Heurigen Nights – Stumbling Along with Vienna’s Wine Offerings

The Traveler

A popular hit song from 1930’s Austria says something along the lines of “This must be a piece of heaven – Vienna and wine…” Music, chocolate, coffee…Vienna serves up a plethora of auditory and tasteful delights for your senses. While Austrian wine may not be discussed along with French or Italian, their tributes to the grape are every bit as unique and inspirational. And Vienna offers an exclusive way to sample them – in their Heurigens.

Heurigens are small taverns where home-made wine from a local vineyard is served. Most Heurigens only serve white wines, but reds are growing in popularity. Dry and refreshing, the whites are some of the tastiest vintages in Europe. The uniqueness of a Heurigen comes not only from its casual ambience (benches and wooden tables, usually outdoors in a garden) but that it only serves the wine it produces. This is actually the law, and the wine must be produced in Vienna or the immediate vicinity. It gives an extra touch of authenticity and “insider-ship” to know the wine you are enjoying is truly Vienna, not to mention exceptionally fresh!

Wine has been produced in and around Vienna for more than 3000 years. Originally, Heurigens could only be open a maximum of 300 business days a year. It used to be when the Weinprufer (wine tester) had found the quality of wine acceptable; he would send a wine caller (Weinrufer) out into the streets with a pine branch to make the joyous announcement that the vintage was ready. That tradition has been modified to a bough of pine branches hanging outside the Heurigen, announcing that the new wine is being served.

Other delights of the tongue can be found in Heurigens. Formally, folks would bring their own food to accompany the wine, but that’s frowned upon nowadays. Instead, most establishments offer up a cafeteria style buffet, but this is nothing like your grade school lunch room – and no scary ladies in hair nets either. Scrumptious warm and cold offerings abound, along with an array of desserts. Whether you indulge in a meal, or just a small snack to accompany your wine, you won’t be disappointed by the quality, price or portions.

Another unusual part of the Heurigen is their “stemware.” That’s actually not a proper term, because you’ll be served the wine in what resembles a small beer mug, complete with handle. Like so much of the Heurigen experience, this curiosity too is rooted in the past. When guests would bring their own food, they usually ate it by hand and it was often greasy. And glasses without handles are harder to hold with greasy fingers!

And what’s the final component of a trip to Vienna? Music, of course, and the Heurigens are no exception. Some have music every night, some only occasionally and some don’t offer it all, so if this is something you want (or don’t want) to experience, check out various taverns before going. It used to be rumored that the owner of a Heurigen who offered music was only trying to distract his customers from the quality of his wine. But that of course is not applicable nowadays, and music is as much a part of a Heurigen evening as good food and company.

Wine has been such an important part of Vienna history; in fact surplus wine was added to the mortar used to build St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Sacrilege, some might say, but a lovely additive to create a stunning masterpiece. The majority of Heurigens are located in the outskirts of Vienna, usually in the north and northwest districts. Nussdorf and Grinzing are popular areas, but Heurigens can be found in Stammersdorf, Strebersdorf and Jedlersdorf as well. If going by public transport, you’ll probably have to take a bus from the end of an underground or tram line. Be sure to phone ahead to make sure the Heurigen you want to visit is open. Most don’t begin serving until 4pm or later; many only on the weekends and they often keep other strange operating hours. However, with about 150 of them in the city, you’re bound to find one that’s open when you want to go. Most of them also sell their wines, so if you find one you really like, pick up a bottle as a delicious reminder of your visit. If you can, try going when the weather is nice. Then you can sit outside and enjoy a fine wine in a relaxed atmosphere and garden setting. This true Heurigen event will turn you into a “Weinbeisser,” literally a “wine-chewer” or a person who cherishes their wine by drinking it slowly and savoring every delightful drop.