A Schloss in Saxony revisited
Easter Monday, 24 March 2008
Thinking of rebirth and renewal at Easter, it seems the right moment to tell a remarkable wine story. Of Phoenix rising from the ashes of the communist German Democratic Republic and its vindictive persecution of an equally remarkable family.
Dr Georg Prinz zur Lippe
The princes, dukes and counts zur Lippe (Westphalia) were one of North Germany's oldest ruling families, wielding great power and seeing themselves on equal terms with Frederick the Great and other crowned heads of Europe. But they were often much more than high-born aristocrats. In 1812, Countess Augusta von Lippe of Prussia gave birth to her first son, Adolf, who later emigrated to Pennsylvania to become one of the most successful homeopathic physicians in 19th century America. A hundred years earlier, another powerful branch of the family had moved east to Saxony, building the very grand Schloss Proschwitz on the banks of the Elbe, high above the cathedral town of Meissen. Here the Princes Lippe weren't content to just tend just their woodlands and vineyards as exemplary agriculturalists; they also became entrepreneurs, engineers, bankers and lawyers. An ancestor of Dr Georg zur Lippe, the current prince, was a very active director of the world-famous Meissen porcelain factory, which is still going strong. The family seems to have had a strong gene that showed itself in the fine intellects and determined drive of successive generations. Slavic blood through marriage brought a softening devotion to the teaching of the Bohemian brothers who held that all men and women, lords and servants, were equal before God. This was no mere pious aspiration but a guiding rule of daily life at Schloss Proschwitz, where in the servants' quarters, the staff lived on the first floor, the same level as the family in the grand house across the courtyard. Neither side looked up or down but directly at each other.
The Second World War and its aftermath looked like the end of everything for the Lippe dynasty in Saxony. In 1943, Hitler's henchmen waited until the death of Princess Frieda, Georg's grandmother and a revered local matriarch, before they acted. When she was barely cold in the grave, a letter arrived to say that the house was being taken over by the National Socialist government. In 1945, when the Russians invaded Saxony, at first they appeared more sympathetic than the Nazis, but the new communist government of East Germany had other ideas. In a foretaste of the brutal Stalinist regime that was to last until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, they called in Georg's father and burned all his degree diplomas in front of his eyes. The Lippes were the class enemy; all their lands to be expropriated without compensation. For ideological reasons, they were sent to prison camps, later to be deported to West Germany.
What money the family had, was spent on giving the five children of the next generation the best possible educations. Georg himself qualified as an agricultural engineer and also became a financial management consultant. And in 1990, after the fall of the Wall, he began to buy back the family vineyards. I first met Georg in the early 'nineties and was struck by his easy charm and great personality – the sort of person who effortless lights up a room. But of course behind the man's charisma is a high intelligence and steely will to win...
Returning to Schloss Proschwitz last week, I was delighted to see that the once dilapidated castle had been exquisitely restored, thanks to Georg's urbane persuasiveness in winning over the three banks which own it with him. He has only been able to afford it because of his continuing financial consultancy and letting out the house for grand seminars and weekend stays for clients as different as world banking leaders and wealthy parties from America and Japan on the “grand tour”.
The Proschwitz winery is not only the oldest in Saxony but also the largest one in private hands, with 80 hectares in wine production. Its trump cards are the excellent south-facing aspect of the vineyard terraces, the relatively mild microclimate of the Elbe valley and, most important, the soil combination of loess, loam and granite rock. Thanks to the loamy earth, the wines smell marvellously fruity and the underlying granite envelo allows the mouth to be enveloped in deep complex flavours. The winery is at the cutting edge of modern technology which nonetheless is the servant rather than the master of all who work here. A holistic, wholly natural approach to tending the vines and making the wine, following flexibly the best organic practices, is all very appropriate to the family's historic association with homeopathy. Everything is done to make the wine workers task as easy and pleasant as possible: the barrels used to ferment and age the better wines are so placed that the bungs can be effortlessly reached without the cellarmen having to contort themselves Houdini-like, which is a common challenge in those pile-them-high cathedrals of oak endemic to most modern wealthy wineries. As Georg says, “if it's easy to top up the barrels, one looks forward to doing it very day: if it's hard, people tend to forget about it or put it off.”
My favourite Proschwitz wines,enjoyed with colleagues over dinner in a vineyard cabin overlooking Meissen Cathedral, were the lushly fresh 2007 Goldriesling (unique to Saxony) with its soft, easy fruitiness, setting you up for a meal or for a summer snooze in a deckchair; the 2006 Pinot Blanc, a food wine for all seasons with all the fine linear tastes of this grape, enlivened with a spicness coming from a smidgin of Auerrois grapes; then a young Scheurebe Kabinett trocke, its cool climate aromas heralding a lively mineral mouthfeel and a perfumed richness of flavour, ideal for crab or lobster; and finally a 2005 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) with the haunting scents of the world's most exciting red grape and a subtle lingering complexity of flavours that may enjoyed now or left to reveal further layers of taste, stored in a cool cellar over the next five years.
Schloss Proschwitz is the only wine estate in East Germany to belong to the prestigious Association of German Prädikat wine estates (VDP). Georg's vision has been realised.