When I started looking forward to my first trip to Bordeaux, one of the places I was most excited to visit was Canon la Gaffeliere. Beyond the great esteem I have for the wines, I was fascinated at the idea of meeting Comte Stephan von Neipperg. The guy/count is a legend; every person I know who’s visited talks about an experience with him. Known for his colorful style, wit, and enthusiasm, he spent the last thirty years innovating and elevating the quality of wines at his family’s estates.
Walking into the tasting room, I immediately spotted him in his blue jacket and coral pants, with his signature handkerchief tucked neatly in his breast pocket. He enthusiastically welcomed us, and I was at once captivated by his genuine smile, warm handshake and friendly charm. For a wine geek like me, this was epic rock star stuff. I was definitely not disappointed.
We tasted the lineup of wines first. Like other 2016’s they were energetic and impressive.
–Clos Marsalette: Their project in Pessac Leognan. Toasty, fresh berries, cassis, dusty tannins, cherry. Subtle, fresh. This will be a great value.
–d’Aiguilhe: Ripe raspberries, licorice. Medium bodied, balanced tannins, vVery fresh. Another value.
–L’Oratoire: Blue fruit, raspberry, cherry compote, floral. Fierce tannins, plenty of acid for balance and longevity.
–Canon la Gaffeliere: Raspberry, green/leafy, cherry. Spiced berries, herbs, muscular and structured, elegant finish.
–La Mondotte: Full bodied, powerful. Tart berries, plum, savory notes, smoky. Firm tannins, med+ acidity, beam of minerality, long finish.
For lunch in the chateau we were accompanied by Stephan’s wife Sigweis and Xavier Planty, owner of Chateau Guiraud, who treated us to a small glass of his 2011 before lunch. “There is no better aperitif than good Sauternes,” they said.
Among discussion topics that afternoon were green harvesting, biodynamics, family, their remodeling project, and the current vintage’s potential. Although we’d heard the tale a dozen times already, his account of the challenges of 2016 was fascinating. “It was like a movie script,” he said.
And then came talk of politics: the United States’ drama, the impending French election, and of course the local industry. Certainly part of Stephan’s charm is that he shares opinions and ideas freely. It seems he gives little thought to rank and classification, but rather focuses on the best wine he can from parcels that best reflect the terroir. With vigneron Stéphane Derenoncourt he has dabbled in many things, including micro-oxygenation and wood fermenters, but most notably biodynamic farming and environmentally friendly practices. This is the topic on which he was most animated. “I believe the life of the fruit goes into the life of the wine.” And the wines he indulged us with at lunch certainly proved his point: the 2000 Canon la Gaffeliere was a delight, and the 2004 La Mondotte was exquisite and still full of energy.
When he first arrived in Bordeaux von Neipperg was seen as a modernist and even renegade. Today, many of his choices and innovations are embraced by others; and what once confused his neighbors is now universally practiced. On top of this, his standards helped to elevate the once obscure wines of Castillon, thanks to the quality at Chateau d’Aiguilhe. It’s also quite clear he highly regards the region, its pedigree of wines, and his colleagues. “If someone here makes an excellent wine, I am happy. It’s an achievement for everyone.”
What’s most amazing about our hosts – and most of the people I met in Bordeaux – is the absence of the stuffy pretentiousness associated with this region. The industry is ancient, but full of vigor, enthusiasm and camaraderie. None more so than our charismatic host. He is an entertainer, educator, and emissary for St-Emilion and Castillon, and the industry as a whole. I look forward to following his wines for years to come.
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