Every year since 2010 I have been invited, though have not always been able, to attend the Austrian Wine Challenge as the sole UK representative.
On a previous visit I visited the historic Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz and its vineyards on the Nussberg terrace to the north of Vienna.
Even when enjoying the gemütlichkeit offered by one of Vienna’s many Heuriger taverns, it seems improbable that a capital city of 2 million people can be one of Austria’s oldest viticultural regions. But this beautiful city is home to over 70 wine producers, with 700 hectares of vines planted within Vienna’s municipal boundaries.
Vienna has a long winemaking history. Celts and Illyrians made wine as early as 750BC at what became the Roman military camp of Vindobona, on the site of what is now the Innere Stadt (city centre) of Vienna. The third century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus, after whom Probusgasse in Heiligenstadt, north Vienna, is named, imported vines from Italy and planted them in the Danube region.
Wine growing ceased when the Barbarians displaced the Romans in the fifth century. Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, re-established vineyards in Vienna in the eighth century.
The Middle Ages from the fifth century to the 15th century saw the foundation of monasteries in Vienna, many of which had vineyards. By the 15th century enough wine was made in Vienna to be able to export. Records show that 75,760 hectolitres of wine were exported between 1445 and 1447.
The Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent failed to capture the city in 1529 during the Siege of Vienna but, fearing further attacks, the city was fortified and surrounded by a moat in 1548. Central Vienna was enclosed and vineyards were grubbed up. The 30 Years War from 1618 to 1648 and the second Turkish attack in 1683 further depleted Vienna’s vineyards.
In the 18th century the architects Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Johann Lukas von Hildebrand turned Vienna into a Baroque city, building many splendid palais (garden palaces) across the ever-expanding city’s vororte (suburbs).
In 1784 Emperor Joseph II issued a decree that permitted all residents to open establishments to sell and serve “self-produced wine, juices and other food.” These Heurigen (wine taverns) helped to sustain Viennese wine growing. Heurig comes from heuer, the Austrian word for “year”. Hauer is an abbreviated version of weinhauer, or “winegrower”. The wine of the most recent harvest is the Heurige, which becomes “old” wine by St Martin’s day on 11 November.
Phylloxera badly affected Vienna’s vineyards in the late 19th century. But from the early 20th century onwards, Viennese wine was reinvigorated. Viticulture was improved by the trellis systems that were introduced in the 1950s by Franz Mayer of Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz.
The Blue Danube
Vienna is at the eastern foothills of the Alps and the western rim of the Vienna Basin, a tertiary tectonic hollow – in plain English, a large hole – that was originally covered by an ocean.
The Nussberg terrace to the north of Vienna, where the magnificent 200-hectare Nussberg vineyard now lies, was created by the withdrawal of the ocean.
The salt content of this ocean increased over time and killed off its corals, algae and sharks. Only mussels and snails survived, the fossils of which can today be seen in Nussberg’s sand and clay soil. The Danube River and its Ice Age sediments formed a subsoil of flysch-marl, a porous sandstone soil.
Vienna’s climate is influenced by the Danube; the Vienna Woods, which protect Vienna from cooler northern weather; and the Pannonian Plane. At Nussberg this means hot summers and dry autumns but cool nights because of proximity to the Danube.
Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz was established after the Turkish Siege in 1683. The winery remained in family hands until 2007, when Franz Mayer sold it to Hans Schmid, who had made his fortune with GGK Occidental PR agency, which at one time was the seventh largest PR company on the world. Schmid had bought the Rotes Haus estate in 2001, a small house in the middle of Nussberg with 2.2 hectares of vines.
Franz Mayer made the wine for Rotes Haus. With no heir, Mayer decided to sell his estate to Schmid in 2007.
Mayer am Pfarrplatz owns 13.5 hectares of Nussberg, including the named sites of Preussen, Muckental and Mitterberg. Vines are also owned at Schenkenberg, a south-facing site at Sievering, southwest of Nussdorf, and at Alsegg, an 8-hectare vineyard in the 17th District of Vienna, in the northwest of the city.
Production is 90% white wine and 10% red, totalling 120,000 bottles per year on average. Mayer is now the biggest wine producer in Vienna.
Mayer’s Managing Director Gerhard J. Lobner defines the differences between the two Schmid-owned wine estates as, “Mayer is always primary fruit and fresh acidity. Rotes Haus is more mineral.”
The 2009 vintage was challenging but Gerhard does not mind: “Difficult vintages are more interesting,” he said, which is not something you hear often in Bordeaux…