Gemischter Satz, a wine that brings joy to my soul. Back in 2016 the UK wine trade magazine The Drinks Business asked whether Gemischter Satz will be the next big thing. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way but there’s no doubt that this wine designation is a lot more well known, and certainly appreciated among connoisseurs, if not the general public (who right now are more likely to be getting to grips with the delights of pink Prosecco). Those of you who read my Blog with some frequency will know that I have a bit of a thing for Gemischter Satz and I thought I should tell you why.
My journey to understanding and appreciating Gemischter Satz, and in particular, Wiener Gemischter Satz, began long before I ever set foot in Vienna. I started my journey in wine at a time when varietal labelling was really taking off. We Brits all think of Australian Chardonnay and Shiraz as the catalysts for our modern obsession with grape varieties, although our North American cousins had been developing their own obsession with varietal labelling even before those wines hit our shores. But there is one European wine region which stood out for varietal labelling despite being firmly seated at the Appellation Contrôlée table, and that was Alsace.
On my first visit to Alsace at the end of…well, a very long time ago, I fell in love with the region of course, but as an adventurous, and more impecunious, wine lover I drank a fair bit of Edelzwicker. This is Alsace’s traditional blend, certainly at that time the cheapest wine in the Winstub (though if you were Hugel and you made a really good one from a fine site, you called it Gentil). Not always a field blend, but often so, it seemed back then as if it were just a bunch of different grapes thrown together, what was left from the fruit set aside for the varietals, plus a bit of Chasselas, Sylvaner and Savagnin Rose (Klevener not Klevner) that no one wanted.
When Alsace designed its Grand Cru system in the 1980s it was only the more noble white varieties which were designated as being good enough for this supposedly terroir-specific super appellation. No Sylvaner, no Pinot Noir. The rising value of Grand Cru varietal wines saw the Edelzwicker blends fade away. Except there is always someone who will go against the crowd and that man was Jean-Michel Deiss. His views on the subject were, and are, forthright. He’s a great source of quotes explaining the philosophy, as he sees it, behind the field blend. Those below are from Andrew Jefford’s The New France (Mitchell Beazley, 2002).
“What is terroir? It is a matrix by which the possible can be uttered…History robbed us of our memory…we no longer knew what Ribeauvillé meant…we have to find out what is possible once more.”
“Before the arrival of Crus, varietal diversity was the only way in which Alsace’s terroir could speak.”
According to Deiss, the field blend is perhaps a truer expression of place than the imposition of a single variety on a named site?
If the Grand Cru system forced the region’s winemakers to focus on terroir in a different way, something was lost in regulating what grows best, and thereby what should be allowed to grow, on that terroir. But Deiss has ploughed his own furrow, and has resolutely stood up for the field blend, albeit with wines which are beautiful and fine expressions of terroir over gape variety (though he does also make varietal wines, it is his blends which shine brightest). Now is not the place to expound on the mistakes and the ills of Alsace’s Grand Cru system, but suffice to say that it was Alsace which highlighted the field blend when I was getting to grips with my single varietals.
What is more, I don’t recall field blends being a part of the picture in my WSET studies back then. It was doubtless seen as an irrelevance. Like the pergola, which I wrote about recently, part of a peasant tradition wholly rejected by the university-trained viticultural scientists of the 1980s and 1990s. I sometimes wonder whether these men in white coats ever gave a second thought to the cultural and historic significance of the field blend, let alone its potential efficacy for the wine producer, especially in more marginal climates.
It’s worth spending a paragraph explaining why the field blend had proved such an attractive option to winemakers in the past. In a less technological age without synthetic agrichemicals and with the perils of uncertain climate/weather to ripen the grapes, a co-planted site of different grape varieties was a good insurance policy. Varieties ripen at different times and some are susceptible to different pests and diseases. Planting different varieties together meant that in most years a farmer would get some healthy grapes and if he (usually he back then) co-fermented them together, some would be over-ripe and give alcohol, some under-ripe and give acidity…and all would be more or less well.
Now we skip forward to 2013. As a subscriber to World of Fine Wine, when I received my copy of Issue 40, I was about to read an article which I have never forgotten. “Wiener Gemischter Satz – Vienna’s Heart of Gold”, written by Alder Yarrow, told me everything I needed to know about a wine I’d heard of, and even drank once at that point, but knew almost nothing about.
Vienna is not the only region of Austria to make a co-fermented field blend called Gemischter Satz, and many would rival Vienna’s in terms of excitement (you all know Joiseph Mischkultur, I suspect) but Wiener Gemischter Satz is the only Austrian blend of this type to be awarded DAC status (AOC equivalent). As the only wine region lying truly within a major European city, the viticultural practices and the drinking traditions of Vienna loom large in any study of wine in a social context. The cultural significance of the field blend here is exemplified like nowhere else.
The DAC rules require a field blend…of at least three varieties (often many more and I have encountered at least one wine with twenty-six varieties), where one variety does not exceed 50% of the blend. There are two types of “WGS”. All Wiener Gemischter Satz must be under 12.5% abv (an unusual stipulation) unless it comes from a single site, where it requires 12.5% abv or more. This has led to the development of two modern styles of the DAC wine, more or less replacing the rather old-fashioned wines destined for sale by the jug in the city’s buschenschanks and heurigen, which were somewhat analogous to the Edelzwicker of old in Alsace.
The heuriger is Viennese wine central and a visit to the city should involve the exploration of several if you are able. They started out as the most rough and ready bars set up by the farmers to sell their new wine in the lighter months and into harvest. In time they began serving simple (usually cold) food to accompany the wine, and were ascribed into law as “buschenschanks” under Josef II. The heuriger (plural heurigen) is usually larger than the buschenschank, inns or restaurants run on broadly similar lines (we’ll not go into the differences here) by the now famous winemakers of Vienna. Many are “pop-ups” in the summer, either in fixed locations up in the vineyards, or in the wine villages. Some have become year-round restaurants proper.
Whenever I visit Vienna, which seemed to have fortuitously become an annual trip before Covid intervened, there is one non-negotiable outing. It involves a metro train out to Heiligenstadt and then a bus (38A if you are interested) which passes through the wine village of Grinzing before climbing up above the city. We get off near the Gnadenkapelle (nice café inside the gate) and then walk back along a path right by the bus stop, through woods, then vines, winding our way down through vineyards with vistas of the Danube and city, via the popup heurigen in summer, to an inevitable refreshment stop (stürm, or himbeerstürm, depending on season) at the famous heuriger Mayer-am-Pfarrplatz, the old inn where Beethoven once lodged, but also reassuringly close to the bus stop on Grinzinger Strasse, back to Heiligenstadt.
Perhaps we should look at some of the producers. The biggest name in WGS is Fritz Wieninger, who for more than thirty years has been at the forefront of re-establishing Vienna’s traditional wines as a serious proposition. His family farms a whopping 70 hectares, split between both sides of the Danube. On the left bank is Bisamberg, above Stammersdorf, where the winery is located, and on the Nussberg (right bank). The single site wines here are ageable beauties, whether his Nussberg Alte Reben, Bisamberg, Rosengartel or Ried Ulm, the latter a pair of smaller parcels, more or less premier crus, on the Nussberg. These are serious wines with around 13.5% abv and the capacity to age.
I spent a whole morning with the team at Wieninger a couple of years ago. Even though I had wandered the vineyards on a number of occasions, nothing beat driving around, from site to site with Fritz Wieninger’s vineyard manager, Georg Grohs, discovering the changes in the terroir after an extensive tasting. None of the sites better illustrate the semi-urban nature of Veinna’s vines than the tiny half-hectare Kaasgraben, surrounded by the encroaching wealth of Sievering’s villas.
Alex Zahel makes some cuvées in a similarly serious style. This is one noted producer whose base is not on the hills north of the city (though they do own vines there), but at Mauer to the southwest, within the city area. Some of the Zahel wines, with labels designed by Alex’s American wife, Hilary, are equally serious. They unusually have some vines on the Goldberg site, but you are most likely to find their own “Ried Kaasgraben”. The Zahel vines overlook the Kaasgraben Church in a narrow side valley. More opulent than the zippy cliché of WGS, another serious bottle.
There are some fascinating experimental wines being made now, such as the Hajszan Neumann amphora GS (this producer was taken over by Wieninger in 2014 but has kept its own identity), and one cuvée I have from Rainer Christ (at Jedlersdorf (Bisamberg)), called “Kraut & Rüben”, which has seen skin contact. These sit beside more traditional offerings from Mayer am Pfarrplatz (and their sibling Rotes Haus label, making a lovely Nussberg GS). Then there’s Michael Edlmoser, who has worked at California’s Ridge Vineyards. His wines can be heady expressions of the Mauer vines. Stephen Brook (The Wines of Austria, Infinite Ideas 2016, new 2nd edn now available) mentions a Sauvignon Blanc “Riesberg” 2013 which hit 15.5%, a real expression of Californian Zinfandel in Viennese Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps. I’ve not tried it.
I’ll leave until last the producer who fits most neatly within my own favoured philosophy of low intervention winemaking, Jutta Ambrositsch. First mentioned by Alder Yarrow, I had to seek her out purely on the basis of what he had written about her, but having bought several of her wines from London specialist, Newcomer Wines, I didn’t meet her until a London tasting in 2018. Jutta’s wines do not always conform to the restrictions of WGS, so they will be labelled most often as a table wine equivalent. Don’t let that put you off. Jutta left as career in graphic design and cajoled Fritz Wieninger into giving her a job as a volunteer stagiste. He became her mentor and helped set her up with some rented vines in 2002. Since then, she has acquired tiny plots of always old, often abandoned, vines and now farms around five hectares.
What she makes is wholly natural wine, vegan-friendly (as Jutta is, like most of my family, vegan herself), and she follows biodynamic practices to make wines which leap out of the glass, so alive are they. Try anything from her, but if you can, try to secure a few bottles of “Rakete”. It’s unusual as a pale red wine, a co-planted field blend of Zweigelt, St-Laurent, Merlot and Blauburger. The label suggests you “shake resolutely and drink chilled”. It takes us back from the serious wines of the single sites to the joyous beating heart of the Gemischter Satz tradition. I can think of no better modern interpretation of a time-honoured tradition. In better times you might find one of her wines as the house wine at the unmissable Weinbistro Mast in the city’s 9th District. She’s hard to track down because she doesn’t have her own winery premises, but every summer she will open a pop-up heuriger and may well be there, serving her wines with simple food.
Wiener Gemischter Satz is a wine of many facets, and there are many styles to explore. But the advantage for the wine lover who enjoys wine travel is that they are made in easily accessible vineyards close to a city whose attractions grow as you become more familiar with it. Vienna is not all Hapsburg conservatism. You certainly don’t need a car to explore here, and if you enjoy walking, you’ll enjoy the Nussberg in particular. But more than anything, Wiener Gemischter Satz gives any inquisitive wine lover a window on the wines of another time, updated to the present day through a philosophy which views following winemaking tradition as a valuable cultural goal. In doing so, these producers have created something here in Vienna which is quite unique…and beautiful.
Vienna has a little over 600 hectares of vines, about 80% of which are white varieties. The Nussberg is the largest single hillside block of vines with 200 hectares planted on its south or southeast facing slopes ranging in altitude between 150 to 350 masl. Bisamberg has 250 hectares but these are more dispersed between (on my count) 26 different sites to the northeast of the city. Mauer, mentioned above, is much smaller with 50 hectares.
Access to the Nussberg hill is, as explained, relatively easy. The swiftest route into the vines is via Grinzing. My suggested route is more downhill. Bisamberg involves a long tram ride out to Stammersdorf, but even then the vineyards are a little bit of a trek on foot.
I have written extensively on Vienna and her wines. The following articles may be of interest if you want more:
The seminal article by Alder Yarrow was in World of Fine Wine, Issue 40 (2013).