The wine in question that evening was a masterpiece; the 2011 Riesling Tradition, from Schloss Gobelsburg. I hadn’t had it since the year I first tasted it, but it had been a “three-star” wine for me then, and 2011 was a warm and forthcoming vintage, and so it was time.
We also had a dinner that cooked itself in the oven, so we had bandwidth to attend to the wine without the distraction of last-minute prep. Some wines want your entire attention.
For those who don’t know, Michael (or “Michi” as he is widely known) Moosbrugger has sought to enter the minds of the pre-technology cellarmasters, in order to gain empathy and understanding of the nature of their relationships to wine prior to the mitigations of machinery. I write at length about this in my first book, and also explained it in my catalogues. The prevailing syntax of winemaking is so ubiquitous that we are obscured from seeing it discretely. It involves the preservation of primary fruit in a brilliant texture, entailing protection of the wine from oxygen. Back in the late 19th century – and really leading to the middle of the 20th – this was impossible. Cellarmasters of that time did not have access to micropore filtrations, chilling technology, or stainless steel tanks. Oxygen was inherent to their work, and therefore they learned to work with it.
Michi wasn’t interested in an imitation of or homage to that style. His aims were deeper; he wished to enter the mentality of cellarmasters who worked with a different set of tools, and with the assumptions that arose from (what we’d now call) limitations. In concrete terms this entails spontaneous fermentation with ambient yeast, and frequent racking to clarify the wine – oxygen, in other words – plus constant tasting to determine when the wine was “ready” for bottling; that is, when it had reached the platonic goal the cellarmaster had in his view. Michi’s early work in this idiom – one Riesling and one Grüner Veltliner in each vintage – were radically different from his contemporary wines. More tertiary, more umami, more inferential, and concomitantly less grapy, less mineral, and less brilliant.
Over time Michi identified the most suitable wines for the treatment; thus the GV came (mostly) from the Renner and the Riesling from old vines in the Gaisberg. Beginning with the 2011 vintage, I started to sense a curious convergence of the two cellar “dialects” and this wine, for the first time I could recall, was blatantly redolent of Gaisberg. I mentioned it to Michi. Me being me, I hoped the explanation (if there was one) would be metaphysical (!), as though the two dialects were speaking with each other in a mind-melt of convergence. Or so I hoped! The truth, as might have been expected, was more prosaic. “I too have noticed that some of the recent Traditions might have used more time in cask to really develop their character,” Michi agreed. Then why didn’t they receive it, I wondered? “It is a question of capacity. We’re literally running out of space in the cellar and need to empty the casks to make room for the new vintage.”
As of 2019 the cellar was being enlarged. I’d imagine work has been suspended by the coronavirus pandemic, but eventually there’ll be a spacious new cellar to add to Michi’s already formidable legacy at Schloss Gobelsburg.
And so to the story at hand.
As is our custom, we served the wine in different glasses, one the “Jancis glass” (as I’ve taken to calling it) and the other a Spiegelau white-wine glass, one of several iterations the company has done over the years. It’s on the right in the picture. The original white-wine stem was relatively small and tulip-shaped; it was (and remains) a remarkably flexible and useful everyday glass, and so of course it was discontinued. Its descendants are a larger version of the same shape, and the long-stemmed item you see here. I don’t reach for that one often, but decided to try it out this evening.
The wine remains masterly. It’s like a down comforter of Gaisberg. The site stands somewhat in the shadow of its next-door neighbor (the supernal Heiligenstein) but Gaisberg makes a kind of eerie neon Riesling, with a cool pulse of mineral and the essence of blueberries and just a hint of pitted fruits in ripe years. When you add Tradition’s oxygenated tertiaries to that mix you really get something haunting. The wine was too adamant to be dreamy, but also too caressing to be assertive, showing the paradox that is the most reliable marker of greatness in wine.
It was different from the two glasses but neither was “better;” it became a question of which elements you favored. From “Jancis” it was spicier and more intricately faceted, showing in dramatic form the sort of Austrian-national-terroir elements of irises and vetiver and flowering fields. Yet for all that, it also suppressed a really gleaming and resplendent fruit that shone from the Spiegelau. It became a question of preference; did I want the queenly wine from the Spiegelau or the fugue-of-nuance wine from the “Jancis?” In this instance I got to have both, of course, and while it was fun to go back and forth, as if viewing the wine through different colored filters, it also gave me an unsettling thought.
What are we to make of this business of different glasses giving different “interpretations” of a wine?
Often during my tasting weeks in Champagne I traveled with Peter Liem, author of the epochal book Champagne. We had an ongoing discussion about stemware, and often tasted from a variety of stems. Peter developed the prudent idea of traveling with his own stemware, not necessarily to have “the best” type for each instance, but simply to remove the variable. And it’s that variable that’s making me pause. Doesn’t it stand to reason that a vintner’s experience of her own wine would be informed by the glass she uses? In the cellar, in the tasting room? All she would know is how her wines taste from that glass, and so the choice of glass becomes a stylistic parameter in her work.
The same might be true of all of us, to a lesser degree. We fall into an epistemological rabbit hole, whereby we have to ask, “What can we know about a wine?” That is, when we already receive it through the subjective filter of the glass before we subject it to our own subjective filters? In my case with the Gobelsburg, when asking whether the wine was as it appeared in the “Jancis” or as it appeared in the Spiegelau, I was able to answer “both-and” but we’d have a harder time doing that in a restaurant or as a guest in someone’s home. If we accept that wine glasses mitigate, then we must also accept that our judgments about any wine have to be qualified. That, or we just glug it from the bottle.