Vienna, Austria: long-time capital of the Habsburg Empire, city of fantastic beauty, historical home to leading classical music lights Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss, and still centre of the classical music world. Walk its streets, and you are met with wondrous architecture at nearly every turn. Go to its palaces-turned-art museums, and the deep history and culture is almost palpable. Stop by a café, and the city’s long tradition of cakes and liqueur-infused coffees topped with whipped cream await you. There are few cities on Earth that offer such elegance, such tranquillity.
That is the Vienna I have experienced first-hand. But there is another Vienna that this journalist had never known until recently: the Vienna of wine.
Vineyards are likely not the first thing most people picture when they hear the name “Vienna,” but it has been a wine region since at least the Roman period. Now, it is the only national capital in the world that is also a designated wine region.
The 11th of November is St. Martin’s Day, and also the traditional release day for Vienna’s new wine, called Heuriger. I asked Alexander Zahel, 30, a fourth-generation Vienna winemaker, about the region’s wine culture and the Heuriger tradition.
“Heuriger was always the first wine to be released,” he said. “That’s why the German name ‘Heuer’ means this year’s wine. And it was traditionally served open tap in Heuriger restaurants. So restaurants are named after the wine.”
The history of Heuriger restaurants began 1789, when Emperor Josef II — elder brother to Marie Antoinette of Versailles fame, and son of the legendary Habsburg ruler Archduchess Maria Theresa — allowed Vienna vineyards to serve their wines alongside food on their properties. And so started a great wine tradition.
There’s no shortage of history at the Zahels’ vineyard, either. The building where the winery’s Heuriger restaurant now is was once the very first public school in south Vienna. Established under the orders of Maria Theresa, it was open not just to certain social ranks, but to all children.
When asked what is special about Vienna wine, Alexander tells me it is Gemischter Satz, which makes up 50% of the wines made in Vienna. This is the practice of planting multiple grape varieties in the same field, and then harvesting and pressing them all together. The method was once common all over Europe, until the phylloxera louse wreaked its terrible toll on the continent’s vineyards in the 19th century, and is now very rare. In Austria, the technique goes by different names depending on the region. To call a wine Gemischter Satz, Alexander tells me, it must meet what are likely Vienna’s strictest legal standards for how to make a wine.
So why did Vienna’s Gemischter Satz survive when mixed-variety fields disappeared in other countries?
Alexander says the reason is probably as simple as the people of Vienna just kept on drinking it. What’s more, there’s a lot of diversity inside the term “Gemischter Satz”, as each winemaker uses a different combination of grape types, some of which are unique to Austria. Alexander tells me with rising enthusiasm. His own family’s Gemischter Satz is a mixture of three such Austrian grapes — Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, and Neuburger — plus Chardonnay.
However, things haven’t always been this good for Gemischter Satz. When tourist numbers in Vienna began to swell in the 1960s, cheap and poor quality Gemischter Satz Heuriger spots began popping up throughout the area, damaging the image of both the wine. One of those leading the charge to restore Gemischter Satz was none other than Alexander’s uncle Richard. Now, Gemischter Satz is known throughout Vienna, and a popular drink order among the Austrian capital’s young people.
“That really makes me proud,” said Alexander, as “when I was in wine and fruit growing school, at the age of 14, nobody was interested in Gemischter Satz. Nobody was interested. It was very hard to sell. So it just changed its image in the last 15 years. Because my uncle said, this is good, and he started selling it.”
That the wine always makes its appearance in the autumn also makes it special, Alexander said, as “seasonal products always give you anticipation and a joy of… enjoying something in a period of time.”
When the year’s new wine is ready, locals stream to the Heuriger restaurants to try it, creating a party atmosphere. The wines often appear next to seasonal foods such as smoked goose and chestnuts, the latter half-split and then roasted over a fire — a gastronomic ode to autumn. In fact, chestnut season starts before Heuriger season, so they’re a common accompaniment to another wonder of Austrian wine: Sturm, or a cloudy sparkling wine so new that it is still fermenting in the bottle. This is released (in its various stages of fermentation) from late August through October, and can be had from stalls at events across the city. But then it’s gone. Mind you, Heuriger wines apparently sometimes still have a bit of fizz when they’re released as well.
Come Heuriger season, the winery restaurants also tend to serve up traditional Vienna fare, while dishes from Germany or even other parts of Austria like Salzburg don’t generally make an appearance, Alexander says.
All in all, I feel I’ve caught a brief glimpse of a certain aspect of the Viennese character in the story of Gemischter Satz and Heuriger — one that has, over centuries of history, maintained close ties to the seasons, hold tight to the traditions it values, and has pride in its way of life.
Written by: Rika Sakai
English Text by: Robert Sakai-Irvine