[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]
Wine lovers owe monks more than you might expect. For centuries in Europe, it was these members of religious orders who cultivated and maintained vast tracts of vineyard land owned by the church and who advanced the world’s knowledge of viticulture and winemaking. Legendary wine regions like Burgundy in France were first classified and sub-divided into distinct terroirs by the monks, who analyzed soils and slopes and charted the subtle similarities and differences discovered and their effect on the grapes that were grown in each location. But that’s all ancient history, right? Not so fast. On the banks of the Danube River in Austria there is a Benedictine monastery that is almost a millennium old which has been making wine for 300 years and which still owns and is involved in managing wine production today. This piece of living history is Stift Goettweig, founded in 1083 and home to a contemplative order of Roman Catholic monks bound to vows of solitude and meditation who have been producing wine on the property since 1730. In 2006, the monastery leased its 26 hectares of vineyards to a small group of investors (a group that includes some of those running the monastery itself) who are dedicated to making high-quality white wines from grapes grown in the hallowed soil, particularly from Austria’s signature grape, Gruner Veltliner.
If there was an all-underrated team for wine countries, Austria would probably be the captain. Ever since the nation was plagued with a tainted wine scandal in the 1980s (when it was discovered that some bulk producers were spiking their wines with diethylene glycol, a component found in some brands of antifreeze, in order to make the wines seem richer and more full-bodied), it has undergone a quality revolution backed by some of the strictest wine laws in the world. Austria is now best known for Gruner Veltliner, a white grape that makes tremendous yet somewhat eccentric wines that manage to combine tropical, chemical, herbaceous and spicy qualities in a truly singular package. Gruner is the only white wine that I know of that can be successfully paired with both an arugula salad and a rare steak, and it is a drinking experience like no other.
This particular Gruner Veltliner is called “Messwein”, which translates to “altar wine” or “mass wine”. It is a long-time institution of the monastery, the lightest, cleanest, least alcoholic (12% abv) of Stift Goettweig’s lineup of wines, meant to be fresh and easy to drink. It’s sort of a Gruner-lite, a good introduction to the unique flavour profile that Veltliner brings to the table. It also retails for $15 or so, making it an inexpensive window into a winemaking nation that desperately deserves some more exposure. I personally am a huge fan of the look of the bottle, which brilliantly pairs a historical sense of Gothic/Germanic tradition with clean, modern, minimalist design…and I would be remiss not to mention that the screwtop and neck capsule for the Messwein showcase a cylindrical rendition of a famous painted ceiling fresco located inside the monastery! I’m always ragging on producers to get serious about the artistic value of their corks, and here’s a bunch of monks putting ACTUAL art on their closures, thus showing everyone how it’s done. Listen to the monks, everybody.
The Messwein was a very pale lemon-green colour in the glass, totally transparent, with a vivacious, sharply mineral nose that immediately commanded attention. Bath salts and celery gave way to quirky fruity aromas of banana and baked apple, all tinged with almost plastic varnish notes and hints of white pepper. As advertised, it was light and clean on the palate, featuring fairly gentle levels of medium acidity and a delicate mouthfeel. The first thing I tasted was a sort of rubber/elastic band flavour that I always associate with Gruner, followed by red apple (and the slightly bitter, papery taste of the apple’s skin), spice and something herbal or woodsy, like moss or wet leaves. The minerality that started off the nose finishes off the palate, leaving the taste buds scoured clean and primed for the next sip.
If you have not yet had the fortune of being introduced to Gruner Veltliner, some of the flavours above may strike you as a bit weird, but believe me when I say that (1) in combination they’re actually both enjoyable and strangely fascinating, and (2) this particular Gruner was nowhere near as overtly wacky as some of them are, which can be good or bad depending on your feelings for this grape (and for wackiness…I happen to quite like both). Still, the Messwein was both a pleasurable and a versatile drinking experience — I had it on back-to-back days, first with chicken caesar salad and then with pizza, and it somehow didn’t seem out of place either time. It’s something I’d drink in church anytime.
$15 to $20 CDN