Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine, Part 6: Guide to the Vineyards, Wines and Wine Taverns of Vienna
ⓒ Otto Domes
Vienna: The Greatest Wine City in the World (?)
What is the greatest Wine City in the world? Vienna gets my vote.
That’s probably not what you’d expect. Vienna’s certainly not the best city for finding the broadest selection of the world’s wines (that has to be New York). Nor is it the best city for finding the hippest French wines (Paris) or California wines (San Francisco), the most exciting food and wine pairing opportunities (Tokyo) or the greatest wine auctions (is that still London?).
City vineyards, bucolic heurigen and delicious, local wines
So, what makes Vienna the world’s greatest Wine City?
Simple: Wine is woven right into the fabric of both Vienna’s infrastructure and its life. It’s the only major city we know of with a flourishing wine industry within the city limits. As in, you can walk to the vineyards from your apartment complex!
Just as important, when you get there it isn’t just a hill covered in vines – it’s a hill covered in vines interspersed with wine taverns, known as a “heuriger,” where you can sit down, relax and enjoy some delicious, super-fresh wine with simple but perfect (and plentiful) snacks.
Of course, this would only be of touristic interest if those vineyards and the local culture didn’t come together to make wines that we want to drink here as well as when we visit. But the last few years, especially, have seen a new generation of talented producers, pushing the expectations and quality of the wines beyond their simplistic traditional purposes. There are some incredibly delicious bottles making their way out of the taverns and into the US market.
The Great Vienna Mystery: How do the Vineyards Survive?
Great vineyards in a city are a rarity in modern times. On the one hand, they’re expensive to work and maintain, and on the other there’s always a developer happy to buy the land at top dollar to build housing.
This is true all over the world. There used to be plenty of vineyards in and around Paris, but it’s easier to ship wine into Paris than it is to find land for homes and factories in the city, so the vineyards were plowed and buildings went up. (Tellingly, the one famous vineyard still operating in Paris was planted in pre-war Montmartre by a group working to block a development!). And it’s still happening. Even in the suburbs of cities near famous wine regions, like Bordeaux, Lisbon and San Francisco, there is enormous pressure to give up the vine.
Why didn’t this happen in Vienna?
Believe it or not, one major reason Vienna avoided this fate was thanks to the ancient traditions of the local wine taverns, the heuriger.
Since at least the 1700s, when the Holy Roman Emperor passed a law allowing the city’s growers to open taverns where they could sell their own wines with cold foods (a limitation meant to protect restaurants from competition) the heuriger has been an important institution. The name literally means “this year,” which gives you a sense of what they’re selling: the freshest, most recent wine from their own vines.
But what they really are is a unique sort of wine bar or wine tavern, a place that fed and watered people from all walks of life. Fancy people would visit; Heuriger Mayer am Pfarrplatz rented a flat to Beethoven and he drank there (until they kicked him out for unpaid bills). But the simple food and homemade wine kept prices reasonable, and the wine bars became an important part of day-to-day life for a huge swath of Vienna’s population, from the cultural elite to the working class.
So important to city living, in fact, that when development pressures really started to build late in the next century and early in the twentieth, the city banned building on the vineyards. Not only do many laws protecting the vineyards remain on the books today, the heuriger themselves are recognized as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.
Vienna’s Wine Taverns Today
Thanks to this unique history, you can still visit Vienna or its suburbs and walk out to vineyards for a green respite from city noise and pavement. You’ll be able to sit in the bucolic setting and enjoy the most local of local wines. It feels like the most amazing mix of ancient (how many generations have done this?) and the super-hip. If you’re there earlier in the day you may be surrounded by families out for a snack, strollers parked out front. And if you’re there later in the day you will see a younger crowd pre-gaming before they head out clubbing. No strollers for them (yet).
Despite the obvious attractiveness to tourists, the heuriger is one of the most uber-local experiences you can have. The wines must come from that very vineyard and are often what we used to call “humble.” They’re fresh with yummy fruit and reasonable alcohol levels, but not built for deep contemplation, let alone aging.
The most famous wine of Vienna is a field blend that can be made with up to 20 different varieties called Wiener Gemischter Satz (literally, something like, “Vienna’s Mixed Set”). The local rules require that Gemischter Satz be a real blend: the leading grape can’t represent more than 50% of the blend and the next two must be at least 10%. At a heuriger, Gemischter Satz will probably be served with a side of sparkling water so that everyone can mix a spritz at their preferred strength. This way you can keep sipping all afternoon long, no matter how hot the sun gets.
Some vineyards also make single-varietal wines. There is Gruner Veltliner (natürlich) and Riesling, but also Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc as well a whole host of less famous varieties, though most of these end up blended in the Gemischter Satz. There are also smaller amounts of light reds and rosés made from Zweigelt, Pinot Noir and Blaufränkisch.
The food is perfect for the wine and the setting. The rules limiting what foods a heuriger can serve may have been relaxed somewhat, but you’ll still generally find that the choices lean in a simpler direction. Simple but delicious – and cheap! For E20 you might get a platter of cheeses and cold cuts – sometimes with an absurdly delicious local lard made from an acorn-eating pig – that easily feeds six people.
This isn’t to say that none of Vienna’s wines are worthy of fancier food. To the contrary, many growers are now making small quantities of very refined, complex wines that take advantage of the local terroirs (more on these, below). And some taverns have even found ways to navigate the rules so that you can eat more elevated, less rustic food with these more elevated wines. But the name of the game is still the rustic, low-key heuriger.
One odd thing to note: the rules on only serving local products are so strictly observed that you won’t even be able to get a cup of coffee or tea. So if you’re susceptible to headaches without enough caffeine, be sure to hit one of Vienna’s famous cafés before settling in at the heuriger.
Vienna’s vineyards are ancient. Records date back to the 12th century, but most scholars think there has been wine in the region since pre-Roman times. Those ancients knew what they were doing: the slopes here have a lot to recommend them for winegrowing. The soils are stony and varied, with plenty of limestone and quartz in some places, and sandy loam or gravel in others. The slopes are good for ensuring ripeness and drainage, while the Danube moderates the climate and ancient forests also take the edge off the summer heat. There is some humidity which brings disease pressure in wet years.
The most famous Großlage, or large collective vineyards site is the Nussberg, which used to be called “Wine Mountain” and is, indeed, a foothill of the Alps. Located on the city’s northern extreme, Nussberg is a relatively large area that covers a some incredible vineyards that you may see on bottles in America, such as “Ried Obere Schos Nussberg.”
Nussberg has complex and varied soils. Some sites are rich in limestone from ancient sea shells, not totally dissimilar to Burgundy and Champagne. This makes them excellent for some of the more nervy structured wines. But there are also loam, clay and sandy sites, making the vineyard perfect for the complex field blends essential to Gemischter Satz. Between the elevation and the effect of the Danube, it has a nice, cool microclimate.
We don’t see as many other vineyard origins, both single vineyards as well as wine-growing cadastral municipalities) on bottles in America, but here are some to look out for:
- Oberlaa, with lots of loam and gravel is reputed to make stoney, elegant wines;
- Mauer has sandstone and sandy loam over limestone subsoils and complex microclimates with heat coming up from the south and the cooling effects of the forest to the west. It makes excellent whites and reds, both;
- Alsegg, surrounded by housing, has calcareous loam and loess soils and makes highly reputed Riesling;
- Grinzing has gravelly soils and cooler microclimate and is known for its Gruners.
Most of the wine made in Vienna stays in Vienna, just as you would expect with such a strong local wine culture. But we have been able to find a few great producers here, from time to time. Of course, they don’t tend to make much wine and very little of that comes to America, so you always need to strike when the opportunity arises.
Is probably best known in Vienna itself. They were one of, if not the first to be certified biodynamic, back in 2015. They make a range of wines that includes Gemischter Satz and a whole host of single-varietals. These are clean and precise wines.
Zahel certified their vineyard biodynamic in 2018. The husband and wife who run the estate have been pushing the envelope of what we can expect from the wines of Vienna, both in terms of style and quality. They farm some top sites (including on the Nussberg) and make wines that are deeply soulful. Their rosé is not to be missed as is the world’s only varietally bottled Orangetraube, a grape so obscure it is not legally allowed on the label.
Mayer am Pfarrplatz
In some ways the most important winery and heuriger in the city. Although they opened in 1683 it was thanks to Fritz Meyer’s in the 60’s that we can thank for the state of the industry today. He was the first to push to elevate the quality of the wines of Vienna after a long, slow decline and a very ho-hum attitude of retaining the status quo. He helped to identify and propagate better grape varieties, including many of the traminer and “roters” that are indigenous to Austria. As well as marry them to site, avoiding the flatlands, and prizing the limestone and mother rock plots above others.
While not fully appreciated during his time (no one likes to be told their wares aren’t good enough), it was his tireless work that has meant not only better wines for the Vienese to drink but a pride and a renewed enthusiasm for them as well.
Also, super fun fact. They own the oldest Roman vineyards in existence. 17 vines planted near the Museum of Modern Art.
Another husband and wife team, Jutta Ambrositsch and Marco Kalkbrenner, are turning the mere idea of Viennese wine and culture on its head.. Jutta is unique, even by the standards of a wine region like Vienna that is chock-full of very small, idiosyncratic growers. Jutta doesn’t believe in owning anything: “I don’t even own my own dog!” she says. She buys fruit and rents a small place to operate her heuriger just on the weekends in the summer.
But if you can, it is not to be missed! If you chat with her you may think she’s quiet, thoughtful, understated. But her wines are absolutely incredible and when she serves them at her pop-up tavern it’s a huge party. Everything from liter bottles up to fancy stuff, light red wines, and roses. While she has lots of different cuvees, she makes very little of each.
The Future of the Heuriger and Vienna’s Wine
From where we sit, the future of the heuriger and Vienna’s wines looks bright!
The heuriger are as much a part of Vienna’s cultural fabric as ever. In particular, they seem deeply intertwined with the city’s own democratic sensibility: to hear many of the heuriger’s younger, local fans describe it, access to a communal outdoor space of fresh local foods and wines at affordable prices is as essential a part of the egalitarian spirit as the extensive public housing and universal healthcare that policy wonks may hear much more about over here.
So while the pressure to take advantage of the vineyards’ great settings and beautiful, hilltop views by plonking down apartments must be enormous, we have reason to believe it will be resisted.
The move towards biodynamics looks set to continue. Farming organically or biodynamically isn’t easy anywhere, and it presents its own set of special challenges here. Around Vienna, humidity brings the risk of disease as does the unique pressure of city pollution. But the trail blazed by Wieninger and others makes sense not only for the benefits to the wines but also because it just seems considerate given the vineyards’ urban and suburban settings: the neighbors surely appreciate not living next door to regular chemical treatments.
The wines also seem set to get better and better. If there was ever a knock on Vienna’s wines it was that the field blends were so complex that it wasn’t worth the effort to try and harvest individual varieties at their optimal ripeness. Besides, almost everything went into the Gemischter Satz together – varietal details would be subsumed to the whole.
But the rise of both local and foreign interest in the more terroir specific and single-varietal bottlings has led more growers to consider the possibility of putting in the work to make wines that go a little longer or do a little more.
The flip side of this, of course, is that those sought-after wines start to go up in price and become status symbols of a sort. Could this undermine the democratic ethos and egalitarian vibes of Vienna’s wine scene? We doubt it – there’s a lot of wine and this trend seems mostly to be nibbling at the edges. But it is one potential change to watch out for.
But for now the wines of Vienna remain a unique and fascinating pleasure which we can enjoy at totally fair prices… as well as a direct link to what I think you may soon agree with me is the greatest wine city in the world.