Vienna, Austria, is the only city in the world with significant land planted to wine grapes. Ten minutes off the Ringstrasse, that grand thoroughfare that remade the city as it entered the 20th century, you’re on a one-and-a-half-lane roadway snaking through a park, and then you’re amidst vineyards, looking down on the Danube 500 feet below.
Wine enjoys a unique place in Vienna’s culture. Grapes have grown in this area since Roman times, alongside vegetables and animals. Viennese farmers made wine to be drunk casually with their dinner.
Eventually, an informal tavern society grew up in the farming villages that surrounded central Vienna (since incorporated into the city itself), where some farm families would offer cups of their wine for sale, to be drunk along the roadside, maybe with some light food. The heurigen, as these taverns came to be called, soon became a unique feature of a rapidly expanding metropolis.
Unlike with other towns in the Empire that lost vineyards to urbanization, the people of Vienna were determined to keep this special wine culture alive; an 18th-century decree made its preservation law. Heurigen are still popular (tour buses can bring you to the more commercial of them, but smaller, authentic ones are to be found as well), and in an easy afternoon you can ride a bike from the heart of the city up into the hills, sit out on a picnic bench with a glass of wine and some food, and bike back to town.
For centuries, the heurigen culture was exciting but the wines were insipid. A new generation is breathing new life into the scene, however, with an emphasis on wine quality. They have been startlingly successful.
There are many single-varietal wines made in Vienna – Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and more – but the most exciting wines are a special sort of blend, gemischter satz, which reflects the city’s agricultural heritage as well as the melting-pot fusion inherent in any large city.
Gemischter satz literally means “mixed set.” Myriad grape varieties grow in single vineyards – the Riesling vines wound round the Müller-Thurgau, woven through the Roter Veltliner and Muskateller and Grüner and Welschriesling and Traminer and Neuberger. By laws more stringent than those for gemischter satz in other parts of Austria, with Vienna gemischter satz all the grapes in that vineyard must be picked on the same day, and crushed together. Because different varietals ripen at different rates, this means that some grapes will be underripe while others are overripe, and some will be in the sweet spot.
Why, when the majority of wine producers proudly brag of single-varietal vinification? Why, when pristine grape quality is the supposed origin of great wine? Why, when wine quality is considered the direct result of careful, precise harvests and tender loving care in the cellar?
There are several reasons. Primarily, Vienna’s field-blend approach derives from its agricultural tradition: Gardeners and farmers know that a mix of crops is essential to soil productivity and long-term health, and guards against vagaries of shifting weather. It’s how all wine used to be made.
In addition, the art of gemischter satz winemaking necessarily remains in the vineyard, where oenologists and harvesters must collaborate to decide the optimal time to pick. If the season’s weather was optimal for Grüner, then you pick when the Grüner is ripe. If the weather favored the Weissburgunder, favor it back. Gemischter satz is about paying attention, and respecting the transitions and variations from vintage to vintage, vineyard to vineyard.
Finally, these wines resist ex post facto compensation in the cellar. The different grapes start their conversation as they grow together through the season, and they continue talking at crush. A cellar technique intended to help one trait originating with a particular varietal would adversely affect a different trait deriving from a different varietal. You can’t fine-tune your manipulations, so you’re better off not manipulating.
Cool story, but for naught if the wines aren’t good. The wines are fantastic. To get in something like a Chardonnay the multiplicity of directions, the flavor complexity, the balance, the adaptability to all sorts of food offered up by even a basic gemischter satz, you’d have to pay three times as much for good French Burgundy, twice as much for good German Riesling or an Italian white from Friuli.
That is not hyperbole. (Gemischter satz are dry wines, by the way.)
In Maine, there are two Vienna gemischter satz available, distributed by Wicked Wines. I recently poured one, the
Weingut Cobenzl Wiener Gemischter Satz Classic 2012 ($13), at a private wine tasting, among other wines I thought were pretty good. The Cobenzl GS blew every thing else away. People kept coming back to this wine, again and again, captivated by the juicy freshness, the Samarkand spices, and the deep floral aromas.
To anyone who would listen, I told the story of gemischter satz, and the especially compelling story of Cobenzl itself: The winery is literally owned by the City of Vienna and its citizens. Talk about civilized: a city that puts tax revenue toward its own unique wine!
But most people don’t even care about the stories, despite my entreaties. They just want to drink something superb. With this wine, for less than 15 bucks, they can. Of the average 300,000 bottles Cobenzl produces each year, 90 percent is consumed in Vienna. A portion of the remainder is available now, here, though the supply sometimes dips. Act fast.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com , continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]