There’s something about seeing “Seit (since) 1171” on a wine label that jolts you to attention. C’mon, they haven’t actually been making wine for 840 years, have they? At Schloss Gobelsburg in Austria, they have. “They” are monks, who started making wine in 1171 at the Gobelsburg castle and continued doing so for the next eight centuries.

That last phrase is in the past tense because while Schloss Gobelsburg continues to produce wine, it’s no longer the monks who lead the process. That transition says important things about tradition, history and our notions of quality. And it indicates how “culture” might continue to thrive in a future where unchecked globalization pressures threaten everywhere to flatten and homogenize.

All of which would be intellectually interesting topics even if the wines weren’t terrific. But they are. The sensual pleasures and emotional resonance they offer in the glass are just as compelling as the issues they raise.

It’s hard not to be captivated by the romance of a monastery producing wines since 1171. In your mind, there go the humble, diligent monks, tending to the vines, bringing the grapes in at harvest, transferring the juice to casks for fermentation and aging, then pouring the finished wine into urns of some kind. Some of it they sell, the proceeds going toward the upkeep of their holy work. And some of it they drink themselves, as meditative aid and to activate communion with the divine.

This is more or less how it went for centuries. Sometimes the wine was good, sometimes it wasn’t, but good wine wasn’t necessarily the primary consideration. Once the bills were paid, the aim was stable transmission of a stable culture. Our modern obsession with quality – the fetish of “what’s in the glass” – would have seemed as superfluous and odd to producers and drinkers of past centuries as their routine slowness and allegiance to the status quo appear obsolete to us.

We who love wine pay extreme attention to issues of quality: aromas, flavors, textures, in their infinite nuances. And we love a good story, with words like “tradition” and “handmade” and “family” thrown in. But we’re not so well prepared when quality and traditions diverge.

After World War II (during which the castle was used to hold French POWs, among other unseemly functions), and later the Soviet occupation (when the grounds seemed to serve mostly as target-practice opportunities for soldiers), quality and tradition were each in their own manner of crisis, and the winery’s reputation needed a great deal of restoration. The abbot, Father Bertram Baumann, was effective in that regard, but age forced his resignation in the mid-1990s. And then, for the first time, in order to carry on centuries of tradition, Schloss Gobelsburg hired an outsider.

That would be Michael Moosbrugger, who has led the winemaking since 1996, when he, legendary winegrower Willi Bründlmayer and Schloss Gobelsburg formed a partnership involving a long-term lease of the property. Moosbrugger, the child of a well-regarded Austrian restaurant and hospitality family, is a brilliant winemaker but notably refers to his landlord not as a winery but as a “wine cultural heritage” entity.

This is the key. For a personally directed winery, whether it is run by a single family or a company, the spirit of the wines is driven by the personality of the winemaker, and perhaps that of her family or the significant principals of the company. The land and climate have an impact, of course, but there’s a relatively closed circle of deciding factors.

At Schloss Gobelsburg, a prominent wine cultural heritage center but by no means the only one, something broader and more consequential takes the lead. Cistercian monks brought vines from Burgundy to the Danube region even well before 1171. There were no “wineries,” just many farms, where animals and food crops shared space with vines. There were no good roads, so the main form of transport of goods was the Danube. Gobelsburg, located close to the river, came to serve as a central cellar facility for wine made throughout the region, representing the terroirs of many locations.

It is this heritage, and profound responsibility, that Schloss Gobelsburg represents and continues to bear. Moosbrugger has defined “good wines” as those that represent their origin and their culture.

His approach to temperature control, for example, merges modern and ancient understandings of fermentation: Rather than control tank temperature using computers and stainless steel, Moosbrugger developed a “dynamic cellar system,” which essentially sets the old wooden casks on wheels, to be moved to naturally warmer or colder areas of the cellar according to what they need.

As drinkers, then, our responsibility here is to think less of personality (either in the glass or behind it) and more of a nexus of histories, traditions and people. Not a single family, not a single vineyard, not a single anything.

Interestingly, because some of Schloss Gobelsburg’s production was always used for “Messwein” (consumed at the altar during services), the vineyards were always treated with long-term sustainability and purity in mind. Ecclesiastical regulations prohibited chemical additives, chaptalization (the addition of sugar in order to yield more alcohol) or excessive use of chemicals in the vineyards.

This respectful treatment is evident in the wines, which present a clarity, flexibility and thrilling tension between fruit and rock. The lines of communication are direct alerts, from places uncluttered. That simpler premodern spirit the monks sustained for so many centuries remains, though the unreliable quality is a thing of the past.

The Gobelsburger Grüner Veltliner Kamptal has for years been a bombproof love of mine, and at $16, a value with few rivals (at any price, in any color, in any style). The 2013 vintage, however, somehow outdoes itself. The wine’s intensely mineral cut is offset by succulent tangerine and apple, and, in other directions, spice and salt. Like an already swiftly rushing stream that has just had the dam released, it’ll carry you away.

The Gobelsburger Zweigelt 2011, from Niederösterreich, is less thrill-a-minute than the Grüner but maybe more intriguing, as it deflects the fresh-n-fruity profile of most inexpensive bright-red Zweigelt and leans toward something more mature and long-lived. There’s a tremendous healthiness to it, like a restorative broth emerging from meat scraps and garlic that you sip when sloughing off a cold.

Hallmarks of “manly” red wine – like blood, dust and tobacco – are here, though held in agile suspension by a low 12.5 percent alcohol, and so much acidity that you emerge from each sip refreshed and revitalized. It’s a terrific revelation over time, too. Two and three nights after the cork has been popped, the wine knits together into an ever denser bolt of fabric.

Moosbrugger has also begun a fascinating project, the “Tradition” series of wines, based on his research into wines from the estate’s library, as well as its photo and records archive. These wines are made according to the methodologies of past centuries, when the approach assumed a winemaker/wine relationship akin (in his terms) to that of teacher/student, and the wine was “schooled” over time in the cellar; the modern approach seeks maximum aromatic character in as little time as possible.

The “Tradition” series is not currently available in Maine, but Schloss Gobelsburg’s unique blend of past, present and future is obvious in every one of its bottles.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

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