The Rise and Fall and Rise of Vienna’s Wine
To keep learning about a thing is to realize, more and more, that one has barely grazed the surface. Getting to know wine is a trusty reminder of this niggling fact. In June, I stood in a vineyard on a hill called Nussberg and looked down at the Millennium Tower and the rest of Vienna’s downtown. Vienna is the only urban area that includes an entire winemaking region within its boundaries, a fact that, at first, didn’t register as promising. After all, wine made in cities tends to be either a tourist novelty or a vanity beverage made by some overstimulated hotelier; the Viennese versions turned out to be neither. I had gone up the hill with Gerhard Lobner, the young winemaker at Mayer am Pfarrplatz and Rotes Haus, whose deservedly popular wines tasted brisk and charming, if not exactly profound. I thought of his lighthearted, spritzy elaborations on Vinho Verde as schnitzel wines (not a diss: I consider schnitzel to be a Himalayan summit of cooking) and assumed they epitomized what was happening on Vienna’s wine scene. To say I was wrong is putting it mildly. Vienna’s growers and vineyards—until recently a footnote in any discussion of Austrian viticulture—are producing some of the most distinctive and fascinating wines in all of Europe.
The home of Schubert and Freud boasts two oenological claims to fame. First, it forms a borderland between the regions of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner—cooled by the climatic influence of the Alps—and the warm, dry vineyards on the Pannonian Plain, known for reds, especially Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt, and white Burgundian varietals. The Danube, too, mediates Vienna’s unusually varied microclimates, some of which—particularly on the hillsides of the Nussberg and the Bisamberg—have been renowned for centuries. Secondly, the city is one of a handful of wine regions known primarily for field blends; the best versions of Vienna’s Gemischter Satz, which can include a dozen varietals or more, tend to be remarkably complex and stylistically varied.
So why has it taken Vienna so long to shed its reputation for underwhelming wines? I posed the question to the unfailingly generous Austrian and German wine expert David Schildknecht. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek (at least I think so), he blamed Schlamperei (a word meaning something akin to “laxity” or “not giving a crap”); a native concept, in Austria it is considered a quintessentially Viennese trait. “If you live in the capital of a very thirsty country, a capital that’s huge in a country that’s small, and a capital visited by and known to folks from around the world, it’s easy to see how the temptation toward mediocrity in wine growing would be huge,” Schildknecht told me.
Until quite recently, the winemaking region Vienna resembled most was the the vast Weinviertel to the city’s north, where vintners either sold their juice to one of several large merchants or poured it for visitors at their Heurigen (wine inns). Up north, no one but Roman and Adelheid Pfaffl was recognized for making world-class wines; Vienna, too, slept under a cloud of Schlamperei until the arrival of Fritz Wieninger. In the 80s, when he took over his parents’ century-old winery, Wieninger began to experiment with temperature-controlled fermentation, barrique-aging and vinifying unusual varietals. For two decades, he was alone in extracting perfectionist wines from Vienna’s soils; in the meantime, mostly by example, he managed to convince a group of younger, ambitious growers of the city’s potential. Today, few would dispute that Wieninger has been the seminal figure in Vienna’s transformation.
His wines continue to be benchmarks. The style is classically Austrian: his ‘08 Wiener Gemischter Satz is deeply flavored, balanced, with a long, crunchy mineral finish and that uniquely Viennese kaleidoscope of flavors—clover, anise, god knows what else. Better yet, the ‘08 Gemischter Satz Nussberg Alte Reben tastes as gnarly as the parcel of fifty-year-old vines from which it was made—intensely concentrated yet light in body, interestingly austere, with an insistent, cleansing bitterness that lingers in the mouth. The Grüners and the reds are just as snappy and elegant, thought I preferred the richer ‘08s to the ‘09s. (They are imported to the US by Winebow).
I owe my discovery of Vienna’s liquid evolution to importers Paul Darcy and Carlo Huber, who specialize in the city’s growers. To be honest, at first I wasn’t particularly excited to taste their wines, yet ten minutes into sampling the portfolio, it became clear that Wieninger was no longer alone in doing superlative work in Vienna. While I plotzed over the delicious Gelber Muskateller and Weissburgunder from Rainer Christ, it was Stefan Hajszan’s biodynamic whites that opened my eyes. They have an altogether more upbeat disposition than Wieninger’s and, like some others in the Rudolf Steiner camp, can be almost electric in their intensity. Made from eleven different grapes (ever hear of Frühroter Veltliner?), Hajszan’s ‘08 Gemischter Satz Weissleiten smells and tastes nearly tropical, with the thickness of a white from Friuli, but maintains a dainty 12.5% of alcohol and plenty of complexity. The ‘07 Riesling Pfaffenberg is nearly as ripe but ultra-dry, with perfect balance and a quartz-like stoniness. Hajszan also makes the city’s most delicious reds—the medium-bodied ‘08 Zweigelt-Blaufränkisch is ideally judged, as juicy as a good Morgon while tasting nothing like Gamay or, for that matter, any other French grape. For all their complexity and stuffing, Hajszan’s wines are built on a human scale, as easy-to-drink and joyous as Austrian wine gets. Better yet, unlike so many neighbors in the more famous regions of Wachau and Kamptal, nearly all of these Viennese wines retail for under thirty bucks.
Two of the most remarkable bottles I’ve opened this year came courtesy of a thirty-something graphic-designer-turned-natural-winemaker with a delightfully gnomic name—Jutta Ambositsch, who goes by Jutta Kalchbrenner. Here’s what I gleaned from our not-quite-idiomatic email correspondence: she began to tinker with vines in her parents’ plot in Burgenland. In 2001, Fritz Wieninger sealed her fate when he “donated” a vineyard in Vienna to her care (a shout-out to her friend is printed on each of her labels), and she has since expanded her holdings. I haven’t had a chance to taste her blends, only two Rieslings. The ‘08 Oberer Reisenberg comes from a steep 18-year-old plot covered with chunks of limestone and pebbles, cooled by a westerly wind from the Vienna Woods. It’s lightly off-dry, long as a river, stony, complete, and almost Mosel-like in its lusciousness. The ‘08 Ried Preussen (“Prussian Marsh”), from a biodynamically-cultivated vineyard on the Nussberg that contains only 415 vines, is the Reisenberg’s mirror image, the Nico to its Joni Mitchell. There’s a touch of sweet-tart fruit, earth, a saltiness, and then a geyser of gravelly bitterness and funk that vibrates on the tongue for minutes. Carlo Huber called it “intellectual.” For some reason, it made me think of a small, austere Gothic chapel. I hadn’t tasted anything like them—to me, these Rieslings stand up to anything from F.X. Pichler, Hirtzberger or Knoll while coming across as utterly original.
What’s Ambrositsch-Kalchbrenner’s deal? “I am not esoteric, but I believe in a better treatment by one person,” she wrote me. ”This is hard when I don’t feel very good, because the vibes are between the vineyard and me. I touch them, nobody else. Just at harvest. And harvesting is a party: there are about 20-30 friends who help me. They pick up the grapes very softly, cutting out bad grapes. You can’t compare our harvest to another harvest with paid workers. They just harvest the grapes and have no responsibility for the product, the wine, the friendship.” (A look at her German-language website will tell you something about her charmingly loopy approach.) Ambositsch works in Stefan Hajszan’s winery, ages in steel, designs the stark labels, and prices the wines higher than her neighbors do, though still fairly, considering the quality. Here in New York, they are already on wine lists at haute gastro-palaces like Eleven Madison Park, so I’m not alone in being smitten. Someone should come up with a new adjective to describe the best wines of Vienna—Falco-licious? Wittgenstein-derful? While they do, be sure to open a few of these strange and memorable bottles.
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