12752583.8dd5717.f9fa67b0364f4fe4afb3ae22e720ae58

Flirting with the Ecstatic: The Wines of Nikolaihof, Austria

There are certain places in this world that feel as if they exist outside of time. Or perhaps they exist inside of time but move much slower than the world around them. Stepping through the doorway into the inner courtyard of Weingut Nikolaihof, a stone’s throw from the Danube, with the morning light filtering down through the century-old linden tree, the world narrows down to this quiet bounded space. Gravel crunches underfoot, and there exists a stillness in the shadow of the bell tower that speaks of the building’s storied past as a monastery.

That moment of stillness may not last long, however. For the early morning visitor is likely to be greeted by the excited yammering of an enthusiastic Dachshund named Lumpi who will make it abundantly clear whose domain this really is. This courtyard has been under the supervision of a Dachshund named Lumpi for 16 generations. Lumpi means “troublemaker” and most visitors receive a greeting from the 16th incarnation of that spirit as they walk under the courtyard tree that is older than the country of Austria. It is a fairly fitting welcome to the oldest winery in Austria, whose roots go back to the beginnings of the region’s earliest recorded history.

Actually, the courtyard’s roots go back even farther than recorded history. “The monks chose this pace to build their church because it was a Celtic holy place,” says Nikolaus Saahs, referencing the ancient Halstatt people who ranged across central Europe between 800 and 600 BCE.

nikolaihof-9.jpg

“The altar of the earliest churches was just where you are standing,” says Saahs, who goes on to point out the remnants of a Roman wall, preserved by those who turned the building into a military fortress sometime in the 5th century, shortly before it became a monastery. The Romans, as they did everywhere, cultivated grapes and made wine. The Germanic monks who settled in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse continued that tradition, and by 470 AD (the earliest written record we possess) the monastery owned a vineyard named Im Weingebirge. As far as anyone can tell, this is the earliest mention of a specific vineyard by name anywhere in Europe.

Weingut Nikolaihof continues to make wine from this vineyard, which bears the same name, 1542 years later.

In 985 AD, this small monastery was dedicated to St. Nikolas, and became a seat of monastic power from which the church spread its influence up and down the Wachau valley, including the monastery of Stift Gottweig, which eventually became the epicenter of the regions monastic power base.

The beautiful courtyard, and the building that surrounds it, in which the entire Saas family continues to live, date back to the 15th century.

“In 1803, the emperor closed the St. Nikolas monastery as part of his secularization of the empire, and my family bought it in 1894,” says Saahs. “We are only a small part of its history today. Our mission is to protect it and preserve it for the next generation.”

Saahs’ great grandfather bought the house as a country retreat for his family, along with much of the monastery’s farmlands. “That’s how we survived much of the bad times,” says Saahs, describing the typical mixed farming, wine growing and animal husbandry that marked most of the family estates in the Wachau in the early 20th Century.

nikolaihof-2.jpg

“My dad inherited the winery in 1960 when his father passed away,” says Saahs, and like many of his generation after the war, his father decided to focus exclusively on winemaking.

“We couldn’t afford any of the chemicals,” says Saahs, “so we figured out how to do without.” In 1971, Saahs’ mother, Christine, who was trained in Anthroposophy and Medicine, began to incorporate Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophy-based biodynamic thinking to the winery’s farming.

“In order to become biodynamic all we had to do was simply start using a few preparations,” says Nikolaus Saahs. Thanks to his mother’s early adoption of these techniques, Nikolaihof may well be the first Biodynamic wine estate in Europe, which would necessarily mean that they’d also be the first in the entire world.

Nikolaus’ father retired from winemaking duties in 1985, handing the day-to-day winery operations over to the younger Saahs, who studied winemaking for three years at Germany’s famous Geisenheim university before dropping out to return to the family estate.

“I’m not really the school type,” admits Saahs, “I’d rather be working in the winery. “Besides,” he adds with a grin, as we descend into the 700-year-old cellar beneath the house “I didn’t really see the point of learning how to make red wine.”

nikolaihof-4.jpg

If the 5th century Roman wall in the courtyard is impressive, it’s not clear what the right words are for the 4th century Roman wine cellar that still holds the massive oak barrels in which Saahs patiently ages the family’s wines, sometimes for as long as 15 years before bottling.

Saahs continues to refine the winemaking traditions that have been passed down from father to son through four generations. As one might expect for practitioners of biodynamics, all of the winemaking is done under fairly rustic conditions, with little temperature control, natural yeasts, and minimal additions of sulfur dioxide.

“I still get the benefit of my dad’s fifty years of experience,” notes Saahs, who also says his mother continues to be very involved in the winery as well. But as both of his parents begin to slow down in retirement, the winery has gradually become the domain of Saahs and his girlfriend Gudrun.

Not entirely content to simply inherit a set of traditions, Saahs has been bringing his own ideas to the operation, including most notably the refurbishment and use of the estate’s 400-year old, massive medieval wine press. Made from one massive elm tree, this incredible museum piece is the largest (let alone the largest operational) wine press of its kind in Austria. Saahs is so pleased with the gentle extraction he gets from the press he will be using it for more and more of his wines moving forward.

nikolaihof-5.jpg

Nikolaihof now farms about 50 acres in the Wachau, on both sides of the Danube, including a new vineyard called Klausberg from which they began to bottle wine in 2005.

The estate produces about 9000 cases of wine, primarily of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but with some other interesting wines thrown in, including a single varietal Neuburger, a Gewürztraminer, and a traditional white blend of many regional grapes.

There are many things that make the wines of Nikolaihof unique, from the persistent use of large, ancient oak casks, to eschewing fining and filtration whenever possible. Perhaps most unusually, however, Nikolaihof makes a habit of aging some cuvees for extended periods of time in large casks. Up until recently, this kind of extended aging was restricted to a set of bottlings named Vinothek, which saw at least 14 years of extended aging before bottling. Increasingly, however, Saahs is keeping wines longer and longer in cask. “I taste them all the time,” he says, “and I only bottle them when I think they are ready, and when we need to release some more wine.”

nikolaihof-3.jpg

This somewhat erratic release schedule can be quite confusing to anyone trying to figure out whether a given bottle is a current release or has been aged in bottle for some time. While he says he is working on a better system for clarifying this on the label, Saahs shows me a small number on the back label above the barcode, and tells me you can always tell the year the wine was bottled from the last two digits.

Nikolaihof’s wines simply represent one of the pinnacles of Austrian winemaking. Now having had the chance to taste them across three decades, I’m even more impressed with them. It may be equal parts trick of the mind and conceit of the pen to say that they possess the same timeless stillness that can be felt stepping into the quiet courtyard below the yellow bell tower, but it cannot be avoided. These wines are simply sublime.

nikolaihof-6.jpg

TASTING NOTES:

2013 Nikolaihof “Hefeabzug” Grüner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of quince and wet stones with notes of asian pear. In the mouth, flavors of asian pear and pear skin mix with lemongrass and wet stones with a crisp bright freshness. Excellent acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $27. click to buy.

2013 Nikolaihof “Im Weingebirge” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemongrass, quince, and black bread. In the mouth, flavors of honey, lemongrass, and wet stones have an incredibly silky texture, even as they leave a spiky, spicy note that tingles the tongue long after you’ve swallowed. Wonderfully electric and vibrant. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2013 Nikolaihof “Vom Stein” Riesling Federspiel, Wachau, Austria
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and lemon pith. In the mouth flavors of lemon pith, grapefruit and wet stone have a crystalline brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Long finish. Dry. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2006 Nikolaihof “Vom Stein” Riesling Federspiel, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of dried honey, wet stones and elderflower blossoms. In the mouth exceedingly silky flavors of wet stone, clover honey and white flowers have an incredible depth, with a profound sense of balance to match. Exquisite acidity and length, with lemon pith juiciness lingering in the finish. Like a sun-struck bell, the wine resonates with brightness. Dry. This wine was held in a large old cask until 2014, when it was bottled for the first time. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2013 Nikolaihof “Gutsriesling Restsüss” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey, wet stones, and white flowers. In the mouth, lightly sweet flavors of apple, white flowers, and citrus notes bounce around the mouth on the back of vibrant acidity. Beautifully mineral and quite tasty. In 2013, one particular cask just decided to stop fermenting before it was dry, and so rather than restart the fermentation, Saahs simply bottled it. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2011 Nikolaihof “Vom Stein” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria (bottled 2014)
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone and mixed yellow flowers, in particular, chamomile. In the mouth flavors of wet stone, elderflower and chamomile mix with gorgeous, even ethereal honey notes. Beautifully balanced with a gorgeous silky texture and incredible length. Dry. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2010 Nikolaihof “Steiner Hund” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Light gold in color, this wine smells of wet stone and a hint of petrol. In the mouth, gorgeously stony flavors also carry that note of paraffin or diesel, but only as a grace note amidst a wash of pure, powerful lemon pith and crushed quartz. Phenomenally crystalline in quality, drinking this wine is like tasting sweet floral scented nectar dripping off a glacier. Fantastic. Notes of elderflower waft through the finish. Dry. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2006 Nikolaihof “Baumpresse im Weingebirge” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Light gold in color, this wine smells of petrol, dried citrus peel and bergamot. In the mouth, silky crystalline flavors of wet stone, bergamot, and elderflower wash over a thrumming, electric heart of lemon and grapefruit pith. This wine possesses and incredible vibrance with fantastic acidity and length. Dry. Bottled in 2008. Stunning. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $??

1997 Nikolaihof “Vinothek – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Light cold in the glass, this wine smells of chamomile and other crushed yellow herbs along with the lemony, piney hint of waxflower. In the mouth the wine can only be described as effortless. Stunning wet stone minerality is etched by lemon pith and tart citrus rind, but echoes deep and stony like a vast cistern. Phenomenal clarity and length. A simply breathtaking wine. This was a cask sample. The wine was bottled in July of 2014. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $195. click to buy.

1995 Nikolaihof “Vinothek” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of yeasty chamomile and bergamot. In the mouth the wine has incredible depth, and plays the trick of being both rich and light at the same time. Yeasty flavors of quince, apple, and asian pear have a slightly spicy note to them along with dried citrus rind notes that linger through an incredibly long finish. Phenomenal acidity and balance. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $195. click to buy.

2000 Nikolaihof “Steiner Hund” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Light to medium gold in color, this wine smells of paraffin, bergamot, and wet stones. In the mouth, gorgeous wet chalkboard flavors of citrus rind, bergamot, and wintersweet blossoms have a crystalline purity that is breathtaking. Effortless with an incredibly long finish. This wine was bottled in 2001. Score: around9.5. Cost: $n/a

1998 Nikolaihof “Im Weingebirge Edelsüss” Grüner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria
Light amber in color, this wine smells of dried apricot, candied citrus, and honey. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly silky, and much less sweet than the nose would imply. Effortless and all but weightless on the palate despite its silky texture, this wine tastes of orange peel, honey, apricots, and an incredible melange of dried herbs and flowers that lingers for a long time in the finish. Phenomenal. Moderately sweet. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $n/a

2005 Nikolaihof “Nikolauswein Trockenbeerenauslese” White Blend, Wachau, Austria
Light to medium amber in color, this wine smells of candied citrus rind, crème anglaise, and apricot nectar. In the mouth, phenomenally bright neon flavors of dried mango, dried apricot, honey, and sweet cream sail on for minutes in a finish that seems to last as long as you are willing to pay attention. Pure and bright and utterly compelling, this wine is bottled sunshine. 70% Riesling, 20% Grüner Veltliner, and then “as many other botrytis grapes from other vineyards we can find,” according to Saahs. Aged for 4 years in barrels before bottling. Score: around 10. Cost: $100 for 500ml. You can only occasionally find a bottle for sale online.