You can count the monasteries that still make wine on two hands. I know, because Wolfgang Hamm, Director of the Stift Klosterneuburg Wine Estates, and I sat in their 900-year-old Vinothek and wine cellar and did just that.
One of the world’s oldest wineries, Stift Kloserneuburg is an Augustinian monastery just north of Vienna that has cultivated vineyards since 1114, when it was founded by Margrave Leopold the Good, who later became the patron saint of Vienna and Lower Austria and is buried here. With over 100 hectares across three distinct regions, it is also Austria’s largest producer, with vineyards in Klosterneuburg itself, Vienna’s Kahlenberg, and in the Thermenregion around Gumpoldskirchen and Tattendorf.
A leading expert in monastic wine production, Hamm considers himself a steward and a torchbearer. “It is a beautiful task,” he said, gazing upon the grey stone walls of the ancient Vinotek, part of the original cellar complex for the monastery.
A long history
In centuries past, monks were the largest wine producers in Europe, with only nobles’ estates coming close to their output. “The tradition is rooted in necessity,” Hamm explained; monasteries had to be self-sustaining. In addition, wine was a lucrative commodity that was easily transported via the Danube, driving the local economy. The trade was particularly valuable as drinking water was often contaminated and most people drank beer or wine to be safe. “Although, the alcohol content was much lower then,” Hamm chuckled. Over the years, the monastery made a fortune, building the massive Baroque complex which still stands today.
In 1860, the Augustinian Canons founded the world’s first viniculture college at Stift Klosterneuburg, furthering development in wine and training generations of vintners. Now run by the state with support from the monastery, the school was responsible for one of the most notable developments in Austrian wine – Zwiegelt. In 1922, its namesake, Fritz Zwiegelt, crossed two indigenous varieties – St. Laurent and Blaufränkish – and created a hardy new variety that became Austria’s signature red wine. It is now grown worldwide – even in Canada at a winery started by an Austrian family, Konzelmann Estate in the Niagara region.
The winery itself is housed in a centuries-old deconsecrated church that used to host the nun’s choir, Hamm said as he unlocked the doors to stainless steel presses and fermentation vessels. “The entire line is modular and on wheels, we can easily move it around, replace parts, and ensure the right conditions for each grape variety we grow.”
Through a passageway flanked by 15,000-liter tanks, a door leads to the cellar stairs, where wines are aged and bottled. The barrels are still made with lumber cut from the monastery’s extensive forests; Hamm is proud that Stift Klosterneuburg still strives to be self-sufficient.
Down more stairs and further in are vaulted rooms where huge casks stretch into the darkness, 36 meters below the monastery’s hilltop perch. Built to withstand a siege by fortress architect Donato Felice D’Allio in the 18th century, the outer walls are six meters thick, making the cellars naturally cool and well-ventilated. “This is where we age the wines, in peace. To come into their own,” Hamm said, dropping his voice a little.
The patience shows, evident in their mellow Gemischter Satz, which is buttery and fruity, and their indulgent St. Laurent, which is like eating dark chocolate and cherries.
But those are merely some of their more popular vintages. Stift Klosterneuburg produces a staggering variety of wines today, from traditional reds and whites to Sekt as well as fruit juices from their orchards – apple and, of course, grape. “This is because of the different terroirs across our growing regions,” Hamm explained. And while most of their wine is destined for export, they still produce communion wine for a number of Vienna’s parishes.
Taking the Long View
The cellars and monastery feel timeless, and Hamm believes that quality vintages aren’t created overnight. A subtle passion for the land and the wine it produces underlies the peace and patience of Stift Klosterneuburg, fitting for an estate founded by a saint. “Wine has an important function as ambassador. It brings joy. It brings people closer together.” People want to visit their favorite vineyards; excellent wine connects Austria to the world.
In years past, people from all over have visited the monastery for their annual Leopoldi, a Kirtag (fair) honoring their sainted founder with a market, bake sale, carnival rides, and wine tastings. One particular local custom traceable back to at least 1814 is the fasslrutschen (barrel slide), where visitors are invited to slide down the side of an enormous “1,000-bucket barrel” in the monastery cellars for a nominal fee that goes to charity – legend has it, that if you do, your wishes will come true.
Planning over generations as opposed to short-term success also means taking sustainability as seriously as their wine, adapting tradition to accommodate new strategies for environmentally sound viticulture, including green energy, soil revitalization, and canopy management. Seeing themselves as caretakers of the land, the notion sat well the monastery, which became Austria’s first carbon-neutral winery in 2009. Still, Hamm feels that going green and even tradition remain secondary to maintaining high standards.
“If you stop being excellent, if you stop being relevant, then your history stops and tradition does not help you.”
Still, age lends perspective; harvesting grapes from the same vineyards for over nine hundred years, they’re confident that uniting tradition and innovation can breed something stronger – just like Fritz Zweigelt did when he crossed St. Laurent and Blaufränkish. “We are doing something right. We want to continue to create great wines for centuries to come,” Hamm concluded, taking in the monasteries’ forests and vineyards from the hilltop before heading back to the Vinotek. If all goes as planned, they will be here for nine hundred years, today’s innovations becoming tomorrow’s traditions.