I recently met with Prince Felix, 28, and Prince Constantin zu Salm-Salm, 30, of Germany. The two brothers run the family estates, Prinz zu Salm Dalberg, located in the Nahe region, and Rheingraf Villa Sachsen from Rheinhessen. They are in two adjoining wine regions, only a 15-minute drive and roughly 10 miles separating the two.
The Prinz zu Salm Dalberg winery is the oldest in Germany, established in 1200, making Constantin and Felix the 32nd generation to run the estate. Constantin joined the family wine business in 2006, after studying economics and management, followed by stints at Castell in Franken and Stefan von Neipperg’s estates in Bordeaux. Felix was enlisted abruptly for the harvest in 2007, when on the first day of picking, the cellar master broke her wrist. He interned with the late Bernhard Breuer at Georg Breuer in the Rheingau and also with Alois Lageder in Italy’s Alto Adige region.
Today, there are roughly 32 acres of planted vines at the Nahe property, but 5 acres will be gained through fleurbereinigung, a restructuring process that improves the access to vineyards. In some cases, it also organizes small, individual parcels under the same ownership into larger parcels that deliver higher economies of scale. Another 7.5 acres will be planted in the future.
Rheingraf Villa Sachsen lies across the Rhine river from Rüdesheim, near the town of Bingen. The vineyards cover 47 acres and are influenced by their proximity to the river. The soils there are stony, but deep. Despite its close proximity, the Nahe vineyards are in a side valley protected by the Hunsrück Mountains. At the Johannisberg site in Wallhausen, the soils are red slate; the Felseneck vineyard near Dalberg is comprised of green slate.
Consequently, the wines of Villa Sachsen are broader and carry more weight; those from the Felseneck and Johannisberg sites show more finesse and precision.
Together, the two brothers are making some small changes at the properties, both in the vineyards and the cellars.
The family has always been committed to nature. Thanks to the foresight of their father, Prince Michael zu Salm-Salm, the vineyards have been farmed organically since 1989. The brothers’ goal is to become carbon-neutral at the two wineries. They installed solar panels in 2006, and the properties encompass 420 acres of forests, the wood from which is used for heat. At Prinz zu Salm-Dalberg in Wallhausen, there is a reservoir for water.
The new plantings will have closer spacing, increasing the density from 2,000 vines per acre to 2,400, on less vigorous rootstock. More plowing, composting and planting clover between every other row are other practices they have introduced.
Yields are being reduced from 85 hectoliters per hectare (6.3 tons per acre) to 60 hectoliters per hectare (4.45 tons per acre), a result of the new rootstock and cover crop, which competes with the vines for water from the soil.
The brothers feel that they have a steeper learning curve with the vineyards in Bingen. The Wallhausen vineyards are two to three years ahead of those on the Rheingraf Villa Sachsen estate, which has been wholly owned by the Salm family since 2005. “We grew up in Wallhausen and we know the vineyards,” explained Felix.
Overall, this means more work in the vineyards, but less work in the cellar. The amount of stainless steel tanks have been increased from 25 percent to about 60 percent since 2006, allowing for greater volume and more control over the fermentation. The fermentations generally start with wild yeasts, but both indigenous and cultured yeasts are used.
The brothers keep the wines longer on the lees and extended the maturation, with the goal of one racking and a light filtration, followed by a tighter filtration at bottling.
Some excellent dessert wines have been made at the Schloss Wallhausen estate over the past decade, but some of the wines are inconsistent. I have only tasted the 2008s from Rheingraf Villa Sachsen, and the early results look promising. Constantin and Felix have the legacy of generations to continue; given the changes they are making in their youth, these are two estates to watch.
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