Stephan Von Neippberg
Architect of St. Emilion
By W. Peter Hoyne
Stephan von Neipperg is an iconic figure and notable producer from Bordeaux’s Right Bank. In some ways he has revolutionized this region and the Merlot-dominant wines that originate here. Catch a glimpse of Stephan and you will see that he has a rather dashing appearance, sporting a scarf around his neck that blends into his well-coordinated apparel. His appearance might suggest that he is of noble heritage and in fact he was deemed a count with a family title dating back to the Holy Roman Empire. He is soft spoken with a soave demeanor, but underneath there is a brilliance and determination focused on elevating the recognition and quality of wines from St. Emilion.
His family’s history in winemaking and grape growing in Wurrttemberg, Germany dates back to the 12th century. As Stephan tells it, his fourth-generation grandfather was expelled from France after Napoleon lost the war. Napoleon’s wife was also expelled; his grandfather decided to marry her and have two children. In the end this might be the family’s best revenge against Napoleon, although not politically correct. Now after 800 years, Stephan has amassed an empire of nine properties, four in St Emilion, Bordeaux: Château Canon La Gaffelière, La Mondotte, Clos de l’Oratoire, Château Peyreau, Chateau Clos Marselette in Pessac-Leognan, Chateau Soleil at Puisseguin and Chateau d’Alguilhe in Cotes de Castillon. He also became part owner of Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes. In addition, Stephan manages Capaia in South Africa and Bessa Valley Winery in Bulgaria.
Born in 1957, Stephan was the fifth of eight children in his family. He decided to study politics and economics in Paris. In 1971, his father, Joseph-Hubert Von Neipperg, acquired four properties in St. Emilion. One day his father approached him and asked that he manage Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere in St. Emilion. His siblings did not have an interest in this pursuit. When Stephan asked ‘why me’ his father responded, “you are speaking French, no one else in the family speaks French. If you are speaking French, you can make wine.” Stephan was still not convinced at this point. He was given an opportunity to taste through older vintages from the cellar of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere dating back from 1977 and earlier.
In a striking moment, Stephan noticed that the wines from 1964 and older were much better than the younger wines. After tasting the youthfulness and life within the 1953, his mind was forever changed as he became resolute in his passion to restore the property and bring back the vitality it once achieved. In the years that followed, Stephan studied winemaking in Montpellier, France. By 1984, at the age of 26, he took control of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere, followed by Clos l’Oratoire in 1991, and La Mondotte as the other properties would fall into place. He admits to enjoying the challenge of restoring these properties.
Stephan professes “for me to take over a winery is fun. It is fun to understand a new terroir, an investment in the future. If you have no life in the soils, if you are only thinking of chemicals with herbicides and insecticides, you will have no terroir anymore.” With an underlying respect for nature and the ecosystem, Stephan employs many techniques while with using their own compost, green cover, etc. It is part of his organic thinking. He is adamant about making high quality wines from soils that have a lot of life. He acknowledges that over the years “my wines have become fresher and fresher and are tasting like the terroir. The wines of Cannon La Gaffelier are outstanding, yet completely different from La Mondotte in the plateau. Canon La Gaffeliere is much more violets and spice in the nose, smooth, very long and delicate. La Mondotte is always bright with power and acidity. Clos la Oratoire is fine, very round, smart, and delicate. We make wines that belong to the terroir.” He is convinced that the analysis of the vines is made outside, not inside with technology.
Many of the wines from Stephan’s portfolio secure high scores from the critics. The wines from Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere have achieved international acclaim, typically receiving 90-95 points or higher, yet this seems less important than the future for Stephan. “We try to understand the future, but we respect what was before. All the best is not now, but in the future. The only thing that I can give to my children is a winery with life. You have a certain time here to do your job… My best decoration is that my children would say, my father wasn’t completely stupid.” Humbly he admits, “I am not a banker, I am not an insurance company owner, not a real estate businessman, I am a poor lonely farmer.” Perhaps, a more appropriate title might be a contemporary genius.