If you begin in the medieval town of Krems, and turn your back on the Danube to instead follow the Krems river from where it hits the Danube back up a narrow valley, you will eventually find yourself in the village of Senftenberg, gazing up at an ancient church perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the valley, itself overshadowed by the crumbling ruin of a castle. If you bring yourself right up to the base of the escarpment, you may find yourself imagining life in this little valley in the 16th century, dark and feudal, punctuated with the pleasures of harvest and the other scarce joys that a hard, agrarian life might bring.
As you stand there contemplating the past, you’ll likely also find yourself in the middle of the parking lot for Weingut Nigl, whose pretty little winery, restaurant, and guest house sit literally in the shadow of the church and the steep terraced vineyards that surround it.
Both in the grand history of this little valley, as well as the modern history of the Austrian wine industry, Nigl (pronounced like “eagle”) is a relative newcomer. Proprietor Martin Nigl is but a first generation winemaker. Like many families in Austria, however, the Nigl family has been subsistence farming in nearly the same place for about 200 years.
It was Martin Nigl’s father who decided that growing grapes might be a way to improve the family’s modest lot in life (up until this point, the family had been mixed farmers like everyone else) but there was only so much acreage the family owned that could be replanted with grapes (in total about 16 acres). So the family had only a small amount of grapes to sell the local cooperative winery in Krems in the 1960s when Martin Nigl was growing up with his two brothers and his sister.
Martin Nigl, however, found winemaking fascinating, and after getting his degree in oenology, he returned to the family farm and convinced his father that the family might do better making wine, both from their own grapes, and grapes that they could purchase from others.
So in 1985 Nigl began putting his family name on bottles of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, using an ancient basket press that he bought from a friend, and a couple of steel tanks. Nigl’s brothers and sister weren’t interested in winemaking at all, and only now, after many years has his older brother returned to work at the winery.
In 1989, a tasting of Kremstal Riesling was held for a panel of international judges and a bottle of Nigl finished at the top of the lineup. No one had ever heard of them before, but thanks to, among others, journalist Stuart Pigott, word got around quickly after that.
These days Nigl owns about 40 acres of vineyards and buys a little bit of additional Grüner Veltliner from neighbors to produce around 22,000 cases of wine each year. Most of these vineyards were purchased in the 90s, when the family finally gave itself over to winemaking completely.
The symbolic heart of the family’s holdings are the terraced vineyards immediately behind the winery, below the picturesque ruins of the 14th century castle that was destroyed in the 30 Years’ War. The Baron who owned the castle and much of the vineyard land nearby sold it all in the late 1990’s, allowing Nigl to add to his acreage.
Martin Nigl isn’t a particularly voluble man, so getting him to talk about his winemaking philosophy is a bit like questioning a hostile witness. In somewhat clipped sentences, he’s liable to disclaim any particular winemaking philosophy. “I’m catholic, not biodynamic,” he says to me, with enough of a smile to make it clear that he’s aware of the joke. He goes on to brusquely explain that his main objection to biodynamics is what he sees as an overuse of copper: “We’ve analyzed our soil and thanks to those before us, there is already too much copper in the earth. I don’t want to leave a dead vineyard to my son.”
Almost on cue, 10-year-old Martin Nigl, Jr. pokes his head into the room, and says hi. At first he looks like he’s arrived to practice his English, but in the end, proves too shy to try. I send him away with an 8-inch-long temporary tatto of the word “Riesling” that will either turn him into a hero at school, or get him completely ostracized for months.
Nigl farms without pesticides or herbicides, but uses sulfur as needed to control odium, and is not above spraying something commercial or industrial when an emergency calls for it. “We plant and plow cover crops in our vineyards — legumes and other beneficial grasses between the rows” he says. “We prefer thinking of ourselves as ‘sustainable.'”
In the cellar, he prefers to use native yeast fermentations for his top bottlings and fruit from old vines, while sticking with commercial yeasts for his “lighter and fruitier wines.”
Despite a somewhat stiff exterior, Nigl presides over an excellent hospitality operation. His guesthouse and restaurant are well known, and receive well-deserved praise, especially for the traditional restaurant on the premises. We had a wonderful meal after our tasting, and decided to splurge for an older bottle of Nigl, a 1988 Hochacker Spatlese Trocken that was a reasonable 50 Euros on the list. Needless to say, it was a spectacular bottle of wine. I’ve included the tasting note below.
We began by tasting barrel samples (tank samples to be specific) of the 2011 vintage, followed by the current releases of the 2010 vintage and a couple of older wines.
2011 Nigl “Gurtling” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Palest greenish gold in the glass with almost no color, this wine smells of bright green apple and floral notes. In the mouth juicy, bright, wet stone flavors mix with lime and green apple flavors. Zingy acidity, nice finish. 11% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2011 Nigl “Frenheit” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Palest blonde in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of wet rocks and white flowers. In the mouth it offers liquified rock flavors almost to the exclusion of all else. White floral notes waft over the wine and linger with a hint of green apple and lime in the finish. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2011 Nigl “Senftenberger Piri” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Pale, almost colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and white flowers. In the mouth faint green apple flavors give way almost immediately to flavors of wet stone / wet chalkboard and white flowers that linger through a long finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2011 Nigl “Alte Reben – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Pale gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells slightly leesy with bright green apple and floral notes. In the mouth green apple, wet stone, and floral notes mix with a Juicyfruit™ gum tropical note that is interesting. A bit leesy at this point in its evolution. Score: around 8.5.
2011 Nigl “Kirchenberg – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Pale greenish gold, this barrel sample smells of wet rocks, star fruit, and white flowers. In the mouth, beautiful green apple and star fruit flavors mix with crackling acidity and wet stone flavors. Beautiful, bright and juicy. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Nigl “Privat – Pellingen Erste Lage Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of floral notes and wet stones with hints of cucumber and star fruit. In the mouth bright juicy acidity makes flavors of green apple, cucumber, and star fruit come alive with beautiful jasmine floral notes over crystalline wet rock flavors that linger through a long finish that features green apple and floral notes. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Nigl “Dornleiten – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kremstal
Pale greenish gold in the glass this barrel sample smells of wet stones and floral notes but mostly wet rocks. In the mouth, bright stony wet chalkboard flavors have a tinge of green apple, a sprinkling of lemon juice, and a whiff of white flowers, but mostly, it’s just a glassful of crushed rocks running with cool mountain stream water. Lovely. Dry. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Nigl “Senftenberger Piri – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kremstal
Nearly colorless in the glass with only a faint blonde hue, this barrel sample smells of floral notes, ripe pears, and wet stones. In the mouth ripe pears and unripe pear flavors mix with a wet stone / wet chalkboard flavor, while aromas of white flowers drift by in the breeze. Dry. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Nigl “Hochacker – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kremstal
Pale gold in the glass with a light greenish hue, this barrel sample smells of Juicyfruit™ gum, wet rocks, and pears. In the mouth, flavors of pear, Juicyfruit™ gum, and wet stones vie for attention, while a little bit of alcoholic heat comes into the finish. Somewhat disjointed. Not sure if it is going to stay this way or not. Dry. Score: around 8.5.
2011 Nigl “Privat – Pellingen Erste Lage – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Kremstal
Pale gold in the glass, this barrel smells of wet stones, green apples and pears. In the mouth, smoothly textured flavors of green apple, pear, lime and lemon mix with a deep stoniness that has a crystalline quality. These flavors linger for a long time with tangerine and lime juice in a long finish. Excellent. Dry. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Nigl “Goldberg” Riesling, Kremstal
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of pears and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has faintly sweet flavors of pear and apple, mixed with tangerine and lime juice tanginess. The wine is technically dry, but a little more alcohol and a tiny bit more residual sugar than normal give the wine its very pretty off-dry character, even though it is technically dry. Wonderful wet stone minerality. Beautiful finish. This is the first harvest from this vintage to be bottled. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2010 Nigl “Privat – Pellingen Erste Lage” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemongrass and honey, with hints of ripe pear. In the mouth a honey, pear, and wet stone medley dominate, with a tiny hint of yeastiness that isn’t so different in flavor than the earthy skin of a pear. Pear and a bit of white pepper aroma lingers in the finish. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2010 Nigl “Herzstück vom Kirchenberg” Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and white flowers with notes of wet stone. In the mouth bright honey and white flowers mix with crackling acidity and bright wet stones. Beautiful, juicy, stony. Made from the heart of the old vineyard behind the winery, between the 16th century castle and 14th century church. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2010 Nigl “Ried Hochacker Erste Lage” Riesling, Kremstal
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and floral notes. In the mouth the wine has a super bright and crisp mineral snap, with floral and lemon, tangerine and lime citrus brightness. Beautiful floral and wet stone aromas linger in the finish with gorgeous length. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2010 Nigl “Privat – Pellingen Erste Lage” Riesling
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears and floral notes and wet stones. In the mouth the wine offers bright and juicy pear, lime, tangerine and other citrus notes. Wet stone minerality pervades the wine and the acidity is off the charts. A tiny bit of alcoholic heat emerges in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2011 Nigl Gelber Muskateller, Kremstal
Almost colorless in the glass, this wine smells of elderflower syrup, rose petals, and a hint of orange blossom. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful floral and wet stone quality, with orange blossom, orange rind, and a chalky texture to its acidity. Nice length, and completely, bone dry. This is a very aromatic and refreshing wine. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2011 Nigl Sauvignon Blanc, Kremstal
Near colorless in the glass with a hint of gold, this wine smells of gooseberries and wet stones. In the mouth the wine is electric with acidity and lime/gooseberry flavors that linger for a long time over crackling wet stones. Beautiful. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2008 Nigl Pinot Noir, Kremstal
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of floral aromas, stems, forest floor, and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright raspberry and pomegranate flavors mix with cedar and notes of cocoa powder, while very bright acidity keeps the wine sailing through a long finish. Very faint tannins gently caress the edges of the mouth. I never would guess this Pinot was from Austria, as it has a very international quality, if that means anything. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2008 Nigl TBA Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal
Light amber in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peel and candied lemon. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeously silky, thick texture, with utterly fantastic acidity that makes the candied orange peel and orange blossom water crackle with electricity. Gorgeous balance and incredibly long finish. Outstanding. Moderate to very sweet. 9.5% alcohol. 500ml. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $42. click to buy.
2009 Nigl TBA Riesling, Kremstal
Dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of clover honey, wet stones, and candied exotic citrus and ethereal floral notes. In the mouth, the wine has a thick silky weight on the tongue, with candied orange peel and other candied citrus mixed with stony crystalline honey and floral flavors. Stunning acidity keeps this wine alive and electric in the mouth even with its languorous texture. Fabulous. Moderate to very sweet. 10.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
1988 Nigl “Hochacker Spatlese Trocken” Riesling, Kremstal
Yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, wet stones, acacia flowers, and a hint of paraffin. In the mouth the wine is gorgeously silky, with flavors of lemon curd, tangerine, wet stones and delicate floral notes. Fantastic, even stunning acidity remains in the wine, and it soars for great lengths through a very long finish. Wow. Completely dry. 12.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.