“The words to this one are, ‘Let’s drink one more glass of wine before we die,’” shouted Monika Caha over the sounds of a boisterous accordion and fiddle. The lyrics were a sharp contrast to the jubilant music and the overall mood. We were drinking glasses of a flowery white wine called rotgipfler in the courtyard at Fuhrgassl-Huber, a massive wine tavern on the outskirts of Vienna. The June night was warm, the tavern casual and cheerful.
I was in the midst of my crash course in the Austrian heuriger, the Viennese equivalent of a Munich beer hall—a relaxed, lively place where friends gather at big tables to listen to live music and drink. But instead of Bavarian beer, at a heuriger, you drink young wines made on-site. Monika, a Vienna native who now imports Austrian wines to the United States, was my guide.
Vienna is located right in the middle of a wine region, with some 1,700 acres of vineyards just a short taxi or train ride from the city center. And heurigen (the plural form of heuriger) have been a part of the city’s social scene since 1784, when Emperor Joseph II ruled that Austrian wineries could serve their wines without a permit. The taverns served wine from the most recent harvest and quickly inspired a whole culinary tradition, with buffets offering smoked and cured meats, toast with a paprika-spiced cheese spread called Liptauer, and runner bean salad splashed with pumpkin-seed oil vinaigrette. Heurigen even have their own musical genre, wienerlieder, the folk songs Monika and I were listening to that night.
Historically, the wines poured at heurigen were mediocre, made quickly for mass consumption. It became the norm to serve a carafe of gemischter satz, a traditional Viennese white blend, with a bottle of seltzer, so that drinkers could make refreshing spritzers rather than suffer drinking the wine on its own. A new generation of heurigers, however, have upped the quality of both the wine and the food they serve. Having gotten a taste of tradition at Fuhrgassl-Huber, I was ready to see how the taverns are evolving.
The next afternoon, I took a 20-minute taxi ride across the Danube to Weingut Wieninger in the Stammersdorf district. Run by Fritz Wieninger, a fourth-generation winemaker (and self-proclaimed ambassador for modern Viennese wine), the winery has been around since 1905. When Wieninger took over in 1987, he started farming all of his vineyards biodynamically and opened a new, more modern heuriger on his family’s land. He improved the quality of his wines while preserving the laid-back vibe that’s intrinsic to heuriger culture. Case in point: As I sat on the patio drinking a glass of Fritz’s lively, juicy gemischter satz—one that seltzer has no business meddling with—twin toddlers were celebrating a birthday with their grandparents at the next table.
Afterward, I was due for dinner at H.P. Göbel, the heuriger run by chef Helmut Krenek at the Weinbau Göbel winery. On my Google map, it was a mere mile away. “Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you?” Fritz asked, surprised. After days of spaetzle and schnitzel, I was happy for a stroll—until I reached the base of a steep hill and discovered that the restaurant sat at its top. But as I climbed the cobblestoned Stammersdorfer Kellergasse (“street of cellars”), I slowly realized that small heurigen lined the street, filled with people meeting up with friends after work, starting their weekends.
By the time I made it to Göbel, the sun was setting and the evening was a real-life midsummer night’s dream, with vines all around, roses climbing, bugs buzzing, a family wedding celebration on the lawn. I sat under the pergola, and gentle Helmut himself came out to greet me with a mound of fluffy lemon–poppy seed spread and crunchy rolls with caraway seeds. Monika had not oversold this. I ordered a glass of blauburger, the name of an Austrian hybrid red grape. The wine was unfussy, purple, and fragrant. I settled in.
Wieninger improved the quality of his wines while preserving the laid-back vibe that’s intrinsic to heuriger culture.
“I like to make traditional Austrian things my way,” Helmut told me, describing the blood sausage he makes with wasabi rather than horseradish, the roasted grapes he serves with veal during harvest. When he took over the space, Helmut covered the buffet case in artwork, a symbolic statement that he wouldn’t be working buffet style; he cooks to order. He showed me the wine cellar below the heuriger where he stores the organic green asparagus, strawberries, and yellow beets he gets from a nearby farm. Back at the table, I sat down to a plate of crispy-skinned pork accompanied by rosemary potatoes and bacon-flecked cabbage, an improvement on the usual heuriger sauerkraut. Next, came a bowl of the best eggs I’ve ever had, butter scrambled and cooked with bits of bacon and fistfuls of yellow chanterelles, an unexpected nod to a seasonal Austrian ingredient. And for dessert? In honor of the heuriger’s evolution—and its much more drinkable wines—I opted for another glass of blauburger.
Five Viennese Heurigen to Visit this Summer
Seasonality is a hallmark of the heuriger: The taverns are in bloom from spring through fall. Be sure to confirm hours before heading out. If there’s a pine branch (or branches) hanging out front, you’ll know the heuriger is open. Jutta Ambrositsch
After leaving a career in graphic design, Jutta Ambrositsch quickly became one of the most exciting wine producers in Vienna. (The striking typefaces on her bottles’ labels are a nod to her former trade.) She opened her heuriger a few years back, where she serves local meats and cheeses alongside her excellent single-vineyard riesling and fresh gemischter satz.
Chef Helmut Krenek revamps old-school heuriger fare using vegetables from local farmers and inspiration from trips he takes during the off months. The winery’s dreamy hilltop location is best enjoyed at sunset with a glass of Göbel’s straightforwardly delicious and well-made wines.
Zum Gschupftn Ferdl
A contemporary take on the ethos of a heuriger, Zum Gschupftn Ferdl is located in the middle of Vienna—not at a winery—and open year-round. Its modern, tiled design and nightlife vibe reaches out to the next generation with a list of organic wines from around the country, a jukebox, and techno DJs on the weekends. The playful food is inspired by the classics, with sausage from nearby producers.
Mayer am Pfarrplatz
This is the classic heuriger, with enormous dining rooms dressed in dark wood, a crowded patio, families at every table, and the occasional wienerlieder band. Even though Mayer am Pfarrplatz has become a tourist hot spot, the food is quite good, especially the ribs and the Liptauer cheese. The winery has been in operation since the late 1600s—and it’s rumored that Beethoven once lived there.
The Wieningers have two heurigen in Vienna, a newer one that’s entirely outdoors, at the top of the family plot in the Nussberg vineyard, and another more traditional one in the Stammersdorf district that’s been around for decades. Both feature Fritz Wieninger’s exceptional wines made from biodynamically farmed grapes.