Viennese Wine - A Tasting With Fritz Wieninger
Last month in Vienna, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Fritz Wieninger, president of WIENWEIN and owner and operator of Weingut Wieninger, one of the most successful and popular Austrian wineries.
Before you go judging, Austrian wine may not be what you think. Austrian wines have had years of unjustified bad press due to lies (poor or sweetened wines falsely labeled "Austria") and a general different approach to the marketing and distribution of their wines. At one time, wine in Austria was far cheaper and more common than water -- and to this day, you'll be surprised by how many Austrian restaurants only serve wine they've made themselves. They don't even advertise it; it's normal.
There are vineyards within the city limits of Vienna -- in fact, there are quite a few of them. Viennese wine has a distinct flavor and rich history; its reputation and commercialization are only now catching up to its quality. Fritz Wieninger and WIENWEIN are leading the pack of vintners who are bringing Viennese wine to the international market with a newfound confidence. I did my best to learn as much as I possibly could from him about Viennese wine. And by that, I mean I drank a lot of wine with him. But first, we went on a tour of his Vienna facilities.
Gallery: Tour of Weingut Wieninger
Wieninger explained that his family's winery dated back as far as his great, great grandfather, and maybe further, they're not sure. It was his grandfather who first made it successful, and his father who inspired him to get into truly making fine wines. Twenty years ago, they built the cellar we toured (above) themselves, brick by brick. It sits below his well-known restaurant, also called Wieninger, which seats 700 people and is known for being one of the only heurigers with actual good food. Heurigers, or wine taverns, have existed for centuries in Vienna, and there used to be strict laws about what you could serve in them. Firstly, you could only serve wine made by the house, and the types of food you could serve were also heavily regulated. Before Wieninger made a formal entre into the wine industry, the tavern was considered the family business.
Now fully recognized as a fine winemaker, Wieninger has recently gotten into biodynamics. It was watching his colleagues that inspired him to go green -- and he makes a point that they don't see each other as competitors; many of them went to school together and are friends -- he watched a few of them try it and saw their wines improve. He says that though not all the wines in his collection have improved drastically, some have, and not one is worse. This is his third year of using biodynamic practices, and he's looking forward to 2011, when his wines will be certified both organic and biodynamic (it takes three years). He notes that it's 20 percent more work for about a 20 percent smaller yield, but the quality is so much better, he's willing to make sacrifices.
But, of course, the proof is in the pudding. We sat down in his office, where the walls featured attractively displayed soil samples from his land near the Danube (right). You can see the difference in soil from opposite sides of the river visually, in the color and the textural details. Just inches below the surface, you can see coral and shells, remnants from a time long ago when the Danube met the sea. This, I'm told, accounts for the chalky undertones common to Viennese wines.
The first wine we tasted was a Wieninger Grüner Veltliner, which you can get in NYC for around $19. About 33 percent of the wine that comes from Austria is Grüner Veltliner. The varietal is earthy, herbal, fresh and mature -- like a dry Riesling, but smoother and lighter. It's highly drinkable on its own or with food, which is probably what makes it so popular, but be wary -- at 12.5 percent alcohol by volume, it'll sneak up on you.
Next, we tried a Wiener Gemischter Satz, one of the most important Austrian wines to understand. Gemischter Satz literally translates to "field blend." It's a blended wine, but not a cuvee. Cuvees are blended post-harvest. Gemischter Satz is made from a blend of vines which are carefully selected to grow together. Vintners will decide they want their Gemischter Satz to be 15 percent this, thirty percent that and so on, and they'll grow themselves a pre-blended wine. This is the traditional Viennese method of wine growing. "An old friend of mine said that 'One variety is just one instrument, and a Gemischter Satz is a whole orchestra,'" said Wieninger. Gemischter Satz has developed a somewhat negative reputation internationally, but Wieninger is convinced that it was simply blasphemed by sloppy vintners who were doing it wrong. After trying his wine, I am inclined to agree.
We tasted many other wines -- if you'd like to know what the winemaker drinks himself, it's Nussberg Alte Reben, a wine planted 50 years ago over just eight acres with an earthy nose and a long, elegant finish. A bottle will run you about $30 in NYC, and its award-winning bottle design (left; it's the Wieninger family) makes it a smash hit at dinner parties. Also, if you hadn't noticed, we've only been discussing white wines. As a matter of fact, red wine wasn't very popular in Austria until as recently as after the commercialization of the airplane -- people started taking trips to Italy and were suddenly interested in reds. It just so happened that Wieninger's grandfather had an eccentric taste for the red stuff, but his vines (Pinot Noir) were too old to be saved. "Pinot Noir is a diva," said Wieninger. "You catch her in the right moment, and it's breathtaking." But if not ... no dice. Wieninger does have a newer Pinot Noir vineyard -- as a matter of fact, they serve it at The Modern at MoMa in New York (the only place in the USA you can get it).
On the whole, my experience with Fritz Wieninger not only strengthened my respect and understanding of Austrian wine, but of Austrian business people, as well. Something I deeply love about Vienna is that you can walk into an independent designer's store and the designer him or herself will be there stitching behind the counter, serving you, and ringing you up at the till. People actually work in their own shops and are present in their own businesses in Vienna -- a practice I think we could stand to return to in the United States.
As for Viennese wine, I'm hooked.
My visit to Vienna was sponsored by the Vienna Tourist Board and Cool Capitals, but the opinions expressed in the article are 100% my own.