“Respect! Respect!” The 79-year-old Barbara Wieninger commands as I stumble through her vineyard in Vienna, Austria, grasping a pair of pruners and a plastic bucket. It’s the only word in English she will say to me, but the message is clear: These grapes are her livelihood, and don’t you dare drop them. I reach out, tenderly grab a cluster and snip them off the vine — piece of cake.

A mean-looking red bug darts out from behind the fruits, scuttles across the length of my hand and flies away, but not before I blurt out a yelp, shudder violently and let the grapes tumble into a particularly muddy patch. My cheeks burn bright red. Did Wieninger see my blunder? Of course she did; I brace myself to be told off, but when I spin around, she’s all smiles. In German, she shares that her son Fritz — now the owner of the family business — used to be frightened of bugs, too, when he would help out as a boy. I’m still embarrassed, but despite a new wave of critters that come barrelling out of their hidey-holes, my next cluster lands in the bucket unharmed.

I’m travelling with a group of journalists. It’s late September, wine harvesting season, and the sun is punishingly hot. We’re dripping with sweat and the napes of our necks are slowly turning tomato red as we crouch in Wieninger’s hilly vineyards, collecting grapes. For the Wieninger family, and the 629 other winemakers that produce vino on Vienna’s 1,680 acres of vineyards, this is one of the busiest times of the year. The city produces the most wine of any world capital; I’m quickly learning it’s a way of life here.

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I pause to admire Vienna’s cityscape emerging beyond Wieninger’s plot. The hot air makes the urban sprawl appear to swell, then deflate and wiggle in the distance; droves of barrel clay roofs add pops of colour; and a modest crop of skyscrapers stud the horizon. If I crane my head, I can spot the glittering Danube, the river that snakes through the city. Further, wind turbines lazily cut through the hazy air. It’s a stunning view.

Austria’s capital is gorgeous in the fall, with its huge parks in full bloom. The central core, Innere Stadt, is an ancient, storied place, and easy to explore on foot. Vienna existed under both the Roman and Habsburg Empires, and saw the construction of some of the most impressive palaces, churches and monasteries in Europe, many of which remain standing today.

Since arriving, I’ve revelled in the magnitude of the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral (and, for just a few euros, taken a macabre tour through the gruesome catacombs mere feet below the pews). I’ve perused Belvedere’s picturesque man-made lake, sculpted hedges, manicured gardens, and upper and lower palace grounds. Lower Belvedere is a museum, home to world-renowned masterpieces like Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. After a few walks around the city, my camera roll is crammed with snaps of the Baroque architecture, pedestrian-packed cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and haunting gold-plated memorials dedicated to plague victims.

My lodging, Hotel Beethoven, also immerses me in the city’s past. It’s a glitzy boutique spot with floors and rooms themed after important Viennese historical figures like Sigmund Freud, and its namesake composer. My suite is bathed in red wallpaper, inspired by Elisabeth Petznek, former Austrian royalty nicknamed “The Red Archduchess” for her socialist leanings.

There’s more to the true spirit of Vienna than the echoes of its history, though, and I’m told there’s no better place to discover it than at the bottom of a wine glass. Wine has been intertwined with Viennese culture since before the Romans ruled, and traditional varietals, like the humble field blend gemischter satz, continue to be the blood that pumps through the city’s veins today.

Each wine has its own story, a journey it took to get here.

After our grape harvesting experience, the group arrives for a guided “wine walk” at the 19th-century royal residence-turned-hotel, Palais Coburg. Home to a 60,000-bottle, climate-controlled, six-vault cellar with vintages that span four centuries, the property hosts a tour and tasting every second Thursday of the month. It costs €99 per person and includes samples from each of its cellars.

We ride an elevator down below street level, and step into the old world. Built into the ruins of the Braun Bastion (a military base part of Vienna’s 16th-century wall that defended the city against invasion by the Ottoman Empire), the cellar feels like it’s been cut right out of a history book. At times, it’s eerily quiet down here; the only noise is the occasional moist “pop” of a bottle being uncorked, reverberating loudly off the rounded ancient ceilings. As I gawk at the towering oak shelves, Niklas Lang, one of the young, smartly dressed sommeliers on staff, tells me the collection is worth over €20 million.

I’ll be honest — I’m no seasoned wine expert. I probably wouldn’t know a famous vintage if it slid off a shelf and conked me on the head. While my group competes to see who can accurately guess not just the varietal but also the vintage year of the vino we taste, I have a blast getting lost in the sheer scale of the place. Each wine has its own story, a journey it took to get here; I’m fascinated to unlock their secrets. I could easily spend days pulling bottles from shelves with the curiosity of a toddler, asking questions about each one. It’s like Disneyland for oenophiles, a sommelier’s Batcave.

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Palais Coburg is also home to two restaurants and one wine bar, which all offer the chance to sample the cellar without getting a tour into its depths. The two-Michelin-starred Silvio Nickol Gourmet boasts an astounding wine “book” over 5,000 bottles long, supplied by the cellar. With such an ocean of choices, sommeliers like Lang are the guests’ compass, steering them towards the right variety for them.

The cellar isn’t a wine museum, Lang asserts as we sip a 1996 Château de Valandraud from Bordeaux that’s so smoky, I feel like I’ve just puffed a cigar. These bottles are meant to be enjoyed. “We don’t want to work as wine traders. We don’t sell wines for takeaway. All of the wines in the hotel are only for drinking here, for having fun in the hotel and the restaurants. That’s our philosophy — it’s for having fun.”

The majority of Palais Coburg’s collection hails from France’s celebrated wine-growing regions, but the second-largest section is Austrian wine. Once stuck with the negative reputation of producing high-volume grapes over quality varieties, Austrian vino has seen a major renaissance in recent years.

That’s in part thanks to gemischter satz, the field blend that’s grown to attract some serious attention in the wine world. I spy it on menus everywhere I go, like at Vinifero Weinbar, a vino shop in the 2nd district; Naschmarkt, a bustling open-air market; and Alma Gastrothéque, a cozy 4th district spot for organic fare. In some cases, it even trumps iconic Viennese varieties like grüner veltliner and riesling as the recommended glass.

Nearly all vintners in Vienna produce gemischter satz; it now accounts for 40 per cent of all grapes grown in the capital. To make it, wine growers plant up to 20 different varieties in the same field, then harvest, press and ferment them all together, no matter if they’re under-, over- or perfectly ripe. It’s an easy-going, easy-drinking vino, and often the tipple of choice at Vienna’s famous heurigen, or wine taverns.

Heurigen are small drinking dens scattered around the capital’s suburban districts, yet are still largely accessible by public transit from the city centre. Often run by vintners who serve the season’s bounty, along with jugs of sturm, a sweet and cloudy partially fermented grape juice, they’re the best spots to taste the freshest wine of the year. Traditionally only operational during harvest seasons, many heurigen now remain open year-round due to their popularity. They’re welcoming, friendly spaces where locals flock to catch up with friends and family, blow off steam on the weekends, enjoy live accordion performances, and snack on traditional Austrian meat, bread and cheese.

Schnitzel and drinks at a Viennese heuriger

Vienna’s affection for local wine and heurigen kicks into hyperdrive on one autumn weekend every year: Vienna Wine Hiking Day. The two-day event run by the city sees gaggles of chatty Viennese residents trekking along four designated trails that range from 4.6 to 10.8 kilometres long. My group, rather ambitiously, sets out on the latter, Route 1, and starts our journey in the 19th district’s Neustift am Walde municipality. Charming Austrian suburban homes line the roads, and throngs of fellow hikers trudge uphill, many zooming by us with gusto. We pass by dozens of cottage-style heurigen, and have to stop ourselves from drifting inside towards the intoxicating sounds of glasses clinking and lively chatter.

Soon, the paved road turns into a path, and we’re shrouded under foliage, walking alongside rows of leaves and grapes. As we round a bend, we’re treated to postcard-worthy vistas of rolling vineyards, swaying trees and the city centre peeking out from behind the hills in the distance. Fellow hikers have congregated on the side of the path, milling about a small tent, table and a few stools. Someone is blasting music out of a speaker hidden in their backpack; a few milk cartons of empty bottles are stacked precariously off to the side. Everyone has a glass of white wine and a grin on their face, and soon I do, too. Eventually, the group squeezes our way through the hubbub and continues on our trek.

“The people of Vienna have built a relationship with the vineyards.”

The Wieninger family owns a wine tavern in Vienna’s Nussdorf suburb, and it’s the final stop on my group’s wine hiking trail. The autumn sun is setting, and we’ve clambered up a hill to get here, so the air is markedly cooler. Lush, green vineyards surround us; a stylish crowd seeking pours of gemischter satz queues in front of a makeshift bar carved out of a tangerine shipping container on a gravel plot. We snag a picnic table, and Fritz Wieninger emerges from behind the bar to join us.

Wieninger took over the business in 1987, but his family has been producing wine for over 100 years. “I’m 57. My one last wish is that all that I’ve built up — with a good base from my parents, and my grandparents — goes into the next generation,” he ruminates as he uncorks a bottle of his Bisamberg Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC 2022 for us. It’s bright yellow, and fresh on the nose; I relish notes of caramel, butterscotch, vanilla and grapefruit that immediately woo me to return for a second and third sip.

“The people of Vienna have built a relationship with the vineyards,” Wieninger smiles. Despite the risk of organized grape theft, he says he’d never put up fences around his fields. “It’s all our vineyards,” he gestures at the crowd around us. The heuriger is so busy now, even standing space is limited; lively conversation in German is punctuated by bursts of laughter as people sip amongst the vines. “I want parents and kids to play in the vineyards. I want them to build a connection with the wine.”

Viennese vineyards with the city in the background

As the sun droops lower in the sky, we bid farewell to Wieninger and start our trek back to the hotel. I spy a few travellers, wobbly after (presumably) imbibing a few glasses of vino, disappear into the vineyards that line the path. I hang back, and catch them plucking a grape or two from a vine, giggling. I snag a grape, too; it’s perfectly ripe, and spurts sweet juice as I take a bite. I gaze out at the city; the first street lights flicker to life, and a barge slowly drifts along the Danube.

As glasses clinking and faint conversations from nearby heurigen drift through the air, a feeling of calm washes over me, and it’s not just from the wine. Or perhaps it is; through it, I’ve discovered the soul of Vienna: community, conviviality and a deep connection to the land. I hope to bring some of that spirit back with me to Toronto — but at the very least, I’ll settle for squirrelling away a delicious bottle of gemischter satz.