June 13, 2013

Joe Appel: Vienna the rare urban center with a living winemaking tradition

By JOE APPELL

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?   

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