Vienna straddles the Danube river as it flows down from the Alps, bringing cool air and rain to the city’s two million residents and its almost 1,500 acres of…vineyards? No, you’re not seeing things. Vienna is the only capital city in Europe that sustains major vineyard plantings within the city limits. The parcels are legally protected from development: Vineyard owners are permitted to sell their land, but the buyer must use it primarily for viticulture. (It is illegal to convert the land to other uses, including other agriculture.) Locals treat these vineyards like large urban parks. Fritz Wieninger grew up working in his family’s Heurige, a Viennese wine tavern. He says that a typical Sunday for a Viennese couple might include a bus to the foothills of the vineyards, a half-hour hike to the heurige at the top, plenty of wine and snacks, then a hike down and a bus back.
Wieninger credits this culture for the preservation of Wiener Gemischter Satz, a protected DAC for the co-harvested, co-fermented field blends from Vienna. In the past, much of Austria’s vineyards were gemischte (mixed), with a range of varieties planted in the same rows. When the industry began modernizing after the 1950s, the narrow rows were replanted to accommodate tractors—and outside of Vienna, the wines sold better when they stated a variety on the label.
Vienna’s Heurigen, however, sold their wine out of the barrel. Without the pressure on bottle sales, some of the older, mixed plantings survived. Even at their lowest point, Vienna’s gemischter satz accounted for 17 percent of the area’s vineyards, Wieninger says, adding that the number has climbed to 30 percent and continues to rise. Some growers have opted to plant in monovarietal blocks or rows, harvesting and fermenting everything at the same time. (This gives them the option to bottle these varieties separately if they so choose.) Other growers mix the varieties within the same row. Wieninger described the planting process as a creative endeavor, not unlike how a grandmother might cook completely free of measurements. “I carry the recipe in myself and adapt it…It depends on the clone, the taste of the wine you want.”
This instinct is not innate, though, and there was a time when Wieninger did not believe in the style. After completing his oenology course, he had decamped to California for some professional training. Upon his return, he recalls how Franz Mayer, another Viennese winemaker, tried to convince him that “gemischter satz is our identity.” But Wieninger remained skeptical: “What I tasted was not the quality that I was looking for.” In 1999, he took over Ried Ulm, in Nussberg, a gemischte vineyard that he considered in good shape. As an experiment, he harvested a small portion of the grapes by variety, fermenting them separately; he harvested the remainder together, putting the mix into one tank. Tasting the wines, he was impressed by the quality of the single-variety lots of pinot blanc and grüner veltliner. “Then I came to this big tank of gemischter satz. I put my nose in the glass and I was overwhelmed. It shocked me from my chair. In this moment, I knew that Franz Mayer was absolutely right. This is wine with its own character—a wine that is so extremely terroir-driven, more than any wine I’ve ever made.”
A few years later, Wieninger set out to convert his vineyards to biodynamics, earning certification in 2008. Today, a small amount of mysticism has penetrated his Austrian sensibility. “I would think it makes a difference if the vines are completely mixed. Interaction is not only by the taste…[the plants] are growing side by side and crossing with each other. You can say I’m crazy, but they communicate. After a certain amount of years growing together it builds up a kind of formation. One vine would be an instrument. Gemischter satz is the whole orchestra.”
That orchestra resonated with our blind panel, Wieninger’s 2018 single-vineyard Rosengartl standing out from its peers. The vineyard sits in the middle of Nussberg’s slope, protected from the blustery winds at the top and well above the rich soils closer down to the Danube. The earliest mention of Rosengartl dates to 1365, and the wine could be found on the royal tables of France and the Austrian empire in the late 1800s. More recently, Wieninger shepherded his mixed vines through the challenges of the 2018 vintage, when extreme heat led him to harvest about two weeks earlier than normal. He finds that choosing the right moment to harvest is the most crucial decision for a great gemischter satz, a tight window already that was further narrowed by the temperature; he needed to harvest when the vines achieved the optimal balance of acidity and potential alcohol in the grapes. In 2018, he chilled those grapes overnight, as they were too hot off the vine for immediate pressing.
Wieninger has long advocated for the protections that exist for viticulture in Vienna. Vineyard land can sell for over a hundred times less than other real estate. “If I could sell [my vineyards] as building land, I would be a multi-multi-milionaire. But I would have sold my job. And I love my job…The terroir [of Vienna] is great and needs to be protected. I don’t want to see a Russian oligarch’s villa up there, nowadays even less than before. To me, [gemischter satz] is the best expression of the terroir.”
This is part of our Regional Tasting Report on Austria.
Corey Warren is the Tastings Editor in addition to covering the wines of the Loire, Southern France, Argentina and South Africa.
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