Gemischter Satz—Wine Tradition in the Vienna Hills
Field blends are somewhat mysterious, as you never really know what's in the glass. We have grown so accustomed to single-varietal wines that we forget how common field blends were in the past, to the extent that sometimes even the farmer didn't know what grapes were on the vines. This method served as a form of "risk management," because some grapes ripened early, and some later. Everything was harvested together when something in the mix was at its peak, increasing the odds of producing a decent wine. It's not a far stretch to see how Bordeaux blends evolved from this tradition.
There are wonderful field blend traditions in the Douro Valley of Portugal, in the Alsace region of France, even in California, but in the hills of Vienna, (an astounding 700 hectares of vineyards are in the city limits) the art of field blending has reached new heights of quality and popularity. The top winemakers in Vienna (Fritz Wieninger, Rainer Christ, Richard Zahel, Michael Edlmoser, Mayer am Pfarrplatz, and Cobenzl) formed a gentleman's agreement of regulations to maintain the tradition and quality of Gemischter Satz. The group evolved into the WienWein group in 2006 to promote the wine, and this success led the Austrian government to implement these guidelines for all of Austria (Gemischter Satz is most popular in Vienna, but is made throughout Austria). The wine has been such a powerful reminder of tradition in Austria, that Slow Foods has placed Viennese Gemischter Satz in its Ark of Taste.
Gemischter Satz (or "mixed set" in German) must be a blend of at least three grapes, but up to 15 varieties are allowed—even if in "homeopathic amounts," as described by Rainer Christ) The grapes are harvested and vinified together; some fermentation is in stainless, and although some is done in wooden barrels, Gemischter Satz rarely has any more than subtle wood notes. But for more takes on the challenges and joys of Gemischter Satz, we've asked the experts.
(Here's a brief interview with Rainer Christ including correct pronunciation.)
Bernard Sun, beverage director of Jean-Georges Management – New York, NY
We sold the Rainer Christ Gemischter Satz at Perry St. and at Jean-Georges … It's definitely a "hand sell," as many folks are not familiar with the concept of a field blend like the Alsatian Edelzwicker. Neither names are easy to spell or pronounce, which doesn't exactly help. They are fun wines though, from what I've tried.
Craig Perman, owner of Perman Wine – Chicago, IL
Fritz Wieninger's Nussberg Alte Reben, 2010 is a hand sell, but that's what we do at the store. [The wine] is un-oaked and fantastic for spring, both for its versatility and because it's great to pair with spring vegetables.
Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy – New York, NY
I think what we all like about Gemischter Satz is that it defies all of our expectations. Most people think that Austrian whites are going to lean toward the sweeter side, and this wine definitely does not. It's actually quite surprising in its acidity, and that sense of surprise seems to be drawing our customers to it. We like to present our guests with unusual and unpredictable wines, and this one has definitely been a winner in that sense. With the Neumeister Gemischter Satz you have this mish-mash of all these different grapes, which seems like it could all go wrong and instead it all goes right. We can barely keep it in stock. [Editor's note: Neumeister makes wine in Steiermark, in southern Austria.]
Carla Rzeszewski, wine director of
The Spotted Pig, The Breslin,
The John Dory Oyster Bar
– New York, NY
It took me a long time to get the "GS" thing. At first I was thrown by its lack of specificity, its punch-like blending of a bunch of different ingredients. And then I had it with food and fell in love with it for its simple drinkability and its ability to change shape and charm depending on what you ate with it, and I saw how useful it could be at the table. Rainer Christ's Gruner Veltliner shows up in the mix with classic peppery mineral notes, the Pinot Blanc gives body, and the Riesling and Gewurtztraminer dress the wine up a bit with their aromatic flair. Simply yummy! And at the price point ($49) on the Dory list, it is one of the top sellers on the list; I also list it as a Gruner blend, which helps invite people into the familiar.
Scott Pactor, owner of Appellation NYC – New York, NY
We sell Richard Zahel's 2011 single-vineyard Nussberg Gemischter Satz. It's an unusual wine, a field blend, and from Vienna. All these "new" factors make this initially a difficult sell, but the Zahel is so beautiful that people always come back for more. Gemischter Satz is made in small production, so not much gets out of Vienna/Austria. What is here is more expensive than Gruner Veltliner or Riesling, so a little harder to sell than those.
, wine director at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud – New York, NY
[Editor's note: Madrigale recently poured a Jeroboam of Fritz Wieninger's 2008 Wiener Gemischter Satz "Nussberg Alte Reben" by the glass in his Big Bottle Glasspour program.] Definitely the best Gemischter I've ever tasted. It sold very quickly, in fact, much more quickly than I had expected (3L bottle gone by 8pm.) Love that stuff!
, formerly of The Gage Chicago, now at Perman Wine – Chicago, IL
I poured Wieninger's entry level as a by the glass selection at the Gage last summer. I like these old-fashioned wines because they hearken back to the days when we were less varietal-driven. People ask for a "glass of Pinot" all the time, and couldn't give a crap where it comes from, who makes it or what vintage it is. It reminds of the field blends that still exist in Sonoma where there are old vines of plantings from Italian and Portuguese settlers. Wieninger's GS was nice, crisp, light and floral, and I thought it was a nice pairing for fried snacks and pâté.
Gary Itkin, owner of Bottlerocket Wine & Spirits – New York, NY
Gemischter Satz was not a common sight—it probably still isn't—in NYC until folks like Carlo Huber, Savio Soares and, Monika Caha started bringing in examples of this typically Viennese specialty five to seven years ago. Before then, it was Gruner Veltliner, the occasional Riesling and that's about it from Austria. A gutsy choice to sell it? Nah. Just hopefully a studied intuition about what the NYC consumer is open to.
Jay Frein, wine director, Margot Café and Bar – Nashville, TN
We sold Fritz Wieninger's Gemischter Satz by the glass as a new spring wine last year. It is fresh, crisp, light to medium in body, and good for seasonal spring fare. It was so popular we moved about three to four cases per month.
Kara Calson, wine director at Radegast Hall & Biergarten – Williamsburg, NY
[We pour the Zahel Nussberg, 2011 Gemischter Satz and it's] a little hard to sell because it's difficult for staff and customers to pronounce. I put it on list to offer a nice selection for the midweek dinner crowd, and I love the high acid, high minerality. This wine is amazing with the rich sausage we grill outdoors in the summer.
Cat Silirie, wine director, B&G Oysters – Boston, MA
We recently poured Wieninger's Vienna Hills Gemischter Satz, and it became a classic requested by the glass from customers and staff. I'd recommend it with most of our menu: East and West coast oysters, traditional lobster rolls, sea bass, salmon, and fried oysters.
Juliette Pope, beverage director, Gramercy Tavern – New York, NY
We sell the Nussberg, 2011, from Zahel. I LOVE that wine, it's one of my favorite new wines from last year. It sold very well by the glass, but is listed now by the bottle only. It is of course a hand sell, but one of my go-to's for anyone looking for [something] zesty, crisp, aromatic, light-to-medium-bodied and dry. It's easy to convert a Gruner or Sauvignon Blanc drinker (when they leave it in my hands), but our staff knows it from pouring it so it moves decently. I am sure that we will pour it again. Everyone to whom I've served it has asked where they can buy it, which is always a good sign.