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A Geology Lesson in Austria

Schloss Gobelsburg relies on two distinct soil types for its Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 11, 2014 2:54pm ET

Austrian vintners are really into rock, soil and gravel.

That was one of the most striking observations I came away with from a whirlwind tour earlier this month of three of Austria's most important wine regions: Kremstal, Kamptal and Wachau.

Along the way, I also tasted a treasure trove of great Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings, two of Austria's most important white varietals. They hail from the 2013 vintage, which is now arriving on wine shop shelves. The top wines offer impressive, near-stunning quality, especially among the Grüners. But before I get to them (I know, I know … but you have to wait), back to geology, as explained by one of Austria's most knowledgeable vintners.

It's hard to miss the massive structure of Schloss Gobelsburg in the Kamptal district and not be mesmerized by the erudition of its soft-spoken leader, Michael Moosbrugger. Until 1995, Gobelsburg was home to Cistercian monks, the same rascals who helped build up the great vineyards of Burgundy. Moosbrugger and a group of partners have steered it since then under a long-term lease from the monks, making it one of the Kamptal's guiding lights.

We sat down to taste through Gobelsburg's Riesling and Grüners, and for the next three hours I listened to Moosbrugger's explanation of what makes his part of Austria special. It's a combination of the unique geology of the area, with some of the primary rock from the Permian era, dating to more than 250 million years ago, to glacial deposits of wind-born loess, which comes from the last ice age—just 15,000 years ago.

"For Grüner Veltliner you need a good water supply. It's completely different from Riesling, yet complementary. We have two archetypes here for soils. The terraced vineyards filled with primary rock are good for Riesling, while loess, with its better water retention and mineralization, is good for Grüner. And since we have a continental climate, with just [16 to 20 inches] of rain a year, we need to retain water in our soils, which is just the opposite of Germany, where they need to get water out.

"In general the flatter terrain is best for Grüner Veltliners and on the slopes, Riesling. This is why we have two grape varieties—because we have such a diverse topography," he said.

Two of the stars of my tasting at Gobelsburg (non-blind) were from the Kamptal's most imposing topographic feature, the storied hill of Heilingenstein. The 2013 Ried Lamm Grüner is very expansive and luscious, filled with flavors of ripe apricot with notes of cream and vanilla. And from terraces just above Lamm there was the 2013 Heilingenstein, incredibly rich, spicy and lush, with plenty of fruitiness along with hints of smoke. The finish is redolent of tarte tatin.

Both are mouthwatering and fine examples of the 2013s you'll be seeing soon.

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