Winemaking in the Danube area in the early 19th century  and its effects on today

By Michael Moosbrugger

Summary: This essay is a reflection of the experiences made in the past 15 years since 2001, when the winery started to produce wines related to the first half of the 19th century. A comparison is made between modern and traditional way of winemaking as well in terms of oenological differences and results. Different aspects in that respect are addressed regarding perception and the role of the winemaker hence and now.

The content of this essay is a reflection of the experiences I made in the past 15 years since 2001 when I started to work on old winemaking practices. My interest in the history of winemaking started in the late 90’s in connection to tastings we did from our library, which is a documentation of wines and developments from the late 40’ to our time.

At one of these tastings we were discussing the question of winemaking in the early days and what extend the winemaking would influence the age ability in wine. Looking back – I believe that this was the beginning point of my interest in that field.

I do not belief that everything started with a general philosophy or the idea to turn back the screw in time, but with pure curiosity. Being responsible for one of the oldest estates in Austria with a documented history back to the 12th century I was eager to learn more about the past even though the overall context were not in favour for such projects. We are talking about the late 90’s  – a period in Austria’s winemakers history that is marked by an attitude of modernisation. After the crises of 85 most ambitious winemakers were investing in the 90’s in stainless steel tanks, computer controlled fermentation equipment, new filters and pumps and the competition was high in order to produce the most modern and reductive wine possible. So we were all in a strong belief, that modern times have overcome and solved all the problems of the past. The interest in the history was little and a belief that we could learn something from the past was not existent.

However I started to try to find out more about our past. This was during a time when Father Bertrand was still alive. He ran the winery between 1958 and 1980 until he became the abbot of the Cistercian Monastery of Zwettl, who are still the owners of the estate. As he visited us in his retirement close to every week I asked him about the way they worked in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. And then I started to investigate in books for winemaking what I would find there. The bibliotheca of the winemaking school of Klosterneuburg was a big help in the beginning before I started to source old winemaking books in second hand bookshops by myself.  I also tried to get information in the library of the monastery, but unfortunately we were not able to find diaries of early winemakers of Gobelsburg (or other vinification locations of the monastery) so far. We are conducting right now a project on the history of the estate that we would like to publish in 2021 – on the 850 years anniversary of the estate and therefore we are looking for undiscovered sources regarding Gobelsburg and the winemaking there.

When you are looking to publication in the German speaking world it can be stated that suddenly  in the beginning 19th century a significant increase of new publication can be recognised.  I see there a few reasons for that development. First of all I belief that until the time of secularisation scientific research in the respect of wine and winemaking was strongly in monastic hand, as monasteries were on one side dominating the wine culture (especially in the Danube area) on the other side heavily involved in scientific research. Also the need for books was limited, as knowledge was given from one generation to another and in the overall structure the need for books was limited.  After the time of secularisation we see a fundamental change not only in society, but also in the world of science and education, which is leading to the foundation of winemaking schools (Klosterneuburg 1860, etc) and scientific research centres.  Also the interest of the noble families to increase the quality in the new class of winemakers is recognisable and has been leading to support scientists to publish educational publications (see also Bronner and his relation to the Großherzog of Baden). But beside the quantity of publications I also found two different types of intentions in these publications:  First in the sense of pure scientific interest with publication like Freiherr von Babo et al, and on the other side short publications with the intention to educate small growers.

Out of all that I developed a special interest in the first half of the 19th century. I think that this period is marked by two developments. What I have seen in my studies is that the style of wine was always somehow related to overall trends in society and circumstances. In the 17th and 18th century a lot of wine was either sweet or heavily aromatised (in relation to the Baroque and Rococo times) This is what you also find in publications of that period, that they were eager to find out all kind of ways of treatment in aromatisation of wine. That started to change with the time of secularisation and the French revolution and the beginning of the romantic times. The romantic times implements a a new interest in nature. It is the time of Schubert and the ‘Schubertiade’ with the implication of going out of the cities to experience the beauty of nature. This has also an effect on the stiles of wine with a significant reduction of aromatisation and sweetening. In the mid of the century I recognised a beginning interest in technology due to the effects of the industrial revolution. In publications you see that more and more scientists are concerned about methods of modernisation in treatment of wine. It is the time of the first filtration machines, new pumps, new pressing systems, pasteurisation and the invention of the refractometer. All this leads on the long run to a change in the craftsmanship of the cellar master.

So I see the first half of the 19th century as a period that relates on one side to an empirical knowledge of 2000 years of winemaking that is not yet affected by the influences of the industrial revolution.

So I started in 2001 with my first trials to produce wine in relation to the winemaking of the early 19th century and I produced one cask of Grüner Veltliner.  So what are the differences to what we do nowadays?

I would divide them in the differences of craftsmanship and attitude. They always belong together and influencing each other.

In order to understand the differences I would like to start with modern winemaking. I think, if you break it down to the essences of what we are doing today as winemakers, we could say that modern winemaking is a very fruit and aroma focused way of winemaking. The ultimate most important aspect is the aroma and the fruit components. One proof of that in my opinion is our glassware out of what we enjoy wine today. The tool is defining the expression of every wine we drink today. The success of Riedel / Austria would have not been possible without the changed importance of smell and aromatic sensibility. The result is that in our daily work as winemakers we are constantly concerned about what is happening with the aromas of our grapes or our wines. So all our decisions regarding grape production and winemaking are circling around the question of aromatic development and (or) protection. So therefore we make and alter our decisions regarding leave work, soil treatment and of course harvest in order to produce in the vineyards the ultimate best aromatically basis for our wines. Also in our cellar work we have a strong tendency to relate our decisions to the question of fruit and aroma protection – for example everything that is related to oxidation avoidance and reductive treatment. Batonage and leas work is another example. You all heard it frequently, that we ‘ambitious’ winemakers leave the wines for a long time on the fine lease. In most cases the argument would be aromatic components found in the leas. But the strongest argument for long lease contact and batonage is that leas creates a reductive environment, so to say it protects our aromas of oxidation with the benefit, that we can reduce the amount of sulphur.

So what we do that is leading now to the ‘modern’ way of winemaking:

  • Harvest in small 15kg boxes (selection with different colours)
  • Selection on the sorting belt
  • No destemming
  • Pressing in pneumatic presses
  • No maceration
  • Sedimentation
  • Fermentation with temperature control
  • Separation from the fermentation leas
  • Maturation on the fine lease
  • Fining if necessary (GV in most of the vintages, Riesling no in most of the vintages)
  • Filtering
  • Bottling

Now what is the difference to 200 years ago? Unfortunately we have not found any diary (Piringer diaries are just on the way to be published) that would proof that common practice was used here at the Estate in every detail, so I am following what I found in different literature as:

  • Freiherr von Babo: Erzeugung und Behandlung des Traubenweines, nach den neuen Erfahrungen, 1846
  • Heinrich Pfeiffer: Vorträge über praktische Kellerwirtschaft o.J.
  • Beyse: Katechismus der Kellerwirtschaft 1872
  • Dr Ludwig Gall: Praktische Anleitung […] 1879
  • Wenisch: Weinbau und Kellerwirtschaft 1905
  • Johann Karl Leuchs: Vollständige Weinkunde der Europäischen Winzer […] 1863
  • Schmid & Traxler: Kulturgut Weinpressen 2014

Some of these sources are German origin, some are Austrian. What I have seen so far is that there are no significant differences in the overall practice in the german speaking wine world. That brings us to the following steps in the grape processing:

  • Harvesting in ‘Bütten’ (wooden bin that could be carried on the back to transport the grapes from the inside of the vineyard to the transportation cask containing 15 – 30kg)
  • Crushing the grapes in the vineyard either with a wooden stick or a grape mill) – ‘Mosteln’
  • Emptying into a transportation cask (‘Moaschload’)
  • Maceration time 4 – 8 hours
  • Arriving in the press house the free flowing must is released directly into the fermentation cask (first quality ~ 50%)
  • Pressing the remaining mash with a wooden leverage press and juice into other fermentation cask (second quality)
  • Soaking the mash with water and press next day (third quality – Haustrunk 4-6% Alc)
  • Fermentation – no temperature control
  • Racking cask to cask
    • 1st before Christmas (or sometimes in January or February)
    • 2nd racking in Apr/May
    • 3rd racking before next harvest
    • 4th racking before Christmas 2nd year0
    • 1 – 2 rackings every further year in the cask
    • Recommended teaching time 2 – 6 years depending on the wine
  • Depending on size and structure of the cellar, the wines were sold in cask either before the end of the teaching process (‘Schulung’ or ‘elevage’)
  • Other treatments:
    • Sulphur given at the racking process by ‘burning’ in the new cask (quantity by empirical knowledge)
    • Fining only when problems occurred (isinglass)

Most significant differences:

  • Maceration time
  • Sedimentation
  • Maturation process (oxidative or reductive)
  • Maturation time

Technical issues and comments after 15 years:

  • Phenolic components are significantly higher due to maceration of the grapes and no sedimentation of the must (see Christmann, Jung, Becker, 1996)
  • These higher phenolic components need to be balanced, which is done by oxidation which is leading to poly-phenolic chains, which brings a smoother texture on the mid palette.
  • Aromatic profile: oxidative treatment is leading always to a reduction of fragile aromatic components. But I sense that on the other side, this is leading to a much more stable development in the finished wines. So to say we could say, that modern made wines are much more fragile and the change over the years is more recognisable, where else the traditional made wines are more stable in their development.

Other aspects:

  • Perception of wine in the 19th century: important for our understanding of wine in the 19th century is the glassware wine was consumed off. We have to consider that Riedel glass was not producing the glassware yet it is producing nowadays. So if you taste now TRADITION 2009 and compare the wine from the Riedel glass to 19th century glass you see how different they taste. The development of modern glassware goes hand in hand with a different perception of wine and drinking habits.
  • Self-perception of winemakers: in our modern time we – as modern winemakers – like to see us as the ‘Non Interventionists’. You often hear it today from winemakers that the big art of winemaking is to do nothing, or sentences like: a great wine is made in the vineyard, and not in the cellar. Self-perception was different 200 years ago. In these days I was the ‘cellar-master’ and the wines were my pupils. We are talking about the ‘teaching’ of wines. I read, that it was up to the knowledge and experience to ‘educate’ the wine to his bottle maturity. So basically I – as cellarmaster – had to identify or know the mature state of the individual wine and teach and educate him right until he is up to his maturity. So this is just contrary to ‘non-intervention’. This is all about forming the wine actively and intervene in the winemaking process. This aspect is also a fundamental difference to the ‘natural’ or ‘orange wines’ that are coming now up and were some wineries are experimenting with.
  • Outlook: In the past 15 years we have prolonged the maturing of the cuvees, but I am planning to prolong the maturing even longer than today. In 2009 we started to hold back on cask of TRADITION Grüner Veltliner every year. So we are trying on one side to get more experience in longer cask maturation. But beside that we want also to get more knowledge about the role of the trade and practice how they were treating the wines before the sale. For example, I heard that a significant part of the Wachau wines was not good enough to be sold on its own, but was blended into wines of Burgenland in order to give more acidity. (trad: ‘Sauer wie ein Wachauer’ – trans: Acidic as a Wachauer) So there is a possibility that we will release a LBV version of Tradition, or I might consider to go into vintage blending. But that depends on our further research.


Michael Moosbrugger
Michael Moosbrugger (1966) was born and raised in the skiing resort Lech/Arlberg where his family still runs the Relais & Château Hotel Gasthof Post. He attended the University in Salzburg and was also educated in the Hotel and Restaurant trade in Austria and Switzerland. In 1992 he began his apprenticeship in winemaking at Salomon and Jamek estates in Austria. After completing his education he took over the responsibility of Schloss Gobelsburg winery in 1996. At Schloss Gobelsburg numerous innovations were introduced by him, for example his invention of the ‘Dynamic cellar concept’ for which he developed the ‘Cask on wheels’. Michael’s special interest lies in identifying old genuine vines, which is the basement of a winery that produces authentic wines. He has thoroughly studied traditional winemaking techniques and the history of winemaking which he applies on certain selected varieties and resulted in the ‘TRADITION’ wines. Michael won numerous national and international tasting and prices. He was awarded by the Austrian Fine Wine Magazine ‘Falstaff’ ‘Winemaker of the year 2006’, in 2007 the winery was awarded with the ‘Golden Glas’ of Sweden and 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013 the winery was awarded by the American ‘Wine & Spirits’ magazine as ‘Top 100 Winery of the year’ Today he is living at Schloss Gobelsburg with his wife Eva and their three children.

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