Nikolaihof, with vineyards in Austria’s famed Wachau and Kremstal wine regions, has an extraordinary history. In fact, we can’t think of any other winery in the world which is home to a 1,800-year-old building. Not only is the winery rich in ancient history, it’s also home to vines that represent an important aspect of modern history and indeed modern life — the emergence of biodynamic farming. One of the first wineries to adopt this method of holistic agriculture, the vines and land here have been treated biodynamically since 1971 (before biodynamic certification even existed).
Today, it is run by Niki Saahs and his partner Katharina Salzgeber, representing the fourth generation of the Saahs family, and hence the modern chapter of Nikolaihof. Together, they are working to fine-tune their farming and cellar techniques, to help the vines withstand climatic hurdles and to bring the already delightful wines to new heights.
Nikolaihof demonstrates that history can be respected while simultaneously embracing a forward-thinking mindset. Together, Niki and Katharina bridge the past and the future in the most respectful and sensitive manner.
LITTLEWINE spoke to Niki and Katharina for this article in August 2022.
Meet Niki and Katharina
This family’s history at the winery begins when Niki Saahs’ great-grandfather purchased the property in 1894. However, its history dates much further back than this — to the time of the Roman Empire. In fact, it is the oldest winery in Austria. Niki explains,
“The building is about 1,800 years old. It was a Roman army base. During that time, every Roman soldier had the right to two litres of wine a day. So, that's why they planted vines wherever they could, and made wine. Part of our wine cellar is from that time, which is pretty cool!”
After the Romans left (by the mid-500s, the Bavarians controlled the territory between the eastern Alps and the Wienerwald region), they don’t have any documentation of what occurred here until 777. In that year, a monastery, Kremsmünster, located around 200km away, received the property as a gift. Then, it was further given as a present to the St. Nikola Abbey in Passau, in Bavaria, in 985.
“Since that year, the name Nikolaihof has existed for this property, meaning the house of Nikolai. That was 11 years before Austria was founded in 996!”
It goes without saying that it’s rather incredible to live on a property that is older than the very country in which it is found today. Niki continues,
“We know that the monks needed a lot of wine. So, since that time, it really became a winery. But of course, it was more than a winery, because it was a monastery. Bishop Pilgrim of Passau was living here, a very famous bishop at that time. It was a very important place; St Steven’s cathedral in Vienna was founded here; the first document was signed here and the church of Vienna belonged to Nikolaihof. But then they built a lot of monasteries in the area, and Nikolaihof became too small for the church, so for a couple of hundred years it was used just as a farming and agricultural place. Then, in 1803, the church sold the property, and my family had the chance to buy it in 1894. Since then it has belonged to the Saas family.”
Niki explains that his great-grandfather had initially bought it to be a house in the countryside, where his kids could play, but very quickly realized that he needed to engage in farming and growing vines as there was a lot of land to tend. He had previous experience in farming, but for a company he didn’t own, so this was his chance to make it a family business. Initially, Nikolaihof was a typical mixed agriculture farm, with various animals as well as crops and vineyards. However, during the Russian occupation after the second world war, the Russians took the last animals. After that, the domaine became focused solely on crops and vines. Then, when Niki’s parents — Nikolaus and Christine Saahs — took over in 1960, they focused solely on wine.
“We have some farmland, but we rent it out to another organic farmer. We’ll see, maybe we’ll start with some cows, but we’re still in the planning phase!”
They also have 100 apricot trees (the Wachau is also famous for apricots), from which they make marmalade and apricot schnapps.
Niki took over from his parents in 2005 and was joined full-time by Katharina in 2021. Still very much a family business, together they juggle every aspect of the winery. Katharina, having worked previously at the Jurtschitsch winery, is focusing her energy on several experiments in the vineyards and cellar.
When Nikolaus and Christine were at the helm of the domaine, Christine discovered the world of biodynamics through a family friend, who was an anthroposophic doctor. She taught Christine everything she knew about biodynamics, in particular regarding the moon phases and the preparations. Niki says,
“Immediately my mother said, yes, that's the right thing for us. They were certain that they wanted to work in this way, and so since 1971 we have been working biodynamically. Domaine Eugène Meyer, in Alsace, began in 1969, so together we were the first two biodynamic wineries in the world.”
We ask how it feels to inherit vineyards that have been worked with the greatest respect for nature for such a long time. Niki says,
“Well, it’s a normal thing for me as this is what I’ve always known. There wasn’t a lot to change when we took over winery, because so much had been done already. One generation has already worked biodynamically, so the soil is healthy, and the vineyards are looking great. The only thing that we can do is to focus on the details, such as doing a better leaf management, soil management… like adjusting some little screws here and there to make the quality even better.”
Business has also improved, meaning they are able to invest more into their farming:
“We have more resources now. When my parents took over, the economy was a disaster. It was 1960, the Russian army had left the area six years before, and there was absolutely no money. There was no tourism, no good market for wine. Most wine was still sold in casks back then, not yet in bottles. They had to deal with a lot of basic problems, like how to pay the bills. Luckily now, when I need a new machine in the vineyard, of course I think about it, but I can afford to buy it. We have more possibilities, and of course also more human resources. We have six or seven people working with us during the growing season, whereas my father worked with just two.”
“I think that the vine is a plant which quickly shows what it likes and what it doesn't like. I think you can see the first results of biodynamics very quickly in a vineyard, but to see the effects really take root in the vineyard, that takes a long time. I have spent time in Alsace, where there are a lot of winemakers who have been working biodynamically for quite some time. I was interested in seeing the vineyards and in listening to the winemakers' experiences, to understand their work and practices. I heard a lot of comments that basically said, you must do it for a certain period of time until you can really tell the difference and see a good result. There are some small reactions which appear more or less immediately, or after the first year of treatment. But seeing the ensemble of how the biodiversity in the vineyard affects the vine, and how it affects the balance of the plants that you have there, that is what takes longer. We're lucky to have a very solid foundation, that Niki’s parents left for us, that we can build upon. It gives us the ability to focus on the details. That’s what makes working here super interesting!”
“We want to maintain and achieve a higher quality in the vine or the wine. The idea is also to really help the plants tackle things like climate change. We work to help the vines to keep or maintain a balance. For me, personally, this is actually what nature is focusing on. When there is an imbalance, nature works to get rid of that imbalance, and to put everything back into order again. Biodynamics actually focuses on the same thing, while including the human being in this very natural process.”
Additionally, they have been adapting their pruning methods to the gentle pruning school of thought pioneered by Simonit & Sirch, but it is too early in their journey to be able to quantify results.
They are also experimenting with cover crops. Katharina says,
“It seems that Grüner Veltliner is a variety which has a slight tendency to over-produce. We are trying to work with wheat and buckwheat as a cover crop, to see whether we can tackle this overproduction by creating a sort of competition, combined with a different pruning approach. We hope that we can achieve some results by the end of the year. It looks quite promising right now, but we can’t count anything as a result just yet.”
They are fortunate to work with some very old massal selection vines that date back to the time that Niki’s parents first took over. We ask whether they think these vines create wines with a different expression, whether they notice any differences in general between wines made from varying clonal selections, or whether the differences are more related to site. Niki says,
“I think it’s not necessarily this or that, but the elements altogether. But, here in particular we have these extremely different soil types on either side of the Danube River. For example, with the Steiner Hund vineyard (in the Kremstal) you have just 20-50cm of topsoil and then it’s primary rock. Riesling is very special there. Whereas on this side of the river (in the Wachau), we have loess soils, where the roots can go very deep down, and there’s always enough food and water. So stylistically the wines are very different.”
Katharina smiles as she comments,
“I'm not supposed to say this as a winemaker, but I think what’s even more important than the soil and the climate itself is that you — as a winemaker — are good enough to choose the right grape variety, on the right rootstock, for that particular site. That includes the exposition, the soil, the elevation, etc. I think that in order to work with the place itself, you must know it really well. And then you must be lucky enough to find the right combination of plants and soil that work together. You can have the best plants on the best soil, but if they don't work together, you’ll never be able to produce a wine that tells a story about where it comes from. That’s crucial for me.”
She thinks for a while before adding,
“It’s hard to put into words, because there's a factor that you can't really grasp, which is always linked to the winemaker. It's the personality… it's that gut feeling about the decisions you take when it comes to choices in the vineyard. What do you do… do you do it? Do you not do it? This isn’t something you can learn from a book, or from any school. This is something you develop by gut feeling. And you must have experienced a certain number of vintages in order to be able to take a decision based on your experience. At the moment, for me, it's still a fact-finding mission. I'm still finding out how the vines react, how the grapes react and how the vineyards react to what I do. You need a few years’ experience to really get into that flow. For me, a big part of terroir is doing the right thing at the right point in time, with the right intention.”
We ask if much has changed in terms of their cellar practices since taking over. Katharina says,
“Not much has changed. As we’re Demeter (biodynamic) certified, we’re not allowed to do much in the cellar. When interns come to work with us for harvest, of course they’re usually super interested in what's happening in the cellar. They turn out to be bored rather quickly because nothing really happens! They do the same thing every day. They rack the must that has sedimented overnight, they put the wine into tanks or barrels for fermentation, and then they wait until the wine starts to ferment. Since I’ve been here, we also look at how the fermentation works by measuring the sugar levels from time to time. But that's it. Then, at some point in time, fermentation is done, and we rack and blend. Some wines are fined with bentonite, others aren't, then some are filtered and then there's the bottling. So, it’s super boring and not spectacular at all!”
We laugh together. They are being modest. Perhaps the winemaking process is simple, but when you taste a Nikolaihof wine, you realise that their methods are kept as basic as possible to allow the fruit and vineyard to speak to you without any background noise.
Additionally, their decisions around ageing also impact the wine; some wines age for over ten years until Niki and Katharina deem them to be showing their site in the best way. We can’t imagine the patience that must entail.
In order to better understand the vineyards, Katharina is also carrying out a host of microvinifications in various small vessels. She says,
“Like I mentioned, I'm still on that fact-finding mission. I try to understand factors such as the harvest date, so I do very small batches — of 300L or so — in order to understand how the vineyard is tasting at a certain time. Now that there’s two of us, it’s a bit easier to do these things. Before I came, Niki was on his own, responsible for everything — also for things like if the garden needs an adjustment in water supply, taking customers on tours through the cellar, helping our tractor driver with a new machine, etc etc. There's a lot of different responsibilities, and a lot to do. It’s much easier if there’s two! We don’t have a winemaker, so we really do everything ourselves.”
They also have a project that they began initially just for themselves – they fondly call it a ‘lab project’ — but which ended up developing into a new cuvée, named Semicolon. Katharina tells us the story:
“In 2018, over a few glasses of wine (Niki interjects – ‘a few bottles’), we were discussing the challenges of being a winemaker. We were talking about what it’s like to grow up in a winery, and to take on this responsibility when you’re at a certain age. Niki has basically been born into this environment, whereas I’m not a winemaker by birth.”
She explains that she had originally studied tourism management and leisure and had worked in communications. Later, she decided to do a drastic 180 and pursue a career in winemaking.
“They’re very different journeys, but in the end, we agreed on the fact that once you’ve been doing this for a while, you tend to get a little bit lazy, and probably also a little bit bored, as you always know what the result will be. For example, at Jurtschitch, when I received the grapes from the Heiligenstein vineyard, I knew exactly what I had to do with them, because I knew what the end result should be. For Niki, it was the same — he knew what a wine should become, and hence he treated the grapes in a particular way.”
We nod. It’s like a chef who has perfected a certain dish, but who isn’t creating new ones. Katharina adds,
“You miss out on a lot of potential when you do everything like that. Potential of the grape variety, and your own creative potential. At some point there is a recipe, and you just work with that recipe. You don’t even really realize it because it becomes so normal; it’s what you're always doing. That's when we decided to take a grape variety that neither of us particularly liked, Gewürztraminer. We decided to treat it differently, starting with the harvest date. We picked the grapes earlier than Niki usually would for the variety. Then, we fermented the wine on the skins, racked it into used wooden barrels, and stored the wine there for about ten months. Then, we bottled it without stabilization, no sulfites, no filtration. The idea was to do at least five vintages and see what happens to the wine. There was an immediate impression — an immediate picture. Gewürztraminer showed us some of its potential, as it tasted completely different to a classic Gewürztraminer produced in the area. When it comes to the variety’s aromatic potential, there’s a lot of space between the two ends of the spectrum that you can make use of.”
They were also curious to see how the wine would develop without fining, filtering or sulfites. In spring 2019, after a few months in the barrel, they tasted it with some friends.
“They said, wow, this is cool. It’s really animating. We told them that it was actually just a 300L project which we weren’t planning on bottling… we’d keep some bottles and blend the rest into another wine. They told us, no, you can’t do that! You have to bottle it. So, the project became a wine.”
We ask them what they hope to ultimately achieve in wine… whether in Semicolon, a more classic cuvée, or when drinking a bottle made by another winemaker. Katharina says,
“For me, no matter what the situation is, there is one aspect that’s always important. It must be a wine that makes me want to pour another glass. Then, it depends on my mood. When I’m in a good mood for tasting, I'm looking for questions that the wine asks me. That might sound weird, but I prefer wines which hide something at first… wines that take time to taste, which open up more and more, where there’s a lot to discover in the glass. A wine that raises questions in my head that I can tackle while I'm drinking it. But I'm not in that mood every day. Sometimes it's enough to just have a wine that makes me want to pour another glass for myself. And that’s fine!”
“There’s a difference between drinking and tasting. Sometimes I just want to drink with friends, I don't necessarily want to think about the wine. So yes, I also think it’s important that a wine makes you feel like having another glass. And the wine should bring you a lot of energy, not take energy away. Sometimes when you have a glass of wine, you don’t feel good the next day. That’s horrible. I think you should feel good after a few glasses of wine! And it should be drinkable. It makes no sense to have a wine and say, wow it smells fantastic, it tastes so good, but I don’t want to drink a second glass. Then, it’s not a good wine.”
Although a simple notion, we couldn’t agree more. It’s the bottles that are emptied first that bring the most joy. And it’s safe to say that a bottle of Nikolaihof is always one of these bottles; pouring one of their wines for friends never ceases to make people’s eyes light up.