During a recent stop over in Baden-Baden, I had time to visit only one winery. The wine region Baden is mainly known for Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder in German. It is also known as the hottest wine region of Germany. Everything is relative of course if you think of summers in the south of Europe, but still, there is a clear difference between the Spätburgunders of the Ahr, situated further north, and those of Baden, the latter being richer and more full-bodied. Not being a huge fan of big and bold wines, I looked for wine makers who dare to go off the beaten track. When I read about Sven Nieger, I knew that he was my man.
Sven Nieger is a relative newcomer in Baden. He only started in 2010 and did not have the advantage of being born in a family of winemakers. He did, however, Go to the Geisenheim institute and worked in other wineries in Germany and New-Zealand before he started on his own. When he came back to Baden, he had to start from scratch, having no land and no winery. Nieger was able to buy vineyards, amongst which three Grosse Gewächse (grand cru), from older colleagues who had no successors and sold off their lands. He showed me a few pictures of the early days, when he was literally making garage wine. He now has a new space with more professional facilities. “But it was more fun working in the garage”, he laughed.
Despite Baden being a red wine region, Nieger focuses on riesling. “Many people don’t like riesling because it’s too sour, but I want to prove that riesling can also be a wine they like”. That is also why he doesn’t mention the grape on his labels. He wants people to judge the wine without any prejudices they might have about riesling. I told him I’m surprised that he is confronted with such opinions on riesling, the grape after all being the nec plus ultra for certain wine drinkers. “We are in Baden”, he reminded me. “People here are used to wines that are round, creamy, and more full-bodied”. And this is also the second reason why he has rather unconventional labels. The 2014 vintage was not an easy one, producing wines with very high acidity, his rieslings fetching 9g/l instead of the 5,5-6g/l he has in other years. We tasted the Underdog 2014 and indeed the acidity here was high, but not higher than you’d expect in riesling. And then there is Nieger’s rosé : it is bone dry! Again not very much in the tradition of Baden’s wines. The committee judging the region’s wines on their typicity didn’t think much of Nieger’s wines. Eight times he had to send in a bottle. Not wanting to play that game anymore, Nieger decided from then on to declare his wines as Badischer Landwein. And that was the end of that. And of his ambitions to join the VDP at some stage, a German group of top wine makers. When I tasted the 2014 Underdog, it was simply amazing, enormously complex. I think Baden will regret having lost Sven Nieger.
Anyhow, he seems very happy with the path he has chosen. Also no lack of ambitions : “When people drink my wine, I want them to say: This is a Nieger wine.” And so far, things have lifted off quite fast for him, being chosen “newcomer of the year” by Falstaff magazine and getting good press in Germany and abroad.
We started off with his 2016s. His Riesling range consists of three Grosse Gewächse (Grand Crus), one wine that is a blend of grapes of these three vineyards, and one entry level Riesling. Because of the fact his wines are now declared as Badischer Landwein, he cannot mention the names of the vineyards on his labels, and for sure not call them Grosse Gewächse. So he gave them other names : Ungeschminkt (without make up), Underdog, Unbestechlich (incorruptible), Ungeniert (unashamed), and Ungezähmt (untamed). The message is quite clear.
The entry-level Ungeschminkt was already a nice starter, with lots of fruit and refreshing acidity. The Underdog is a step up, being the blend of the three Grosse Gewächse. The grapes come from the foot of the hills, where there is more loam. The wine was still a bit shy though, and still needs to develop a bit further. Of the three Grosse Gewächse, the Unbestechlich was my favorite. Here the vineyard is based on granite soil. Slate or schist are probably the types of terroir that are most associated with Riesling, but granite is not unusual either. Alsace’s Charles Baur describes the acidity in riesling from granite soils as “delicate”. And that’s the perfect word to descibe the acidity in Nieger’s Unbestechlich. It is perfectly integrated, leaving the front stage for a beguiling mix of saffran, summer blossom, green herbs, and orange peel. The saffran very much reminded me of the 2014 Rieslings of Mosel’s Markus Molitor. But whereas most of Molitor’s Rieslings are sweet, semi-sweet or have at least some residual sugar, this Unbestechlich is completely dry. The Ungeniert, also from granite soil, was similar to the Unbestechlich but more timid at this stage, and will benefit from further ageing. The Ungezähmt, finally, does have some sweetness, but also a mineral touch and sufficient acidity to keep it nicely balanced.
It became clear during the tasting how passionate Nieger is about his wines. Even though the 2017s were not on sale yet, I could still taste the whole range. I could also taste the 2015s and certain 2014s. What I thought would be a one hour visit, turned into a three hour one, but time passed as if it were only one hour. Tasting through all these Rieslings was very interesting and clearly showed the differences from one year to another, the 2014s being very fresh and dry, while the 2015s were richer and riper. Nieger decides every year whether he will make the Rieslings dry, off-dry or semi-sweet, letting the vintage decide. While that is probably the best for the wines, that might make it harder for the consumer in terms of knowing what you will get. His experiments do not help to make that any easier, his 2017s having aged in oak barrels, again not a very typical thing to do with Riesling. The oak is not very present, however, only adding a hint of smoke here and there. I’m very curious how the 2017s will evolve, as they were rather shy when I tasted them. Nieger agreed that they are still too young, but is convinced that they will open up with further ageing. That is also why he will put the 2018s on the market before the 2017s, as the 2018s will be more straight-forward and easier to drink, a consequence of the hot vintage.
19 bottles further, aroma’s of homely cooking started entering the room. I visited Sven Nieger because I wanted something different, and not only did I get a fantastic overview of his wines, I also felt the passion and ambition of an untamed wine maker. I am convinced that that will take him very far.