It’s hard to think of any one who has had greater influence over where Austrian wine is heading than Schloss Gobelsburg proprietor and Austria’s Traditionsweingüter (ÖTW) chairman Michael Moosbrugger. In part two of their conversation, David Schildknecht sounds out Moosbrugger on classification, appellation, and how music can illuminate wine.
The following interview – translated and edited by the interviewer – was conducted in writing as well as orally in spring 2022. Occasional excerpts from earlier conversations and correspondence have been interpolated. Consolidation under topical headings as well as the insertion of punctuation were at the interviewer’s discretion in an effort to best convey a sense of the dialog as it took place. Clarifications, notably names or expressions in the original German, are occasionally inserted in brackets. Part one can be found here.
FIXED ON CLASSIFICATION
D.S.: You go so far as to claim that a vineyard classification – not just within the ÖTW, but eventually nationwide – is indispensable to furthering the development of Austrian wine. Why “indispensable”?
M.M.: When the ÖTW was founded in 1991, Burgundy was a much less attractive region or model than Bordeaux because it was considered complicated and unreliable. Naturally, there were lovers of Burgundy back then and people who concerned themselves with its wines – my father was already a Chevalier du Tastevin – but the vast majority of wine lovers was fixated on Bordeaux. Despite this general disinterest in Burgundy – within Austria, anyway – the ten ÖTW founders elected to dedicate themselves to a vineyard classification. Why? Of course, it had something to do with marketing. But there’s nothing bad about that, as long as it serves the wine community as a whole. From among all the possible forms of marketing, marketing on the basis of place of origin [Herkunft] is the most societally minded [sozialste] and democratic. Larger wine estates make a reputation for certain place names, from which smaller estates also profit.
But there’s a major disadvantage to marketing on the basis of provenance: The more granular the level of geographical identification, the greater the number of terms employed for that identification. Austria has 18 winegrowing regions [Weinbaugebiete] or appellations; when it comes to winegrowing communities [Orten] there are nearly a thousand; and when it comes to individual vineyards there are 4,300. Even we in Austria can’t keep all of that straight.
That an Austrian vineyard has a name by no means signifies that a certain quality lies behind the wine bearing that vineyard’s name. Named vineyards – in Austria we refer to them as Rieden – can range from Heiligenstein all the way to the simplest meadow. The advantage of a classification – insofar as it’s credibly constructed and open to scrutiny – is that it’s easier to communicate a quality category than it is the individual contents, i.e., the vineyards within that category. So, it’s an advantage in the wine business at all levels of communication if we establish categories and define what makes for quality. People have trouble with German names not just in the English-speaking world but quite generally. So, it’s easier for sommeliers and other professionals to communicate using a class category like “Erste-” or “Grosse Lage” than with tongue-twisting site names like Käferberg or Pletzengraben.
D.S.: Before one can classify, one has to of course delimit, and really only in the last four to six years have Austria’s Rieden been firmly established – in some instances with changes in boundaries and names. You’re confident that with few exceptions these boundaries and employments of cadastral names are definitive and convincing for the purpose of vineyard classification?
M.M.: Basically, all of Austria’s Rieden except in Styria [where a delimitation of vineyards has recently been hammered-out from the ground up] have long been delimited. It’s just that in the ‘70s, the task of legally registering them was neglected. That omission has now been rectified. In the process, certain structural adjustments and accommodations had to be made, with results that were sometimes more and sometimes less successful. Of the original 5,200 Rieden, 4,300 remain. That’s a reduction, to be sure, but nowhere near as bad as in Germany …
D.S.: … where the 1971 Wine Law’s fewer than 3,000 henceforth officially recognized Einzellagen – many of them large and heterogeneous, most with borrowed and some with invented names – represented a reduction by at least one third.
As long as I’m on the subject of comparisons with Germany, and before I pose more questions regarding classification, I’d like to explicate how the ÖTW has avoided some problems, problematic restrictions, and limitations of Germany’s VDP classification:
- Only federally recognized and delimited vineyard designations apply, so these are also valid outside of the ÖTW. By contrast, vineyard designations in the VDP classification represent a mixture of official Einzellagen, cadastral designations registered with the individual German states –and in certain cases names that are only recognized within the VDP, whereby the choice of designations and their positioning in the hierarchy is transparently dependent on the interests of those members of the organization who have relevant landholdings. The names of Einzellagen, when employed within theVDP classification, often comprise in surface area only a limited portion of the federally established Einzellagen – a worthy attempt to set higher standards, but nevertheless unavoidably confusing.
- The ÖTW remained focused on declaring certain vineyards as “Erste Lagen,” with the option of an eventual upgrading to the level of “Grosse Lage.” The VDP’s starting point was Grosse Lagen. Now they want to insert what’s effectively a premier cru level, which was never envisioned originally. And which vintner is prepared to tolerate the downgrading of his or her Grosse Lage?
- Non-members of the ÖTW can recommend that sites in which no members have holdings be considered for Erste Lage status and submit appropriate wines for blind tasting within the ÖTW. Non-members who have holdings in an ÖTW-classified site may, insofar as they follow ÖTW guidelines, market and label the relevant wines as “Erste Lage.” Classificatory and so-called “relevance” criteria are published in detail, and the ÖTW takes into consideration input not just from historians and scientific specialists of all sorts, but also from international wine journalists and other professionals for the ÖTW facilitates annual tastings of the full range of Erste Lage wines at Schloss Grafenegg. The VDP classification, by contrast, is strictly internal, and its basic criteria – how is vineyard potential determined? – are publicized only in very broad terms and as slogans, otherwise remaining opaque.
Why four eventual classificatory levels, i.e., regional, communal – Ortswein – and then two cru levels? Simply because Burgundy has four and also has success?
M.M.: No final determination has been made as to whether, as in Burgundy, a distinction will be drawn between Erste- and Grosse Lagen. Within the ÖTW, that will be determined by a full plenary assembly of members. As I see it, the outcome will depend on the degree to which an agreement can be achieved on a very narrow status for Grosse Lagen. As you alluded to, we have an evaluative procedure for determining the relevance of a vineyard site according to so-called “relevance criteria” from diverse standpoints, also factoring in the results of tastings at Grafenegg and internally within the ÖTW. On this basis, a — to some degree — objective determination could be made regarding Erste- and Grosse Lagen.In principle I would prefer that there be Grosse Lagen …
D.S.: … for which, it should be noted, two obvious candidates, indeed likely the two foremost – at least among those in regions currently represented within the ÖTW – would be ones in which you have major holdings: Heiligenstein and Lamm.
M.M.: Here’s the main reason I’d like to see a grand cru as well as a premier cru equivalent: Austria is a niche market internationally and thus our wines don’t generally receive the attention accorded to French, Italian, or Spanish wines. If we establish systems and categories that have been learned by wine professionals internationally, that simplifies communication and enhances the self-confidence of a sommelier or merchant vis-à-vis his or her guests and customers.
D.S.: The advantages of a given site are dependent on climate. Yet the climate is changing as relentlessly and rapidly as seldom or never before in human history. Doesn’t one have to consider the possibility that classification becomes a fast-moving target, and a site once rated tops for its ability to achieve ripe, balanced Riesling or Grüner Veltliner has to be downgraded?
M.M.: I agree that climate strongly influences the character of wine. The Danubian regions are marked by their locations in a valley in which warmer and cooler conditions coexist. The currently classified ÖTW sites are divided between both realms. It’s also true that climate change is measured by a statistical mean. But as winegrowers, we don’t live in a mean, but with the reality that we experience a succession of warmer and cooler years. The shifting mean is felt insofar as the frequency of warmer years is increasing somewhat relative to cooler years. If you think about it, not all that long ago we in the Danube area regularly experienced vintages in which the grapes flat out didn’t ripen, whereas we haven’t recorded such a year since 1996. Even so, in warmer years we harvest as late as early November and in cooler years late November.
D.S.: Of course, harvest dates are also driven by stylistic preferences, and those too are subject to change. But November harvests of Riesling are becoming rarer everywhere in that grape’s classic European growing regions, and in recent years a considerable minority of Austrian growers – your fellow ÖTW member Bernhard Ott being a prime example – have picked top Grüner Veltliner sites at the end of August, which was unheard of historically speaking.
M.M.: In contrast with winegrowers who attract attention by prophesying a red wine future for the Danube area, I don’t believe that this will happen in my lifetime. It may be that in lower areas grape growing moves up-valley, but that adaptation will take place over a very long period. None of which, to be sure, is to deny that we have to constantly evaluate and improve how we work in terms of production and energy usage in the direction of sustainability. As far as changes in the significance of vineyards go, our system of evaluation is constructed such that developments are constantly measured, and one has a sound basis for decisions within the relevant committees.
D.S.: Which recent developments in the direction of a federally recognized vineyard classification can you share?
M.M.: Five years ago, Austria’s National Wine Committee established a working group devoted to achieving a federal resolution for a classification of Austrian appellations.
D.D.: The committee consists of 27 members with five-year terms of office: wine producers, representatives of each Federal State and the Federal Agriculture and Economic Chambers, as well as the managing director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.
M.M.: Draft legislation has reached the stage of parliamentary review, which will take place this summer and will then hopefully be ratified later in the fall. It will take a few years for the law to be fully implemented, since a division of the Federal Ministry of Viticulture will have to be created that will be devoted to work in that area.
Naturally there are some, also within the ÖTW, of the opinion that this will not go well, since politically the entirety of Austrian wine producers has to be satisfied. On the other hand, this is a project that will be critically scrutinized in the international wine world. So, one would do much harm to the image of Austria as a wine-producing country if the task of implementation were approached half-heartedly. For that reason, I’m confident that we will succeed in finding a good resolution to these questions.
D.S.: You’ve used the word “appellation.” I’d like to back up and approach provenance [Herkunft] in general from that angle. You advocate a notion of appellation that encompasses tradition and convention. Can you expand on that? And does it have as a consequence that classification of a vineyard should go hand in hand with limitations on grape variety and style?
M.M.: To define “appellation” demands a fundamental rethinking that abandons the question of available possibilities for making wine from a given vineyard and turns instead to the question of collective typicity as incorporated into provenance.In Austria and Germany, we come historically from having an understanding of wine that poses the question: “Which possibilities are at my disposal as a winegrower for making wine from this site?” A grower can plant diverse grape varieties and vinify these separately; he or she can vinify in different styles from one and the same vineyard or can make special selections from or distinctions within that vineyard, for instance between classical training of vines to wires and lyra training. Those two, from one and the same vineyard, result in – not tremendously but still significantly – different wines. It’s from this line of thinking that the Prädikat system emerged, which starts from the premise that in combination with designations of provenance, diverse qualities of wine can be rendered and marketed, in that case, based on the must weight of the grapes.
For the purposes of an appellation, one has to instead ask: “Which among all of the possibilities is the truest expression of a particular vineyard in the context of its cultural status and history?” The winegrower serves as an active part of the terroir, to which, under this interpretation, alongside the factors of climate, soil, and geological underpinnings, must be added history and culture. This question becomes more compelling if winegrowers in a given region pose it collectively. Their answer leads to a common regional expression, the fingerprint of a wine region, recognizable and recognized worldwide.
For the purposes of an appellation, one has to ask:
“Which among all of the possibilities is the truest expression of a particular vineyard in the context of its cultural status and history? In Austria, and now in Germany, too, this is not so simple.”
In Austria, and now in Germany, too, this is not so simple. “Regional Committees” (Schutzgemeinschaften)face the question: Which aspects of current practice should be considered “typical” for a given region? This process is made more difficult by the fact that it takes some “freedom” away from winegrowers. The question poses itself: Can and should one do that? I think: Yes, one can and should.
Why? When it comes to names that refer to provenance, growers in Austria like to claim a right to use these names for marketing their wines. But with the exception of monopoles, these place names aren’t the property of individual growers as a registered trademark would be. Rather, they are something held in common. Therefore, I have not only a right but also a responsibility to these place-names. Whenever you’re dealing with communal interests, these have to be regulated in some way. And that’s essentially what a law of appellation does. I think that this delimitation in the interests of a community is bearable, since every winegrower remains able to live out his or her ideals of freedom and creativity, he or she just has to market the resulting wines under a different name.
Changes and further development can still take place under these conditions. Any winegrower can introduce and present to the community his or her particular interpretation. If it gains recognition as a plausible interpretation, then there will be a corresponding modification of the appellation regulations.
Let’s take an example: A winegrower from Langenlois begins to make orange wine from the Heiligenstein. True, he can’t [currently] put “Heiligenstein” on the label, but those in the know are aware that the grapes grew there. Let’s suppose further that this wine is so successful and in such demand that he can soon demand twice the price of any other wine from the Heiligenstein. What’s going to happen? Probably within a short time two or three other winegrowers will attempt to make such a wine with their grapes from the Heiligenstein. Now there are two possibilities. Perhaps these other producers are just as successful as the first, which would likely have the consequence that all other winegrowers follow their example, and in a short time most wines from the Heiligenstein will be skin-fermented. But it could also be that the two or three others that attempted to follow the first’s lead fail and end up sitting on their bottles. That would likely result in their returning to the old style of Heiligenstein.
In an earlier period at Schloss Gobelsburg, we had vineyard designations on the labels of our red and sweet wines. But I determined that these wines would sell just as well regardless; they had their own justification. So, the appellation — DAC — Kamptal will definitely not deter us from making sparkling, red or sweet wines in the future. These forms of expression have a justification outside of the appellation and I can sell them without a DAC on the label.
D.S.: Which presumably also explains why you market your “Tradition” wines without DAC, let alone vineyard designations.
M.M.: Yes, this applies to the “Tradition” wines [see Part I of this interview] that thematize the typical winemaking of the 19th century. These wines might have been perceived as typical 200 years ago, but they aren’t “typical” now.Today, the typical expression of these grapes and places is reductive, not oxidative, as it was then.
D.S.: You went as far as deciding to market your Erste Lage wines without mention of the grape variety on the label.
M.M.: I’ve been leaving off the grape name on the front label for 10 years. It’s a philosophical question of what a wine represents. But there’s also the question of what the vintner is doing and what interests him or her. Let me illustrate this with a bottle of Clos de Vougeot. Imagine you have one in front of you. “What is this wine? Is it a PINOT NOIR marked by the vineyard of Clos de Vougeot? Or is this a CLOS DE VOUGEOT expressed in the medium of Pinot Noir?” The answer is important. If I decide to adopt the first interpretation, then my concern is really Pinot Noir and which characteristics or variations are possible with that grape. In that case, as a producer, I should write on the label: “This wine is a PINOT NOIR that grew in the Clos de Vougeot.” But if I adopt the second, then I’m concerned with the question: “What is CLOS DE VOUGEOT, which at this time is expressed through Pinot Noir.” The question is then of what does Clos de Vougeot consist, what are its characteristics and its typicity? When one considers that Clos de Vougeot has existed under that name for centuries, this means it has already experienced various “typical” manifestations. Two hundred years ago there were other grape varieties alongside Pinot Noir that stamped the wine’s character. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a wine that was marked by the addition of wine from outside for color and body. Today, we’re familiar with a certain manifestation. In a hundred years maybe it will be some grape other than Pinot Noir that determines the characteristics of Clos de Vougeot. But it will still be Clos de Vougeot.
D.S.: Viewed within your framework, then, the transformation of “typicity” in the case of Heiligenstein would have to be considered even more extensive. Only in the waning 19th century did this site even become connected with Riesling at all, in the technical literature and then gradually in the conjunction of “Heiligenstein” and “Riesling” on labels and wine lists.
M.M.: Doubts arise even about this. Right into the 1980s, a majority of growers was interested in high yields, and in that respect Riesling could at best play a secondary role. And as late as the 1960s, wines were regularly sold as varietal that actually originated in field blends. One should not forget an ancient saying among vintners: “Da Wein hot ka Mascherl.” Meaning, in effect: Anything that the Kellereiinspektor can’t prove is permitted; and most people can’t tell the difference anyway.
D.S.: You can surely count yourself lucky in the 21st century to take for granted stricter quality regulation and expectations, to say nothing of a clientele that not only halfway recognizes the differences between wines but also values them.
M.M.: To be sure. But the degree of wine knowledge and the interests within one’s customer base are ultimately the determining factors in this question of labeling.
I’m forever being told that from the perspective of the customer one can’t do without mention of grape variety. I see things differently — otherwise selling wines as brands wouldn’t function. There are certainly many people who love to drink wine, but have no enhanced interest in it. But then there are people who involve themselves more deeply with wine and are prepared to pay more for a special bottle. These people have recognized that Chardonnay is not just Chardonnay, Riesling not just Riesling, and Grüner Veltliner has such a broad range of possible expressions that one can’t lump them together. In my experience, among wine lovers of this sort, the concept of grape variety loses importance, because enhanced interest is directed toward other aspects.
So, when it’s more important for me as a producer to concern myself with the characteristics of a grape variety, then I’ll have the name of that variety printed very prominently on the label; on the other hand, when typicity and personality of the wine is important, then I’ll feature the vineyard name prominently.
D.S.: But don’t you think it a disadvantage that potential customers could overlook these wines – on a restaurant list, in a merchant’s offerings, or online – if they’re searching under the terms “Riesling” or “Grüner Veltliner”?
M.M.: One interpretation of the circumstance that I don’t indicate the grape variety on the main label of a vineyard-designated wine is that customers who want to drink Grüner Veltliner or Riesling don’t interest me. For these wines, I want wine lovers who have a special interest in provenance and its various manifestations.
D.S.: But surely these two groups are not mutually exclusive. Or at least, I count myself as belonging to both.
D.S.: Aren’t there vineyard sites, in the Kamptal as well as elsewhere, equally suited for either Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, and whose labeling therefore — no less than the labeling of a wine as “Kamptal DAC” – requires an additional specification of grape variety? And if that’s the case, then wouldn’t it be more readily intelligible if all producers followed the same – and in this instance, long-established – labeling convention?
M.M.: I get asked again and again how things stand with vineyards in which two or more grape varieties are planted. In the case of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, for me the case is obvious. These two varieties are by nature complementary. If a vineyard is delimited by law, then it either lends itself to Riesling or to Grüner Veltliner, but never to both. Riesling is most comfortable in dry and minerally soils, whereas Grüner Veltliner needs a good supply of moisture. Wherever one finds both varieties in the same vineyard, then either that site is not properly sectioned off, or else one has circumvented the natural order of things by means of technology, such as by conveying enough water to a dry location that one can raise Grüner Veltliner there. If irrigation were forbidden in the Danube terraces, Grüner Veltliner would soon disappear from these sites.
D.S.: I assume you’re exempting the eastern Kremstal’s very broad loess terraces. But you maintain this position even though within a dozen ÖTW Erste Lagen – five in the Kamptal alone (Gaisberg, Kogelberg, Loiserberg, und Seeberg) – both Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are planted. And that’s true as well of the best-known vineyards of Vienna on the Nussberg. So, are you saying these are either cases of sub-optimal planting decisions or of vineyards that on account of their soil and other terroir factors really ought to have been divided into two separate Rieden?
M.M.: That’s pretty much how I see it, yes. I have always conceived of it as my responsibility as winegrower to plant the correct grape variety in the appropriate location and vineyard. If you take that responsibility seriously, then a Heiligenstein can only be a Riesling and a Lamm a Grüner Veltliner.And if that’s the case, then I don’t need to mention a grape variety on the label, as that’s an unequivocal given .
As far as the actual status quo is concerned, you’re right that there are many Rieden in which more than one grape grows. But I’m observing increasing sensibility in this matter, which is why in the ÖTW we have already stipulated and publicized in our Lagenbuch a “lead grape variety” for each site – the variety that as an association we deem the most suitable.
D.S.: Apropos irrigation, that has after all been a fact of life in the Kamptal and Kremstal for as long as the ÖTW has existed. And in the Wachau – granted, out of reach of the ÖTW – there are well-known instances of irrigated vineyards that give extraordinary results with Grüner Veltliner as well as Riesling, for instance the huge Loibenberg with its mixture of loess- and degraded gneiss-dominated locations, but whose treatment as a single Ried you’ve previously indicated you affirm, not to mention the – size-wise as well as qualitatively – great Achleiten.
M.M.: Just as in many other elements of viticulture, when it comes to irrigation, numerous aspects have to be considered. Irrigation is a tool, an aid that allows us to do something positive by allowing especially disadvantaged sites to survive in a sustainable way. Especially in the dry, stone terraces in the Krems sector …
D.S.: .. or those of the Wachau…
M.M.: … it wouldn’t be possible otherwise to regularly produce attractive wines. So, if one wants to secure a future for viticulture in such terraces, irrigation is indispensable.
D.S.: A contention that’s being increasingly debated in Germany now as well.
M.M.: Like every tool, irrigation can be abused, for instance if employed simply to increase yields, or if grapes have been planted where they don’t belong.
D.S.: Like Grüner Veltliner in Achleiten?
M.M.: These discussions are difficult, and I am naturally well aware that one can debate and philosophize at length about the question of irrigation.
D.S.: We know from Schams (1835) that wines from the Heiligenstein and Gaisberg, those “mightily-terraced granite and gneiss mountainsides” had already long been praised, among other things for their “toughness and longevity,” traits that – as you explained in your account of the “Tradition” project – were even more prized then than today. But since these wines weren’t Riesling, do you consider the Gemischte Sätze that long dominated Heiligenstein – according to your reading of history all the way into the 1970s – to have been a waste of that site?
M.M. No, not a waste, but rather an expression of these vineyards for its time.
D.D.: So, to paraphrase your earlier comment about Clos de Vougeot, Heiligenstein then was still – or perhaps I should say “already” – Heiligenstein.
M.S.: The Heiligenstein of that earlier time was a product of history that in the past 50 years evolved into Heiligenstein as we now know it. One needs also to distinguish between the historically evolved Gemischter Satz and today’s artificial Gemischter Satz. The former represented a combination of grape varieties that developed over centuries on the basis of location. Today’s Gemischte Sätze stem from the personal experience of winegrowers and their subjective ideas and visions of a contemporary field blend.
D.S.: Changing key now, I’m aware that your close association as a jazz and classical pianist has occasionally led you to a better understanding of viticultural issues. Here’s an example where your musical analogy really helped me.
A vintner could claim — and many do — that he or she sticks with an absolutely consistent cellar regimen so as to best reflect differences in growing season and thus the personality of each unique vintage. But that would mean in principle that he or she occasionally does, or leaves undone, something about which he or she believes that to have behaved differently would, aesthetically speaking, have resulted in a lovelier wine. And even abstracting entirely from cellar practice, I know of no winegrower who, for the sake of better reflecting the vicissitudes of growing season, practices an identical regimen of pruning, canopy management, or spraying – much less harvests on the same calendar date – year in and year out. Given these considerations, one has to think of vintage character as representing a collaboration of weather, vine, and vintner, the tensions in whose relationships with one another have to be resolved, whether through action or inaction, intentionally or accidentally, unluckily or serendipitously. At this point, winegrowers often evoke intuition or Fingerspitzengefühl, but without clarifying the role of insight or the connection to vintage character as a goal. That’s where you stepped in.
M.M.: I see our actions in the vineyard and the cellar as a dynamic process – namely as a reaction to certain situations in light of certain aims. For me, this reacting is a lot like my experience as a musician, especially when I was still playing jazz. One has to be capable of listening and be wanting to react accordingly and to improvise, without losing track of the main theme. That’s how it is in the vineyard or the cellar. It would be fatal merely to act “according to plan” or “the way we’ve always done it” …
D.S.: … heedless of the directions or theme that nature seems to have proposed. But equally fatal to disavow or disown personal ideals. All of which helped me realize how authenticity in wine involves many metrics. There is an awful lot to be true to, not least oneself.
Authenticity in wine involves
many metrics. There is an awful lot
to be true to, not least oneself.
M.M.: Not that I wish to suggest that the practice of music can make one a better vintner. The two disciplines are fundamentally different from one another. But by comparing them, one can perhaps become aware of certain connections and modes of activity. There are certainly things the two have in common. For example, in how they are perceived. One can take in music or wine very superficially – pop music , supermarket wines – but also with deep emotion and intellectually – serious music, fine wine. They certainly have in common that experience in the relevant discipline has a direct influence on one’s perception. The more I’ve occupied myself with a musical composition, its time period, its history and relevant performance practice, the more deeply I can take it in and understand it. Similarly with wine.The more intensively I have concerned myself with a region, a grower, history, soil, climate, and other particulars, the more intensely I can enjoy and appreciate the wine that reflects them.
D.S.: In my experience, with music as with wine, one could go so far as to maintain that not just repeated acquaintance but also the sort of knowledge you just mentioned can lead one to perceive a composition or a wine in a completely different way, almost as though the before and after were two entirely different things. I’m thinking for instance of many wines or musical compositions that I initially perceived as, to borrow from John Stuart Mill, “buzzing blooming confusion,” not to mention found impossible to savor, but that I was gradually led – or perhaps “learned” is more apt – to appreciate, even to love.
M.M.: There aren’t just similarities in the way in which they’re marked by culture, history, and provenance; the ways of describing wine and music are underlain by similar functionality.
D.S.: All of which helps explain why I venture to characterize my own contrasting view of appellation with a musical analogy.
We’re well-informed about which goals were pursued in the performance of Mozart operas during the 19th century and of how these developed into a standard practice. Then along came Gustav Mahler and his set designer Alfred Roller in Vienna around 1900, who rejected those practices as exemplifying the sloppiness of tradition. Their new conception of how these operas should be performed was transmitted via conductor Bruno Walter and others through most of the 20th century until, in part thanks to a movement with “historically authentic performance practice” as its professed goal, that Mahlerian paradigm was in turn superseded. Up to that point, you and I are in accord, and similarly as far as the development over time of a Clos de Vougeot or Heiligenstein.
But various, at times radically divergent, interpretations coexist of, say Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Many a contemporary interpreter would be tempted to claim about a performance by Teodor Currentzis: “Your Don Giovanni is not my Don Giovanni.” But he or she would have to realize that ultimately this claim is nonsense, unless there isn’t any such thing as Mozart’s Don Giovanni per se, which would mean none of the directions and notes that make up a score. Wouldn’t there similarly be a quiddity, an essential thing that is Clos de Vougeot or Heiligenstein that we can now perceive through the prism of various interpretations or paradigms? And wouldn’t that quiddity be something interpreters share as a common good?
M.M.: Here we come to some of the differences between music and wine. A major one is the matter of interpretation that you raise. In the case of music, there is a composer, whom, granted, in most cases we can’t question directly in interpretive matters because he or she is deceased. But from written accounts and established practices we know in broad terms what he or she had in mind. The composer had a musical and artistic intention. To stick with the example of Mozart, since he was a masterful improviser, we can assume a certain flexibility in his performance practice. But Mozart, too, recognized limits in his notion of interpretation that were not to be overstepped. The normative element of interpretation thus originates with one person, namely the composer.
Wine is different. Here there are no definitive interpretative norms. There was no one who at some beginning point established which intentions must be met in the expression of a vineyard. The norms of expression emerge over time through trial and error, through accident, and in response to market factors.
Norms of expression emerge over
time through trial and error, through accident, and in response to market factors.
D.S.: When it comes to responsibilities, which would seem greater or more fundamental: My obligation to fellow vintners and a set of common stylistic conceptions and methods, or an obligation vis-à-vis my own vines and site? To revert to my musical analogy: Generations may have thought of their performances as acts of solidarity with fellow artists and of fidelity to a tradition – but of obligation? Surely —luckily — conductors and directors considered themselves ultimately responsible to Mozart and his compositions.
M.M.: Naturally, we have an equal responsibility to fellow winegrowers and to our vines and soils. Nor should we forget our customers! I see no contradiction there. But in contrast with music, for us winegrowers there is no one person against whose intentions we can judge our work.