This Austrian city may be best known for its waltzes, schnitzels, and Hapsburg-era architecture, but it also has another claim to fame—it’s the only European capital that is also a wine region, with historic wine taverns and a unique grape blend that call out for discovery.
Photographs by Luke Burgess.
When the heavens burst over Vienna I am mid-hike among the noble vines of Nussberg Hill, looking down on a darkened Danube and the rain-smeared skyline of the Austrian capital. Minutes earlier, the afternoon had been bright, hot, and scented with elderflower as I wandered, spellbound, among the vineyards that are stitched across Vienna’s suburban hillsides. These are not conventional vine plantings, mind you, but flourishing gardens where the grapes grow surrounded by dozens of plant species—grasses, flowers, herbs—and a buzzing ecosystem of bees, bugs, and birds.
The look of it nicely reflects the novel approach to winemaking in Vienna, where some 400 working wine estates cover 640 hectares of the city outskirts. It’s quite relaxed. Often, the vignerons here aren’t sure precisely which grapes they’re tending. They prefer to let nature, weather, and chance play their vital roles. The city’s signature drop is the Wiener gemischter satz, or “mixed set,” a reference to the medley of grape varieties that goes into each bottle. It’s a field blend, meaning all fruit are harvested and crushed together on the same day from the same parcel of vineyard. (Blended wines, by contrast, are made with different grapes that are planted and vinified separately). This can yield unusual complexity, as anywhere from three to 20 grape varieties with different ripening profiles can end up in a gemischter satz. The alcohol content is low so the drinking is dangerously easy—yet always, I find, refreshing. And no two blends or vintages taste the same. It’s all about the annual expression of soil and climate and grape characters.
Captivated by Vienna’s wines on previous visits, I decided gemischter satz might just be my favorite white wine style. But to be absolutely sure, I’ve returned to Vienna to explore the wine’s origins, meet its makers, and try to decipher what this defiantly individual and seductive wine says about the Viennese themselves.
The sensible first step on any Vienna wine appreciation mission is to grab some friends and head to a buschenschank or heuriger, the lively wine taverns of the former Hapsburg capital. Established in the late 18th century when Emperor Joseph II decreed that citizens could sell their own wine and foodstuffs “at all times of the year and at whichever price they choose,” these establishments are a cherished tradition and an enduring symbol of Viennese gemütlichkeit, or geniality.
One of the most sought-after is Buschenschank in Residence, a pop-up tavern run by winemaker Jutta Ambrositsch and her husband Marco Kalchbrenner that opens a handful of weekends each year on the ground floor and garden terrace of a borrowed mansion in the leafy 19th District, the capital’s most expensive suburb (and home to Nussberg, its most coveted wine site). Ambrositsch is known as the queen of gemischter satz, so there are few better spots to taste the city’s flagship wine than here.
It’s a measure of the magical powers of a buschenschank that, an hour after being drenched in the vineyards, I’m seated at a communal table inside this boisterous tavern, still damp but immersed in mood-enhancing wines and snacks.
Ambrositsch, who left a career in graphic design to become a full-time winemaker in 2004, has eight small vineyards in the northern 19th and 21st districts—where most of Vienna’s grapes are grown—from which she makes a riesling, a grüner veltliner, a rosé, and four white and one red gemischter satzs. I’m sampling a pretty Ringelspiel (“Merry-go-round”) made from vines planted in the 1950s when Ambrositsch mentions she knows 12 of the grapes in it “but the other five we have no idea.” This is classic gemischter satz style. There’s an element of blind faith involved in the winemaking, which works because no one wants identical vintages anyway.
“We are making 20,000 bottles,” Ambrositsch explains. “There’s no need to make wines where the only difference between one year and the next is the number on the bottle. There’s no sense for us producing such common wines.”
The food she offers is also far from common. All the ingredients are sourced from producer friends of hers and Marco’s and served in their traditionally decorated tavern—wooden dados, long benches, quaint curtained windows. We feast on wafer-thin slices of pickled beef tongue with horseradish, a sausage made from the blood of Mangalitsa pigs (an odd-looking but very tasty breed), and umami-packed eggs brined and herbed for 36 days. Ambrositsch prepares the salads herself, with vegetables grown just west of here in the 22nd District.
“For us, it’s very important to serve really good food,” she says. “We love to make wine, but it’s only sensible if everything is good.”
Vienna is a small but special element in Austria’s patchwork of vineyards, which produce around 2.4 million hectoliters of wine annually, about the same as Serbia or Greece. The top vignerons are feted once a year at the Salon Austria Wine, a prestigious competition organized by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. All 270 wines judged best in show—from sparkling sekts to dessert gewürztra-miners—are available for wine buffs to taste at the Salon Tournée, a six-hour event staged under the vaulted and frescoed ceilings of a 15th-century Tyrolean palace. This year’s Salon concluded with a lavish winners’ dinner orchestrated by Massimo Bottura, one of the world’s most celebrated chefs.
It’s impossible to appreciate Austria’s wine industry today without acknowledging The Scandal. In 1984, a handful of producers were found to have been adding toxic antifreeze (diethylene glycol) to their wines to sweeten and thicken them to meet the tastes of consumers in Germany, Austria’s largest wine export market. Not surprisingly, exports plummeted immediately. Germany issued a health warning against drinking its neighbor’s wines and destroyed 36 million bottles. More than two dozen winemakers were arrested.
But in some ways, The Scandal signaled the coming of age of Austrian wine. In its aftermath, vignerons turned increasingly to endemic varieties and traditional wine styles. In the wake of fraud, they embraced authenticity. And the industry has reaped the rewards, with export values quadrupling since 2000.
The newfound respect for gemischter satz is a product of this time too. A year after the fiasco, 21-year-old Fritz Wieninger took over his family’s fourth-generation vineyards and helped revive the reputation and appreciation of Vienna’s home blend. As a founding member of the Wien Wein growers’ association, Wieninger collaborated with premium producers to improve quality and market the city’s wines to the world, using gemischter satz as their calling card. In the process, the Viennese rediscovered pride in their unique wine, which was awarded DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) protected designation of origin status in 2013.
During a tour and tasting at Wieninger’s winery in the Stammersdorf neighborhood, sales manager Georg Grohs tells me their sole focus is producing wines that express “the Viennese varieties and terroir.” Which is why, since 2008, their 80 hectares of vines have been farmed biodynamically.
“Biodynamic wines show perfectly the characteristic of the terroir,” Grohs says. “We think the character of the different vineyards is stronger than the character of the varieties.” Wines from the terraced Bisamberg hills on the Danube’s left bank have more citrus fruit, for example; those from Nussberg on the right bank are more mineral and “salty.”
Nussberg is the most sought after of Vienna’s wine subregions, and its south-facing slopes—where Wieninger’s 1.6-hectare Ried Rosengartl vineyard is located—are especially prized. Grohs pours me a taste of their latest gemischter satz. It is elegant but also complex, so full of notes it’s like music in the mouth.
This is the order of my days in Vienna: visiting winemakers at their tasting rooms and hearty heurigen (the plural form of heuriger), and following the story of the city’s symbolic wine style to places like Stift Klosterneuburg, a massive baroque monastery and winery that overlooks the Danube just outside town. Founded in 1114 by Leopold III, who was later canonized and declared the patron saint of Austria and Vienna, this is the country’s oldest wine estate, with 108 hectares of red and white vines producing one million bottles annually, in 30 different styles.
During a wander through Kloster-neuburg’s ancient five-level cellars, winery director Wolfgang Hamm explains how Vienna’s native wine evolved through necessity. Viticulture here started with small, family-owned plots where growers planted a mix of varieties as insurance against disease and weather. “The planting of different grapes was the pooling of risks, not putting all your eggs in one basket. It made sure you would get a harvest.”
He adds, “They planted mixes and got a more complex wine. But it’s only in the last decade that vintners started to also see how much intensity of flavor and natural sugar content we could get out of these old vines. That was the birth of these full-bodied, opulent gemischter satz wines.”
At Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz, a winery in the suburb of Heiligenstadt that is famous both for producing wine since 1683 and for being the building where Beethoven lived in 1817 while composing his Ninth Symphony, sales manager Paul Keifer picks up the thread of what he calls “the Vienna wine miracle” as I tuck into a tasting menu featuring summer chanterelles.
“Twenty years ago, it was not really popular to drink Vienna wines in the city’s restaurants,” Keifer says as he pours me a gemischter satz blend of grüner veltliner, riesling, and two native grapes: zierfandler and rotgipfler. The grüner brings spice and butter; the riesling lends acid, fruit, and structure; the zierfandler and rotgipfler add richness. It’s a delight to drink.
“Very juicy,” Keifer nods as he recounts how, traditionally, winemakers sold most of their product through heurigen, and so had little incentive to improve the quality. “But then a younger generation took over who were interested in producing premium gemischter satz to compete with wines from other more famous areas of Austria—and to sell outside the country.”
The miracle is that gemischter satz has gone from being a humble family wine to Austria’s second-biggest-selling white after grüner veltliner. The reason for its popularity seems obvious: it’s an expression not only of the city’s terroir, but also its character. It’s as Viennese as coffee houses, schnitzels, and the waltz.
At Weingut Christ, another suburban winery and heuriger in the 21st District, pioneering winemaker Rainer Christ believes the trend toward gemischter satz also marks a trend toward sustainable growing. Since 2006, he has quadrupled his holdings and replanted single-variety vineyards with a mix of grapes. “Soils are healthier because of the more diverse plantings,” Christ says. “In my opinion, that’s the future of doing agriculture.”
His sommelier, Tomas Pauschenwein, drives me up to the wine terraces of Bisamberg to visit some of their top plots. En route we pass a narrow street lined with midget houses in pastel colors and too-low doors. This is Kellerstrasse, one of several “cellar streets” in Vienna where winemakers have stored their wines for centuries.
From my vantage point on Ried Falkenberg, Christ’s highest plot at 380 to 400 meters, I can see the mountain outlines of the Czech Republic on the northeast horizon and Vienna in all its sun-dazzled glory below. And I’m reminded of the other important thing about Vienna’s wine gardens: they’re extraordinarily beautiful.
“Yes,” Pauschenwein agrees, smiling. “In summertime, working here is really heaven.”
Thai Airways operates a nonstop service to the Austrian capital five times weekly from Bangkok. Singapore Airlines flies daily to Munich, from where Austrian Airlines offers onward connections to Vienna.
Where to Stay
Built in 1863, the Hotel Imperial (Kärntner Ring 16; 43-1/501-100; doubles from US$550) is Vienna’s grande dame of choice. For something more contemporary, try the brand-new Andaz Vienna Am Belvedere (Arsenalstrasse 10; 43-1/205-7744-1234; doubles from US$180).
Langackergasse 5A; 43/664-500-6095
Stiftsplatz 1, Klosterneuburg; 43-2243/411-212
Amtsstrasse 10-14; 43-1/292-5152
Pfarrplatz 2; 43-1/336-0197
Stammersdorfer Strasse 31; 43-1/290-1012
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Vienna, Vine by Vine”).