Going Green in Bordeaux

Count Stephan von Neipperg has instituted greener farming practices at each of his estates

From the June 15, 2016, issue

In 1985, a young Stephan von Neipperg was finishing his wine studies in preparation for taking charge of his family estates in St.-Emilion. As he tasted through older vintages of the wines, something began to trouble him.

“I had tasted wines from the ’50s and they were still good. Then the ’60s, OK, and the ’70s were basically nothing,” von Neipperg, now 59, told me recently. “Why did the quality disappear like that?”

Then in 1988, he applied the conventional solution to a routine problem and suddenly saw his world in a different light. “I had red spiders in the vineyard, so I sprayed them,” he says. “Boom, gone. It seemed easy. But then just as suddenly, boom, they were back, and in greater numbers. It didn’t take long to realize something wasn’t right.”

That “something” was basically everything he had been taught about viticulture. “I put two and two together. When I came out of [wine] school, chemicals were all they had told us about. It was the height of insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers. We didn’t know anything else. But I realized from the much older wines what could be done, the kinds of wines that could be made without these things. It was during the ’60s and ’70s, when these chemicals began to be used, that the wines changed. There was no life in those wines because the life was being stripped out of the soil. I decided I didn’t want to make wines like they made in the ’60s and ’70s.”

When he took over Canon-La Gaffelière in 1985, von Neipperg had approximately 64 acres of vines under his care; he has close to 250 today. He has established his family’s flagship properties—Canon-La Gaffelière and Clos de l’Oratoire—at the top of the quality hierarchy in St.-Emilion, while also expanding his portfolio, highlighted by an 11-acre parcel atop the limestone plateau of St.-Emilion called La Mondotte. He added Château d’Aiguilhe in neighboring Castillon in 1999 and Clos Marsalette in Pessac in 2002, then eventually joined a group that purchased Château Guiraud in Sauternes in 2006. At each estate, von Neipperg has instituted greener farming practices, an approach that puts him at the forefront of Bordeaux’s shifting viticultural landscape.

The 2014 vintage saw him attain organic certification at Canon-La Gaffelière and La Mondotte, making them the only Premier Grand Cru Classé wines in St.-Emilion with that recognition. Now von Neipperg is applying lessons he’s learned to his biggest estate, Château d’Aiguilhe, which covers about 160 acres.

“It’s a very challenging transition,” he says. “The first few years, the wines are different and they have to be handled differently. Essentially you are lost, and you have to change your thinking about everything with each new vineyard that you transition this way.”

But as he weans his vineyards off chemicals, he sees the changes manifest first in the vines, then the grapes and eventually the wines. “First the vines are healthier, stronger. Yields drop at first, but eventually they come back to levels above where they were when they were farmed with chemicals. Then in the grapes you see the skins are fresher, thinner, less pruny. They crunch when you taste them—there’s more energy, more acidity.

“With organics, ripeness comes earlier, maybe one week or more,” von Neipperg continues. “So the wines have lower alcohol, but the full phenolic ripeness is coming at the same time as the sugar ripeness. You don’t have to wait and play the ‘hang time’ game, going for more ripeness. I think the reason so many châteaus have higher alcohol now in Bordeaux is because so many people have to wait longer for the phenolic ripeness to catch up with the sugar ripeness. And of course, when you do that, you are losing acidity and freshness.”

He is quick to add that he is not seeking lower-alcohol wine per se, or picking earlier on purpose for a lighter-style wine. “I want ripeness,” he says emphatically. “I just want ripeness where there is not such a big difference between the alcohol and phenolics.”

In the 2015 vintage, von Neipperg may have his best set of wines to date, with a generation of knowledge in the vineyard marrying with a potentially superb vintage that provided no shortage of ripeness. “We have big ripeness in ’15,” he says with a wide grin. “But outstanding freshness too.”