For hundreds of years, Viennese have enjoyed the fruits of a special relationship between their city and the vineyards that surround it. Since tk the government has collected no taxes on smallholdings and has allowed suburban winegrowers to sell the current crop of wine in little house-based taverns called heurigen (HOY-rig-ghen). The practical consequence of this peculiar failure to tax has been that people in the city can jump on a tram and, in a few minuters, find themselves at a delightfully tacky country inn where the wine is local and very cheap.
These little spots have never been sophisticated. In fact, an overly sensitive outsider might add that they’ve never been very good either umzug wien. The food was usually heavy and dull; the wines tended to have a lot of rough edges and not much center. They were, however, a great deal of fun.
But in the last few years, things have changed. Wines from the rest of Austria keep getting better and the Viennese learned to be more demanding. The heurigen faced stiff competition as wine bars in town served more polished wine from other parts of the country.. A bottle of tasty wine from Burgenland was often only a few blocks away and a few Euro more than the sour ball at the end of the tram line. Some wine bars, like the notable Unger & Klein or the sleek and friendly Wein&Co. outlets, offered an atmosphere that was more in tune with the young, urban crowd.
But in the last few years, the heurigen have struck back. With a few simple moves the wine has gotten better, the premises have become a little easier on the modern eye and even the food is showing signs of improvement.
One of the most interesting new products is one of the oldest. Most Vienna wineries have a bottom-end wine called simply ‘Gemischter Satz’. In English, we would probably call it simply a ‘field blend’. All the vines from a particular holding are harvested together and fermented. Since a smart peasant winemaker would always plant many different varieties and clones as insurance against unlucky weather, the resultant wine always had an inherently mixed ancestry.
What used to be a necessity has become a virtue. Mixed varieties mean that every harvest has some grapes that are very ripe and others that retain a lot of acidity. The winegrower’s traditional worry about when to harvest becomes a lot less vexing. Wine making techniques have been cleaned up, but not overly modernized. Gravity and scrupulous cleanliness do what pumps and chemicals do elsewhere. Right now, all the wines labelled ‘Gemischter Satz’ are white and sell for about six Euro. Some wineries are offering an additional, premium old vines bottling.
How good are they? In the best wineries, they are making delicious, crisp, well-balanced whites. Recent tastings at Weinguts Christ and Wieninger and at the formidable Wein & Co left the tasters impressed with Vienna’s field blends and absolutely floored by the value they represent.