Europe’s second longest river, the Danube winds through some of the most picturesque cities in the continent. Traditionally, the river was an important trade route, so you’ll still find a cacophony of cultures, craft and heritage along its banks.
In our ‘Makers of the Danube’ series, we’ll be travelling along the river and speaking to some of the makers and doers who are keeping traditional crafts alive. Last week, we met traditional gingerbread maker, Zuzana, and now we’re in Vienna with wine maker, Alex.
Tell us a little bit about your beautiful winery?
My grandad started Zahel in 1930 and it’s been in the family ever since. Back then, it was just a small plot of land and the heuriger (an Austrian tavern where local winemakers serve their wines). I joined the company in 2005 as the fourth generation of winemakers.
Did you always know you would eventually take it on?
I was always passionate about wine, but I probably thought that would take me a bit further from home. When I was fourteen, I studied viniculture and then went off to work in vineyards in Australia and New Zealand. When I found myself back home, I knew I had to use what I had learned to grow Zahel.
What is a typical day for you?
Most days, I’m out in the vineyard at around 5 o’clock. Then I’ll have a coffee with my grandma – she’s 80 years old and still makes pastries every morning. Once the rest of the team arrive, I get on with all the typical office stuff like meetings and client calls, but I try to get out on the fields as often as I can. When I started ten years ago, 70% of my work was on the vineyard and 30% was in the office, but it’s probably the exact opposite now!
Would you rather be out picking the grapes?
I still do! My official title is owner and CEO of the company, but I am also CFO, Sales and Marketing Director, tractor driver, grape picker and janitor [laughs].
Is it just a family affair, or do you employ other staff?
Every year, we employ seasonal workers but our core team consists of only five members. As it’s a family-run business, my uncle, aunt, grandmother and wife all have their distinctive roles. My wife Hilary, for example, is responsible for our online marketing and distribution. Before our daughter was born, she was also involved with the actual production in the cellar.
Do you think your daughter will join the ranks one day?
Maybe one day, but I wouldn’t make it easy for her – she would need to have what it takes! [laughs]
What’s your most popular wine?
Our best seller is called Gemischter Satz. It’s quite unusual because it’s made from a variety of grapes. It used to be called a ‘risk spread’ because winemakers would mix different varieties if the weather meant there was a particularly bad crop. It’s a lot less ad-hoc these days, and we’ve perfected this unique process of wine making. Now, we’re the largest producer of Gemischter Satz in Austria and the market leader worldwide as well.
It seems like Zahel is bringing modernism to a very traditional part of Viennese and winemaking culture.
I would say so, yes. It’s the same with our heuriger. It used to be the tradition for people to bring their own food, and we would only serve them our wine. Today that has changed a bit. We now serve a-la-carte and buffet food, so you could say it’s a bit more upmarket, but at the same time still very down to earth. People still eat around bare wooden tables because it was important to us to keep the traditional and rustic atmosphere alive. We also serve a variety of wines, like Grüner Veltliner or a Sauvignon – not just the Gemischter Satz.
What’s it like growing the grapes in a bustling city like Vienna instead of in the countryside?
Our vineyards stretch over 25 hectares in Vienna, and 20 in Lower Austria. Logistically, it is more difficult because they are scattered, which means that we need to strategically plan the infrastructure and transportation. But other than that, we are proud to grow our grapes in the only city in the world that has vineyards.
Where would you recommend in Vienna for someone who likes their wine?
There are three restaurants in the city centre that every wine lover should know: Figlmüller, Plachutta and Schwarzes Kameel. They’re known for combining modern Viennese cuisine with excellent collections of wine. They also serve our wines [laughs].
What does the future look like for Zahel?
Positive, I hope! I want to continue building our export relations and make Gemischter Satz more available for everyone. It is already well received by wine connoisseurs, but we want to bring it to the public as well. One bottle costs 7,80 euros, so it is quite affordable. And in case someone wants to treat themselves a bit more, they can try our most expensive wine for 150 euros [laughs].
Thanks for talking to us, Alex, it’s brilliant that you and your family are bringing the tradition of wine making into the 21st century.
Learn more about Alex’s wine at the Zahel website. To find out more about Vienna’s many-splendoured history, consider visiting the city on a cruise along the Danube, which flows through four different European capitals.