Drinking Up a "Sturm" in Austria

Because of the unpredictable weather, fall is a tricky time to travel. Forget the Caribbean where hurricanes can wipe out beach dreams. And in Europe it can get chilly in autumn, so when my sister invited me to Vienna, Austria, for a long weekend I packed lots of sweaters and read up on the museums and coffeehouses to visit.

To my great surprise, the sun was out and, with the wine harvest going strong, we headed to the Viennese countryside to hike and bike -- with more than water available to quench our thirst.

Using Vienna as a base, over the course of three days we ventured out beyond the city's limits to Grinzing; to the villages along the Danube in the Wachau valley; and to the north by the Czech Republic -- all perfect day trips packing in exercise, sightseeing and tasty treats.

A Pine-Wreath Welcome

The wonderful thing about vacations is that you don't feel any urgency. Touring around the verdant vineyards with the smell of grapes sweetening the crisp autumn air crystallized that feeling. It also helped that I had knowledgeable guides at my side.

My sister and her husband live in Vienna, so these day trips ranked among their favorite outings. On the first day we ventured to the city's northern limits among the rolling hills, just beyond the traditional village of Grinzing.

For centuries Grinzing has been an important center for Austrian winemaking and because of its proximity to the city (just a tram ride away), the wine taverns tend to be fancier, but you can still get a taste of the local wines in a quaint setting. Look for a bunch of pine branches hanging over the heavy wooden doors of certain establishments, an indication that it's a heuriger, a tavern featuring new wine. A law dating back to 1784 allowed Viennese wine growers the privilege of selling their wine and home-cooked food 300 days out of the year without paying exorbitant taxes. The modern-day "open" sign never replaced the branch-like wreath and to this day, heurigers doll up their entrances with bows, branches, and berries to welcome patrons.

We had gotten a late start on the first day so we had lunch before walking around. Going beyond Grinzing up the steep hill, we settled at the sturdy wooden tables on the terrace of a small cottage-like heuriger abutting their vineyard. My sister and her husband ordered a round of sturm, telling me that this was an Austrian tradition that I couldn't pass up. Out came thick beer glasses filled with a yellow, milky concoction looking like a pilsner gone very wrong.

I should have ordered a glass of wine, I thought. It didn't take long for me to change my mind.

Sturm is actually semi-fermented grape juice from the first grape harvest of the season. It's low in alcohol and marks the official start of autumn for many locals. It comes in red or white and acts as a perfect accompaniment to the traditional sausage-heavy, carb-packed meals.

I noticed that plenty of Austrians drink the slightly-sweet carbonated liquid at either lunch or dinner. And I now understand why busloads of German tourists opt out of the crowded Munich Oktoberfest and come to Austria to imbibe gallons of the stuff.

We didn't drink up a storm, so we could make the climb to the overlook and admire the Viennese cityscape.

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