Brewing up a Sturm – cultured drinking in Vienna

Words: Neil Geraghty

Never underestimate the amount of mustard a Viennese hot dog contains – and when you take the first bite always hold it vertically.

I’m standing at a table at Bitzinger’s, Vienna’s most famous sausage stand and a performance of Giselle is about to commence in the majestic Staatsoper across the square. The new autumn season has just begun and there is a real buzz of excitement in the air.

Bitzinger’s is so popular with Viennese high society that it is the only sausage stall in the city that serves champagne. Three Italian businessmen, immaculate in their tailored suits, walk over to my table clutching hot dogs in one hand and champagne flutes in the other. I’ve opted for a more modest glass of gruner veltliner, Austria’s most popular white wine: rich plummy notes with warming, peppery overtones. It goes well with sausages and after taking a couple of sips, I begin to tackle my enormous hot dog. However, I make the fatal error of biting into it horizontally and a huge squirt of mustard fires over the table and lands on the table within centimetres of one of the businessman’s cuffs.

“Ma che cazzo fai!” he exclaims, and after giving me a brief mafiosi stare he bursts out laughing.

For the Viennese, autumn is their favourite time of year. Summers can be a sweltering inferno and when the heat dissipates in September, a collective sigh of relief is almost palpable in the city as the Viennese sit back to relish the balmy temperatures and golden sunshine. The magical Indian summer weather is encapsulated in a drink, sturm, a cloudy semi fermented grape juice made from newly harvested grapes.

During September and October sturm stalls pop up in markets and squares all over the city but one of the most enjoyable ways to try it is to follow the locals and head to the numerous wine villages that straddle the hills just to the north of the city. I jump onto a rattling old tram in the city centre and within 20 minutes I’ve arrived in Grinzing, a bucolic village of mustard coloured houses and wine taverns (heuriger) huddled around a picturesque baroque church. The slopes surrounding Grinzing are planted with neat rows of vines and with 700 hectares of vineyards and a production of 2.4 million litres per annum, Vienna surprisingly has the highest production of wine of any city in the world.

As I walk down the hill, a tractor passes by pulling a cart piled high with freshly harvested golden grapes. In a nearby village, Heiligenstadt, I stop at Mayer am Pfarrplatz, one of Vienna’s most atmospheric heurigers. It was here that Beethoven came to stay in 1802 in the hope that the invigorating country air would help cure his deafness. The heuriger has changed little from Beethoven’s day. Above an arched doorway hangs a fir branch which indicates that the heuriger serves only Viennese wines. This is a tradition that dates back to 1784 when Emperor Josef II issued an ordinance that allowed local wine growers to serve wine from their own vineyards.

The doorway leads to a cobbled courtyard where wooden tables are laid out under a giant coiling vine. I take a seat in the dappled sunlight and order a sturm and a bowl of liptauer, a spicy dip made from sheep’s curd cheese, butter and spicy paprika. Liptauer is a traditional accompaniment to sturm and is eaten with spindly pretzel sticks which you dip into the bowl. No matter how hard you try it’s almost impossible to stop the pretzels from snapping in two and getting stuck in the liptauer, resulting always in choruses of laughter. The sturm arrives in a glass tankard and an appetising, fruity aroma wafts up from the golden draught. The taste is similar to freshly squeezed apple juice but is deceptively innocent – after a few mouthfuls the alcohol goes straight to my head.

I leave the heuriger envious that the Viennese have such relaxing bolt holes so close to the city and for Beethoven it certainly seems to have lifted his spirits. While residing in Heiligenstadt he completed his monumental Eroica symphony and began work on his greatest masterpiece the 9th.

When I return to the city it’s late afternoon and the peak time for visiting Vienna’s world famous cafes. In recent years outdoor terraces have appeared all over the city and the sunny spots are quickly snapped up by visiting tourists. In any other city this would be considered a welcome development but strangely enough outdoor terraces seem at odds with Vienna’s cafe culture. Part of the attraction is the atmospheric interiors which range in style from the palatial Belle Epoque Cafe Central to the intellectual Fin de Siecle style Cafe Hawelka. The positive side of terrace cafes is that it’s much easier to find space inside, and at Cafe Hawelka I have no problem bagging a table to myself. Looking around at the decor of smoke stained wood panelling, marble veneered tables and stripy sofas, I can easily imagine Freud, Mahler and Klimt deep in conversation amidst clouds of cigar smoke. The number of coffee varieties in Vienna is bewildering and it’s worth doing some research to find your perfect fix. I order a melange: a shot of espresso mixed with steamed milk and topped with foam. The balance of bitterness and creaminess is exquisite and I’m left puzzled as to why the flat white has achieved world domination when it seems just a pale imitation of a melange.

The following day is one of those crystal clear autumn days when the sun, low in the sky, amplifies every colour and detail of the landscape. The weather is ideal for outdoor activities and so I hop on the U-bahn to the Prater, a vast wooded island in the Danube which is home to the Wurstelprater, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. A long avenue of horse chestnuts runs through the middle of the island and with every breath of wind glossy conkers rain down on the footpaths.

I stop at the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s world famous ferris wheel immortalised in the film The Third Man, and am tempted to take a ride. The gondolas however are sealed and I’m more in the mood for a fresh air ride. Further along I come to the Prater Turm which at 117 metres is the world’s tallest star flyer. On an impulse I buy a ticket and trembling with excitement attach the flimsy looking safety bar onto the even flimsier looking seat. The flyer shoots up and starts spinning in a surprisingly smooth motion. However, I’m lulled into a false sense of security and when it reaches full height the spin accelerates and so does the wind. Spinning round at top speed I’m buffeted by capricious gusts and my seat starts rocking to and fro.

It’s absolutely terrifying and I try to keep my gaze fixed on the distant hills to settle my stomach. When I dismount my legs feel like jelly and I need to sit down for a drink. At a nearby bar there’s a sign for sturm. The English translation of sturm is ‘storm’ and locals like to say that if it’s not handled carefully it whips up a storm in your stomach. Perhaps it’s not the wisest drink for an amusement park and heeding the warning I opt for a soothing melange instead.

For more information about Vienna www.wien.info and for Austria visit www.austria.info

The Hotel Ruby Marie is handily located next to the Westbahnhof U-bahn station just off Mariahilfer Str. Vienna’s main shopping thoroughfare and a 10 minute metro ride to central Vienna. Rooms on the upper floors have terraces with panoramic views over central Vienna and a rooftop garden provides a relaxing space to unwind after exploring the city. The spacious, well designed rooms come with walk in showers and complimentary computer tablets. Double rooms start at €71 per night. For bookings visit www.ruby-hotels.com