Stephan von Neipperg’s successful transformation of Canon-la-Gaffelière is symptomatic of the German-born count’s golden touch with Right Bank properties, writes Stephen Brook.
The dapper figure of Stephan Graf von Neipperg, with his crisp moustache and trademark cravat, is well known in fine wine circles. In just 20 years he has revived the fortunes of Canon-la-Gaffelière in St-Emilion, and repeated the exercise for a handful of other properties, not just in Bordeaux but now in Bulgaria, too.
The empire continues to expand. Neipperg has bought Château Soleil at Puisseguin and Château d’Aiguilhe in the Côtes de Castillon. In a way, Aiguilhe is his most remarkable achievement. He has propped up the ruinous castle, restored the extensive cellars and farm buildings, replanted much of the vineyard, and built a modern winery. Castillon is a relatively chilly region, and the wines are often rustic. Not here. Aiguilhe can be exceptional, and the price is reasonable.
‘I am convinced the Castillon terroir here is underestimated because it is later ripening than St-Emilion,’ says Neipperg. ‘Growers prefer lighter, precocious soils because they are easier and more reliable. But now, with techniques such as leaf removal, you can get earlier ripening in Castillon. Obviously, if you overcrop, as many estates here do, you’ll have a struggle to obtain ripe grapes. The wines always have higher acidity than St-Emilion, so you must have excellent maturity to balance it.’
He clearly relishes taking on problematic estates. ‘The challenge I enjoy is restoring properties that have been underperforming. At Aiguilhe there is also the historic aura of the site, with its castle and pigeonnier and other fine buildings, which I am bringing back to life. That’s what I’m doing in Bulgaria too, where I have 135ha (hectares). I took on that project simply because I felt I knew what had to be done there to make good wine, as the property has excellent limestone soils. We planted from scratch, mostly international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot, but also some Mavrud, which is the only indigenous variety from Bulgaria I rate highly.’
The count’s appearance and charming manner seem reminiscent of a Parisian boulevardier, but his origins lie among the dark forests of Württemberg in southern Germany, where his family have lived since medieval times. The Neippergs are landowners with extensive vineyards, and Neipperg’s oldest brother has, for many years, been in charge of the wine estate.
‘I went to Paris to study politics and administration, and then spent a year in Montpellier in the early 1980s studying viticulture. My father had bought Canon-La-Gaffelière in 1971, as he found the communal and familial spirit attractive in St-Emilion. He never lived here, but installed a manager. As I was fluent in French, my father asked whether I would be interested in running the St-Emilion properties. I came here to familiarise myself with the estates before committing myself. Then, in 1985, I agreed to manage them, and have been here ever since.
‘We’d bought the stock at Canon-La-Gaffelière, so I’d tasted the great wines made here in the 1950s and 1960s. I also knew that from 1964 onwards, quality had declined. There were many problems. The 1956 frost had killed off many vines, so the vineyard was young, though we were lucky enough to keep 5ha of old Cabernet Franc. The manager hired by my father had used too much chemical fertiliser and yields had been far too high. But I knew there was the potential for outstanding quality – vintages from the past made that clear.’
Neipperg set to work without delay. He renovated the buildings, installed wooden fermentation vats, and developed a good team to work with. The first vintage he was happy with was 1988. The major effort was in the vineyard, where vines were replaced individually with massal selections (where cuttings from only the best vines are propagated); the only additions to the soil were organic fertilisers and compost, and yields were kept to more modest levels. In 1996 he hired a new young winemaker, Stéphane Derenoncourt, who raised the Neipperg wines to an even higher level. Derenoncourt was an early enthusiast in Bordeaux for micro-oxygenation, which may well have contributed to the lush texture andexuberant fruit of the Neipperg wines. Today Derenoncourt is in demand worldwide as a consultant, so his role here has become along similar lines, rather than resident winemaker.
Neipperg insists there is no formula for his winemaking. He and Hubert de Boüard at Château Angélus were among the first to decant the wine into barriques for malolactic, though he says this was just a return to ancestral methods. ‘I don’t mind a late malolactic fermentation. There’s no rush, and sometimes it is still ticking over in June. But because, like everybody in Bordeaux, I need a blend to present for the primeur tastings, I’m obliged to assemble a few barrels and put them aside in a warmer spot to ensure some malo is completed by March.’
Nor, despite his fondness for micro-oxygenation, is he an interventionist in the cellar. The wines are aged on the fine lees, but Neipperg is not bowled over by the current vogue for stirring the lees. ‘I don’t want to impose anything on the wine. I respond to what the wine demands. Despite the pressures of the primeur season, I don’t want to accelerate the evolution of the wine. You simply have to follow as it evolves at its own pace.’
The other Neipperg properties in St-Emilion are Clos de l’Oratoire, Peyreau, and La Mondotte. The latter, also bought by his father in 1971, consists of a few parcels up on the plateau near Pavie-Decesse and Troplong-Mondot. The vines are old and the soil is clay over fractured limestone. When we strolled past the vines some days before harvest in 2005, the grapes we tasted were still a touch astringent, but the old fig tree next to the cellar provided a succulent mid-morning snack. Before 1996 the wine, then called Château La Mondotte, was unremarkable. Neipperg had wanted to incorporate this 4.5ha property into Canon-La-Gaffelière but permission was denied. Château La Mondotte was a lowly grand cru, while Canon-La-Gaffelière’s status was more prestigious; the two could not cohabit.
Yet Neipperg was persuaded of the intrinsic quality of the fruit here, and decided to lavish care and attention on the property. In 1996 he kept yields low, picked late and aged the wine in new oak for 18 months. The word ‘château’ was dropped from the label and, in 1996, the reborn La Mondotte was created. The wine was a critical triumph, rapidly becoming one of St-Emilion’s priciest, and best, wines. It is also scarce: no more than 1,000 cases are made. In 2000 the viticulture became entirely biodynamic.
‘The wine is different from Canon-la-Gaffelière as the soil is different,’ explains Neipperg. If we attempted the same level of maturity at Canon we would end up with soft, heavy wines. Writers sometimes call La Mondotte a vin de garage. But it really isn’t. It’s a wine from a specific and magnificent terroir.’
If price were no object, where would he buy his next vineyard? ‘Burgundy. How about Romanée-Conti?’ He laughs, but who knows where he will turn up next? With his light touch and quick humour, Comte Stephan von Neipperg (his German title now Frenchified on his wine labels) may look like a dilettante, but there’s steel behind the charm.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.
Neipperg AT A GLANCE
- Born: Schwaigern, Germany, 1957, the fifth of eight children
- Education: Studied politics in Paris (1977–81), and viticulture in Montpellier (1982–3)
- Family: Married with four children
- St-Emilion properties: Canon-La-Gaffelière (grand cru classé), Clos de l’Oratoire (grand cru classé), Peyreau (grand cru), La Mondotte (grand cru)
- Other properties: Château d’Aiguilhe (Côtes de Castillon), Château Soleil (Puisseguin-St-Emilion), Enira (Bulgaria)
He says: ‘I don’t want to impose anything on the wine. I respond to what the wine demands.’
They say: ‘He’s led the way in transforming winemaking standards on the Right Bank’ (Oz Clarke)