Vienna's Heurige Offers Affordable Wine, Food and Music

One of the first things that comes to mind at the mention of Vienna is its famous coffee houses, where citizens and visitors have met for centuries to chat, read, and sip strong dark coffee, perhaps with a bit of pastry and Slagobers (whipped cream).

The coffee house is so much a part of the culture that it is sometimes referred to as Vienna's living room. If so, it must then follow that the city's backyard, garden, and family room is the heuriger, that extraordinary system of gemütlich wine taverns.

It all started a couple of hundred years ago—August 17, 1784 at 2:04 in the afternoon, to be precise, when Maria Theresa's son, Emperor Joseph II, made an historic speech that was to bring untold happiness—and a few headaches—to countless generations of Viennese. "Every man," he decreed, "will have the freedom to sell or dispense—year-round, in any form, at any time, and at whatever price he wants—wine, food or fruit juice that he has produced himself." And so came the Law of the Heuriger.

The old privileges (since incorporated into the civic statutes of modern Vienna) grant vintners the right to serve in their own taverns the wine they have cultivated and processed themselves. By law the tavern may only be open no more than 300 days a year (though many have been granted restaurant licenses and are open every day) and is prohibited from selling any other beverages, including beer, soft drinks or coffee. A plaque, attesting to its official status as a heuriger, hangs outside each establishment.

Traditionally each summer when the vintner first draws off his new wine he hangs a pine bough-Buschen-above the door to let passersby know that the year's harvest is ready for consumption. Within the city limits of Vienna, there are some 800 families growing wine on 1,800 acres of land, producing a harvest of 12 million quarter-liter mugs or viertels of wine each year-white, dry, clear, sparkling wine with the seeming mildness of lemonade and the kick of a mule.

It was our search for these wine taverns (on behalf of readers, of course) that led us to the outskirts of the city, to the slopes of Kahlenburg and Nussberg and then to the left bank of the Danube where the majority of the vineyards are located. On one such foray we took the #31 tram to Stammersdorf where, we had been told, one hundred families engage in viticulture and some 40 heurige are open at any one time, a statistic that was hard to believe as we first strolled along the exceptionally quiet Stammesdorferstrasse. Then we began to pick up the clues. A sprig of pine or wreath of fir hung over the door, the official plaque, and the sound of happy chatter and laughter from somewhere within.

Beyond the heavy wooden doors there's invariably a pretty courtyard lined with picnic tables, sheltered from the elements by a thick mass of grape vines and filled with Austrians sampling the newly pressed white wine to the strains of strolling folk singers, a lonely zither or, in the best cases, traditional Schrammelmusik performed by two violins, an accordion and a guitar. Places without music are said to be preferred by the Viennese, but for us traditional music takes the experience to a higher level.

Inside the typical main house, the atmosphere is classic tavern: long, wooden tables and chairs, bustling waitresses delivering mugs of wine, and a large self-service buffet of hot main dishes or a selection of cold meats, salads and breads from which to construct a full meal or light snack. Some heurige are huge, with room for several hundred patrons at a time.

Our first stop in Stammersdorf was at Weinhof Wieninger, a somewhat up-market establishment, catering to Mercedes-BMW types in from the city, with an emphasis on antique furnishings, stuffed wild animals, and a decorous wait staff. A nice enough place, but the food looked uninteresting so we pushed on. Feitzinger, a few blocks away, was more to our liking; less formal with simple food and entire families, small children and dogs included, carousing to tunes squeezed out by a local accordionist. After a few minutes watching the action in the wine garden, we moved inside for a very satisfying meal of Wiener Schnitzel, meat loaf, potato salad, sauerkraut and salads of mixed greens. The cost, calculated by weight, was about $30 for two. One quarter-liter of wine was a reasonable €2.5—the typical price throughout Vienna. Another day, in Heilgenstadt, we 'discovered' what turned out to be one of the most famous heuriger of all, Mayer am Pfarrplatz, in a house that has remained the same since Ludwig von Beethoven lived there in 1817. The Mayer family cultivates grapes on 80 acres. Half the vintage is served in the tavern, the rest sold in bottles. There are several cozy rooms on either side of the garden and we sampled the wine in one that's built around an old wine press, made in 1617 from a single beam of oak and measuring 14 feet high by 30 feet long. There is an ample buffet, a large selection of wine, and traditional heuriger music.

In the interest of journalism, we also paid a visit to the wine suburb of Grinzing where each evening Vienna-by-Night tour buses reportedly pull up every half hour and tourists drink to the tune of Deep in the Heart of Texas and Yankee Doodle Dandy. On a weekday afternoon in October, Grinzing was quiet and rather pretty.

The residents of Vienna have their favorite heuriger, of course, sometimes asking friends to come there for parties, a custom that developed during WWII when entertaining at home was difficult. The hosts invited their guests to join them and served food they had prepared in their own kitchens. We have heard that it's still acceptable to bring picnic meals into some heurige but never saw anyone do it and would be reluctant to do so.

There's plenty of information about heurige on the Internet. Start at the Vienna Tourist Board (1 Albertinaplatz/corner of Maysedergasse). You can also download a brochure with descriptions and contact info for two dozen or so well-known heurige at VTB's business-to-business website. Most guidebooks describe and recommend heurige; Fodor's Austria is particularly helpful. Ask locals for their suggestions or just head for one of the wine suburbs and explore. The difficulty is not finding, but choosing, a heuriger with good food, wine, and perhaps music.

The new wine, incidentally, becomes 'old' on Martinmas, November 11. One source counsels that switching to the old stuff after a couple of glasses of the un-aged variety reduces the likelihood of a morning hangover. Which brings us to an important subject. The innocent tasting white wine goes down very easily and we seriously advise traveling by public transportation or taxi so you can relax without having to worry about how to get back to the hotel.

Fortunately many heurige can be reached on Vienna's well-integrated system of subway, rapid transit, tram and bus transportation. A single ticket good for one trip in one direction, including transfers, costs €1.7. Special season tickets are €5.7 for 24 hours unlimited travel and €13.6 for 72 hours travel on the system. The "Vienna Card" is €18.5 and offers 72 hours travel plus discounts at 210 museums and sights, theaters, concerts, shops, restaurants, cafés and heurige. The latter is available at hotels and the Tourist Information Center on Albertinaplatz, at all sales offices or information booths of the Vienna Transportation System (for example, Stephansplatz, Karlsplatz, Westbahnhof, Landstrasse/Wien Mitte) or from outside Austria with a credit card (tel. +43-1-798 44 00-148)

As for the famous heuriger headache, you're on your own.

Weinhof Wieninger, Stammersdorferstrasse 78, Stammersdorf, A-1210 Vienna, tel. 292-4106, No credit cards.

Feitzinger, Stammersdorf Strasse 115, A-1210 Vienna, tel. 292 9642.

Mayer am Pfarrplatz (Beethovenhaus), Pfarrplatz 3, Heiligenstadt A-1190 Vienna, tel. 370 33 61