After downing a few glasses of pinot weiss and some carb-heavy kneidel balls, my husband and I ambled through lush vineyards until we reached a tram stop. In less than half an hour, we were back in downtown Vienna, and that's when it dawned on us: Austria may not be a renowned wine country, but it sure has a thriving wine suburb.
Visitors can easily go from the hustle-bustle of the capital's museums and horse palaces to the intimacy of a heuriger (wine tavern) surrounded by verdant foliage without ever leaving the city's greater limits. Plus, you can do it all on public transit: No need to arrange a designated driver, schedule tastings or book a separate bed and breakfast for the night. Wine tours here are DIY and spontaneity is encouraged.
Although the hyper-local winemaking movement is just starting to hit North American cities, it's hardly a new concept in this pocket of central Europe. Ever since 1784, when Austrian vintners were granted the legal right to sell their products directly to consumers, the wineries have expanded – not just away from Vienna, but into it.
Today, the city boasts 680 hectares of vineyards, the majority of which are located in Grinzing, a quaint and friendly neighbourhood in the north end that overlooks the Danube. The official Grinzing coat of arms, featuring a man clutching a bunch of grapes the size of his torso, will let you know you've arrived.
Those riding the 38 tram to Grinzing proper will exit at the end of the line onto the main street and find themselves surrounded by a dozen charming wine taverns – the oldest of which, Altes Presshaus, dates back to the 16th century. But it's a lot more fun to visit the heurige tucked in among the grapes. To do so, take the 38A bus, which goes a little farther to nearby Kahlenberg, where you can more or less step off directly into the vintners' crops and start exploring.
Identifying a genuine Viennese heuriger, which only sells wine made with 100-per-cent local grapes, requires scanning the side of the road for a hanging cluster of pine branches along with a sign reading "Ausg'steckt," which translates to "unplugged." Follow the path, take a seat at the picnic bench of your choosing and order a glass of – remember this – heuriger. Yes, for once, something in German is easy for foreigners: The word translates to both "wine tavern" and "this year's wine."
While German wines tend to be associated with sweeter varieties such as gewurztraminer, Viennese wines can be surprisingly dry. The city is best known for its gruner-veltliner (or gru-vee, if you want to sound like a hip oenophile), a peppery and complex white. But you can also find neuburgers, which are nuttier, or dry rieslings. There are reds, too – fun-to-pronounce varieties such as zweigelt and blauer burgunder – but when you're sitting in the midday sun, the whites are by far a better bet.
Rounding out a classic heuriger experience is the music. Guests are often treated to live performances of rather melancholic folk tunes (perhaps meant to balance out the zippy flavours of a gru-vee). But a new trend sees vintners incorporating music directly into their wines. The so-called Sonor process involves dropping a waterproof speaker into the fermentation vat, where sound waves radiate through the liquid, bouncing around between the yeast and sugar, supposedly boosting flavour.
If this sounds gimmicky, rest assured that most heurige maintain a no-frills approach, making wine according to tradition and allowing it to sing for itself. One of my favourite places on our self-guided tour was the low-key Weinbau Zawodsky, just a 10-minute stroll from Grinzing, across a cemetery and down a narrow footpath. We sat in the shade of two mature cherry trees, sipping the house white, nibbling from our platter of assorted meats and cheeses, and laughing at the raucous wedding party that stumbled in: The bride wanted a buffet, and she wanted it now.
Later, around sunset, we stopped by Heuriger Hirt, perched on the side of a hill with views over the tightly packed buildings that make up Vienna's core, with the Carpathian Mountains peeking out in the distance. Owners Romy and Helmut Klapf provide homemade regional victuals consisting largely of starch and fermented or pickled things – beets, sauerkraut – but also tasty kneidel (meat dumplings). The wine is even better; it changes slightly, of course, from year to year, but Hirt's pinot weis is especially flirty and refreshing on the palate.
Because hundreds of heurige surround Vienna, it can be difficult deciding which ones to prioritize. The best strategy, however, is to have no strategy at all – to embrace the element of surprise, experience new flavours and challenge any misconceptions about Austrian wine. Remember, if things start getting a little too gru-vee or the rieslings start to blur together, it's just a quick tram ride back down to a city known for its sobering coffee and schnitzel.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom Few buildings in Vienna rise higher than five storeys, which makes the Sofitel – a skyscraper in comparison – one of the best places to take in panoramic views. Plus, the cocktail bar has an extensive menu of all things shaken and stirred (perfect for when you can't possibly taste another riesling). Rooms are white on white and offer a nice clean break from all the 19th-century architecture. From $265 a night; sofitel.com.
Hotel Rathaus The folks behind this stylish hotel, located a couple of blocks away from City Hall, are obsessed with wine: It's there, with accompanying cheeses, on the breakfast table. It's hidden in the guglhupf (bundt cake) served with guests' coffee. And it's even an ingredient in the toiletries. The wine theme would feel tacky if it weren't executed in the midst of flawless contemporary design. From $250 a night; hotel-rathaus-wien.at.
Das Tyrol A cheery staff complement the colourful rooms of this boutique hotel, situated by the arts-focused Museums Quarter, but the real highlight is the breakfast spread , featuring breads and jams, cold cuts, cheeses, muesli, eggs and, of course, Viennese coffee. The most unusual aspect, however, is what I can only describe as a self-serve disco spa: In the basement, you'll find a steam room, sauna, light-therapy shower, zen aquarium and red, reptilian-esque bathroom. From $150 a night; das-tyrol.at.
Where to drink
Weinbau Zawodsky Intimate nooks and crannies are everywhere at Weinbau Zawodsky, the most romantic being the lush backyard dotted with cherry trees. Slightly off the beaten heuriger path, it makes for a wonderful escape (and the wine is excellent). Reinischgasse 3; zawodsky.at
Heuriger Hirt Seating here is minimal and the decor leans toward shabby-chic (a rustic shed housing the restrooms), but Hirt may just be the best spot for a sunset tipple, perched on the edge of a hillside with views down to the Danube below. Eisernenhandgasse 165; heuriger-hirt.at
Settled by a count in 1774 and eventually acquired by the city of Vienna, the Cobenzl property is the best option for those seeking a proper guided tour of a vineyard, press house and cellar. The focus here is on traditional varietals grown in a bucolic setting, with Vienna's rust-coloured urban rooftops in the background. Am Cobenzl 96; weingutcobenzl.at
The Vienna Tourist Board covered most of the author's expenses. The board did not review or approve this article.