Eating and Drinking The Viennese Way: Vienna’s Wine Taverns and Mixed Sets – Special Report

By John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.

When the sun’s rays light up Vienna and the temperature reaches that comfortable al fresco dining range, young and old flock from the city center to the capital’s suburbs at the edge of town. In the districts surrounding the city, especially in the north such as the 21st and its historic neighborhoods of Strebersdorf, Stammersdorf and Jedlersdorf, and the 19th district’s Heiligenstadt, Nussdorf, and Grinzing, rural meets urban in a setting that features charmingly rustic wine taverns surrounded by the vineyards that supply them. Called buschenshank, or more colloquially heuriger (plural: heurigen), these original, seasonal pop-up, farm-to-table-restaurants operated by vintners have been a Viennese, and Austrian, tradition for nearly two and a half centuries.

Nussberg Vineyard overlooking the Danube and downtown Vienna, ©Austrian Wine/Gerhard Elze

“People love to come on the weekends and in the evenings up to the vineyards, sit down with a fantastic view over the city and enjoy the wine that is made around the corner, and have some simple food,” enthuses Fritz Wieninger, celebrated Viennese winemaker at his eponymous estate and whose family has operated a heuriger for a century. “Whenever the sun is out and it’s warm enough, it’s super crowded. People have so much fun with wine from Vienna.”

“It brings a lot of joy, and it’s inexpensive” – Alex Zahel

Alexander Zahel of Weingut Zahel, whose family has also been making wine and serving it in their heuriger for generations in the southern Viennese 23rd district of Liesing, describes heurigen as the “tapas bars or bistros of Austria”, but with the important distinction that the wines served are all homemade, so to speak. “They’re usually in old buildings, with wooden tables set without tablecloths. There’s no pretention. You may well end up squeezing in at a table full of strangers or future friends, and enjoy local food with local wine, and talk about life. There’s often live schrammelmusik [Viennese folk music] playing. It brings a lot of joy, and it’s inexpensive,” says Zahel.

Buschenschank Wieninger, Nussberg; © Wieninger

Alongside typical cold plates like homemade sourdough bread served with various spreads, sliced roast pork, and a selection of local cured meats and aged alpine cheeses, Zahel’s heuriger still serves many of his grandmother’s recipes, simple, hearty, dishes like hot leberkas, a Viennese delicacy and relative of the hot dog, served in the baking dish, fleischlaberl (a giant, fried meatball) and schnitzel, of course.

Vineyards Heiligenstadt; ©Austrian Wine/WSNA Rothen

Let There Be Heuriger!

The advent of the heuriger has a birthday. It was on the 17th of August 1784 that Austrian Emperor Joseph II issued a decree permitting all residents to open establishments to sell and serve their own wine and juices on premise, the modern-day equivalent of a brew pub licence. Initially no food could be sold to prevent competition with restaurants, but over time these restrictions lessened. Today, heuriger range from the traditional, rustic open-air taverns open seasonally whenever there is wine available and time to sell it, to more elaborate, year-round restaurant-like establishments, though the convivial spirit and raison d’être – to sell wine – remains. Vienna’s Heurigen have become such a cultural institution that they were included in the national UNESCO index of intangible cultural heritage sites in Austria in 2019.

Heuriger is the abbreviation of “heuriger wein”, which means “this year’s wine” in Austrian dialect, and which also came to mean the place where heuriger wein was sold. Thanks to Josef’s decree, the still frothy, youthful wine of the new vintage would be released on Saint Martin’s day, November 11th, making it the original “nouveau”, long before the Beaujolais craze was launched. Passers-by would be alerted to open heurigen by a bundle of fir twigs hanging above the door, the sign that it was open for business or “ausg’steckt”, meaning literally the twigs are “stuck out”. The tradition of hanging fir twigs is still followed by many today.

Ausg’steckt- Stuck out and open for business! © Wein-Plus

Wein aus Wien: Viennese Wine

Up until the late Middle Ages, grapevines were still growing within the Vienna city walls in what is now the first district, the heart of the city now punctuated by the tall spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. As the city expanded, vineyards were slowly pushed to the outskirts, but Vienna remains the only European capital to have vineyard acreage of commercial consequence within its borders. Just under 600ha are planted today to a wide variety of both red and white grapes, and, like the food served in heurigen, the wines range in style from spritzer-ready, pret-à-porter, to haute couture of international class, comfortable alongside Austria’s finest.

Ride a tram from the city centre to the outer districts to experience heurigen; ©Austrian Wine/Armin Faber

Wiener Gemischter Satz: Viennese “Mixed Sets”

Of the many styles on offer, the most traditional and emblematic wine of Vienna is the white wine called Wiener Gemischter Satz, which means literally the “mixed set of Vienna”. In practical terms, Gemischter Satz refers to a wine made from a mix of different white grapes, all co-planted together in the same vineyard. Vienna is one of the few places left in the world where the ancient practice of planting multi-variety field blends, once the norm throughout the old world (and in the oldest vineyards of the new world), is still followed. Most modern vineyards are planted to single varieties.

Today, almost one-fifth of vineyards in Vienna are field blends (exclusively white; there’s no tradition for red field blends). But why then did field blends survive in Vienna and fall out of favour virtually everywhere else? One very important motivating factor was the popularity of the wine taverns; the young wine served on tap at heurigen was invariably Gemischter Satz. “That’s what people expected,” says Zahel. “So, in the 1990s when international varieties became popular in Austria and even Vienna, those old vine field blends were not ripped up and replanted. The wine was needed for the heurigen.”

Vineyards in Grinzing; ©Austrian Wine/Armin Faber

In very few other places is there such a direct and immediate connection between vineyards and where the wine is sold and consumed, a fact recognized by Viennese city officials, who moved many years ago to officially protect the city’s vineyards from real estate speculation.

A Viennese state law now stipulates that vineyards in Vienna must not only be maintained, they must also be cultivated – you can’t even convert a vineyard to another type of agriculture, so it’s a move to not just protect the hybrid urban-rural nature of the city, but to really preserve the centuries-old winegrowing tradition. Without such protections, urban sprawl would surely have eaten away at the vineyards that surround the city, and the great Viennese tradition of the heuriger and Gemischter Satz would have been lost. As it stands there’s even room for vineyard expansion, about another 100 hectares or more of suitable land, according to Zahel, so the story continues to thrive.

To Blend or Not To Blend

“The field blend was also a kind of a crop insurance,” Zahel continues, referring to the main advantage of Gemischter Satz in the pre-industrial era of winegrowing. “My grandparents, like so many, had to live from a single plot or land, and planting a mix of different varieties was a way to ensure that more or less every year they would be able to harvest the same amount of grapes, so they could make their living.”

© Wieninger

One of the main reasons field blends became a romantic 19th century notion in the rest of Europe was the teachings of burgeoning winemaking schools that informed the 20th century wine industry. These institutions were largely against field blends, favouring instead the efficiency of monovarietal plantings so winegrowers could perform the work needed using a single regime (spraying, pruning, etc), like a factory assembly line, producing more grapes with less effort and lower cost. This is certainly true if farming industrially by tractor, but the argument unravels on a more artisanal scale.

“Every vine, if well-tended, even if from the same variety, needs a little individual love and attention,” says Wieninger, who like Zahel, farms biodynamically with much of the work done by hand. “This is especially true as vines get older and become more distinctive, individual plants. If you work every day in the vineyard, you see that it [field blends] is not complicated,” Fritz argues. He claims that farming costs are no higher in his field blends compared to his monovarietal plantings.

“Field blends go hand in hand with biodynamic farming” -Alex Zahel

Another benefit according to Zahel is that having multiple varieties together extends the flowering period – the growing cycle of each variety is different – and thus more beneficial insects are attracted to the vineyard and for a longer time. There’s also the mutually protective effect of biodiversity in general. Whereas a single pest or disease can wipe out an entire monoculture, a biodiverse vineyard offers differing resistance, which can slow or even stop the spread. “Field blends go hand in hand with biodynamic farming.” concludes Zahel.

One of the other major downsides of mixed plantings is the fact that different varieties ripen at different times, making the timing of harvest tricky to get right. But this, too, can be turned to an advantage, and used as an antidote to climate change. Just as field blends were once considered insurance against vintage variations, so too are they more adaptable to extreme weather events than a monovarietal block. While some varieties may not ripen and others become overripe, some tolerate drought while others can handle more rain. With the right mix, a good harvest can be achieved each year. Zahel for his part plans to replant more of the late ripening varieties in the mix, like Riesling, Zierfandler and Furmint, to stretch the growing season in the frequently hotter vintages to be able to harvest at similar potential alcohol and make a consistent wine style year after year.

Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC

Wiener Gemischter Satz’s status as the flagship of Vienna was solidified in 2013 with the granting of its own DAC – the Austrian appellation equivalent of an AOC or DOC. To qualify, a wine must be made from a registered vineyard planted to at least three varieties, harvested and vinified together. The list of permitted varieties stretches to almost 30, and includes well-known grapes such as Pinot gris and blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Muscat, as well as local specialties like Neuberger, Zierfandler, Furmint, Traminer, Rotgipfler and Spätrot. No variety can exceed half of the blend, while the third most important component must represent at least 10%.

© Austrian Wine/Robert Herbst

With so many permitted varieties in a bewildering number of combinations, coupled with the varied geology and soils of the Vienna area and of course winemaking styles, what’s a wine drinker to expect? Wieninger recommends getting to know some reliable producers: “If you know about the producer then you know much more about the wine. If you don’t know the winemaker, you may be surprised!”

Beyond recognized producers, the name of one of Vienna’s more famous single vineyards is another increasingly frequent cue on a wine label. Names like Nussberg and Bisamberg, vineyards shared by many producers, and even smaller parcels within these sites are found more and more frequently on labels of some of Vienna’s best wines. And whereas Gemischter Satz was once sold almost exclusively in Vienna, producers like Wieninger and Zahel have found ever-more receptive international markets as the thirst for unique local specialities grows worldwide.

But the greatest joy, of course, is setting off on your own discovery journey in Vienna’s outer districts. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a wine in the vineyard from which it was made. Look for a heuriger with a fresh fir branch hanging above the door, and prepare to eat and drink like a true Viennese the way Josef II envisioned.

Listen to the Wine Thieves’ discussion with two important Viennese winemakers and learn more about the eating and drinking habits of the Viennese.

Wine Thieves – No Branch, No Wine, No Service – Viennese Drinking Habits

Top Gemischter Satz Producers

Weingut Wieninger & Hajszan-Neumann

Weingut Zahel

Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz

Weingut Christ

Weingut Edlmoser


Weingut Lenikus

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.