Nikolaihof Wachau | Biodynamic estate in Mautern in Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) with vineyards in both the Wachau and Kremstal regions of Austria.

Owner | The Saahs family. | Christine Saahs | In Biodynamic Wine (Mitchell Beazley, 2004) I wrote that ‘like Burgundy’s Anne-Claude Leflaive, Christine Saahs is the co-owner of a wine domain with the potential to produce the greatest white wines of their region; some would say of their entire country. Biodynamics is seen as an essential part in pushing quality parameters as far as possible. Yet Christine Saahs, like Anne-Claude, is someone for whom the Biodynamic impulse is elemental, rather than mystical: they see wine as a product of the environment, so by respecting the environment the wine is grown in gives the chance of making the best wines. At both estates once Biodynamics merited consideration on a theoretical level it was trialled and found to be superior in both vineyard and winery, and adopted partially, then completely (officially at Nikolaihof since 1998).’ 

Historic background | Wine has been produced on the site of Nikolaihof in Mautern since Roman times. The winery, a vaulted stone cellar, overlooks the Danube. Its part-Roman foundations make it the oldest winery in Austria; vaulted crypt; winery has a Romanesque part and a Gothic chapel; then of course baroque and Biedermeier suites; some of its towers and gates were erected over the remains of the Roman fortifications of the town of Mautern, the Roman Favianis. This is where the oldest documents that mention winemaking in Austria originated (the life story of the Holy Severin, 511 AD).

Biodynamic certification | 1998 First vintage with full Demeter Biodynamic certification.

Vineyards | 2004 20 hectares (49.4 acres). | 2005 21.3 hectares (52.6 acres).

Vintages

2004 ‘Unlike most growers in the region,’ says Roy Richards ‘the Saahs family had no ripening problems and no rot to speak of, bar some noble rot towards the end. They picked from mid-October to 11th November. These are not wines to win blind tastings, as I know to my cost having participated in one for a prominent wine magazine, but they are probably the wines I drink most at home, because of their ethereal, mineral quality,’ (Richards Walford, June 2005). | 2005 ‘I adored the wines here in 2005,’ says Roy Richards ‘even if the family is choosing to make my commercial life difficult by releasing the Smaragd level wines later and later. To be fair, this is because they realise how much these wines gain from longer elevage. The proof of this lies in the wondrous 1990 Riesling released last year, and this year’s 1991 Grüner Veltliner, both extraordinary wines by any standard. The Saahs maintain that their biodynamic husbandry precluded any problems of rot, and that they had no need for a green harvest. Judging from the results, this would appear credible, although I have only tasted at Federspiel level. They picked from the first week in October for five weeks,’ (Richards Walford, June 2006). | 2006 ‘As elsewhere the crop of Grüner Veltliner was very much down here (by 40%) due to a combination of poor flowering and hail in April. August was perfect, and they started to pick on the 7th October, early, as is often the way with biodynamic estates. These are wines of great, natural poise, more terroir than variety driven,’ says Roy Richards (2007). | 2008 ‘Christine Saahs did not try to hide the problems that 2008 had thrown at bio-dynamic wine producers,’ says Roy Richards. Downy mildew (peronospera) affected the flowers, and neither plant-based sprays nor copper sulphate could cope. In addition, it rained all the time. At first, the prognosis was very gloomy with no Grüner Veltliner crop expected, but natural selection carried the day, as the remaining bunches swelled in size providing about 50% less than in 2007. As always, given the higher sugar level engendered by bio dynamism, they picked early, starting the second week of October with the first Smaragd the following week – a good month before conventional growers – before finishing mid October. Nikolaihof produce the most understated wines of our range: the style emphasises minerality rather than the varietal fruit. Christine has agreed a small discount this year just for the sick man of Europe,’ says Roy Richards (Richards Walford, 2010). | 2009 ‘Christine Saahs reports a “wonderful” 2009 vintage and good quantities. The Saahs started picking in the first week of September with the final Smaragd, the Grüner Veltliner, coming in the end of September. Some Trockenbeerenauslese was also possible, being harvested in mid-October. Smaragds here are at 12.5%’ (Richards Walford, 2010). | 2010 ‘Nikolaihof, being biodynamic, seems to suffer more significantly from reduced yields in years with difficult growing conditions. They are between 20 – 30% down on average for Riesling and Grüner and only harvested 50% of the normal Gelber Muskateller crop. Nikolaus admitted that they were worried after a very poor flowering and a difficult summer that brought rain and little sunshine. However, three weeks of good weather prior to harvesting helped get things back on track and the few grapes on the vines were able to ripen quickly. They harvested on 16th September and vinified as normal. Nikolaus described it as a straightforward vintage that ended up suiting biodynamic producers. Interestingly Nikolaus stated that the 2010 wines didn’t suffer at all from bottle shock, which is quite unusual. They have also released 2005 Riesling Im Weingebirge Baumpresse this year – a wine made with a 320 year old press made from immense tree trunks, which they have restored for use,’ (Richards Walford, 2011).

Nikolaihof wine styleRoy Richards, a UK importer who worked with Nikolaihof estate for many years, told me (his office in Pickworth, Lincolnshire 03rd December 2003) he found ‘that when journalists write about the this area they don’t treat the Nikolaihof wines as seriously as they might, because the Nikolaihof wines are less obviously varietal than those of Pichler for example, and have a stronger, more earthy flavour, which personally I think suits both Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. The wines of Emmerich Knoll are quite mineral too, but they are not so intense, but they age well, as do those of Pichler but these are made in a much plumper, less mineral, richer, more ‘fät’ (obviously ripe) style than those of Nikolaihof.’

Wines

Chardonnay Smaragd Feinburgunder | 1997 13.0% alcohol. 4g/l residual sugar. MLF. Thick ripe peach, no new wood apparent but too hot-tasting compared to the Riesling, meaning extract (fatness) without the necessary backbone tasted during my only visit to the winery in the late 1990s.

Frühroter Veltliner (Malvasier) halbtrocken | 2002 ‘Could not resist this oddity,’ says Roy Richards (June 2003), ‘which is in fact Malvasia, fermented through to 13º, but with enough residual sugar to balance it. The nose is intensely aromatic, almost Muscat-like, with a creamy, powerful middle. Delicious, but unusual.’

Gelber Muskateller, Federspiel | 2005 ‘Young vines,’ says Roy Richards. ‘Classic elderflower and lychee bouquet, perhaps a dominance of the former. Exuberant exotic fruit and minerals on palate. Stunning, cannot not buy some,’ (Richards Walford, June 2006). 

Grüner Veltliner, HefeabzugThe name of this wine means simply, taken off its lees, the equivalent of a Muscadet “sur lie”. The Saahs family calls it an 11 am. wine. Typically shows aromas of spring flowers, asparagus, grapiness on the palate, white fruit, and an underlying suggestion of white pepper. | 2011 Hefeabzug Trocken 15-20,000 bottles. Creamy at RAW 2012.

Grüner Veltliner, ZwicklZwickl means ‘unfiltered’, usually in relation to beer rather than wine. | 2016 12% alcohol. 1 gramme per litre residual sugar. Nice youthful creaminess at Demeter Austria 2018.

Grüner Veltliner im WeingebirgeIm Weingebirge is located in Mautern. It is ‘reputedly the oldest vineyard in Western Europe. This 4.5 hectare (11.1 acres) site is a Nikolaihof monopole,’ (Richards Walford, 2012). The Saahs family took the name from a map dated 1712. Loess soils. Planted with Riesling (60%) and Grüner Veltliner (40%). ‘Grüner Veltliners from the Im Weingebirge vineyard in Mautern age on their lees in barrels (older wood only) to provide a creamy texture and bright light gold colours; the earliest picked styles labelled ‘Federspiel’ are bright, and complemented by later picked, duskier ‘Smaragd’ wines both dry, but peppery like acacia and full of authority,‘ (Biodynamic Wine (Mitchell Beazley, 2004) by Monty Waldin).

Grüner Veltliner im Weingebirge, Federspiel2005 ‘Spicy, honeyed nose. Explosively spicy palate. Concentrated and refreshing. No Smaragd made,’ (Richards Walford, June 2006). 2006 ‘White pepper, very pure and precise. Lively acidity. Stelvin. 12%,’ says Roy Richards (July 2007). | 2010 7 years in cask. Textured, rich, savoury at Demeter Austria 2018. | 2016 11.5% alcohol. 7 months in cask. Lovely acidity at Demeter Austria 2018.

Grüner Veltliner im Weingebirge, Smaragd | 2002 ‘Creamy-fruited nose, with a well balanced, ripe texture on the palate. Good minerality and acidity,’ (Richards Walford, 2003). | 2003 ‘Honeyed, earthy nose, this has great concentration and minerality. Rich, but very fresh with citrus fruit notes. Taut, but seductive,’ says Roy Richards (Richards Walford Austria Report 2003). | 2005 Not made. | 2006 ‘Extraordinary wine,’ says Roy Richards. ‘I kept going back to it: exotic, spicy fruit, reminiscent of 1er Cru Chassagne, perhaps from Morgeot, albeit with better acidity and no new oak. Strongly recommended. 13.5%,’ says Roy Richards (July 2007). | 2007 ’18 months in a large Fuder and was released in spring 2009. White pepper and almond blossom bouquet, it has a wonderful balance with white peach and redcurrant flavours. Very special,’ (Richards Walford, 2010). | 2008 ‘Rich, peachy bouquet, with herbal notes. This has a big presence in the mouth, whilst retaining tension and a lively edge. Peach fruit follows on the palate, with a lustrous texture all the way to the finish,’ (Richards Walford, 2010). | 2014 12.5% alcohol. 2.5 grammes per litre residual sugar. 24 months on wooden casks. Structured yellow fruit, dry-tasting but as if made from shrivelled berries at Demeter Austria 2018.

Grüner Veltliner, Vinotek1991 ‘This was raised for 15 years in a large foudre before being bottled in March. Not surprisingly, the nose is initially a little “planche”, with honey pushing through. The palate is more bread and butter pudding with remarkable minerality and energy. I subsequently tasted a bottle that had been open for 24 hours and found it both fresher and creamier,’ (Richards Walford, June 2006). 1993 12.5% alcohol. Aged in a 30hl vat until it was bottled in 2008.‘Very interesting, with a rich nose, which is reminiscent of armagnac. Spicy and perfumed in the mouth, with a clean, blossomy finish. This has been in large oak casks for 15 years,’ (Richards Walford, 2011).

Neuburger, BurggartenNeuburger is a crossing of Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) with Silvaner. | 2006 ‘Intensely peachy nose leads through to creamy palate. Wonderful balance. Delicious and interesting,’ says Roy Richards. ‘So you can probably wait to buy it from the bin end list! 12.5%,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2006’, Richards Walford Austria Report, July 2007). | 2008 ‘Bouquet of white fruits, very fresh. The palate is then slatey with a touch of green walnut on the finish,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2008 Down to the line’, Richards Walford Austria Report, June 2009). | 2009 ‘Stelvin. Smoky with blackcurrant leaf aromas and spicy notes. Racy and clean on the palate with good density of flavour,’ (Richards Walford 2010). | 2010 Stelvin. ‘Aromatic on the nose with herbaceous notes. Good density of flavour with a firm acidic backbone. Full bodied. More structure than the 2009, and without the usual blackcurrant leaf flavour. Some peach fruit. Fresh, nice balance,’ (Richards Walford, 2011).

Riesling, Baumpresse2005 ‘A developing, spicy nose with apple and quince fruit. Slightly nutty, with toffee and tobacco notes but fresh and mineral on the finish. Very interesting. Colour is pale considering its age. This wine has been maturing in large oak barrels for 5 years,’ (Richards Walford, 2011).

Riesling im Weingebirge |See above for details on the Im Weingebirge terroir. ‘Rieslings from Im Weingebirge show piercing fruit and structure. They are mouthwatering, lean but ripe with a powerful mineral element and fine balance, becoming honeyed with age without developing the coarse petrol-like tones found in some New World Rieslings, for example,’ (Biodynamic Wine (Mitchell Beazley, 2004) by Monty Waldin). | 1986 Riesling Im Weingebirge Spätlese 12.7% alcohol. Butterry Burgundian style at Demeter Austria 2018. | 1999 Riesling Im Weingebirge Jungfernlese ‘Off dry. This was pretty and mineral with limey fruit and good evolution. Bruised apple on the nose with a hint of popcorn. Long in the mouth, throwing off its puppy fat. Only 10.5% abv,’ (Richards Walford, 2011).

Riesling, Vom SteinVom Stein is located in Mautern. Roman site, terraces. 100% Riesling. | 2015 Pure, very clear fruit, prickle of carbon dioxide during my ‘Biodynamic Pioneers’ masterclass, VINCE wine show in Budapest 05th April 2018. 

Riesling, Vom Stein, Federspiel | ‘Riesling in the Vom Stein vineyard in Mautern occupies terraces first cut by the Romans. South-facing, stony sites such as these produce Riesling with tremendous extract and mouth-feel, even though the level of alcohol is a reasonable 11.5-12.5 degrees (some Austrian Rieslings can top fourteen degrees of alcohol), with barely a hint of sweetnees. The bulk of Nikolaihof’s Riesling vines in Vom Stein date from the late 1940s, when Reisling became popular once again in the Wachau. Only after three to five years do Vom Stein Rieslings begin to show their floral character of elder, daffodil, and lime blossom, with a silky, honeyed texture. You can only produce this style of Riesling with its complete absence of clumsy oiliness if the vines are absolutely content, with a root system as firm as a Roman legionnaire’s footprint,’ (Biodynamic Wine (Mitchell Beazley, 2004) by Monty Waldin, p337). | 2000 Firm, rich, clean, concentrated and elegant; lovely clear green fruit, lime and stone in 2002 (tasted with Laure Pagès on Wednesday February 27th 2002 in Garrat Road, Stamford. | 2001 Bottled in 2002. ‘Beautifully balanced; understated, rapier-like minerality, touch of sweetness, thirst-quenching,’Richards Walford Austria Report June 2002. | Lovely acidity at Demeter Austria 2018. | 2002 ‘Yeasty nose, apricot and aniseed, lively, juicy, a very pretty, clean-fruited,’ (Richards Walford 2002 Austria Vintage Report, June 2003) | 2004 ‘Floral, lime blossom bouquet, seems finer and more gentle than usual. Exudes freshness, wellbeing. 11.5%,’ (Richards Walford, June 2005). | 2005 ‘Fresh, lime, but above all stony and mineral, High concentration and rapier acidity. Long. Stelvin 12%.,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2006’, Richards Walford Austria Report, July 2007). | 2016 12.0% alcohol. 2 grammes per litre residual sugar. Very youthful fruit at Demeter Austria 2018.

Riesling, Vom Stein, Smaragd1986 5-6g/l residual sugar. Silk and honey, no oiliness, good structure, positive evolution, floral blossom texture. | 1995 12.5% alcohol. Labelled as “Aus Okologischer anbau.’ Broad silky ripe fruit; powerful, austere but ripe (tasted in Burghley Road on Saturday 15th May 2004, bottle given to me on 15th May 2004 by Roy Richards after I drove him from The George in Stamford to his house in Pickworth as he had a bad shoulder). | 1997 12.5% alcohol, very appealing style of Riesling, waves of pineapple and citrus lime. | 2000 Very firm and mineral; intense; far too young when tasted in 2002 with Laure in Burghley Road (August 13th 2002). | 2002 ‘Delightful, pot-pourri bouquet, with beautiful poise and elegance on the palate. Quite the most splendid wine of the tasting, with a precision that is simply mind-boggling considering the difficult climate conditions of the vintage,’ (Richards Walford 2002 Austria Vintage Report, June 2003). | 2003 ‘Apricot and peach, eucalyptus even,’ (Richards Walford, June 2005). 2005 ‘The Saahs tend to release their Smaragd with more cask age, so this is a new release,’ says Roy Richards. ‘Like a great Grand Cru Chablis, the minerality dominates the fruit. This is powerful and austere, almost monastic in its strictness. A huge and impressive wine. 13%.alc,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2006’, Richards Walford Austria Report, July 2007. | 2006 ‘No longer primary, the nose is soft and limey, absolutely textbook with a lovely texture, austere but broad,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2007, A dip in the curve’, (Richards Walford, June 2008.) | 2009 ‘Very pretty nose of lime, apricot and blossom. Tense and assured on the palate but ripe acidity carries lots of fruit. Great purity without any austerity. Impressive, mineral finish,’ (Richards Walford, 2010). | 2014 12.5% alcohol. 3.5 grammes per litre residual sugar. 30 months in cask. Uplifting pure fruit,’ (Demeter Austria tasting, Vienna 26th February 2018.

Steiner Hund, Riesling | The Steiner Hund vineyard occupies a south-facing hill site in the village of Stein on the Danube’s north bank near Krems, just inside the Kremstal and therefore outside the Wachau region (both regions are part of Niederösterreich or Lower Austria). This means Steiner Hund wines cannot be classified according to the Wachau system of Federspiel, Smaragd (or what might be termed a Reserve elsewhere) and Steinfeder‘This vineyard is next to the Knoll’s Pfaffenberg,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2008 Down to the line’, Richards Walford Austria Report, June 2009). Steiner Hund was named during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when the site was worth or exchanged for nothing more than a dog by its once wealthy, subsequently impoverished owner, or was a ‘dog’ to work. The vineyard surveys the village of Stein (or ‘stone’) from steep terraces whose meagre loess and loam topsoils cover primary (conglomerate) rock (‘urgestein’) with a layer of humus-rich earth on top. The site must be worked entirely by hand. Christine Saahs calls a young Steiner Hund Riesling the “difficult child”, and it is as unforgiving to taste it is to farm, needing a decade or two to show its powerful fruit but delicate minerality. In short, a wine of contrasts, but of inherent authenticity; for Steiner Hund Riesling comes, after all, from a vineyard whose shape was rigidly defined by the Romans but now farmed using a labour-intensive system associated with a Greek goddess, Demeter. Steiner Hund Riesling is said to go well with eel, or smoked salmon.

Steiner Hund Riesling Spätlese Trocken | 1991 Incredibly powerful palate when tasted during my 1998 visit to the estate, and exhibits why Christine calls Steiner Hund the “difficult child”. | 2001  ‘Bright green gold, spicy aromatics, good intensity, clean and clear, soft palate, rich, dry, spicy but still some restrained mineral tones, very well made. 90 points,’ I wrote when tasted blind at the Wine magazine biodynamic tasting in London, 23rd April 2003. | 2005 ‘Spicy nose, sherbert and citrus fruit, this has a very serious mineral texture. It fills the mouth, but remains elegant,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2008 Down to the line’, Richards Walford Austria Report, June 2009).

Steiner Hund Riesling Reserve | 2001 ‘A pure, concentrated yet discreet bouquet of slate and lime, followed by an intense, creamy palate with amazing consistency of texture,’(Richards Walford Austria Report June 2002). | 2002 Not made. | 2003 ‘The Steiner Hund is uncompromisingly mineral, very dry with a tendency toward the Alsatian “pétrole” style. Remarkable,’ (Richards Walford, June 2005). | 2004 ‘Beautiful tension: a lingering bouquet both pungent and wistful, a fruit both gentle and steely. Akin to Grand Cru Chablis, but sadly rather more expensive,’ (Roy Richards in ‘Austria 2007 A dip in the curve’ Richards Walford Austria Report, June 2008). | 2005 Lime and cream, starting to open at RAW 2012). | 2006 ‘Aromas of anise and petrol with a distinct minerality. Brimming with energy on the palate, intense lime and lots of acidity. The palate is harmonious, with astonishing length. Lots more to come with time,’ (Richards Walford, 2010). | 2007  ‘Floral, with a cool, elegant nose. The minerality shines through, and this has a lively palate with a spicy parma violet finish. Open and constantly changing. A very pure and a lovely expression of Riesling,’ (Philippa Saunders in ‘Austria 2010 A Question of balance’, Richards Walford Austria Report, June 2011). | 2014 12.5% alcohol. 30 months in cask. Very complete wine (Demeter Austria tasting, Vienna 26th February 2018).

Riesling, Steinriesler1999 ‘Bottled in March 2010 after ten and a half years in large oak cask. It is effectively a Federspiel at 11.2% (11% on the label) and is a triumphant endorsement of their philosophy,’ (Richards Walford, 2010). | 2002 Bottled in 2015. 

Riesling Vinotek1990 ‘This extraordinary wine from a famous vintage was bottled in April 2004 after 14 years in an 80 hectolitre oak foudre. Unbelievable freshness, lime allied to hydrocarbure on nose; the palate is gentle and understated, effortlessly classy,’ says Roy Richards (Richards Walford 2003, Austria Report.)’ | 2001 12.5% 16 years in cask. From Weingebirge. Open knit, lovely subtle acidity at Demeter Austria 2018.

Restaurant

The ‘Weinstube Nikolaihof’ [NB: not a ‘buschenschank’] is open from the beginning of May until mid-November on Wednesday, Sunday and Friday from 1700-2300, and on Saturday from midday to 2300. It serves local specialities (bread is baked on site) and is one of the area’s top restaurants.

Contact

Nikolaigasse 3, A-3512 Mautern, Austria

Tel+43 (0)2732.82901 | www.nikolaihof.at

Bibliography

Demeter Austria 2018, tasting in Vienna 26th February.

RAW 2012, wine fair, London, Monday 21st May.

Richards Walford (various vintage reports).

Oz Clarke, Oz Clarke Wine A-Z (Pavilion, 2015), p191.