Vienna’s City Vineyards Turn Tavern Plonk Into Musical Whites

A pine branch hangs from outside the Mayer am Pfarrplatz winery in Vienna. The branch is a traditional indication that the winery's heuriger, or tavern, is open. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

Beethoven composed part of his 9th Symphony in a small apartment at the Mayer am Pfarrplatz winery. Downstairs in its noisy tavern, with old paintings of antlered animals and memorabilia of the composer, I’m dining on schnitzel and gemischter satz, Vienna’s contribution to the wine world.

Light, tangy, fragrant and surprisingly complex, the best examples of this white blend pair brilliantly with local cuisine, and with music. They are the ideal sippers in the barrel-laden cellar, where winemakers and other guests dance to the echoing strains of Strauss.

The only world capital with major vineyards, Vienna grows more than 600 hectares of vines inside the city limits, and its vinous history goes back some 2,000 years. The Danube, which bisects the city, creates perfect microclimates.

Traditionally, many white grape varieties, such as gruner veltliner, pinot blanc, sylvaner, riesling, welschriesling and about 20 more were planted, harvested and vinified together, to make the gemischter satz field blends that were Vienna’s local vino. In the last century, most were low-level plonk, poured freely at “heurigen,’’ the popular taverns attached to wineries. Producers didn’t even bother to bottle them.

Now a handful of estates in the city, like Mayer am Pfarrplatz, are reviving gemischter satz as a high-quality wine.

Six young winemakers who make up the innovative WienWein group, clad in black T-shirts complete with logo, pour their delicious bottlings before and during dinner.

Soil Sensitive

“Gemischter Satz isn’t about the taste of a grape variety,” explains Rainer Christ of Weingut Christ, who makes two. “The flavors show the fingerprint of the soil.’’

His classic 2009 Gemischter Satz ($15) is light, bright and jazzy, while the 2009 Gemischter Satz Alte Reben Bisamberg ($30), from 60-year-old vines in one of Vienna’s top vineyards, is riper and richer. Bisamberg’s sandy soils, he says, produce wines with more fruit and freshness.

Each winery’s version includes a unique mix of grapes, so all have slightly different characters. I’m also a fan of the savory 2009 Rotes Haus Gemischter Satz Classic ($20) from the city’s best vineyard, the Nussberg, a limestone-rich hill speckled with fossilized seashells near the Danube that gives wines more of a mineral taste.

Two days later, after a morning admiring paintings by Breughel and Velasquez at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and indulging in a Hauskaffee heaped with schlag sahne (whipped cream) at the crowded Demel Konditorei, I head to the city’s northern edge to meet with Fritz Wieninger, leader of the movement to restore Vienna’s wine to its 19th-century glory.

Beer Mugs

Wieninger’s eponymous family winery is in a village at the foot of the Bisamberg vineyard on the north side of the Danube. For most of its century-long history, it was primarily a heuriger.

People used any excuse to drink after World War II, Wieninger explains, so heurigen boomed. In a single evening theirs would sell 1,500 liters of cheap wine that drinkers glugged from small glass beer mugs. But by the 1990s, people were looking for quality rather than quantity.

Wieninger, 44, took over from his father in the 1980s and started buying plots of the best vineyards. An experiment convinced him that there was a future for gemischter satz, which roughly translates as “mixed batch.” Five years ago he founded the group dedicated to bringing it back.

This afternoon he’s in a celebratory mood. He and his team brought in the last of 2010’s grapes three hours ago, just before rain hit. In his messy office, he pulls out several gemischter satz wines to taste.

Folk Music

My favorites are the intense, citrusy 2008 Nussberg Alte Reben ($38); the rich, powerful 2009 Rosengartl Alte Reben; and his wine-and-music bottling, 2008 Der Schrammler. This creamy “composition’’ of the best gruner veltliner and gemischter satz “reinterprets’’ the Viennese folk music played by the Philharmonia Schrammeln, a chamber group within the Vienna Philharmonic.

I’m trying to process the idea that his lively wines are produced a 25-minute drive from Sigmund Freud’s house.

Wieninger’s biggest vineyard headache turns out to be people. “On weekends, thousands come out to walk by the vines and they help themselves to grapes,” he says. “Some even bring plastic bags to fill up.’’

The reason vineyards survive is because they’re part of Vienna’s green belt, the vision of a forward-thinking mayor 100 years ago. Those walkers would protest if growers started selling vineyard land worth 150,000 euros ($212,000) to 450,000 euros for 10 times that amount to real-estate developers.

We cross a courtyard filled with wet wooden tables and barrels of drying flowers to the heuriger run by Wieninger’s brother. The smoky connecting rooms are jammed with locals. A stern blond woman behind a glass-encased buffet dishes out schnitzel and potatoes.

An hour later, a bottle of gemischter satz in hand, I grab a taxi back to my hotel. No Beethoven or Strauss on the driver’s CD player, but that’s okay -- the wine also goes pretty well with Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely.”

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure service of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE