European Wine Bloggers I: The Heurigen

written by Michael Oudyn

“Promiscuity in the Vineyards of Vienna!” –The European Wine Bloggers do Austria

I just spent a week with the European Wine Bloggers in and around Vienna.

The Mayer am Pfarrplatz Heuriga

The Mayer am Pfarrplatz Heuriga

But isn’t that in Austria, and isn’t Austria like hop-happy beer-guzzling  Germany only a little further south?  Well, no.  Austrians prefer wine; put away a whole lot of it; and a lot of it is, as I found out, quite excellent.

Vienna has one unique iconic wine institution: the heurigen which are tavern/restaurant/ wine gardens.  It turns out here are about 1700 acres (sic) of active vineyards inside the city limits of Vienna.  No other city can really make this claim. Sure, Paris has a petit vineyard (Clos Montmartre), and a three-day Harvest Festival (see post).  But the festival is strictly for the tourists, and the wine itself  is best kept in the trophy case where it can impress, and out of wine glasses where it will disappoint.

But the heurigen are the real thing, and their curious history goes something like this.  Ever seen the Middle Ages monks and nobles grew grapes and made wine in the countryside around Vienna; the Viennese were notorious for their “prodigious thirst.” In 1784 the farmers from  Gorz complained that local nobles were forcing them to sell only the nobles wines, so the Emperor Joseph II generously decreed that winegrowers had the right to sell their own wines (and food) free from expensive licensing fees on two conditions.  They had to be sold and drunk at the vineyard itself, and the wine had to be drunk within eleven months of harvest. (The word “heurig” means “this year’s” in Austrian German.)  Vineyard owners jumped at the tax-free loop-hole, and a whole circle of wine-garden restaurants serving home-grown food and young wine sprang up around Vienna. When the city expanded these taverns, and their vineyards, found themselves surrounded by urban sprawl. So why haven’t these vintners succumbed  to  all-to-human greed, sold out to land developers, and pocketed a few quick bucks?  Well, they can’t; these residual splashes of the rural life inside the bustling metropolis are protected by the government, and I say thanks for the invention.

Another curiosity of traditional Viennese wine is that six white grape varieties have always been planted side by side with no rhyme or reason, and then harvested and vinified all together.  The grapes include the international (riesling, pinot blanc), the local (gruner veltliner and neuberger), and the charmingly named (spatrot and rotgipher.) The whole mess is called gemischter satz (the field blend) and can be a winemaker’s nightmare; the six varieties mature at different times, and some of them aren’t so great in the first place.  Its reputation for quality has been spotty.  Karen Mac Neil says gemischter satz is “rarely good”.  My guide book (Rick Steeves) goes further: “Many locals claim it takes several years of practice to distinguish between (it) and vinegar.” Ouch! But this is a protected-market fiscal paradise, so why should makers worry much about quality anyway?

Well, I was intrigued, so it was off  to Vienna icon Schubel-Auer.  We orderered up a bottle of their gemischter satz which wasn´t exactly vinegar. But it was a little harsh on the palette, so our second bottle was their house riesling, a discrete upgrade.  But we had no illusions about quality, and the tavern vibe was good, and the wines went well with the basic roast beef, stuffed pork, and other pig parts  I would be hard pressed to identify. (White wine with meat?  No problem; it doesn’t bother Austrians or Germans in the least.) So, it seemed, the heurigen were as advertised.  Relaxed  fun in a down-home atmosphere, with mediocre wines.

But meanwhile, back at the European Wine Bloggers Conference, this stereotype was about to be put to the test.  The Austrian Wine Marketing Board had cooked up  a brilliant promotional scheme. They had chosen eleven “undiscovered stars” from the Austrian wine world.  All were from small producers, none were being exported to the UK.  In a very interactive, hands-on-the-wine-glass tasting, we the blogger turned wine critics would choose one from the eleven which would then be aggressively marketed in the UK.  The competition would work something like this: In the three semi-finals, we judges would swirl, sniff, taste, and reflect.  Then, at the signal, we would wave our hands  and make various noises for our favorite.  In this way three wines would reach the finals where the ultimate winner would then be anointed using the same scientific method.  Well, this sounded like good clean fun to me, and it was. The first wine to reach the finals was my personal favorite, a 2009 Riesling from Lower Austria  made by Herbert Zillinger.  “High acid, very crisp, and refreshing, just a touch of residual sugar”, I scribbled down.   A biodynamic Chardonnay got my vote in Group 2. But the winner was… Wait a minute, not a vinegarized field blend from a Viennese heuriga! Not the gemischer satz from Mayer am Pfarrplatz und Rotes Haus.  But yes. It wasn´t my choice, but it was “very good!!” according to my sparse tasting notes (the emphatic double exclamation points due, no doubt, to  surprise and shock and imperfect spit discipline.)  The third finalist  was a decadently sweet botrytis  Ausbruch from Weingut Moser Hans in Burgenland.  By the time the finals rolled around our collective competitive juices were flowing, and we judges were getting more and more boisterously partisan.  I stayed true to my Riesling to the bitter end, and may have even snuck in a little mini yelp for the dessert wine.  But the winner was, you guessed it, the humble field blend from Mayer am Pfarrplatz. Well, no grousing from this quarter; I’m a good loser and this underdog half-breed mutt had defeated the noble  varieties both in decibel level and hand-gesture vigor.  And it was “very good!!”  So, coming soon to a UK wine shop near you….

Well, by chance, the next night’s gala tasting and dinner was at the very same Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz.  I must repeat that I suspect no electoral hanky panky. The voting was as clean and transparent as their 2009 Reisling Alsegg and their 2009 Gruner Veltliner Muckenthal, the two whites I sipped with great relish while “interviewing” the champion winemaker.  I was especially curious about Vienna’s traditional vineyard promiscuity. Over the jolly background racket he explained that  his grandfather had planted the usual six varieties in the traditional way, at random. They have a general idea of the composition of the vineyard today, but nobody has ever bothered to actually count the vines.  What would be the point, after all?  The six grape varieties mature at different rates, so in one year you have more riesling, the next year more gruner veltliner, and so on. But one thing was very clear, excellent wine is being made with the traditional method.

By the way the heuriger Mayer am Pfarrplatz is known in the tourist world

“Roll over Beethovan…”

as Beethovanhaus.  It seems Ludwig van himself stayed there while working on his 9th Symphony.  Local legend has it that a mystical flash revealed that he could cure his deafness if he returned to where he had composed his 6th Symphony .  Be that as it may, “roll over Beethoven”; from now on you’ll be playing second fiddle to the 2009 Mayer am Pfarrplatz’s  gemischter satz, the people’s choice at the 2010 European Wine Bloggers’ Convention!

3 Responses to “European Wine Bloggers I: The Heurigen”

  1. luis aparicio Says:

    Getting plotzed at the Platz.
    O, those Austrians and their cute kangaroos.

  2. Nata Says:

    Hi Mike… uuuu having white wine with meet, in Prague( very next to Vienna) we had PUNCH ( some kind of hot, very strong drink with red fruits and spirit) with a pork…. i was the only one surprised there….

  3. Aran Says:

    mmmm ….. This wine is interesting, very interesting!!!
    a big kiss!

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