In Vienna, taking to the hills for wine

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In Vienna, taking to the hills for wine
Fuhrgassl-Huber, a winery and wine tavern in Vienna, on Sept. 21, 2022. In the fall, the wine taverns set among Vienna’s vineyards known as heurigen and buschenschanken offer the perfect combination of outdoor activity, food and drink. Florentina Olareanu/The New York Times.

by Valeriya Safronova

VIENNA.- Though Vienna’s vineyards are within city limits, they can feel a world away. Among the rows of grapes on the edges of the Austrian capital, the sounds and action of 1.9 million people are replaced by rocky paths, the chatter of crickets and a general calm.

That is, until September begins.

As fall and the harvest season arrive, the city’s residents grasp for one last bit of summer and head by the thousands to the vineyards to spend just a few more weekends drinking and eating in the sun. There to host them are wine taverns known as heurigen — a word that refers to both young wine and to the establishments themselves — and buschenschanken. The latter have to serve their own wine, made from local grapes, and they have to identify themselves by including a pine, spruce or fir branch in their signage (this tradition supposedly goes back to the Middle Ages, when a “wine crier” would mark the cellars where townspeople could get wine by pinning a pine branch to them).

“The heuriger is like the Wiener schnitzel,” said Laura Scheybal, who took over the management of a heuriger called Der Hirt this year with several partners. “It has a place in the heart of the Viennese.”

There are about 580 hectares of vineyards in Vienna and 145 wineries. Until the 1970s, people trekked to the heurigen with their own food. These days, they can instead purchase carefully selected products — cheeses, meats, pickled vegetables and more — to soak up the wide selection of Viennese wine.

Once the domain of the older generations, heurigen have begun to attract more and more young people. “In the 1980s, the average customer was 60,” said Paul Kiefer, the sales manager at Mayer am Pfarrplatz Winery, which counts the composer Ludwig van Beethoven as a one-time customer at its heuriger. “In the last 10 years, we have had so many young people coming to the heurigen, who are 20, 22 years old. They pregame in the heurigen and then go out to the club.”

Paul Erker, 35, a physicist, tries to go to the vineyards with friends a few times during the season, from the middle of spring to the middle of fall. “There are good views and good wine, combined with light physical activity,” he said. “It’s the perfect combination. You can sunbathe a little bit, and get drunk, which Viennese people always like.”

The archetypal heuriger visitor does not exist. “There is a professor from university, a farmer from two houses to the left and the unemployed guy who sits there to drink a few cheap spritzers,” said Marco Kalchbrenner, who handles sales for the wine company, Weinbau Jutta Ambrositsch, which is named after his wife. “It’s a wild social pond.”

First, getting there

The wine taverns are spread across different parts of the city, but several neighborhoods host concentrations of them that are particularly conducive to vineyard crawls. The Vienna tourist board provides a nice overview of these locations, and notes specific heurigen and their addresses on its website.

Some of the most prominent wineries in Vienna banded together several years ago to create an industry group called Wien Wein. Its website has a list of the heurigen and buschenschanken where their wine is served.

One place to start is Nussdorf, a neighborhood in the 19th district. From Nussdorf, several roads and trails lead up Nussberg, a small mountain topped by vineyards. There are plenty of heurigen in this area.

Those whose stamina decreases as their wine intake increases might consider going to the top of Nussberg and then working their way down. There are several ways to reach the top of Nussberg. The easiest, and if you are alone, the most expensive, is to pay for a taxi or an Uber. (Set your destination to Mayer am Nussberg; plenty of drivers are familiar with it and it is near the top of the mountain. From the center, the ride will cost you 20 to 25 euros or about the equivalent in dollars at the current exchange rate.)

Another option is to take the U4 line on the U-bahn, or subway, to the Heiligenstadt station, from which you can hop onto the Heurigen Express, a little tram that runs along a loop through the vineyards. It runs from April 1 to Oct. 31 on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays (except Labor Day, May 1) and costs 9.90 euros round trip.

If you prefer to get a little exercise, take the D tram to the Nussdorf stop, and plug Mayer am Nussberg into a maps app to get walking directions. Don’t worry about cutting through vineyards as you walk up. Everybody does it.

For many locals, part of the appeal of going to the vineyards in the Nussdorf area is the hike up. “In early fall, the walking season starts,” said Marlene Maierhofer, 35, a social worker. “People take long walks and then they want to reward themselves. ‘I did sports, and now I can start drinking wine and eat something nice.’”

You’ll find Weingut Wailand and Der Hirt at the very top of Nussberg; these heurigen are more tranquil than some of their counterparts. Both serve high quality wines and food that includes an assortment of meats and cheeses, and dips made from products like grammelschmalz, or pork fat and cracklings; kuerbiskerne, or pumpkin seeds; and liptauer, a mixture of cheeses. Der Hirt also serves hot dishes, like schweinebraten, or roast pork, and leberkäse, which is similar to a sausage. A meal and several glasses of wine will cost about 20 to 30 euros per person.

A short walk down the trail are a trio of popular heurigen: Mayer am Nussberg, Heuriger Sirbu am Nussberg and Wieninger am Nussberg. If there is a rush of people, be prepared to wait in line to order food, and do not expect sparkling customer service. Grumpiness among servers is considered by some an indelible part of Viennese culture, and nothing brings out the scowls like a busy day.

Across the road and slightly lower down along the trail are smaller wine and food outposts, like Monte Nucum Buschenschank and Buschenschank Windischbauer.

The heuriger experience

About 80% of the grapes grown in Vienna are white, and include well-known varieties like Riesling, Weissburgunder, Gruener Veltliner, Gelber Muskateller and sauvignon blanc. A local special is Gemischter Satz, a blend of white grapes that are grown, harvested, pressed and fermented together.

Purchase a bottle of wine made from one of these grapes, order a platter of cheese and some slices of cake, and post up at a table, or if they’re full, among the vines on a picnic blanket — or simply on the grass. Relaxation is the name of the game. No one will offer you tasting notes here, and swirling a glass mug with a handle wouldn’t make any sense.

“You drink a glass in one place, hike a half-kilometer, and there’s another nice place,” said Kiefer of the Mayer am Pfarrplatz Winery. “Everybody serves their own wine and different types of food. It brings the whole process of production much closer to the people. If they live in the city and they only see the bottle, they have no clue how it’s produced.”

Kiefer said that many winemakers don’t even mind if people rip a couple of grapes off the vines to taste, as long as they don’t take entire bunches.

A typical drink order at a heuriger consists of a liter of white wine and a liter of sparkling water, and costs about 15 to 25 euros. Guests can make their own spritzers based on their preferred ratios. There are usually many white wines available by the glass or bottle, and some red, rosé and fizzy options. Locals often go for the very drinkable “house white,” which runs at about 3.50 to 4.50 euros per glass.

For the brave and adventurous, there is another option: sturm. Available only in the early fall, sturm is fresh grape juice that’s collected during harvest and has only just begun fermenting. Very sweet, it tastes somewhat like a cider and contains 3-5% alcohol. Beware: the name translates to storm, and hints at what can happen to the stomach when faced with more than a glass or two of the drink.

The heurigen and buschenschanken on Nussberg tend to operate based on weather conditions, so make sure you check their websites or call before heading out. You could also make a reservation; many have online booking available.

The city abounds with other wine tavern options. Intrepid wine hikers can make their way from Nussberg down to the Neustift neighborhood by following a maps app or a wine hiking map from the city, and will pass many heurigen along the way, including Genuss am Cobenzl, which is owned by the city. A nightcap (or several) can be ordered at Fuhrgassl-Huber Weingut or Weingut Zimmermann, which are about a 10-minute walk from each other and are easily reached by taking the 35A bus to Neustift am Walde.

Other parts of the city, including Ottakring, which is in the west of the city, and Stammersdorf, across the Danube, are also known for their heurigen and are easily reachable from the center.

“Autumn is one of the best times you can visit the heurigen,” said Scheybal, of Der Hirt. “The trees are changing, the colors are really cool and the light is perfect. Vienna is really lucky to have all these vineyards so close to the city. This is very special. You’ll hardly find this in any other city in the world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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