It’s a hike up the Nussberg, especially when cold December winds are blowing. But the trek is worth it, because the air is crisp and the view of the Danube spectacular. Beyond the river are the spires of Vienna. Winemaker Rainer Christ from Weingut Christ is walking the vineyards, pointing out vines.
Some of the vineyards here — 200 ha in total — are unusual because they’re not always blocks of a single variety, as is normal in a modern vineyard. Instead, an assortment of grapes are jumbled together — Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner and others. They will be picked and fermented together, to make a Gemischter Satz, the local term for the humble field blend. Once a quaffer sold in bulk, Gemischter Satz has become a star, the flagship of Vienna. It’s a paradox — an authentic, historic blend brought to life by modern winemaking, created not in a remote rural region but within the borders of a major capital city.
Vienna has been a wine capital since ancient times, when the Romans planted vines. Viticulture flourished within the city’s boundaries, though quality was inconsistent; at one point, Viennese wine was called “cask eater” because it could dissolve the hoops of a cask. But by the 18th century, Vienna had many locals producing wines for their own consumption, plus a little bit to sell.
Christ heads down the hill, to the car. The drive back winds through Grinzing, lined with rows of picturesque wine cellars. Some of these include the wine taverns known as Heurigen. This east Austrian institution both kept the Gemischter Satz tradition alive — and nearly killed it.
The Heurigen date back to 1784, when Emperor Joseph II allowed residents to open establishments where they could sell their own wine and juices. Customers brought their own food — to avoid competition with restaurants — and the Heurigen only opened at some times of the year, when there was new wine to sell; the name is an abbreviated form of “heuriger Wein” (this year’s wine). By the 20th century, Heurigen also sold food.
But while the Heurigen are a beloved institution, they have been accused of holding back Austrian wine quality. “Despite the undoubted attractions of the Heurigen, their existence has not helped in a quest for quality,” says writer Stephen Brook in The Wines of Austria. “Heurigen need to cater to all tastes and consequently far too many wines are produced and — because they are consumed alongside food, chatter and general merrymaking — quality has not been a prime concern.”
After all, when you can sell everything to locals who are there for the atmosphere; there’s no pressure to improve. “That why it was so late in Vienna to get quality wine,” says Christ. “The quality change happened around 15 or 17 years ago.”
Premium production, when it arrived, went in a different direction. Prior to World War II, the origin of the wine — the village it came from — was more important than the varieties used. Farms were still mixed use, with wheat, sheep, hens and fruit trees on the same property as grapes. These too were mixed; if one row failed to ripen, the next row might still be good. Hence the field blend. Then came the tractor and new farming efficiencies, and the mixed farm gave way to the specialist. As winegrowers planted and replanted, they paid more attention to selection. By the end of the 20th century, vineyards were planted with single varieties like Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, and wine quality skyrocketed. While the Gemischter Satz still existed, it was confined to the Heurigen, where it was mixed with mineral water.
Then, in 2002, catastrophe: a once-in-a-century flood that killed 110 people across the affected countries and rotted fields and vineyards. But not all of them.
“I was really surprised when I saw the old vineyards, the ones planted with field blends,” says Christ. The monoculture vineyards had succumbed to disease, while the old vineyards “were in outstanding shape”.
He acquired an old Gemischter Satz vineyard of his own. He also discovered he wasn’t the only person interested in the style; in 2006, Fritz Wieninger from Weingut Wieninger founded Wien Wein (Vienna Wine), whose aim was to revive the Gemischter Satz by focusing on quality.
“We started with four colleagues,” says Christ. “Now we have six.” The other members of the group are Thomas Podsednik from Weingut Wien Cobenzl; Thomas Huber from Weingut Fuhrgassl-Huber; Michael Edlmoser from Weingut Edlmoser and Gerhard J. Lobner of Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz.
Between them, the six wineries manage 261 hectares, or 40 percent of Vienna’s viticulture. So successful have their efforts been that Italy’s Slow Food Foundation now includes the Gemischter Satz in its Ark of Taste, one of only 300 products worldwide to be so honoured. Today, even the mayor of Vienna makes a Gemischter Satz in the city’s winery. “Wien Wein influenced other colleagues and nowadays it’s the most planted wine in Vienna,” says Christ.
Paul Kiefer, sales manager at Mayer am Pfarrplatz, is standing outside the entrance, ready to welcome Christ and his visitors. “Come and look around,” he says.
Located in Vienna’s swanky 19th district, Mayer am Pfarrplatz’s complex includes a winery, a restaurant, a Heurigen — and one of Beethoven’s old residences. There are many Beethoven houses in Vienna; he famously feuded with his landladies and often needed new accommodation. The Heurigen opposite the Beethoven house is cosy and traditional. Kiefer sighs and says he worries what will happen to the music, as the accordion player who comes to play traditional Heurigen music is getting old and there’s nobody to replace him. The group decamps to the restaurant, where Kiefer has placed examples of Wien Wein Gemischter Satz on the table. “All of the field blends are different,” he says. “Each winemaker uses his own recipes. Some use five or seven grapes, some only three.”
To be an official Gemischter Satz, the wine must come from a vineyard in which at least three different varieties are grown. There must be no more than 50 percent of the main variety and there must be at least 10 percent of the third largest. Vienna’s Gemischter Satz must be a white wine and the blend can use up to 20 different grape varieties, including Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and others.
The city itself is an important part of the terroir. “The Danube and the forest brings the temperature down during the night, but the city is collecting the heat during the day,” explains Kiefer. “The Nussberg is very windy and it always a minimum of three or four degrees cooler than the city. But when we have cold nights in spring, the city is warm enough to protect the vineyards.”
It took a while for consumers to accept the Gemischter Satz, says Christ, because they associated it with the poor-quality wines from the Heurigen. But there were milestones. In 2009, the EU recognised Austria’s right to the term Gemischter Satz and in 2011, the “Wiener Gemischter Satz” was confirmed. In 2013, Wiener Gemischter Satz was confirmed as Austria’s ninth DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, which is equivalent to a DOC). Kiefer pours the wines. They all have a strong mineral spine and refreshing acidity, but with plenty of variation according to the winery, running the gamut from savoury to light and delicate.
After lunch, Kiefer heads back out to the entrance to wave everybody off. He points down a side street and says that’s where the new Beethoven Museum has just opened.
“Beethoven is everywhere in Vienna,” he says.
The great composer would no doubt have been delighted that Viennese wines are back on song.