From Germany to France to Bulgaria, a German count sets his eyes upon the conquest of the wine world…
Wine Story’s Romy Sia and Christian Tan welcomed Germany’s noble lord Count Stephan von Neipperg to host an intimate wine-pairing dinner at the luxury wine store branch in Serendra several months back. A very select group of oenophiles and enthusiasts came to listen, learn and enjoy the nine different wines from the count’s vineyards.
Modernist, revolutionary, even controversial – much has been said about Count Stephan von Neipperg, owner of at least six wine cellars in Bordeaux’s Right Bank — but he simply shrugged it all off. To the manor born, his family has been making wine since the 12th century at the Württemberg Valley in Germany. At the height of its fiefdom, the estate covered as many as thirty villages. Much of their contribution had also been acknowledged in the fields of military, politics and diplomacy throughout the centuries. Notwithstanding, for 800 years the family estate has long been rooted to the vineyards, winemaking and everything else associated with it.
In 1971, his father Joseph-Hubert von Neipperg, bought the first property in Saint-Émilion, the Château Canon La Gaffelière. Initially acquired for investment purposes having bought it at a bargain price, he installed a manager and visited once a year with the hope that one of his children would take an interest in running it.
It took another decade before his secret hope would come into fruition. Count Stephan, who went to university in Paris to finish a degree in Politics and Economics, apparently became the logical choice. ”My father came to me and asked me to manage it because among his children I was the only one who can speak French! So yes, if you can speak French, you can make wine”, he adds in his trademark irreverence notable in all of Bordeaux. To prepare himself with the running of the vineyard, he studied Agronomy at Montpelier. In 1984, he moved in to the chateau and has not left since.
To fully understand the terroir, he diligently studied how the owners before him made wine in the area. He discovered the methods through the books lying around in the chateau. His “modernisation” plans are actually a return to the old days of winemaking though an improved version with better organisation and management. “It is a lot more efficient and things are more in order”, says Count Stephan. He went back to an older method called Pigeage or “punch-down” to ensure properly-controlled maceration, and installed wooden fermentation tanks for three of the bigger properties – Château Canon La Gaffelière, La Mondotte and Clos De L’oratoire — instead of stainless vats which is widely used in Bordeaux. He also installed concrete vats for the rest of his Bordeaux cellars as Chateau Peyreau, Clos Marsalette and Château d’Aiguilhe. While the stainless steel vats are practical and easiest to clean as oppose to wooden vats, Count Stephan attest that the wine macerated in wooden vats taste best.
Having had previously tasted the wines from the Château Canon La Gaffelière estate, he noted that the vintages 1947, 1952 and 1953 were outstanding but the wines from the harvest year of 1964 and later were “very, very bad” and especially warned this writer not to buy a 1984. Soon he realised that this was because the earlier wines had the benefit of a good soil, free of the harmful effects of chemical insecticides and herbicides that were prevalent in those years.
Perhaps the main challenge for him was how to restore the land that has deteriorated after decades of using chemical fertilizers. “The lifeless soil had to be regenerated. The first step was implemented in 1988 when we had to apply some sort of “prophylaxis” to the soil; a kind of homeopathy for winemaking. We decided to follow and apply the biodynamic philosophy to the vineyard, to revive it and farm the land like it was decades ago.” Biodynamic farming was first coined in the 1920s by the Swiss philosopher Rudolf Steiner. It was a holistic approach to agriculture that respects the natural workings of all factor involved- the weather, soil, animals (even pests) and plants. It banishes all types of chemical and artificial enhancers. This ensured a long-term sustainability, a healthier, livelier land to grow grapes and a quality wine that the Count himself can be proud of. At present, three of its six wine cellars in Saint-Emilion: Château Canon La Gaffelière, La Mondotte and Clos De L’oratoire are 100 per cent organic with the rest following suit. His efforts and single-minded purpose to rid the vineyard of the harmful chemicals paid off as reviews from wine critics and enthusiasts made notice. “Welcome back to the Future”‚ he exclaims.
Among his wine cellars, he confesses La Mondotte as the special one as it is a special terroir. It is only 40-60 cm of soil then you hit the lime stones. The minerality of the stone seeps into the roots and to the vines giving the wines a distinctly La Mondotte flavours you can’t find anywhere else. “The 2001 is a good vintage for ageing, it’s a very powerful vintage but the evolution is slow.” Similarly, praises have been heaped at this vintage with Robert Parker scoring it at 94 points.
In 2001, Count Stephan started looking east to expand his wine empire and with a partner Dr Karl-Heinz Hauptmann found a 145-hectare vineyard in Bessa Valley in Bulgaria. Long known to be an ancient wine land tilled by Thracians 500 years ago, Count Stephan planted a combination of Merlot, Carbernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Shiraz. To date, he has harvested and marketed two brands from these lands: Enira and Enira Reserva. He has been credited with the renaissance of the vineyards in Bulgaria and has been instrumental in providing jobs to the locals and as a result, pumped up its economy.
Asked if he ever felt like an outsider as a German living in France, he proudly says: “I have no French accent in English, and no German accent in French. I am very independent, I have my own opinions but I’m completely integrated‚ says the man who has been a long time Vice-President of the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux since 1998 and the Jurat de Saint-Emilion since 1987. Indeed, the count has made his own mark to provide a new gleam to his noble name by successfully reviving the soil in the backwater of Bordeaux and being instrumental in the rebirth of an ancient wine land.