In November I travelled from Vienna to Krems and to the village of Mautern in the Wachau. I had come to visit with Nikolaus Saahs and to record a podcast interview. Nikolaihof is one of the most admired wine estates of the Wachau and the Wachau is, in turn, the most famed wine region of Austria. So I was excited to have the chance to see Nikolaus (or Niki) and talk about his wines. What I found when I arrived though was a much more profound and enchanting story than I expected. Yes, this a place that makes magical Wachau wines. But there is a greater context. Nikolaihof sits at the very epicentre of thousands of years of human (and wine) history spanning from the pre-Roman Celts to modern times.
Nikolaihof At The Confluence Of History In The Wachau
For many reasons Nikolaihof creates the most compelling base from which to explore the Wachau. Nikolaihof not only connects the wine visitor with the viticultural heritage of the Wachau but also the entire historical context of the region. From the religious to the viticultural to the military to the touristic, Nikolaihof sits on hallowed ground. There are mysteries and deep threads of human history to be discovered. And the fascination of peeking back into time here is not just for the visitor. There are a running series of archaeological projects that continue to probe the mysteries and the history of the place.
The Nikolaihof winery complex is a series of connected structures, chapels, walls and cellars. It is right in the middle of the village of Mautern. The building surrounds a courtyard with a massive Linden tree that shades the winery grounds. The tree is one of many that were planted in Austria in 1908 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Emperor Franz Josef ascending to the throne. Wine drinking guests can enjoy the atmosphere and the shelter at tables spread under the tree. But the garden has something more. There is an intriguing, ancient Celtic religious site under our feet. One of the things that is known about the Nikolaihof is that the Celts found this place to have power and spiritual importance before the Romans and, later, the Christians arrived. They weren’t the last to consider this site as profoundly special.
What The Celts Knew and What The Celts Grew
The Celts are a fascinating people. The Celtic tradition has deep and extensive roots not only in the British and Irish islands but also through Spain, France, Germany and Austria. In fact it is believed that the Celtic race spread originated in the area of the Danube about 1300 BC.
You can hear more about the centuries-long conquest battle between the Romans and the Celts of France on our podcast, the Rhone Wine Primer.
In the area around Krems and Mautern, the Celts established settlements and a culture that included wine growing and wine making. They lived here for hundreds of years and identified the location of the Nikolaihof as having profound energy. They established a religious centre here and anthropologists have a good idea of what rites were practiced. Nevertheless, the exact nature of their rituals at Nikolaihof remain something to be pondered as you sip your wine under the Linden tree. As you sip and ponder, remember that the Celts were making wine here before the Romans ever arrived. The first of the magical Wachau wines.
The Roman Conquest – War And Wine
The Romans came next, conquering group after group as they expanded in all directions from Rome. The Romans were motivated to build on the Nikolaihof site to establish a dominant physical symbol of their mastery over the people’s existing religious centre. But even more important, from a military perspective, is the strategic location of the place. The modern day towns of Krems and Mautern straddle the Danube. Here the valley becomes constricted by cliffs – so this is a highly strategic place to control river traffic and defend military actions. In fact the most important Roman garrison in the region was at Nikolaihof and the Roman Danube fleet was based on the banks below.
As Niki Saahs points out, the Romans would have immediately recognized the importance of the local wine production for their own sustenance. The centurions needed beer and wine as part of their daily ration. Building on the existing vineyards and winemaking capabilities of the Celts, the Romans increased and improved wine production. Over time they planted more vines along the Danube’s hilly flanks. At Nikolaihof they built strong walls, probably as the headquarters for the garrison. They also build the wine cellars. The original stones and Roman concrete survive intact. These cellars house the great wooden casks for aging Nikolaihof wines and the 350 year old press that Nikki and the winemaking team still use for making some of the estate’s wine. See Nikolaihof’s 350 year-old wooden press in action.
The Patient Labour Of The Ages
Eventually the Roman empire retreated from this place. The Romans fought wars of attrition on many fronts during the 500 or so years AD. It was the Bavarians who eventually pushed them out of this part of Austria. The Roman Empire crumbled and the church and the monks took a foothold here. Over the next 1500 years the church brethren and the good people of the valley nurtured and improved the wine growing of the Wachau. Beautiful in its raw physical form, the Wachau became adorned with churches, villages, baroque castles and of course dramatically pretty vineyards. Wine’s importance continued to grow apace and the precipitous cliffs of the Wachau were soon populated with vineyard terraces. Small plots were carved out of impossible places where treacherous, dizzying sheer rock faces created a risk for the vineyard worker.
Thank God for those monks who preserved the wine heritage of the Wachau through the long, dark centuries. Wine drinkers everywhere owe them a debt of gratitude for their earnest work. The Wachau is by no means the only great winemaking region which was kept alive by monks. The wines of Spain, France, Germany and Italy (and the beer of Belgium!) have all survived thanks to the patient, industrious and thirsty brethren of the Church.
The Theory Of Energy
Undoubtedly the Nikolaihof sits at a confluence of religious, military and viticultural history. But is there indeed some profound spiritual energy in this place that emanates from the ground and fills the walls, the halls, the chapel and the cellars? Is there something magic in these magical Wachau wines? Among the investigations that have taken place here there have even been visits by “experts” who specialize in these mystical issues. These people apparently have a certain capability to divine the unseen, subsurface character of a location. Like water witchers who practice the ancient pseudo-science of dowsing and who can sense water when looking for a site to dig a well, these experts confirm the site in the courtyard as having some energetic nature. Perhaps – who knows – the energy infuses the wine with special character. The wines are certainly marked by their own distinct flavours and aromas.
Wine Touring In The Wachau
There are many great wines in this region. Nikolaihof may have a claim as the spiritual centre of winemaking in the Wachau. And it is definitely able to claim that it is the only wine estate to have one of its wines awarded 100 points by Robert Parker. In fact it is the only Austrian wine to receive that Wine Advocate recognition. But there are wine estates of great power dotted all along the Danube in the Wachau.
Domäne Wachau. Nearby in Dürnstein is Domäne Wachau, a maker of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner wines of incredible elegance, depth and structure. Sampling through their range of single vineyard wines overlaid by the three quality levels of Steinfeder, Federspiel, Smaragd is an absolute masterclass in the way winemaking and individual vineyards can make ethereal but extraordinary differences in wine sensory impact.
In fact Dürnstein is a winemaking mecca and is home to several celebrated wineries including Weingut Alzinger and Weingut Emmerich Knoll as well as Weingut F.X. Pichler. Just down the road a few minutes in Wösendorf you will find the famous Weingut Rudi Pichler. This is Grüner Veltliner and Riesling country. The two varieties make a wonderful compare-and-contrast opportunity. They are both very attractive wine grapes, with many similarities but also with fascinating finely-etched differences. If Riesling truly is the king of wine grapes then Grüner Veltliner is its playful and deliciously insubordinate younger brother. Wine touring here allows you to not only taste the distinct differences between these two great wines but also to physically see how they are grown on different levels of the Wachau’s impossibly pretty cliffs. Grüner Veltliner tends to be grown lower down and Riesling in the higher, rockier places. There is no prettier place on earth to absorb these wine lessons. And both grapes make magical Wachau wines.
For lots of information on the Wachau wine region visit the Vinea Wachau website. This is the winemakers association that provides quality oversight.
The Best View Is From The Water – Or From Two Wheels
In order to really see the beauty of the Wachau region you need to get out of the car and onto the Danube. Or onto the cycling routes along the water. This is also true in order to really see how the vines grow and how the Wachau’s dramatic slopes and precipices give the wine its character. Make sure you schedule in a river cruise from Krems to Melk or a bicycle ride along the same route. Or both! Here are some places to plan this part of your trip.
For Danube River Cruises
Check out DDSG Blue Danube to book a classic Danube cruise from Krems to Melk
Brandner also has a variety of great river cruises through the Wachau
For Bicycle Tours Through The Wachau
Max from Vienna Explorer puts together very good Wachau cycling packages
Tours4 Fun has good cycle touring packages.
Places To Stay Etc
Of course the best place is to stay is at the Nikolaihof itself! Visit the Nikolaihof Guesthouse at www.nikolaihof.at
In Krems the Arte Hotel Krems is a fantastic modern hotel choice. I visited in the off-season and stayed here because the Nikolaihof Guesthouse was closed.
The best burger in Austria might just be at the next door 2Stein restaurant. Also take in the very striking new State Museum of Lower Austria just down the street (the Landesgalerie Niederösterreich).