13th September 2018
Tags: Austria, Grape varieties
In the suburbs of Vienna and the countryside around it are the heurigen – wine bars which serve simple food and the latest wine from the vineyards around the city. The Viennese, we are told, love to walk out at the weekend, with their dog, with one goal in mind – one of these bars. (I hope the dog gets a treat as well). The emphasis is on conviviality rather than the aesthetics of the drink.
What has been traditionally served in the heurigen (plural – the singular is heurige) is gemischter satz. This is a blend of whatever grapes are found in the vineyard without preference for one or other variety. Historically, gemischter satz allowed for a drinkable wine every year. At least one of the varieties involved would ripen perfectly, neither over nor under ripe. This was the logic for field blends, and if you were making a field blend there was no real need to distinguish different varieties within the vineyard. Now, with warmer summers, everything can be ripened and wine producers have the time and focus to stagger harvest to take account of different periods of maturity. Indeed, some would add that with greater climatic uncertainty and more weather extremes field blends may come back into their own as an insurance against unexpected heat, drought, or spring frosts.
But an enterprising group of (often younger) winemakers are recreating the idea of gemischter satz. The problem they have is that they want to make good wines, with a perception of that quality – nevertheless the image of this style in the domestic market is of cheap, everyday drinking. But in some trendy bars the style is replacing gruner veltliner as the must-have glass. But in the long term can a field blend work as a perceived fine wine, rather than just a fad? There is a need for good, convivial everyday wines – will turning it into something ‘special’ actually undermine its appeal? These producers want to go international with it. Maybe, as it brings no baggage on international markets – that will be an easier approach. Fritz Wieninger who owns both a winery and a heurige, notes it has a poor reputation, so what do you do? Rebrand it as an ‘aristocratic’ style, or just say ‘hey gemischter satz has a bad reputation but this is a really good wine’. That’s what this group of producers are trying to do.
For the field blend you need a ‘ripening corridor’, according to another producer, Rainer Christ. This is the period when the key varieties are around ripeness – there, nearly there, or just becoming overripe. At this point, he argues, ‘they each show a different facet from the soil’ so you get a comprehensive terroir reflection. There have to be at least three different varieties; five to ten is better; some have up to 20. This, of course, implies a direct link between terroir character and soil which is contentious – but we’ll save that for another time.
We taste a number of the wines; they are good – some very good – and I enjoy them. I wonder though, if even now they taste more of terroir or conviviality?