The Spectacular Rise Of Viennese Wines
Viennese wines, which do exist, were long known as thirst-quenchers for the masses. The past two decades have brought dramatic improvements, which are trickling down to the city’s traditional wine taverns known as Heurigers.
After lumbering along the D line for about twenty minutes, my tram terminated at a medieval-looking square overlooking pristine rows of vines on the hillside. This was in Nussdorf, a wealthy suburb of Vienna, a city of 1.9 million people and the only metropolis with sizable vineyards right within its urban area. Imagine if grapes for wine were grown, bottled, and consumed in Manhattan.
As a newly minted Viennese resident, I wanted to experience Vienna’s famed Heuriger culture. For centuries, Viennese winemakers earned a living by selling their wines from simple taverns inside their homes known as Heurigers – although the technical term is Buschenschank – which means “this year’s” [wine]. A hundred or so Heurigers still exist, most of them located in what used to be villages outside the city but long ago gobbled up by the rapidly urbanizing Habsburg capital. Here in Nussdorf, for example, the narrow uphill roads today are lined with the residential palaces and car parks of the Viennese one percent.
Unlike in many other cities, the vineyards escaped real estate development thanks to a 1905 building ban still largely in place today. The law, way ahead of its time and implemented by Mayor Karl Lueger, created a “forest and meadow belt” (Wald- und Wiesengürtel) on Vienna’s outskirts. Mayor Lueger, by the way, is also known for less noble behavior: He was a rabid antisemite and a role model to the young Adolf Hitler, who wrote about him admiringly in Mein Kampf. (A giant statue of Lueger still anchors Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Platz in Vienna’s city center.)
The highlight of a Heuriger is the outdoor “gastgarten” furnished with rustic tables and communal benches and protected from the summer heat by soaring chestnut trees. The Heuriger crowd hasn’t changed much over the centuries: Viennese residents in need of fresh air and a good buzz. Even on a not especially balmy Saturday evening in early May, I glimpsed lively crowds through the open courtyards. Busy servers, some of them dressed in folk clothes, slalomed with pitchers of wine in hand.
Guests used to bring their own nibbles, but traditional Austrian food is now part of the Heuriger offerings. A glass display (“Buffet”) is usually piled with cold cuts, head cheese, eggs and Liptauer spreads, roast pork belly, sausages, spinach-and-cheese strudels, and pastries. After experiencing moments of frustration, I learned that a wait in the Buffet line was part of the Heuriger experience. Another lesson: some Heurigers close down during peak season to take care of winery works (look out for the “Ausg'steckt” sign).
Since about the 1960s, Vienna’s Heurigers double as tourist attractions, meaning one needs to proceed with caution. Especially so in Grinzing (District 19), next to Nussdorf, where tour buses at regular intervals deposit packs of German retirees to Heurigers like Alter Bach-Hengl. Some establishments lure guests with bushy-haired statues of Ludwig van Beethoven – the maestro was a notorious Heuriger-fan and spent the summers out here (exactly when and where and what he composed while roaming the picturesque vineyards remains a topic of scholarly debate).
Not surprisingly, Heurigers have a reputation problem among young and fashionable Viennese, who turn up their noses at these old-school establishments. “I hardly go to them and don’t know any by name,” wrote a friend recently when I inquired about her favorite. “And the food isn’t especially healthy.”
Until recently, Viennese wines weren’t exactly a connoisseur’s drink. The Habsburg court cellar, right in Vienna, carried none of it, for example. A book from 1810 disparagingly notes that Viennese wines are consumed only by the lower classes. More recently, The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, a wine bible if there ever was one, dedicates a mere paragraph to Vienna (the rocky terraces of Wachau, just up the Danube, get two full pages.) The Sommelier’s Atlas of Wine skips it entirely.
The typical Heuriger wine is the Gemischter Satz, a field blend of white wine. Viennese winemakers have long planted and harvested all their grapes together – Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Weißburgunder, and all the rest. This approach, which was common across Europe, protected them from a bad harvest: if some of the grapes remained too sour in a cool year, not a problem, other varieties that ripened fully would balance out the overall flavor and save the day.
With a more science-driven approach to winemaking in the late 19th century, this practice started to disappear across Europe. Growers instead paid careful attention to each grape varietal; its demand for optimal soil, climate, and ripening conditions, not just simply mixing them all together. Not so in Vienna, where the mass-produced Gemischter Satz, rarely even bottled, was good enough for the Heuriger crowd. Today’s winemakers say the quality was very poor until well into the 1990s.
Around this time appeared a group that set its sights higher than the neighborhood Heuriger. “We started to make a difference between being a Heuriger and a winery. We wanted to make high-quality wines that were bottled,” says Michael Edlmoser, today one of the pioneering producers in Mauer, in southwest Vienna. They were young, motivated, attended wine school, and spent time working abroad. “There was a transformation all over Austria,” says Edlmoser.
Fritz Wieninger, 57, is the face of Viennese wines. He’s a media-savvy entrepreneur and a respected winemaker, one of the biggest with 75 hectares (185 acres) of biodynamically farmed land. I met him at his winery in Stammersdorf, where he held a tasting the night before until well past midnight. “The Viennese population is proud. This is their wine. 25 years ago, they didn’t want Viennese wines. I worked hard to change it,” he said.
After an especially good harvest in 1999, he became convinced that the Gemischter Satz had untapped potential. Turning weakness into strength, he leaned into the Gemischter Satz and started parading its long traditions and peculiar winemaking technique. Together with Edlmoser and two other winemakers, Richard Zahel and Rainer Christ, in 2006 he formed the WienWein promotion group.
By 2013, the Viennese Gemischter Satz joined seven Austrian wine regions in gaining designated origin status from the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture. Not bad for a wine that until recently had been dismissed as a plonk for the masses. By law, the Gemischter Satz is to be made from at least three grape types – none exceeding fifty percent – that were grown in the same vineyard and harvested and processed together.
“It should be like an orchestra – no single grape to dominate. It’s about harmony,” says Franz-Michael Mayer, a small producer whose Gemischter Satz, made from thirteen types of grapes, is among my favorites. “Grüner Veltliner for drinkability, Pinot Blanc for mouthfeel, Riesling for acidity,” he added. It was delicious; crisp but also charming with floral aromas. “A few percent of Traminer and yellow Muscatel, not more. For a good nose.”
The Gemischter Satz is now being exported to countries like Japan, the Nordics, and the United States. Wieninger, who produces nearly half a million bottles a year, sells to 45 countries and spends much of the year promoting Viennese wines abroad. He is also in charge of Amador, the only restaurant in Austria with three Michelin stars and where his Gemischter Satz is served by the glass. Michael Edlmoser, while still busy with his family Heuriger, sells the majority of his bottles to supermarkets, wine stores, and wine bars.
Currently thirty percent of Vienna’s 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of vineyards are planted with Gemischter Satz, a number that’s been rising each year but still too low according to some. “We should have 70-80 percent. Every new planting should be made with Gemischter Satz,” says Alex Zahel, head of a major family winery that exports to high-end wine stores in the United States, such as Flatiron Wines. “We should use this unique brand that we have.”
All the leading winemakers have started to emphasize Vienna’s diverse soil, which they claim yields markedly different wines: Mauer’s dolomite chalk and limestone in the southwest, Bisemberg’s gravely loess of in the north, Nussberg’s marine sediments and sandstone bedrock (flysch) in between. Such discussions rarely come up among the Heuriger crowd, but a vineyard classification could help position the wines higher abroad.
Like the wines, the Heurigers have also experienced a revival in recent years. Many wineries, such as Wieninger, opened a Heuriger high up on the hillside, right amid their vineyards, hoping to draw a younger crowd with the panoramic vistas and a carefree environment (traditionally, Heurigers were down in the village where people lived).
The concept has been a major success, although the newfound popularity comes with downsides as intoxicated people leave trash in their way, nibble on the grapes, or destroy the vines. The Heurigers in Mauer, such as Edlmoser’s, are known to be more under-the-radar, drawing a neighborhood crowd with lower price points.
If all of this sounds intriguing, a Heuriger visit should be part of your next Vienna trip. Until then, you can bring the Heuriger vibes home: Grab a loaf of crusty bread, a few kinds of cold cuts, whip up some Liptauer, and serve it all with a nicely chilled bottle of Gemischter Satz. No matter where you live, you can probably find it in your neighborhood wine store. And you can skip the buffet line.