Forget peach and melon notes, Peter Uhler’s wine has C, D and F# notes. They are infused into the wine by playing non-stop Schrammelmusik - late 19th-century Viennese folk tunes - to the fermenting must. The music is an acquired taste for most of us, but the wine seems to appreciate it!
A waterproof speaker, about the size of a cereal bowl, is lowered into the middle of a 500-litre stainless steel tank containing freshly-pressed organic grapes. A CD is turned on and the speaker pumps out the music 24 hours a day until the native yeast cells have gobbled up most of the sugar in the must. The theory, developed by horn player and Viennese wine expert Markus Bachmann, is that the soundwaves trigger a biochemical reaction, agitating the yeast into action sooner and energizing the cells when they are beginning to struggle against rising alcohol levels.
Peter, a 44-year-old violinist with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, knows the idea sounds a little crazy, but he was convinced of its potential after visiting the Wienbauschule Klosterneuburg (Vienna wine academy). He saw the technique in action and tasted the difference between two tanks of Grüner Veltliner - Austria’s signature grape variety - where the only difference was that one had been fine-tuned by music.
“The wine was clear in one week and there were no problems at the end of the fermentation. And the sediment was very fast down,” Peter explained as we sat down to taste his own version, a fresh, fragrant and fruity Gemischter Satz.
Gemischter Satz is a traditional style of Viennese wine that’s undergoing a revival. It’s a ‘field blend’ from a vineyard that could have as many as 20 varieties of white grape growing in it, although five to seven is the norm and three is the minimum. Typically, Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling provide the bulk, Riesling contributes the acidity and varieties such as Traminer and Muskateller add the aromas. All the varieties are harvested at the same time (regardless of their ripeness), and fermented and aged together. It makes for a multi-layered, complex, fruity, easy-drinking wine that varies from one producer to the next and from one year to the next.
As Paul Kiefer, who’s in charge of sales and marketing at the region’s largest producer, Mayer am Pfarrplatz, says: “It’s very nice because you get the acidity of Riesling, the spiciness of Grüner Veltliner, and you get the flavours of Traminer or Muskateller. If they are fermented together it’s a completely different taste to a blend because if you have a blend with 5-7% Traminer, the Traminer is much louder and maybe it tastes a little bit perfumed, but if the grapes ferment together it’s a much more complex style.”
Mixed vineyards have been grown throughout Central Europe through the centuries, as they give the grape grower a degree of insurance against losing the whole crop to frost at bloom time, rain at flowering or different pests and diseases. Originally the wine was very simple and sold straight from taps in the Austrian capital’s wine taverns (heuriger). But over the past ten years it has been upgraded to the true expression of the city’s terroir, with the most complex, elegant and minerally profound examples coming from single vineyards, old vines (more than 70 years old in some cases), wild yeasts and maturation in stainless steel tanks or large old wooden barrels (never barriques). The result is that Gemischter Satz has become Vienna’s signature wine, and has been promoted from the heuriger in its outskirts to the posh city centre restaurants which once snubbed it as plonk. Specialist wine suppliers overseas, such as Naked Wines in the UK and Darcy and Huber in the USA, are also stocking it.
Peter Uhler is one of about 20 Wien winzers (Vienna vintners) who are making a high-quality version. He is also one of the smallest, with 2.5ha producing Gemischter Satz alongside four single-variety white wines and a red. His Gemischter Satz comprises about 30% Welschriesling, 30% Grüner Veltliner, 15% Traminer, 15% Weißburgunder and 5% Riesling. The remaining 5% comes from Gutedel, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay.
As it’s a very traditional style of wine, Peter refines it with a very traditional form of music - Schrammelmusik from his own quartet. He believes this music, which is played chiefly on an accordion and double-necked guitar, makes the wine more natural. “I have to do less to the wine. It makes itself,” he told me.
He makes the wine at his summerhouse in Grinzing, in Vienna’s 19th district (the numbering system starts in the centre at St Stephan’s Cathedral and works its way out to the Vienna woods). He inherited the house from his grandmother and rebuilt it in 2001. The grapes come from parcels of land on the limestone-rich hills nearby and are pressed in what looks like a garden shed. They are fermented and stored in stainless steel tanks in a small cellar under the house. As he has now turned his hobby into a successful small business, and is selling 6,000-8,000 bottles a year, he is considering moving the winery to his heuriger in Grinzing (Zum guten Grinzing, Himmelstrasse 7).
Most of Vienna’s 300-plus winemakers have a heuriger selling their own new wine (heurige) - often Gemischter Satz - alongside basic, hearty, self-service meals, such as schnitzel, sauerkraut and dumplings. It’s a good pairing.
The six major producers of top-quality Wiener Gemischter Satz are Rainer Christ, Michael Edlmoser, Fritz Wieninger, Richard Zahel, Weingut Cobenzl and Mayer am Pfarrplatz. Together they own about 45% of the Vienna wine region’s 678ha of vineyards, of which about 10% is devoted to ‘mixed batches’.
These six companies are at the forefront of promoting Gemischter Satz nationally and internationally through their group, Wien Wein (www.wienwein.at). The group was started in 2006, with Weingut Cobenzl and Mayer am Pfarrplatz joining in 2009. Although they are the six biggest commercial players in the region, they also have quaint claims to fame. Rainer Christ harvests a Pinot Blanc by the light of the full moon; Fritz Wieninger is fully biodynamic; Michael Edlmoser, whose family winemaking business dates back to 1347, went to California to hone his winemaking skills; Beethoven composed his 9th Symphony at Mayer am Pfarrplatz’s premises; and Weingut Cobenzl has been owned by the city since 1907!
One of the great things about Vienna is that all of these companies’ heuriger and wineries are on signposted walks with starting points that are reachable from the city centre by public transport (often a combination of bus, tram and underground train but all using the same €18.50 Vienna Card, which is valid for 72 hours). I followed the wine trail two days running. First day I took the D tram to Nussdorf in Vienna’s 19th district, at the border of the Vienna Woods, and walked through the vineyards via Eichelhofweg and then weaved my way back down to Grinzing, a charming village bursting with heurigen. The next day I took the underground (U4) to Heiligenstadt and then the 38A bus up to the Cobenzl Winery and walked down the hill to Grinzing.
The City Hiking Trails are listed on the Vienna tourist information website (www.vienna.info), with routes 1, 1a, 2 and 5 leading through the major wine-growing hills of Nussberg, Kahlenberg and Bisamberg, where archaeological findings show that vines have been cultivated since 750BC.
As well as providing you with a bit of exercise between sips, the routes enable you to appreciate the geographical features which make Austria’s capital so suitable for wine-growing. You will see that the city is split by the Danube, which helps to moderate the climate in winter and summer, and reflects extra sunlight onto the grapes. The close proximity of the city keeps temperatures up during the ripening season; the nearby woods keep temperatures down during the hot summer; and the predominantly westerly wind prevents rot. It’s an unusual combination of features but it means the resulting wines are full of fruit flavours and refreshing acidity. And when you combine this mesoclimate with unique plantings and idiosyncratic winemakers, the result is an exciting winzer wonderland.
The big six producers of Wiener Gemischter Satz
The biggest producer in the region, Mayer am Pfarrplatz, also has a link with music. Its winery and heuriger complex encompasses the house where Ludwig van Beethoven lived in 1817 while he was working on his 9th Symphony. In his honour the estate produces the Eroica, a white blend named after Beethoven's Symphony No3. In total, the company has 59 hectares - nine of which belong to its boutique brand, Rotes Haus, named after the red winehouse which overlooks its prestigious vineyard on the Nussberg, where it has been making wine since 1683.
The company, bought by advertising entrepreneur Hans Schmid in 2006, makes 70,000 litres of Gemischter Satz in four styles, with prices starting at €9.50. The Mayer am Pfarrplatz versions use traditional grape varieties such as Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and Rotgipfler. The Rotes Haus versions use international varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Traminer. The Rotes Haus reserve version uses grapes that are picked two weeks later, wild yeast, and it spends one year in an old barrel and six months in the bottle before being released.
Paul Kiefer, who’s in charge of sales and marketing at Mayer am Pfarrplatz, explains the main differences between the two brands: “In terms of style, Mayer is very straight, maybe a little more elegant, easier to drink and the fruit characters are mostly around lime, lemon, greener apple and pear. And at the winery Rote Haus it is more exotic, more extract, richer, sometimes more alcohol, longer on the yeast. Mayer is matured in stainless steel; Rote Haus in old barrels - 10-15 years old.”
The Winery Cobenzl has been city-owned since 1907. Run by Thomas Podsednik since 1988, it has been transformed over the past ten years. The winery and tasting room have been renovated and reconstructed, and the estate has nearly doubled in size. In the past five years the number of vineyards under its control have grown from 25 hectares to 48 - with 30 in the 19th district (in Grinzing and on Nussberg) and 18 in Bisamberg. These vineyards produce three styles of wine - Classic (young, light, fresh), Senator (more powerful and full of character) and Lagenwein (from single vineyards). On single vineyard sites, Cobenzl produces a fresh, peppery Grüner Veltliner, a powerful Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc), a delicate Riesling, an award-winning Pinot Noir and a flowery, fruity and fresh Gemischter Satz. In the 21st district it grows Blauer Zweigelt, Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gemischter Satz. Having sites both sides of the Danube gives the winery some insurance against summer hailstones. The winery is in the 19th district, close to the Vienna Woods and with great views of the city. The stars are the Weißburgunder Reisenberg 2007 at €21, the Pinot Noir Bellevue Reserve 2007 at €16 and the €9.50 Grüner Veltliner Pfeffer 2009, from a single vineyard in aptly-named Pfeffer (Pepper). Its peppery flavour is boosted by maturing 10% in oak barrels for three months and then blending it back.
Cobenzl produces three styles of Gemischter Satz. The 50,000 bottles of Classic feature 5 to 7 varieties, including Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Goltburger and Neuburger. Georg Königsbauer, the cellarmaster at the Cobenzl Winery, says: “It’s a classic, fresh, easy-drinking wine for summer.”
The heavier Senator version comes from 30 to 40-year-old vines carrying grape varieties such as Grüner Veltliner, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Weißburgunder, and Traminer.
Rainer Christ has been at the forefront of the biodynamic movement in Vienna since 1997 when he started harvesting Weißburgunder by the light of the full moon. He took over the 400-year-old family winery and heuriger from his father, Franz, in 2004. Since then, he has transformed the business into a 21st century winery and heuriger complex with a wine shop, outdoor area and winter garden, revamped taproom and state-of-the-art press room and cellar in Jedlersdorf, in the 21st district. Its 6ha of vineyards are fully organic and the wine is made using biodynamic principles. There are no pumps in the winery. “We use only gravity for our production,” Rainer told me. And no chemicals or filters are used either. “What we are looking for is to show the advantages of each vintage of grape variety and soil conditions… to show the advantages of nature,” he said. “Our idea is to be very close to nature.”
Weingut Christ produces two styles of Gemischter Satz: a fresh, young version for everyday enjoyment and an aged premium blend, harvested from vines that are more than 70 years old. The varieties include Grüner Veltliner, Neuburger, Riesling, Weißburgunder, Welschriesling, Traminer, Roter Veltliner, Silvaner, and Zierfandler.
Fritz Wieninger, another advocate of biodynamics, is one of Austria's top winemakers and has been at the forefront of reviving Gemischter Satz and Viennese wines as quality products. He took over the 100-year-old winery from his father in 1980 and started buying plots of the best vineyards on either side of the Danube. Now he has 35 hectares spread across the 19th and 21st districts. His brother Leo runs the family’s popular heuriger in Stammersdorf in the 21st district. Wieninger's Nussberg Alte Reben uses grapes from at least nine varieties, and most of the vines are more than 40 years old.
Michael Edlmoser has 9ha in the 23rd district, in the southern outskirts. He has been running the winery since 1998 but his family have been winemakers since 1347. 70% of his vineyards contain white varieties, such as Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Goldburger, Gelber Muskatelller and Riesling. The other 30% contain the red varieties Zweigelt, Cabernet Sauvignon, St Laurent and Syrah. The wines are produced and marketed in three ranges: Classic, Reserve and Grand Reserve.
Richard Zahel is credited with being the first to market Wiener Gemischter Satz, in 2003. Today, Zahel’s Gemischter Satz is offered in four different styles. The premium Nussberg Grande Reserve consists of nine old Austrian varieties, including Grüner Veltliner, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, and Traminer. The Gemischter Satz Nussberg comprises Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. The Wiener Gemischter Satz is the company’s fresh and fruity version. It comes from an organic vineyard in the south of Vienna and comprises Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Chardonnay. In 2007, Zahel started producing a fizzy version, Gemischter Satz Sekt, made à la mèthode traditionelle.
However, Richard - like Edlmoser - is probably better known for his red wines, which account for 40% of the company’s output. These include Antares, the first Viennese red wine to get more than 90 points in Falstaff, Austria’s leading wine guide.
The Zahels have 20ha of vineyard land and buy fruit from another 5ha. Zahel is the only winery in Vienna which produces wine in all of Vienna’s six wine areas. “So we are able to use the characteristics of the different soils,” he says. “Not only in Gemischter Satz but also in Riesling.” The estate is located in the 23rd district, in Liesing, in the capital's southern outskirts.south of the capital. The family also runs a heuriger there.
If you’ve still not had enough of Viennese wine and feel there is another style you wish to sample, then visit Wieno, a wine bar in Lichtenfelsgasse devoted to Viennese producers. It has about 60 wines from 18 vintners including Wieninger, Zahel, Christ and Edlmoser, as well as newcomers and rarities. www.wieno.info
When to go
Although wine has been made in Vienna since 750BC, it is only in the past decade that it has blossomed into a wine city, with events throughout the growing season. In the middle of March the heurigers stick green pine bushes over their doors and hang the word “ausg’steckt” (‘hung out’) to show they are now open. This is followed by organised walks through the vineyards and various wine tastings, chief of which is the Wiener Winzertour in April. The Viennese Wine Prize is presented by the mayor, Michael Haupl, at the end of June, and this is followed by three days of wine tastings in the town hall. In September, routes through the vineyards are opened again to the public for the Vienna Wine Hiking Days. There are two routes, each winding through the vineyards, and offering great views of Vienna and the Danube. At the end of October Junger Wiener unveils the new wines at various events across the capital. For full details of wine-related activities visit wienerwein.at.
If you want to try another classic while you’re in the city of Mozart, Strauss and Beethoven, then select a bottle of Grüner Veltliner. This is Austria’s signature white grape varietal and comes in several different styles. If the grapes are harvested early, you get a lighter, more elegant style. The taste is then focused on the spiciness of white pepper and fruits such as apple and pear. If the grapes are harvested later the style is more powerful, the texture is richer and the flavours more exotic (like pineapple and mango). The spice, in this case, is more like black pepper.
Where to stay
The three best places for wine buffs are:
The trendy wine-themed Hotel Rathaus Wein & Design in the 8th district (Lange Gasse 13, 1080 Vienna). Each of the 39 rooms is dedicated to an Austrian winemaker and the breakfast buffet includes a cheese matured in red wine sediment.
The five-star Palais Coburg Residenz in the centre of Vienna. It has six well-stocked cellars devoted to different themes and a stock of more than 60,000 bottles. One dates from 1727. There is also a collection of 100 vintages of Château d’Yquem. All the rooms are suites hotel and there is a gourmet restaurant.
Stefan Hajszan’s Heuriger in Grinzinger Strasse, Nussberg. Stefan has 14ha of vineyards and has been making his wine according to biodynamic principles since 2006. From the guest rooms you can see the brick vaults of the cellar and the wine press.