Sampling the Little Joys of Austrian Home Wines
“This is a two-girl wine,” the mayor of Gumpoldskirchen, Austria, was saying, as we sipped a crisp little Gruner Veltliner.
What the mayor meant was that the wine we were sampling was so exceptional that it would attract two girls, rather than just the usual allotment of one. No doubt about it, the two-girl wine was a wine of distinction.
But this was a drink for a moderately serious occasion, as the wine tasting the mayor was hosting had turned out to be. Under ordinary circumstances, the entertainment would have seemed extraordinary, but the October day was beckoning.
Clean, Herbed Air
And we were missing the best reason for wandering the vineyards: to smell the clean, herbed air; to see the countryside dappled with the weakening fall sun and to sip the spritzy, raw new wine of the harvest while laughing with friends and snacking at a table littered with cold roast goose, smoked ham, salami, cheese, freshly baked bread and salad.
As the day slipped into late afternoon and the sun struggled for survival, we tasted the fruit and the joys of the earth.
And they were excellent.
We had been lured to this heurigen , a private wine tavern standing guard over vineyards, by a leafy garland hanging above the door. At harvest time, usually for a few weeks in October, the green boughs signal the arrival of the new wine. The adjective heurig means, literally, “of this year.”
Similar to the celebrated fall arrival of Nouveau Boujolais, enjoying the new Austrian wine has more to do with participation in an event than with exquisite flavor. It is a tradition begun in 1784 when Emperor Joseph II ruled that vintners in suburban Vienna could sell their own wine on their doorsteps.
The rustic taverns are furnished with wooden benches and long tables. Often there is a fireplace and a garden in which to spend a sunny day. Sometimes there are a few musicians playing the accordion, the violin, the guitar, the zither. Sometimes there is singing.
Blend of Countries
The self-service buffet food is simple and delightful, a blend of the countries, such as Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and parts of northern Italy that were once united under the Austrio-Hungarian Empire and contribute to Austrian cuisine. The wine is usually drunk courageously from quarter liter mugs.
In the evenings the taverns fill with Viennese searching for a spot free of tourists in which to sample a light evening supper. This light refreshment follows a day of as many as six meals and snacks, including a large midday meal and some of the best pastry in the world. The Viennese like to eat.
Some Complex Menus
In the city of Vienna, modern heurigen look-alikes are open year round and some offer complex menus. But by law, the traditional heurigen has a limited menu. It is open only for a few short weeks in the fall until the wine fermented from the previous harvest runs out.
The traditional taverns lie on the outskirts of Vienna in the vineyards that surround the city. By rental car, a 30-minute drive south will take you to Gumpoldskirchen in Lower Austria. A few tours also visit the wine regions.
For details, call or visit the Vienna Tourist Board next to the State Opera, Karntner Strasse 38, 43-59-74 (or from the United States, precede the number with 011-43-1). Some tours also may be booked out of major hotels.
You need only drop by for a snack. Or you can spend the afternoon basking in the sun and conversation.
Recreating the heurigen experience at home is not easy, because the wine and Austrian location are essential. But to duplicate a sense of the event, set up a picnic serving any new white wine or sparkling apple juice with assorted cold cuts and cheese, fresh rye bread with caraway seed and an assortment of cold salads such as the one that follows. It’s perhaps best if you can take your picnic to Austria. But should that prove difficult, a back-yard picnic table is a reasonable substitute. Just don’t forget to serve the wine in mugs.
COLD RED CABBAGE WITH APPLE
1 large, tart apple, peeled and shredded
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 head red cabbage, shredded
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate, defrosted
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
In medium bowl, combine shredded apple with lemon juice and toss. Add cabbage. In small bowl, whisk together vinegar, apple juice concentrate, oil and caraway seed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss with cabbage. Makes about 6 servings.