“The vintner, if sound in mind, goes around his vines seventeen times a year.” Old farming rule of thumb, valid to this day. The word Heurigen has long been part of the vocabulary of tourism in Vienna – no sightseeing visit to the city on the Danube would be complete without a visit to a Viennese Heurigen.
Heurigens have become a synonym for some of what is best in Vienna: hospitality, gemütlichkeit, joie de vivre mingled with a little melancholy, good solid food and refreshing dry wine. In fact, as a uniquely Viennese institution, a way of life, Heurigens are second only to coffeehouses. In them, you can meet your friends, casually and with minimal obligationslovers young and old can sit in quiet corners in the midst of what is often a quite raucous atmosphere; you can mingle with strangers, yet remain anonymous; and if you like the kind of music played at Heurigens, you can beckon a group of musicians to serenade at your own table; or, if you prefer your Heurigens “silent,” you seek out a Heurigen where music is not played.
Presence of New Wine, Soletti & Liptauer
What actually is a Heurigen? The word Heurigen translates into both new wine (heuer meaning “this year”), and the establishment in which it is served. By definition, a Heurigen is always attached to a vineyard which produces the very wine that is served to customers. The word Heurigen, to many, conjures up a small one-story house at the edge of a vineyard, with a green bough on a stick over its entrance announcing the presence of new wine; in the courtyards and also indoors, one finds benches and wooden tables, whose rough surfaces are laden with heavy glasses filled with dry refreshing white wine.
A typical visit to a Heurigen goes something like this: it is late afternoon on a summer’s day; evening is approaching, but it is still light out; you and your party find agreeable benches and a table, and are served white wine and mineral water, both in carafes, by a waitress (frequently wearing a country dress, like a Dirndl). Anyone serving as a “designated driver” can opt for a delicious “Kracherl,” a sweet carbonated fruit-flavored beverage. Neither beer nor coffee is ever served at a Heurigen – if that is what you desire, you are in the wrong place! With your first few rounds of wine, you might begin the evening’s consumption of food with some bread and butter or, more customarily, some pretzel-sticks (Soletti) and savory Liptauer cheese-spread. Later, as your appetite grows, you make a trip to the compact but wide-ranging buffet, with many varieties of meats, salads, vegetables, and other delights. The flow of white wine ceases around midnight, at which point you catch the last streetcar or hail a taxi, which returns you to your permanent or temporary abode.
Brezelbuben, Salamucci Man and Greasy Fingers
To this day, some Heurigens have a Spartanalmost primitive appearance; as the Austrian writer Hans Weigel once put it, one can experience a “mystical union” with the no-nonsense, utterly earthy atmosphere of the vineyard in an authenticHeurigen. Only a few decades ago, it was the custom to bring one’s own food wrapped in wax paper, perhaps with some potato salad in a glass jar – it was truly an adventure to spread it onto the bare rustic tables, to eat directly out of the glass jars, and wash it down with Heurigen wine. During that period, the only items that could be sold by Heurigen establishments other than wine, was bread and bakery, usually by Brezelbuben (little boys selling pretzelsDuring the Biedermeier era, the Salamucci man, who might be considered a forerunner of today’s hot-dog vendor, wandered from one Heurigen to another, producing sausages, cheeses and breads from his basket and selling them by the piece.
Many of these old places have disappeared – and even those that remained true to the Heurigen tradition eventually had to yield to modern times. All of them now serve food over the counter. The Salamucci Man is long defunct. And it is no longer considered acceptable etiquette to patrons to bring your own food. As a “basis” for the wine, the Heurigens usually offer a buffet, which can range from a few simple, hearty Viennese dishes to an almost luxurious spread with a vast selection of delicious concoctions, including, of course, desserts, warm and cold. Glasses at Heurigens always have a handle: supposedly because, in the old days, much of the food was eaten by hand, and glasses without handles were harder to hold in greasy fingers.
A Bundle of Pine and Social Equality
Wine was produced in and around Vienna as long as 3000 years ago. In fact, it was the Roman emperor Probus who cultivated wine-growing in Vienna – and the Viennese showed their appreciation by naming a street in Heiligenstadt – today lined with Heurigens – after him. Empress Maria Theresia first legitimized the Heurigen or Buschenschank as it was then called (Busch meaning bough; Schank meaning tavern). Later, her son Emperor Joseph II, laid down rules for the selling of wine and, this being Austria, where bureaucracy is an art form, this was done by official decree, of course. According to an imperial edict, “everyone has permission, to serve wines produced by himself at all times of the year, in the way, at the time and at the price they please to choose”.
Only owners of vineyards and orchards situated either within or at most ten kilometers outside the city limits of Vienna are permitted to open Heurigens and to sell exclusively their own wines there. The regulation stipulating that Heurigens could be open for business a maximum of 300 days a year has recently been rescinded, but he rule stating that vintners can only sell their own wine, grown in Vienna or its immediate environs, remains valid to this day. While the Heurigen is open, the Buschenschank symbol – a bundle of pine, fir or spruce twigs – must be mounted on the door alongsidethe proprietor’s nameplate. In olden times, after the Weinprüfer (wine-tester) had found the quality of the wine acceptable, a Weinrufer (wine-caller) would be sent out into the streets, holding aloft a branch of pine, to announce the positive results of the test.
The heyday of the Heurigen came during the Biedermeier era. People escaped from their petty bourgeois homes to what was then still conceived as “the countryside.” Coach trips and outings by horse-drawn tramways or other means usually ended in one of the Heurigen gardens, a practice that presented a deceptive picture of social equality. The bourgeoisie rubbing elbows with workers and eating the same food was in many ways strikingly similar to what, several decades latercame to be known as “slumming” in the New York City of the 1920s. This “democracy,” during that time, ended, however, when the patrons exited the Heurigen. Today, in keeping with the changing times, the democracy offered by Heurigens is much more authentic. These modest establishments have proven to be great “equalizers” of Viennese society.
The Reblaus, War-Ravaged Vienna and Heurigen music
In 1876, a vineyard pest almost put an end to all of these delights by threatening to destroy all grapevines in Vienna. Vines imported from California had brought the dreaded blight to Europe in the seventeenth century: the Reblaus (wine louse) arrived with them. In Austria, it destroyed entire grape harvests. In Vienna, where in better times surplus wines had been added to the mortar used to build St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the pest munched its way through the vineyards. But luckily, the Californian vines were themselves immune. By carefully grafting American vines onto Austrian ones, a major catastrophe was averted. Once again bountiful times were restored to the Heurigen trade, the Viennese were able to make light of the scare by whimsically incorporating the Reblaus into many Heurigen songs. In fact, the word Reblaus today has come to mean someone who shows as much appetite for the product of the vineyards as its namesake once did for the vines themselves.
After the second World War, Carol Reed and Graham Greene came to a heavily damaged Vienna to film The Third Man. In a Heurigen, they found a zither player, Anton Karas, whose music they considered typical of Vienna as they perceived it. The story goes that they took him to London and locked him in a room until he emerged with he Harry Lime Theme.” The combination of Karas’ slightly schmaltzy background music and the shady dealings of postwar black market profiteers shown in the film emphasized the cynical and hypocritical mood that typified war-ravaged Vienna.
However, if one is to believe some dyed-in-the-wool fans, Heurigens and their wines played asignificant role in Austria’s political history. It is rumored that some hard-nosed negotiators from Russia softened considerably under the influence of Austrian wine and music and were thus subtly coaxed into signing the State Treaty of 1955, which ended the occupation of Austria by the Allied troups. And even if that isn’t entirely true, it makes for a nice story and doesn’t harm the reputation of the Austrian wine.
Wine, Women and Song
This being Vienna, Heurigens and music are inextricably intertwined, in more ways than one. In an old painting, Franz Schubert is depicted sitting in Grinzing with friends, where, according to legend, he was inspired to write some of his greatest lieder, amongst them Der Lindenbaum (the linden tree). It is said that he would transcribe the music on his cuffs when he ran out of paper. Beethoven lived in many dwellings in Vienna’s suburbs, in areas long since incorporated into the city; and many of the houses he chose in his restless search for a permanent home were situated near vineyards and thus, near Heurigens. In Heiligenstadt, he wrote his famed “Testament” and, today, the house on the church square of Heiligenstadt, where he wrote major parts of his “Eroica”, has become a famous Heurigen, the Mayer am Pfarrplatz. Johann Strauss Son wrote his first waltz (“Erste Gedanken” – “First Thoughts”) in Salmannsdorf, a former vintner’s village, which has retained its rural character to this day.
Many a Heurigen have inspired composers, but most of the “original” ones lacked music. They were – and are – an end in themselves. There was a time when it was rumored that any vintner who hired Heurigen musicians was trying to divert his customers from examining the quality of his wine too closely. This, of course, is no longer true. Music became part of some of the more affluent Heurigens with the ascent of the Brothers Schrammel who formed a quartet and played folksy tunes on two violins, one clarinet and one contra-guitar (later replaced by an accordion). They and their successors soon became an institution at most Heurigens, demonstrating the Viennese credo that “wine, women and song” are inseparable – and make life worthwhile. But the numerous Heurigen songs praising these supposedly unique Viennese virtues were complemented by lamentations that such earthly joys would, inevitably, come to an end. The thought of there still being wine on earth, while the singer was gone forever, inspired one of the most touching Viennese Heurigen songs: “Es wird a Wein sein und wir wer’n nimma sein” – there will be wine, and we’ll be gone. Of course, there was some consolation even after death: some other songs, much more consoling, promised a heaven full of violins, wine, women and Heurigen bliss.
Heuriger – “this year’s wine,” usually white; red wine, however, is increasingly grown in Vienna and has become quite popular as well
Alter Wein – last year’s wine; usually also offered at Heurigens
Sturm – the stage before grape juice ferments into wine Traubenmost – non-alcoholic grape juice
Fluchtachterl – “one for the road”
Weinbeisser – literally: “wine-chewer”; a wine drinker who cherishes wine very slowly
Soda – seltzer or soda water Mineral – mineral water
Kracherl – old-fashioned non-alcoholic carbonated beverage Almdudler – non-alcoholic drink similar to ginger ale, sometimes mixed with wine
Liptauer – paprika cottage cheese spread, usually accompanied by Soletti (pretzel-sticks)
Kümmelbraten – pork roast with crisply roasted skin
Wiener Schnitzel – breaded veal or pork cutlets, Vienna’s most famous dish
Backhendl -chicken in breadcrumbs
Blutwurst or Blunzen – blood sausage, similar to black pudding: for the adventurous
Schweinsbraten – roast pork
Krautsalat – cabbage salad, a distant Austrian cousin of cole slaw, never with mayonnaise
Schwarzwurzelsalat – black salsify salad
Erdäpfelsalat – Austrian potato salad
Radieschen – radishes
Pfefferoni – not a sausage: these are pickled chili peppers and usually very hot!
Hartgekochte Eier – hard-boiled eggs
Gurkerl – ghurkin
Schmalz – rendered and seasoned lard; also: Grammelschmalz – includes crackling
Bratlfetten – the gravy and excess fat of roast pork
Apfelstrudel – apple strudel
Topfenstrudel – cheese strudel
Pischinger – packaged chocolate wafers
Article Author: Elisabeth Hewson – Vienna Tourist Board