As the sun set, we moved ever further away from the city centre, towards the district of Grinzing in the north. Roads became narrower and quieter as our taxi climbed through the hills. Soon, we found ourselves amid villas and vineyards. We were here to visit another of Vienna’s culinary specialties: Heurigen, or wine taverns. The name “Heuriger”, literally “this year’s”, refers traditionally to the year’s young wine. The newly harvested and fermented wine, alongside fresh grape juice (Most) or early fermented product (Sturm), is served by these traditional wine taverns, normally open only for a few weeks in late summer and early autumn.
Austrian wine is well-known for its delicate nose and acidity, and this might be expected as it sits at a similar latitude as northern France. Most of Austria’s wine comes from the eastern side of the country, and its best-known variety is the tart and cutting Grüner Veltliner, most often found in the form of a dry white. Dig a little deeper, however, and you will find the lighter red variety Zweigelt, or the tannin-filled and acidic Blaufränkisch. It is safe to say that Austrian wine has rebounded from the 1985 scandal when some winemakers were found to have mixed their wine with diethylene glycol, a common antifreeze, making their wines appear to be sweeter and more full-bodied.
Austria may not be heavily associated with wine, but Vienna has had a storied past with viticulture. Wine was a part of the salary of Roman legions, and as wine was traditionally produced in Italy and cost significant resources to transport, vine grafts were instead brought throughout the Roman Empire and cultivated locally. In addition to imported vines, there is also evidence that the local Celtic population had been producing wine prior to its introduction. Wine production and consumption persisted throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes illegally, until 1784, when the Habsburg Emperor Josef II issued a decree allowing wine producers to sell on their own premises. The tradition of a Heurige was born. Despite infrequent drops in their popularity, viticulture is today a key socio-cultural part of the Viennese economy, and Vienna is one of the few cities in the world with vineyards (200-odd!) within its city borders.
Accompanying the summer evening were crickets and occasional chirps from loitering birds. We climbed the steps into the Heurige, passing tables with simple and hearty foods – potato salads, cheeses, cold cuts. Traditional music has traditionally been part of the Gemütlichkeit – a uniquely German feeling of cosiness and well-being – of Heurigen, but they were absent this evening. The silence was instead filled with chatter, both English and German. Families and friends filled the communal wooden tables scattered around the outdoor garden space. The trellises were within touching distance.
Today, the Heuriger concept has been exported all over the world. New York, for instance, has seen its own versions of the Heuriger (imported, of course, by Austrians) emerge. Their produce is exported all across the world as Austrian wines become increasingly renowned. Nonetheless, I suspect none will taste better than they did this summer evening: on uneven wooden tables, amid vineyards and Austrian chatter, against the backdrop of a hillside Viennese sunset.
With more time…
The museums: our brief stay meant that we could only afford to visit one of many museums that Vienna has to offer – the MAK, which exhibits contemporary art and design. Vienna has much more to offer, mostly in the Museumsquartier region: the natural history museum exhibits various minerals and fossils with a dedicated anthropology section; the museum of fine arts just opposite contains excellent collections of Egyptian, Roman and Greek art, as well as much of the Habsburg’s art collection; MUMOK also houses exhibitions of contemporary art; Leopoldmuseum holds collections of Klimt, Schiele, and other Austrian artists. Many other museums dot the city and are worthy of your consideration.
Classical music: you can fairly say that a visit to Vienna is incomplete without a personal experience of the classical music. We travelled in August, during which the State Opera and the Viennese Philharmonic rests. Nonetheless, classical music ensembles catering to tourists run through the summer. Standing tickets can often be bought at the door for 3-4 euros, making even world-class concerts almost unreasonably financially accessible.
Bratislava: the capital of Slovakia is only an hour away from Vienna. Bratislava is very walkable, and contains a small but beautiful Old Town. Particular highlights include Bratislava Castle, St. Martin’s Cathedral, and the Slavín Monument, which provides a breathtaking view over the city. Given that Bratislava attracts much fewer tourists, there are fewer tourist traps and feature more locally run shops and restaurants.