Life Force: a visit to Nikolaihof
We are the first to admit that we’re not the biggest fans of Parker Points. And yet we can’t tell the story of Wachau wine estate Nikolaihof without mentioning them. In 2014, with their 1995 Riesling Vinothek, Nikolaihof became the first Austrian wine estate to receive the holy grail of 100 Parker Points. It was an astonishing feat for a dry Riesling and even more so for this quite frankly domestically derided wine estate.
The story of Nikolaihof is a curious and convoluted one. Located in a rambling building centred on a flagged courtyard, from the centre of which rises an enormous ‘Emperor’s Linden’ (a linden tree planted in 1908 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign), the property has a history that dates back to Roman times. It’s not every day that you get to visit a 2,800-year-old wine cellar, but here there suddenly is one, a stone’s throw away from the banks of the Danube in the sleepy village of Mautern. The building that is now Nikolaihof was employed as a monastery for 1,000 years – a little chapel dedicated to Saint Agapitus still provides a pretty and evocative centrepiece. Once deconsecrated, it fell into the hands of the Saahs family in 1894, and there it has remained ever since.
The Romans were great wine drinkers, as we know, and would doubtless have approved of the use to which their ancient cellar is being put now. But there is one chap in particular to whom the Saahs family feel a particular bond – local saint Severin. As well as being the patron saint of cloth-weavers, prisoners and Bavarians (lucky you, if you fall into one of those categories), he is also the patron saint of winemakers. This because some of his favourite places to pray were the vineyards surrounding Mautern. Accordingly, Nikolaihof had a large, decorative oak barrel especially made and dedicated to Saint Severin. And guess which wine (among others) spent an incredible seventeen years maturing in that very barrel? Yes, you guessed it. The 100-Parker-Point-winning Riesling Vinothek.
So, thank you, Severin. But also, thank you, Saahs family. Because as Austria’s oldest wine estate, they certainly do know a thing or two about wine. Not only that, they were pioneers in joining the biodynamic movement ‘Demeter’ in 1971 – a move that, to put it bluntly, made them outcasts in the Austrian wine world. But which paid off, eventually, in their beautiful, near-natural wines and the non-interventional, holistic concept that weaves through every aspect of the estate. Look around the place and it is wholesome, simple, welcoming. In short, a very good place to be.
Nikolaus and Christine Saahs introduced biodynamics at a time when few people were interested in such a thing. Since then, they have slowly but surely set out to make wines with ‘life force’ and, more importantly, to prove that ‘wines with life force can mature’. Nikolaihof wines – primarily the main Wachau varieties Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but with some Chardonnay, Gelber Muskateller, Neuburger and Gewürztraminer on the side – spend anything between six months and twenty years in large oak barrels. And when we say large, we mean absolutely bloody enormous. 7,500 to 12,000 litres to be precise. Down in the naturally temperature-regulated cellar, with its thick, stone walls and Roman damp coursing, up to 140,000 litres of diverse vintages bide their time, waiting for the perfect moment to be transferred to a bottle. It’s not always easy for Nikolaus junior, now the winemaker, to decide when that perfect moment is. Yet somehow he seems to get it spot on, over and over again.
In a philosophical moment, Christine compares the life of a wine to that of a person. (Bear with us). ‘When I look in the mirror, I look different now to how I did ten years ago,’ she explains. ‘In ten years’ time, I’ll look different again. But I can 100% say that I am still alive. And it’s the same for the wines.’ It’s a nice comparison, and an important one given the incredible longevity of the wines that Nikolaihof is producing. But it’s a concept that really didn’t go down very well in Austria – a country that essentially likes to drink its wines young – until about four years ago. For decades, Nikolaihof has been exporting around 80% of their wines to 47 countries across the world, but it took a whole 100 Parker Points before the Austrians really caught on.
And caught on they have. On the day we visited (conveniently, the last day of summer), the courtyard was buzzing with visitors who were stopping in to buy wine, picking up some grape seed oil or homemade jam from the little farm shop, or enjoying a leisurely evening in the ‘Weinstube’ restaurant, which on balmy evenings is laid out under the linden tree. The food here is all organic and local, and most of the recipes can also be found in Christine’s cookery book. A glass or two of the 2004 Steinriesler or 2015 Im Weingebirge Grüner Veltliner, and it’s a meal that will be one of the most hearty, wholesome and historic you’ve ever had.
‘Wine is culture,’ says Christine. It’s something that is often said. Yet here, on the banks of the Danube, in the midst of one of the fiercest wine cultures of Europe, it’s a kind all of its own. There’s a sort of Nikolaihof culture that permeates everything here, from the guesthouse to the vineyards to the ancient beam press – the largest of its kind in the world – that still sinks into action every year to create a very special ‘Baumpresse’ wine. It’s a culture that is influenced by biodynamics, that has its heart in history, and that results in a beautiful symbiosis between man and nature. It’s a culture that cares neither about Parker Points (although in this case they were very useful) nor what everyone else says that you should do, but that boldly makes its way down a road less travelled. Inspiring and heart-warming; a true force of life.
Tasting Notes: Nikolaihof
We tried a considerable number of wines during our visit to Nikolaihof, each and every one of which would be worthy of a mention here. Grüner Veltliner and Riesling in particular are the estate’s main grape varieties, but we were more than impressed by the entire range. From Neuburger to Traminer to Trockenbeerenauslese, all of the wines demonstrate a special ‘Nikolaihof elegance’ and have their rightful place in the product selection. So as not to demand too much of your time, we’ve narrowed it down to a few of our particular favourites:
Grüner Veltliner Zwickl 2017 – clouded with yeast, this one swims in the glass and radiates aromas of creamy apple cider. Very spicy on the palate with a biting acidity, which was buffered perfectly by the creaminess of the yeast. Extremely exciting but very brief on the palate. A refreshing and unique addition to the world of Veltliner.
Grüner Veltliner Im Weingebirge 2010 – this may be an eight-year-old Veltliner, but it still needs air, air and more air. The initial reductivity is quickly chased away by notes of ripe pear and lively lime zests. Juicy apples and apricots on the palate, with an unmistakeable Veltliner spiciness and a light almond touch. Incredible pressure for a lightweight with just 11.5%. The aftertaste is impressively long, with charmingly floral notes. After maturing for around six months in a large barrel, this is a Veltliner of great depth that’s hard to beat in terms of value for money.
Riesling Steinriesler 2004 – this wine comes from the vineyards in Stein, which is just across the other side of the Danube from Nikolaihof. After twelve years in a large barrel, it was bottled in June 2016. Clear as a bell in the nose, with dominant aromas of citrus, quince and a slightly minty touch, together with a pinch of burned sugar, chocolate mint and cool smoke. Extremely complex and impressively youthful with a cheeky acidity on the palate. Unbelievably deep and captivating for only 11.5% alcohol. It doesn’t get much better.
Riesling Vinothek 2002 – after spending sixteen years in a large wooden barrel, this wine was bottled in summer 2018. A reserved yet deep nose of fresh kiwi, green tea, chamomile, hay, salted caramelized almonds and a touch of cold smoke in the background. On the palate it presents itself with great elegance and energy, but only opens up slowly with a subtle, stony minerality and electrifying acidity. Far less about the fine herbal tea notes and subtle aromas of tropical fruits, this wine is about an unstoppable pressure on the palate and the incredible results of man working in absolute harmony with nature.
Nikolaihof wines are available from the cellar door Monday to Friday from 8.30am until 11.30am and 1pm until 4.30pm. Selected stockists in 47 countries worldwide carry Nikolaihof wines – to find one near you, you can contact the winery for more information. The ‘Weinstube’ restaurant is open in the summer months – please check online for the current opening times. Ad Vineas is the guesthouse located nearby; it is open from the end of March until the middle of November.