Vienna is one of the few places where grapes still grow within the city environs. And the best place to try its wines is at thetraditional heurigen, says SUSAN LOW.
Travelling gastronomes seek out Vienna for its famous sachertorte, decadent coffee-houses and a refreshing lack of regard for all things fat-free and creamless. Yet they’re seldom aware of Vienna’s long vinous history, even though wine has been made in and around this baroque-bourgeois city since the time of the Celts.
Vienna is surrounded by wine-growing regions but, unusually, it is one of the few major European cities still to nurture vines within city limits. Urban vineyards soldier on, though urbanisation inevitably poses a continuing threat. Since 1950, about half of Vienna’s vineyard land has disappeared, with around 760 hectares (ha) remaining.
Pockets of vines are scattered around the northern and southern fringes of the city. The place to see them at their bucolic best is from the slopes of Nussberg. This big hill – it’s not quite a mountain – is covered in long snaking rows of vines. Many of these are owned by small growers who own just a few rows; others are owned by larger producers, such as Grinzing’s Weingut Dr Müller-Schmid.
Viennese wines are shown off in the city’s cosy wine taverns, called heurigen, a name derived from ‘heurig’, or ‘this year’s’. Young wine – the fresher and more acidic the better – is the point of drinking at the heurigen. ‘Too acidic’ is just not in the Austrian wine taster’s lexicon. For most, even last year’s wine is deemed to be over the hill – ironic, given the potential of Austrian whites to age. Drinking wine at the heurigen is meant to be an unpretentious pleasure. It is served in glass jugs, without ceremony, by the viertel (a quarter-litre) or the achtel (a half-litre).
Heurigen have a long tradition, but they received a fillip in 1784 when Emperor Josef II laid down the law. According to his dictates, heurigen were only permitted to open for 300 days per year, and could sell only wine and food produced on the premises. Around Josef II’s time it became customary to display a buschen, a bunch of evergreen boughs, over the entrance as a sign that it was open – hence the alternative name ‘buschenschank’.
In Vienna, most heurigen are centred around the villages of Nussdorf, Grinzing and Neustift, near the 18th and 19th districts. The best are unpretentious, rustic places where the owner sells his or her wine alongside simple fare. Pork products, in the form of smoked hams, sausages and roast pork belly, figure largely, along with salads, cheeses, pickles and pretzels. The atmosphere is pure ‘gemütlich’, all scrubbed pine and hearty simplicity, although the more touristy heurigen frequently tumble over into full-blown kitsch.
Unsurprisingly, many heurigen, with those in the painfully quaint urban village of Grinzing being a particular example, have become tourist traps. Some of the more touristy places play ‘traditional’ schrammelmusik – accordion, fiddle and guitar music. Traditional it may be, but it seems about as authentic as a troupe of Morris dancers in full regalia wandering into a London pub for a bit of impromptu hankie-waving.
Nonetheless, the heuriger experience is by no means just for tourists. It is possible to find quieter places – just steer clear of anything resembling a tour bus and watch where the locals go. Look out for green and yellow signs that read ‘Der wiener heurige’ – it’s an official quality endorsement.
The heurigen are not the only show in town. The Viennese are Austria’s most enthusiastic wine drinkers – the average Austrian drinks a relatively healthy 34 litres of wine a year, and many Viennese drink substantially more. In the past decade or so, the Austrian wine market has opened up and wines from outside Europe are no longer the oddities they once were.
In response to the broader tastes of Viennese drinkers, wine bars and fine wine shops have been springing up in the city. One of the bravest newcomers is a company called Wein & Co. It’s like a cross between an Oddbins Fine Wine shop and a hip Italian osteria. One half is a shop selling some pretty impressive wines from all over the world. About 40% are Austrian, but Bordeaux, Italy and Australia are particularly strong, too. The other half is a deli-style wine bar serving a selection of wines by the glass and some well-made Spanish- and Italian-inspired dishes designed for nibbling.
Nearby is the new Meinl’s Weinbar, downstairs in the recently refurbished Meinl am Graben food store, Vienna’s answer to Fortnum & Mason. Done out in chunky wood and marble with sexy low lighting, Meinl’s is a popular after-work destination, but is quiet during the day. An excellent range of wines is available by the glass and bottle, with the emphasis on Austrian producers. And if you’re peckish, there are about eight simple, Italian-style dishes on offer to keep hunger pangs at bay. Although you won’t get the authentic atmosphere of a heuriger, you won’t be subjected to schrammelmusik, either.
There are about 160 heurigen in Vienna. Inevitably, some are touristy, but others are not. The two listed below are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Opening hours are usually 3–11pm, but hours vary, so it’s best to phone ahead – or take pot-luck. Heurigen season runs from March/April to October/November.
Heuriger Kierlinger, Kahlenbergstrasse 20, 1190 Vienna. Tel: +43 1 370 2264
This simple, homely place is where the locals go – it’s full of families at weekends. The welcome is warm, the décor simple and the wine of good quality.
Beethovenhaus, Mayer am Pfarrplatz 2, 1190 Vienna. Tel: +43 1 370 1287
Beethoven lived here in 1817 and it is said he wrote part of his famous Ninth Symphony here. Popular with tourists, but well done nonetheless and well worth a look.
Wein & Co, Jasomirgottstrasse 3–5, 1010 Vienna. Tel: +43 1 535 0916
Naschmarkt, Getreidemarkt 1, 1060 Vienna. Tel: +43 1 585 7257
Meinl’s Weinbar, Am Graben 19, 1010 Vienna. Tel: +43 1 532 3334