The link between the church and wine has always been strong. Gottweig Abbey, Sift Gottweig in German, was founded in 1083 in Krems, about 70 kilometres west of the Austrian capital, Vienna.
Eleven years later Stift Göttweig was given to the Benedictine order. Monks have been making wine on the site for almost 1,000 years, a remarkable timeline given the relative new-ness of New World vineyards.
Benedict of Nursia, who lived from 480 to about 547, founded the Benedictine order. This order focuses on solitude and contemplation, and rejects worldly things such as money, sex or power.
In recent years Austrian wine expert Fritz Miesbauer has helped revive the abbey’s winemaking skills.
He has worked with the Benedictine’s 20 hectares of vines in the Kremstal and Wachau regions to the west of Vienna. These are on the same latitude as the Champagne and Burgundy regions of France, yet they produce very different wines from the the French.
Vienna is one of the few capital cities of Europe with vineyards within the city limits. I have walked to vineyards from my Vienna hotel, something that cannot be said of many European capitals.
Miesbauer is credited with reviving two major Austrian wine groups, the Freie Weingartner wine co-operative in Wachau and the Stadt Krems winery. He said the high quality of the existing vines was “one of the main reasons” for getting involved.
The 2012 vintage was the first produced under the monastery’s own label since 1987. The main grape varieties are grüner veltliner and riesling. Grüner veltliner is Austria’s most common grape variety, accounting for about a third of the country’s plantings.
At Sift Gottweig, grüner veltliner represents about 60 per cent of all plantings with riesling 30 per cent, and chardonnay and pinot noir making up the rest.
Miesbauer concentrates on the two white varieties. All of the wines discussed in this column are from the Kremstal region.
The 2012 grüner veltliner is from the Gottweiger Berg vineyard. I must declare that grüner veltliner is not my favourite white grape. I much prefer riesling. But this is a pleasant wine that has low acidity, an aroma like a confectionary shop, and a charm that some people will love.
By aroma like a confectionary shop I mean it actually smells like going into a sweets store and being embraced by the smells of a range of sweets.
I quickly moved on to the rieslings. The 2013 vintage is a new release. It is also from the Gottweiger Berg vineyard. This is a wine with zingy acidity that tastes like biting into crunchy green apples. In the mouth it is round and well structured. The acidity is pleasant and not as pronounced as what one experiences with young German riesling.
Two days later I tried this wine again after leaving a small amount in the bottle. It had matured and evolved, suggesting this is a wine that will improve with time and become more beautiful.
Roland Müksch, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Wine Society, said Austrian white wines have been described as the New World wines of Europe — similar to New Zealand wines — especially compared with Germany. He suggested two main reasons. After the Austrian wine scandal in the 1980s Austrian producers radically changed their approach to wine making. “They turned to a very dry style of winemaking, as residual sugar was scorned due to the scandal. They also changed to modern clean winemaking techniques similar to those used Downunder, to restore confidence in the market.”
Müksch said the slightly warmer climate also distinguishes Austrian from German wines, “resulting in riper fruit flavours for riesling and grüner veltliner, sometimes even reaching into the tropical aroma basket”.
The best wine for me was the 2012 reserve from the Silberbichl vineyard. Silberbichl is another name for riesling. This is the complete Austrian riesling: crisp and penetrating acid combined with a sizzling sensation of a range of citrus fruits like grapefruit and green apples. It should be kept for at least a decade before it begins to show its majesty.
The monastery also makes a sparkling wine from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris. Unlike champagne it has low acidity, which will appeal to people who find the acidity of champagne overwhelming.
The pinot gris gives this sparkler a grey-pink colour and a pretty nose that reminds me of strolling through a peach orchard in spring as the blossoms are emerging. This is the kind of wine that excels with fried foods such as dumplings.
A wine that impressed me was the Niederosterriech 2011 pinot noir. Most of the pinot noir on the estate is used in the sparkling, but the monastery keeps enough of this grape to make 500 cases of dry red.
This wine trumpets flavours of cherry and vanilla, with lively acidity and a smoothness and roundness on the palate that is quite charming. This could easily become my regular evening pinot. It is much better quality and value than many entry-level burgundies.
Images on all the bottles come from a fresco by Paul Troger painted in 1739. Troger dominated Austrian painting until the end of the 18th century.
The fresco sits above the imperial staircase inside Stift Göttweig. The sparkling features an angel with wings like those of a cabbage butterfly. This is a white butterfly of my youth that lays its eggs in cabbages. The butterfly’s wings had an iridescent, almost ethereal nature. The images are repeated on the stelvin caps. Elegant caps for elegant wines.
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