Armed with Charm
Stephan von Neipperg is one of the Right Bank's most successful—and controversial—figures
His name is Stephan von Neipperg. His title is count of the Holy Roman Empire. He wears boldly striped ascots and silk handkerchiefs tucked into the double-breasted blazers he favors even on the warmest days. He seems like a Max von Sydow character come to life on Bordeaux’s Right Bank.
Until he greets you. Before long, von Neipperg’s deadpan sense of humor and sweet-spirited sarcasm make themselves known. Paging through the guest book at Canon-La Gaffelière, one of the six châteaus that he and his family own in and around St.-Emilion, he encounters an inscription in Chinese characters. “Oh, that’s so very nice, what he says,” von Neipperg quips, though he can’t read a word of it. Of the vintages of Canon-La Gaffelière that preceded his arrival in Bordeaux in 1985, he confides, “They’re so good, I give them away to the gendarmes each time I get a speeding ticket.”
Such irreverence is a weapon, used benignly but with purpose. It has helped make von Neipperg almost universally popular in St.-Emilion, where rumor and innuendo are the social currencies. An outsider in a famously insular place, he remains above the fray, trafficking in quips and jokes in place of gossip. “I have no jealousy,” he says. “If someone makes a good wine, I’m so happy for him. If he sells it at a good price, that’s not a problem for me.”
Just as von Neipperg’s personal appearance is deceptive, so is his history in St.-Emilion. He restored the glory of Canon-La Gaffelière and Clos de l’Oratoire not by falling back on tradition, but by modernizing the wineries and winemaking operations. He turned a lightly regarded patch of vineyard into La Mondotte, producing a muscular wine that wows some critics and disgusts others—and costs a small fortune. (2017 note: He has moderated prices in more recent vintages.) He invested millions of euros in a state-of-the-art facility at Château d’Aiguilhe, in the previously unnoticed Côtes de Castillon appellation, then dared to market the wine like a St.-Emilion Grand Cru Classé. And, perhaps most radically, he linked his fortunes to Stéphane Derenoncourt, a Normandy millworker’s son who had never seen a grapevine before hitchhiking to Bordeaux in 1982, but taught himself enology and has since confounded traditionalists with his winemaking.
Coming from an outsider in particular, such moves seem guaranteed to disturb the existing order. Yet von Neipperg insists he’s simply trying to produce the best possible wines. “People say I’m a revolutionary guy,” he says. “I don’t look like a revolutionary. In fact, I am bringing back a lot of the ways from 60, 70 years ago.”
The personality helps. Were Château Pavie’s polarizing owner Gerard Perse or globe-trotting Pomerol-based consultant Michel Rolland to act as brazenly, they would be the topic of even more whispered conversations on the Right Bank than they already are. Von Neipperg, though, sails through—and his wines with him. “Stephan is friendly with everybody,” says Nicolas de Bailliencourt of Pomerol’s classically styled Château Gazin. “And it’s said that wines reflect the people who make them.”
Born in 1957 in southern Germany, von Neipperg comes from a line of Neckar Valley winemakers that dates back 800 years. Yet, as a young man, he had no intention of getting involved in wine. He was content to immerse himself in the study of politics and business theory and in his passion for classical music. That changed in 1983, when he opened a bottle of 1953 Canon-La Gaffelière and tasted the fragrant fruit still evident after three decades.
By then, his father was getting worried. Joseph-Hubert von Neipperg owned and operated the Weingut des Grafen Neipperg estate in Württemberg. In 1971, he had journeyed west with a neighbor to negotiate the purchase of Canon-La Gaffelière and some affiliated properties. It was a time of economic crisis in Bordeaux, and the château was on the market at a bargain price. Joseph-Hubert bought it and installed a manager, but seldom visited. He assumed that one of his eight children would get around to running it eventually.
The wines from this period showed not only the signs of this neglect, they reflected an accumulation of chemical fertilizers that for years had deadened the soil. When Stephan tasted them at the family table in Württemberg, they confirmed his intention to stay away from the wine business. But after four older siblings became ensconced in other jobs, he agreed to reconsider. Tasting from Canon-La Gaffelière’s library, he was struck by the property’s potential. “To return to school again and make a third study, a technical study of wine, I had to really want to do it,” he says. “Wines like [the 1953] made it exciting.”
In 1985, he brought his wife to St.-Emilion, where they settled down to raise their family and develop the winery. If the project was worth doing, he figured, it was worth his total immersion. In the years that followed, he boldly lifted Canon-La Gaffelière out of the doldrums, one innovation at a time. He tramped around the globe, to as many as three dozen countries a year, seeking the latest techniques.
In 1988, he instituted a green harvest, dropping fruit in June to gain depth and ripeness in September. (The property’s vines are 55 percent Merlot, 40 percent Cabernet Franc and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; the blend in the wine varies from year to year.) He stopped using chemical fertilizers and insecticides in 1993 as he edged toward a more biodynamic approach. “Just like 70 years ago,” he says. “The insects eat each other.” He harvested later than his neighbors and aged his cuvées entirely in new oak. The wine has benefited. The 1990, 1995 and 1998 vintages of Canon-La Gaffelière each earned 95 points on Wine Spectator‘s 100-point scale upon release, while the 1993, 2000, 2001 and 2002 vintages each scored above 90.
In 1991, von Neipperg was given control of nearby Clos de l’Oratoire by his father, and he subsequently bought the remaining 30 percent of the property from other investors. He quickly realized that the estate, planted with almost 90 percent Merlot, was imbued with different attributes than Canon-La Gaffelière and produced vastly different wines. “In the first property, you learn the business,” he says. “In the second property, you adapt your knowledge to the terroir.”
At Canon-La Gaffelière, the wines are soft and feminine. The challenge is attaining sufficient structure to frame the elegant fruit. At Clos de l’Oratoire, in contrast, the Merlot must fully ripen or the wines will be hard. When it does ripen, as in 1998 (94 points) or 2000 (92), the result can be outstanding. But von Neipperg learned from experience the difficulty of trying to make a deeply extracted wine from a lesser vintage. “The wine will be out of balance,” he says. “That was a lesson.”
In 1996, after a cellar master left to pursue other opportunities, von Neipperg found Stéphane Derenoncourt, a long-haired, guitar-strumming autodidact whose background could hardly have been more different than the count’s. “I was a laborer,” says Derenoncourt, who was working at Château Pavie-Macquin at the time. “I didn’t meet a lot of people. But Stephan came and talked to me, and he listened to what I had to say. Everyone was worried about his choice to hire me. Nobody in St.-Emilion understood. People said, ‘Why do you hire a guy like that? Maybe he does drugs. Rock and roll. Be careful.’ But Stephan didn’t care about any of those people.”
“Stéphane’s unusual, not the kind of guy you come across every day,” von Neipperg acknowledges. “But what I liked about him was not only that he had knowledge, but that he understood exactly what terroir means. He did what needed to be done in different places.”
Von Neipperg believes that this is in part because Derenoncourt is self-taught, so he relies on problem-solving skills rather than academic techniques. “In France, we have a problem that if someone doesn’t go to school, no matter how good he is, he’s not respected,” he says. “We’re not like that in Germany. I’ve seen in my life so many people who have a lot of degrees—they are engineers or doctors—but they’re not good at what they do. In our business, you need knowledge, but also sensitivity.”
In Derenoncourt, who rather enjoyed shaking up staid Bordeaux, von Neipperg found the perfect partner for his next adventure: transforming a neglected vineyard producing second-rate wines into one whose bottlings now frequently sell for more than the first-growths.
One of the small parcels of land that Joseph-Hubert von Neipperg purchased near St.-Emilion in 1971 was a property called Château Mondotte. Historically, grapes from the 11-acre parcel east of town struggled to ripen, and the wine produced from them tended to lack charm.
By 1995, von Neipperg was convinced that better techniques would enable the fruit to ripen successfully. That year he petitioned the local Syndicat for the right to append Mondotte’s vineyards to Canon-La Gaffelière. Refused permission, he decided to revamp the property and make an utterly different wine. “He was a little bit proud and a little bit angry,” Derenoncourt says.
Von Neipperg was emboldened by a terroir similar to that of neighboring châteaus such as Pavie-Decesse and Troplong-Mondot (both of which were beginning to outperform some of the Premier Grand Cru Classé St.-Emilions) and by Derenoncourt, who thought a lack of classification shouldn’t stand in the way. “I knew very well the type of soil, the limestone and clay,” Derenoncourt says. “The goal was to do something different, to work a bit like in Burgundy.”
During the summer of 1996, von Neipperg supervised the construction of a tiny new winery in a cottage on the Mondotte grounds. Wooden fermentation tanks were installed (“I like stainless steel very much—for sardine cans,” von Neipperg says now), and the old pumping system was discarded. “We did everything differently,” he says. “We cut down on production. And we paid real attention to making great wines from the property.”
The resulting wine was so different from the old Château Mondottes that von Neipperg changed the name of the property to La Mondotte to highlight the new start. “Besides,” he says, “that little house on the property is hardly a château.”
The change turned heads, but it was the wine in the bottle that really startled. Made in limited quantities (some 650 to 1,000 cases a year) and in a highly extracted style, the wine immediately earned a reputation as a vin de garage, a winemaker’s wine whose attributes reflected a disregard for the traditional handling of its particular terroir. It positioned von Neipperg and coconspirator Derenoncourt as raging modernists. “Wines like that are not meant to be drunk at table,” Gazin’s de Bailliencourt says now. “They’re meant to be drunk at competition, to see which one is better—or more extracted.”
Yet von Neipperg insists that La Mondotte is actually a terroir wine, with or without the word “château.” He notes that it is produced with indigenous yeasts and, in most years, with as little manipulation as possible. The vines—80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc—average nearly 40 years of age, with some thick, gnarled vines of Cabernet Franc now in their eighth decade. Yields are naturally low.
And the terroir? Von Neipperg grabs a flashlight and heads into the limestone quarries that were dug beneath the property decades ago. “You see this and you understand that it gives a lot of punch to the wine,” he says, illuminating the rock wall of the cave. “You can never produce a lot of wine here. You only have this bit of dirt, and then the stone starts. But if you get ripe grapes, you get a sexy wine. Some people say a wine made this way cannot age. I’m laughing! Their 1997s are dead. Mine is just starting to live.”
Von Neipperg has positioned La Mondotte as a generic St.-Emilion outside the appellation’s Cru Classé system. For a man whose wine is less than a decade old and has no classification on its label, von Neipperg is as sanguine as only someone getting first-growth prices—$300 a bottle and up—can be. What might have been lesser terroir half a century ago is prime real estate today, he believes. “In the old times, the late-ripening sites were not well-regarded,” he says. “The wines never got ripe. But now, we know what to do to get ripe fruit, so this terroir becomes much more exciting, much more valuable. The market knows that. It rewards us. If St.-Emilion isn’t working with me, I’ll do it my own way. You don’t have to be aggressive to make the point. I’ll do it with a smile and a laugh, but I’ll do it.”
As La Mondotte continues down its unique path, with a massive 2003 that scored 94 points, Canon-La Gaffelière and Clos de l’Oratoire are trending toward elegance. Von Neipperg now uses micro-oxygenation—adding tiny bubbles of oxygen to the wine instead of racking it from one barrel to another—only as a last resort, since the technique adds color and plush texture at the possible expense of ageability.
That has helped revise his reputation as a modernist; he’s now seen as more of a moderate. “He begins with techniques and goes 100 percent,” says Château Angélus’ Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, president of the Syndicat Viticole of St.-Emilion. “But then he’s able to say, ‘Maybe I went too far,’ and change his approach. He’s very open. He listens. That’s important.”
Von Neipperg has evolved personally, too, a process accelerated by tragedy. In 1994, his eldest child, 10-year-old Marie-Beatrice, died in a fire at an equestrian camp. Von Neipperg was devastated, but having four children at home forced him to push ahead. When he emerged from his despair, he discovered that his approach to life had changed. “I live in a more profound way now,” he says. “I am more present. I look only for what is most important in each day and I accept more easily the faults of other people. Our lives are complex. We have pain. You have to be kind.”
At another time, von Neipperg says, he might have been more concerned about Canon-La Gaffelière’s status in the coming reclassification of St.-Emilion’s Premier Grand Cru Classé grouping. Unlike La Mondotte, which all but sells itself, Canon-La Gaffelière is feeling the effects of a weaker market for Bordeaux from the 2004 vintage. Competition is fierce and the euro is pricey. Von Neipperg understands that the wine would be far easier to sell as a Premier Grand Cru Classé. (2017 note: In 2012, both Canon-La Gaffelière and La Mondotte were designated Premier Grand Cru Classé B, and La Mondotte labels now do carry the classification.)
Two châteaus, Beau-Séjour Bécot and Angélus, were admitted into the elite grouping in 1996, the last time the classification was revised, and at least one is likely to be added this year. Von Neipperg could make a strong argument that Canon-La Gaffelière has been making better wines than several of the 13 Premier Grand Cru Classé properties.
But St.-Emilion dislikes nothing so much as change, and the promotion of Canon-La Gaffelière would be perceived by many as tacit approval of von Neipperg’s boldness. Accordingly, he is hopeful, but has no expectations. Far from actively campaigning for promotion, he maintains the same studied nonchalance that has enabled him to thrive in St.-Emilion for two decades.
In fact, he has quite literally chosen a different road, one that leads past St.-Emilion to the commune of St.-Philippe-d’Aiguilhe in the Côtes de Castillon. The destination is a striking château that is barely visible from the road. This is Château d’Aiguilhe, which since 1999 has gradually become von Neipperg’s favored property. Of course, he’ll still pour the Canon-La Gaffelière with delight and exult in the success of La Mondotte, but Aiguilhe is where his heart currently resides.
Out of a crumbling castle along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, in the midst of 330 acres of an appellation known for rustic, less-than-serious wines, von Neipperg has created a gravity-based modern winery and a wine that he believes will evolve into a masterpiece. A blend of 80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc, it is already nipping hard at the heels of the St.-Emilions. “Everything I have learned in the last years,” he says, “I have taken it and brought it here.” Since 2000, every Château d’Aiguilhe that von Neipperg released has scored 89 points or higher, a remarkable achievement for the appellation.
Two decades into his life in St.-Emilion, he is still perceived as an outsider who speaks French with a German accent, all his good humor notwithstanding. Yet in this St.-Emilion satellite, he is hailed as a savior. “They say, ‘You’re the guy we’ve been waiting for,'” he says. If he manages 90-point scores, it confirms that such a thing is possible in this backwater of Bordeaux. Other St.-Emilion owners have now followed his example, buying and investing in their own Castillon properties.
Beyond this success, though, something about the setting at Aiguilhe—the hundreds of years of history and the rustic lifestyle—touches von Neipperg. The place seems basic and elemental in a way that the St.-Emilion properties do not. In that sense, the dapper bearing and noble title hide a true man of the land. “In all the wines I have, there’s a lot of emotion, but in this one maybe more than the others,” he says. His gaze is now opaque as he speaks and there is no mirth in his voice. Despite his disarming smile, he has known real hardship in this foreign country.
“Making wine is not always easy,” he says. “I put a lot of myself in my wine. I believe that you can feel it. I hope you can.”