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.
Daniel Lorson, Director of the CIVC, confirms that the two communes of Germaine and Orbais l'Abbaye could be excluded from the revised Aire de l'Appellation as part of the redefining and possible enlargement of Champagne Viticole.
The new INAO are firing a political shot across the bows of the mighty (Moet, Vranken...) to remind them that no one will be escape the authorities' scrutiny. On a positive note, I am impressed by the list of 40 new communes (published in October 2007) as candidates for possible inclusion in a revised AOC: there are some fine villages in the Vesle and Ardre valleys to the north west of Reims, and intriguingly some sunny sites near Troyes, running south from Montgueux, which should provide some ripe golden Chardonnays".
It's always a good humbling experience for a soi-disant specialist to eat a few of his words about a new vintage in a marginal climate like Champagne's . I took the Eurostar to Paris and onto Epernay late last month, fearing the worst after experiencing some ghastly, cold, wet weather there through much of last August. On Christmas day, on my blog I wrote impetuously that the authorities may have fired the starting gun for the 2007 harvest (August 26) a couple of weeks too early before the returning sun had a chance to ripen the grapes adequately.
Renaissance church Le Mesnil.
It turns out that the vintage was saved at the end of August by a north wind which dried the grapes and stalled any incipient rot. I now understand why picking started when it did. But I note from a naughty peep at a fiche of quality evaluation sheets for the grapes coming in to a very Grande Maison a big variation in the grades (A – D) given to grape lots received at the start, middle and end of the harvest: e.g one lot 26 -30 August got a miserable D, a loud raspberry; those in the middle around 9-12 September gained Bs and even the occasional A; those at the end of picking, dropping generally to C level. What is absolutely clear is that 2007 is an uneven year, with some remarkable highs but several poor lows. It depends very much on the exact picking date and of course the vineyard zone.
Outsidel mural at Domaine Pierre Peters
The greatest surprise in 2007 is the fine quality of Chardonnays from the best sites in the Côte des Blancs – it's very much a year for grands terroirs. One of my first visits was to the exceptional Domaine Pierre Péters in Le Mesnil, having enjoyed wonderful hospitality from the village's growers the day before at the Fête de St-Vincent. After Mass in the lovely Renaissance church, the congregation was given a little blessed brioche – a Champenois tradition. Tasting the 2007 vins clairs with Redolphe Péters, whose family owns 17 hectares mainly in Grands Crus, I was impressed by the supple, pure grapefruit-like flavours from the lieu-dit of Les Mussettes (Le Mesnil) contrasting intriguingly with the more powerful fuller bodied La Fosse (Avize) where the soil has clay elements as well as chalk. The greatest of Péter's lieux-dits was as always the legendary Les Chétillons in Le Mesnil, one of the best bits of earth in Champagne: the top soil is very light, the vine goes straight down into a stratum of the purest chalk giving the wine an incomparable minerality that often takes a full decade for the finished champagne to really show its paces, though th e ripeness is there thanks to the south-facing aspect of this vineyard. The 2007 Chétillons is as Redolphe says “a difficult child but very promising.” For me, it has real punch and minerality, terrific length and a magnificent capacity for aging.
The 07 still wines from Montagne de Reims Pinot Noir, always a capricious grape, seem to lack overall the ripeness of a great black grapes year like 2002. But I did taste some fine wines from Aÿ, Mareuil, Ambonnay and Verzy in particular at Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot. The Widow's team are wisely in my view not going to release 2007 as a vintage year: it's too heterogenuous, there is a real problem with sufficient ripeness in Meuniers from the Marne valley, and it's a very difficult year in the Aube (Côte des Bar) where a lot of the crop was struck by hail. The best of Clicquot's wines will go into Yellow Label non-vintage, to enhance the quality of this famous label.
Winter foggy morning from Abbey d'Hautvillers over shrouded Marne valley.
On my last morning (25 January) I took a taxi ride up through the fog (the sun peeping through) to the Abbey of Hautvillers for a real treat, a Vertical tasting of recent vintages of Dom Pérignon with Richard Geoffroy. An interesting result for my notebook: the 2000, a touch foursquare but full of character; the 1999, all upfront, a grandstanding wine but lacking the substance of a truly great vintage; the 1998, an absolute classic, subtle, stylish and complex; the 1996, big and deep but not quite at the level of the 1998 (a controversial view?) Then two glorious DP Rosés: the 1996, all captivating fragrant-in-the-mouth red fruits flavous, very Pinot with a bracing balance of Chardonnay; the pink 1990, a show-stealer of evolved secondary “sweet” tastes of prunes and brioche.
Wine scribbling certainly beats selling insurance or sweeping the streets.