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NIKOLAIHOF: THE CURRENT COLLECTION




This will be the first time I’ve gotten to taste these wines at home, as a previous shipment was lost.  Thus a little intro may be in order, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the estate.

 

Briefly, it is the oldest winery in Europe, the first bio-dynamic estate to be Demeter-certified (all the way back in 1971, when I was a high school senior copying Alvin Lee solos in the band I played in), and was “natural” before natural was natural.

 

When I first encountered the estate back in the early 90s, the conventional rap on them was, “They’re uneven, but when you get a good one, watch out!” Happily for me, when I started to represent them they were willing to let me cherry-pick those “good ones,” and over the years it entailed less and less cherry picking, as all the wines were good.

 

They were (and remain) good in a particular way, one which is awkward to put into words without recourse to imagery that can seem vague. Let me put it this way: If you understand the idea of “umami” as a taste that doesn’t present as a “flavor” or flavors but rather as an enveloping savor – hold that thought. Most Nikolaihof wines are atmospheres you enter rather than discrete elements that come at you. They make you think of the cellar but without the funk that often exists in cellars; they have an indirect kind of verdigris burnish that offers images of antiquity. They do not land from the sky but rather rise from the underground. And they can be profound but irreducible.

 

At times you’ll get a wine that’s loaded with affect and with a visible complexity. These are the clear and tangible masterpieces. More often you’ll get something para-sensual and hypnotic, in which case you end up describing the nature of the spell and then (if at all possible) the taste of the wines. The wines are almost never what we’d call powerful, but they are always what I like to call “wholesome.”

 

The golden age of the winery seemed to be around the time that (son) Nikki Saahs was taking the reins from his father, when they arrived at a consistency that had eluded them before. My colleagues and I would remark “Do you even remember the last time you had a dud from Nikolaihof?”

 

But in the last several years that began to weaken, and some of the wines – too many, to be candid – showed either curious notes (e.g. the sous-voile character of many Jura wines) or actual off-notes (various aldehydic or bacteriological faults) and one wondered what was up. I could still cherry-pick, which was a relief, but I started to approach warily, and this was seriously painful for me, because I had learned to revere the wines and to love the family.

 

This year both the press-house and cellar will be vastly enlarged (thanks to the purchase of a nice big building across the street), and though I don’t know this for sure, it’s plausible to infer that the inconsistencies of recent years were caused by unsustainable logistics – in other words, not enough space. Not enough space, and not enough casks.

 




A few everyday wines are made in tank, but Nikolaihof is crucially a place where wines are made in big old casks, and where they are sometimes aged forever in those casks, so that there are always actual old vintages available. (One such wine was the first Austrian wine to receive “100 points” in the Wine Advocate, as it happened.)

I speed tasted at the estate in May 2023 and was cautiously optimistic about developments. I sat to taste them at home this week in a mood I might described as “hopeful and with open eyes.”

 

The wines have been very good, especially the Rieslings, which were sometimes stellar.

 

And this leads into a thicket of thought and speculation. Insofar as my deliberate tasting tempo encourages the wines to inhale oxygen, and insofar as they seem to always benefit from it, my first question is “Fine, but how does the average drinker deal with them?” That is, if one must give the wines time enough to fully reveal themselves, isn’t this impractical?  I mean, as a rule we prefer to open, pour and enjoy. But many of these wines were introverted to the point of aloofness when I opened them, only to blossom over the minutes, and especially over the hours, and insanely dramatically over the days.

 

Obviously you can decant them, but now you have a task you have to perform, plus there’s the matter of maintaining a good serving temperature once the wine’s in a carafe. Don’t get me wrong – the wines are worth it, but I always feel a small dismay when there’s a lot of bother around managing a bottle of wine. That’s just me, probably.

 

For the “reviewer” this is a serious challenge. Every single wine, all twelve of them, were showing anything between 60-90% of their potential quality when freshly opened and poured. I have a lot of respect for reviewers, but can they really allow for something like this? In my own notes I’ll take you along as a ride the developments of these wines, such that you will often find me much more enthusiastic in my final paragraphs than in my opening one.

 

That is because the salient characteristic of a Nikolaihof wine is that it enacts a process in which flavors develop, until a sort of apotheosis is attained and the wine, in effect, arrives. I find this amazing, and I am quite moved by both the wines and also the community of wines I glimpse when tasting them together. And yet when I consider simply drinking them (and they plead for that), I find I want to remove all distractions, and how often do we get to do that? I’m a geezer of leisure and even I have a hard time making space for reverie, and these are wines of reverie above all.

 

Finally, it bears mentioning that some things that presented as “flaws” were fleeting, and were ameliorated by oxygen, and I have mixed feelings about this too. I do think that a bottle of wine, as a consumer good, ought to be useful immediately, and I think it’s unfriendly (and often bogus) when someone essentially says “Yeah, my wine smells like dog shit when you first open it but it's great the next day!” The (barely) questionable wines from Nikolaihof only needed a few minutes to shrug off whatever ailed them, but even so, it runs afoul of a prejudice I have that a bottle of wine should be – at least minimally – correct. Reasonable people may differ on this point….

 

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