By Chris Boiling
September 7, 2016
Earlier this year, at the Travvy Awards, the American travel industry selected Austria as the best wine tourism destination in Europe. Wine writer Chris Boiling still thinks Slovenia is tops but he concedes that Austria’s capital, Vienna, is the best wine city he has visited.
Oh, Vienna! It may be best known for its classical music, waltzes, palaces, coffee houses, dancing white horses, ferris wheel, and the pop song of the same name by Ultravox, but it also has another claim to fame – it’s the only capital city that is also a wine region. And it is no ordinary wine region. The city itself owns a winery and vineyards, you can visit many of the vineyards and historic wine taverns by public transport, and it has its own special cuvée.
Gemischter Satz is the traditional Viennese wine that’s reached new heights of quality and appreciation over the past decade. The blend is made in the vineyard rather than the cellar. The vineyards overlooking the city has as many as 20 varieties of white grape growing in them, although five to seven is the norm and three is the minimum. Typically, Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling provide the bulk, Riesling contributes the acidity and varieties such as Traminer and Gelber Muscateller (Yellow Muscat) boost the aromas. All the varieties are harvested at the same time (regardless of their ripeness), pressed, fermented and aged together. It makes for an easy-drinking, clean, fresh, multi-layered fruit bowl of flavours that varies from one producer to the next and from one year to the next.
Mixed vineyards were typical throughout Central Europe for centuries, giving the grape grower a degree of insurance against losing the whole crop to frost at bloom time, rain at flowering or different pests and diseases. Whereas this practise died out in much of the world, it is undergoing a renaissance in Vienna and has now been added to the Italy-based Slow Food Foundation’s ‘Ark of Taste’, which promotes biodiversity and traditional foods. And in 2013, Wiener Gemischter Satz was awarded protection of origin status (its own DAC).
The leading producers include Rainer Christ, Michael Edlmoser, Fritz Wieninger, Richard Zahel, Weingut Cobenzl and Mayer am Pfarrplatz. Together they own about 45% of Vienna’s 1680 acres of vineyards, of which about 25% is devoted to ‘mixed batches’. These producers also make wine from Austria’s flagship grape variety Grüner Veltliner, and international varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir, and have quaint claims to fame. Rainer Christ harvests a Pinot Blanc by the light of the full moon; Fritz Wieninger is following in the footsteps of his mother, one of the first female winemakers to graduate from Klosterneuberg (Europe’s oldest winemaking school); Michael Edlmoser, whose family winemaking business dates back to 1347, went to California to hone his winemaking skills; Weingut Cobenzl has been owned by the city since 1907; and Beethoven composed his 9th Symphony at Mayer am Pfarrplatz’s premises, the region’s largest producer.
Paul Kiefer, who’s in charge of sales at Mayer am Pfarrplatz, explained the advantages of a field blend this way: “It’s very nice because you get the acidity of Riesling, the spiciness of Grüner Veltliner, and you get the flavours of Traminer or Muskateller. If they are fermented together it’s a completely different taste to a blend because if you have a blend with 5-7% Traminer, the Traminer is much louder and maybe it tastes a little bit perfumed, but if the grapes ferment together it’s a much more complex style.”
Originally the wine was very simple and sold straight from taps in the Austrian capital’s wine taverns (heurige/heuriger/heurigen, depending on the context). But over the past 13 years it has been upgraded to the true expression of the city’s terroir, with the most complex, elegant and minerally profound examples coming from single vineyards, old vines up to 70 years old in some cases, indigenous yeasts and maturation in stainless steel tanks or large oak barrels (but never new barriques that can impart oak flavours). As a result, Gemischter Satz is now Vienna’s signature wine, and was subsequently promoted from the heurigen in its outskirts to the posh city centre restaurants which once snubbed it as plonk.
In my opinion, the atmospheric, rustic heurigen are still the best places to drink Gemischter Satz. Most of Vienna’s 300-plus winemakers also have their own heuriger selling the new wine (heurige) they produce alongside basic, hearty, self-service meals, such as Wiener schnitzel, sauerkraut and dumplings. These do make for a good pairing. If the heuriger is open and selling new wine you will see a bunch of pine branches hanging over the door and the word “ausg’steckt” (‘hung out’) somewhere prominent.
Until the late Middle Ages, there were vineyards right in the centre of Vienna, in what’s now called the First District. The vineyards today lie in a green belt around the city, with many of the best sites found in the 18th, 19th, 21st and 23rd districts. Villages with heurigen include Heiligenstadt, Sievering, Grinzing, Nussdorf, Stammersdorf, Strebersdorf, Jedlersdorf, Mauer, and Bisamberg.
Many of the leading producers’ heuriger and wineries are on signposted walks with starting points that can be reached from the city centre by public transport (often a combination of underground train, tram and bus, but all using the same €21.90 Vienna Card, which is valid for 48 hours; a 72-hour card costs €24.90).
I followed the wine trail two days running. The first day I took the D tram to Nussdorf in Vienna’s 19th district, at the border of the Vienna Woods, walked through the vineyards via Eichelhofweg and then weaved my way back down to Grinzing, a charming village bursting with heurigen. At Zum Guten Grinzing (Himmelstrasse 7), I met winemaker and violinist Peter Uhler, who pumps his own recordings of Schrammelmusik (a typical Viennese style of folk music) into his fermenting must to stimulate the yeast. His Sonor Wiener Gemischter Satz was certainly in tune with my tastebuds.
The next day I took the underground (U4) to Heiligenstadt and the 38A bus up to the Cobenzl Winery, marvelled at the views of the city, tasted a wide range of wines from the city-owned winery and then walked down the hill to Grinzing. Once there, I visited the Mayer am Pfarrplatz heuriger in Heiligenstadt, which encompasses the house where Ludwig van Beethoven lived in 1817 while he was working on his 9th Symphony.
The City Hiking Trails are listed on the Vienna tourist information website (www.vienna.info), with routes 1, 1a, 2 and 5 leading through the major wine-growing hills, including Nussberg, Kahlenberg and Bisamberg, where archaeological findings show that vines have been cultivated since 750BC.
An alternative to walking is the hop-on, hop-off Vienna Heurigen Express, which starts and finishes at the tram station in Nussdorf and goes via Kahlenberg (for magnificent views of the city) and Grinzing. The service runs on the hour from 12noon until 6pm from April to the end of October.
Whatever way you get to the vineyards to the north of the city centre, once there you will be able to appreciate the geographical features that make Austria’s capital so suitable for wine-growing. The hilly 18th and 19th districts are split by the Danube, which helps to moderate the climate in winter and summer, and reflects extra sunlight onto the grapes. The close proximity of the city keeps temperatures up during the ripening season; the nearby woods keep temperatures down during the hot summer; and the predominantly westerly wind helps to prevent rot, enabling producers such as Rainer Christ and Fritz Wieninger to follow biodynamic principles.
If you wish to try Vienna’s reds, head south on tram no.60 to Mauer in the 23rd district, where Michael Edlmoser offers an impressive St Laurent and the Private Blend featuring 80% Zweigelt, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. The Weingut Edlmoser heuriger dates back to 1629 and has a pretty garden (www.edlmoser.com).
One of the other reasons I think Vienna is the best wine city is that you don’t have to leave the city centre to see amazing wine sites. Four storeys (16 metres) below the streets is the 500-year-old Villon Wine Cellar (www.villon.at), which holds guided wine tastings on Fridays and Saturdays.
Other cellars worth visiting are the ones at the Palais Coburg – built inside ruins from the 16th century and housing one of the best collections of rare wines – and the vaults at the Artner Restaurant on Franziskanerplatz which date back to the Middle Ages. This cellar focuses on wines from the Carnuntum region in Lower Austria.
Vienna also has a lively wine bar scene and excellent wine shops. Wieno, near the university and Rathaus, in Lichtenfelsgasse, has about 60 wines from 18 producers including Wieninger, Zahel, Christ and Edlmoser, as well as newcomers and rarities (www.wieno.info). The Wein & Co wine shops, especially the ones near the lively Naschmarkt and the impressive cathedral, also offer a great selection of wines from the city and rest of Austria (www.weinco.at). But one of my favorite experiences was having a glass of sturm (cloudy, semi-fermented grape juice) at a hotdog stand before going into the magestic opera house.