machines, and you saw people begin to pay attention to varietals. So you see here in the library from the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties bottlings of many different single grape varieties. This eventually sorted itself out, and Gruner Veltliner and Riesling won. A cellar like this is a kind of map for any new generation of pioneers.”
Even without opening all those mold-encrusted bottles, Moosbrugger has been exploring the past, in the form of 19th century winemaking techniques, to which he admits being a rather devoted student. To this end, in 2001 he began producing wines that he labels with the name “Tradition.”
“We harvest the grapes, and stomp them right there in the vineyard, at lunch time, and at night. The juice goes right into ancient oak casks, and ferments without temperature control or any addition of yeasts. You rack the wine from cask to cask, to remove the lees and also to oxidize the wine, and then you leave it in cask for two years, and then you put it in a bottle,” he says. “If you look to what modern winemaking is about, and I’m exaggerating a bit, it is about aroma maximization. We care for our grapes in order to produce a lot of aroma components, and in our cellar work after harvest, we protect these aromas as much as we can to get them into the bottle and into the glass. Between the Romans and the 19th Century, there weren’t that many improvements to winemaking technology. If you look back at the time before the industrial revolution, the idea of winemaking was something different.
They believed for every wine, there was an ideal condition. My job as a winemaker is to transform a wine from the embryo to its end state. Wines back then were thought of as human beings. As we undergo developments as people, so does wine have to go through developments. As we have to breathe, so does a wine. The logical consequence was to bring oxygen into maturing process. Here, when I’m talking about this wine, it’s not about retro. This is not my question. My question is ‘what kind of personality does Gruner Veltliner develop when we are following the tradition of the early 19th Century winemakers?’ It will always be Gruner Veltliner, but you’re now looking at it from a totally different angle.”
Including these experiments, Moosbrugger makes a total of about 20,000 cases of wine under the Schloss Gobelsburg label, as well as an additional 20,000 cases of more value-priced wine under the Gobelsburger label. He farms approximately 148 acres across more than 110 vineyard plots.
While the winemaking techniques for the rest of the wines are slightly more conventional, Moosbrugger prefers to use native fermentations whenever possible, as well as to let wines rest enough to become stable so they need not be fined or filtered.
Remarkably, more than two thirds of the production is exported out of Austria, though Moosbrugger notes that no single country receives more than 10% of his total production.
After spending more than two hours with Moosbrugger, I walk out through the stately gates of the yellow palace deeply impressed with the man. The wines, of course, are tremendous, but now after meeting him, I see that quality as being at least partially a reflection of their caretaker. He might look like a businessman more than he does a farmer, but Moosbrugger clearly pours his heart and soul into what he is doing.
As we were leaving, I ask him whether his children were interested in wine.
“My kids are 7 and 12,” he says, “so I’m not pushing them. What I would like to do is give them the impression that what I am doing is fun. That starts with language. It’s forbidden to say in our family that ‘I have to go to the office.’ To have to do something is obligation, not fun. I like to go to my office. I was raised in a hotel, where my family did not differentiate between work time and free time. That idea did not exist. When I am working here, I am not working here. I am living my life.”
And what about the monks?
“I am trying to maintain a relationship with them, so they do not forget about this place,” he says. “The whole community comes down once a year at harvest time, for the blessing of the vintage. And after that we have a goose, a St. Martin’s goose. And then we talk about what is going on, and I give them updates on the progress, and I show them what is changing. It is like we have been under construction for 16 years.”
And knowing just a little bit about Moosbrugger now, I can safely say that will probably be the case for another 15 years.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “Erste Lage” is an official designation of “first growth” or “first class” vineyard similar to the system used in neighboring Germany. This designation, often abbreviated to E.L.) is overseen by the Association of Traditional Austrian Wine Estates which was founded in 1992, and for which Michael Moosbrugger currently serves as Chairman.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Gobelsburger” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden delicious apples and wet stones. Quite mineral in the mouth, the wine has a golden delicious apple quality, and is also quite stony. Linear and somewhat narrow, but tasty. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $13. click to buy.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Steinsetz – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Pale gold in the glass, with the barest hint of green, this barrel sample smells of wet stones, golden delicious apples, and hints of floral notes. In the mouth, wet stones, golden delicious apples and wet chalkboard mix in a very stony, chalky package. Faint lemon zest notes emerge on the finish. Good acidity. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Renner Erste Lage – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample has a floral aroma that mixes with mineral notes of wet stones. In the mouth, bright green and golden apple flavors are delivered on a silky stream across the palate. Gorgeous texture and very delicate acidity. Lovely. Score: around 9.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Grub Erste Lage – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Pale greenish gold in color, this barrel sample smells of green apple and wet stones with a touch of honey. In the mouth, green apple and wet stone flavors swirl in a very silky textured package. Delicate acidity brings floral high notes into a long finish that at this point in its evolution shows a little bit of alcohol. This will likely fade by the time the wine is bottled. Score: around 9.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Lamm Erste Lage – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Light greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of green apples and white flowers. In the mouth, bright green apple and cold cream flavors with softer acidity and light floral overtones last through a very long finish. Slightly less acid than I might like, but quite delicious. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Tradition – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of buttery golden delicious apples and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has an incredible silkiness and flavors of golden delicious apples, wet stones, and floral notes. Buttery, even caramel flavors with a tiny hint of sweetness linger in the long finish along with wet stones. Tastes like an much older Gruner Veltliner. Compelling. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Gobelsburger – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kamptal
Pale gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of wet stones, floral notes, and hints of apple and pear. In the mouth, flavors of pear, honey, and crystalline wet stones make for a pleasing, if a little simple package. A gulpable, delicious wine that does not demand much of you, but gives much in return. Score: around 8.5.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Gaisberg Erste Lage – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kamptal
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of liquid rocks and white flowers with a tiny hint of lemon or grapefruit pith. In the mouth, gorgeously lean and bright wet stones with hints of apple and pear and white flowers, but mostly like a river of crystalline rock in your mouth, and hints of lemon blossom lingering through the long finish. Outstanding. Dry. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Heiligenstein Erste Lage – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kamptal
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of green apple, star fruit, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has beautiful stony apple and green pear flavors mixed with floral and liquid crushed rocks. A tiny bit of vanilla creeps into the finish of green apple. Elegant, poised, outstanding. Really tremendous wine. Delicate acidity, green apple. Dry. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Tradition – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of lemon curd and wet stones. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and juicy pink grapefruit flavors dance on the palate. A stunning texture that has a creamy aspect to it and lovely wet stone / deep mineral notes round out the wine. Very long lemon and tangerine tinged finish. Gorgeous. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2010 Schloss Gobelsburg “Renner Erste Lage” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass this wine smells of lemonade and honey. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and wet stone flavors mix with beautiful acidity and a gorgeous long wet, stony finish. Lovely long, lacy, and beautifully textured. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2010 Schloss Gobelsburg “Lamm Erste Lage” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of rich wet stones, cold cream, and a hint of lemon pastry cream. In the mouth, gorgeous stony bright lemon and mineral flavors mix with floral characters. Gorgeous acidity, super long finish. Beautifully harmonious. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $72. click to buy.
2004 Schloss Gobelsburg “Renner Erste Lage” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon and the scent of old books, with an ethereal lemon curd note. In the mouth old parchment and lemon curd mix with a crystalline minerality. Gorgeous texture, and beautiful length. Delicate, but slightly soft acidity. A quite pretty wine with a dried citrus finish. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2006 Schloss Gobelsburg “Gaisberg Erste Lage” Riesling, Kamptal
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, lemon rind, wet stones, and tangerine peel. In the mouth, tangerine and lemonade citrus notes burst with bright acidity along a deep wet stone and mineral backbone. Tangy lemon and pink grapefruit pith give a hint of sour-sweetness that lingers in the finish. Dry. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2004 Schloss Gobelsburg “Gaisberg Erste Lage” Riesling, Kamptal
Yellow-gold in the glass, and throwing some orange tartrate crystals at this point, this wine smells of
paraffin and lemon curd, with wet chalkboard coming in close behind. In the mouth, bright lemon pith and lemon curd flavors mix with a chalky wet slate character that has floral notes and a beautiful long lemony finish. Excellent acidity and presence. Dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1972 Schloss Gobelsburg “Heiligenstein Erste Lage” Riesling, Kamptal
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied dried citrus peel, parchment, and a hint of paraffin and pine resin. The nose gets more honeyed over time. In the mouth, dried lemon peel, wet stones, old parchment mix with resinous qualities that morph into a long, tangy dry lemon finish. Remarkable. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Schloss Gobelsburg “Gobelsburger Cistercien” Rosé, Neiderosterreich
Palest peach-pink in the glass, this wine smells of floral scents, berries and watermelon. In the mouth, juicy watermelon and strawberry flavors mix with bright wet stones. Excellent acidity. Just what you want from a rosé: Crisp, lean, no hint of bitterness. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $13. click to buy.
2010 Schloss Gobelsburg “Alte Haide” Red Blend, Neiderosterreich
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth the wine has a wonderfully plush tannic structure that wraps gently around a core of cherry, brown sugar, and cola flavors. Interesting, and quite tasty. Good acidity. A blend of Pinot Noir, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2009 Schloss Gobelsburg “Alte Haide” Red Blend, Neiderosterreich
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dark dried cherry and chocolate aromas. In the mouth the wine is fleshy and plush with lower acidity and relatively soft tannins that wrap around flavors of cherry, cassis, and cola that have no sharp edges. Soft and silky, but lacking some profundity. A blend of Pinot Noir, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2010 Schloss Gobelsburg “Haidegrund – Barrel Sample” St. Laurent, Kamptal
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of brown sugar and dried black cherries. In the mouth woody and leathery cherry flavors mix with very faint, soft tannins. There’s something a bit odd about the red fruit flavors in this wine, not in a bad way, but they are a bit exotic and difficult to describe. Like the wine has been filtered through incense or something. Interesting. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2009 Schloss Gobelsburg “Haidegrund” St. Laurent, Kamptal
Medium garnet in the glass this wine has a plush, meaty nose of cherry and brown sugar. In the mouth, the wine has a very soft velvety quality and flavors of cherry and chocolate. A meaty quality lingers through a moderate finish. Wish this had more acidity. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2010 Schloss Gobelsburg “Alte Haide – Barrel Sample” Zweigelt, Kamptal
Medium garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of dark cherry fruit with a hint of cedar. In the mouth, thick, grippy tannins surround a core of dark cherry fruit tinged with cassis. The tannins are peanut-butter-thick, and linger long through the finish with cassis. I wish the wine had more acidity. Score: around 8.
2009 Schloss Gobelsburg “Alte Haide – Barrel Sample” Zweigelt, Kamptal
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black pepper, dark cherry, and black pepper. Yes, that much. In the mouth, bright black cherry fruit mixes with supple, suede-like tannins and violet notes that linger in the finish with an nice earthiness. Well balanced and pretty. Score: around 8.5.