Drinking in the views from Vienna’s wineries
Downtown Vienna, Austria, seen from Fritz Wieninger’s vineyards. (Bethany Bell)
The view from Fritz Wieninger’s vineyards on the Nussberg hill is one of the best in Vienna. Standing amid the vines on the steep hill slope, you can see the slim Gothic spire of St Stephen’s Cathedral, the Danube River and its bridges, the Riesenrad Ferris Wheel and the rest of the city spread out below. “The first time I came up here I thought I was going to fall onto the houses,” said Fritz.
The grapes on his vines are not just for show. They are part of a thriving wine industry that makes Vienna one of the world’s few capitals to have a significant wine growing area within its city limits. Grapes have been cultivated here since the Romans set up a military camp in the first century AD, believed by some historians to be the origin of the city.
Riding the tram to one of the city’s outer districts, it is quite common to pass a vineyard, flanked on either side by villas and houses. From the edges of the Vienna Woods to the shores of the Danube, 700 hectares of land have been given over to vineyards. Wandering along the hiking trails and paths on the vine-covered hills, it is easy to forget you are in a city of nearly two million people. As for drinking the urban vintages, the wineries offer something better than tiny tasting sips for visitors and locals. They also host some of the city’s traditional Heurige, or wine taverns.
In 1784, the Hapsburg Emperor Josef II issued an edict granting wine growers the right to sell their own wines at their own premises – and the tradition of the Heurige was born.
Some, like Sirbu (Kahlenberger Straße 210; 43-1-320-5928) on the Nussberg hill, are little more than a few tables and chairs thrown together under a trellis in a vineyard. Other taverns, such as Mayer am Pfarrplatz, where Beethoven once lived, are more elaborate, with carved wooden interiors and shady gardens with oleander bushes. Groups of musicians play songs of Old Vienna.
Some Heurige districts, such as Grinzing, have become overrun by tourist buses, but there are other neighbourhoods, such as Nussdorf, Sievering and Stammersdorf, that are frequented mainly by the Viennese. Good spots include Wienhof Zimmerman and Kierlinger. “A Sunday in Vienna not spent at the Heurige is a wasted day,” my Austrian friend Georg advised when I first moved here, more than a decade ago. Back then, much of the wine served at Heurige taverns was rough and ready, best drunk gespritzt (with soda water) in a glass tankard.
Thanks to the efforts of wine-makers like Wieninger, Vienna wine has undergone a revolution in quality while reviving the old Viennese tradition of field blend wines, known as the gemischter satz. Unlike conventional blended wines, which are mixed after fermentation, gemischter satz is made from several varieties of grape grown in the same vineyard and harvested at the same time.
“This vine is a Riesling, the next one is a Traminer and the next one is a Gruener Veltliner,” Wieninger said as we wandered down one of the rows at his Nussberg vineyard. “Each vine is different. And it is very important that you harvest them in the same bucket, and in the same wine press. It is a play on different stages of ripeness. You really taste the terroir.”
A number of the new wineries, like Wieninger, Christ and Zahel, have a Heurige attached and you will also find them in the city’s finest restaurants. Their wines are also exported around the world under labels like Rotes Haus and Edlmoser. But to me, they taste best when sipped at sunset, sitting on a rough wooden chair, in a vineyard overlooking Vienna.