Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like there has been a decent run of wineries celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. Perhaps being a child of 1973 and celebrating my own birthday, I look askance at announcements celebrating this historic anniversary with confusion. Sure, 1973 was a bit ago – but is still quite recent when it comes to wine. California alone has Conn Creek, Bien Nacido Vineyards, Cakebread Cellars, Chandon, Chateau St. Jean, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and more; Oregon joins in with Brooks Wine from Willamette Valley. Thinking of these “ahem” youthful and classic wineries led me to think about wineries with even more patina of age – some going back over a thousand years.
The oldest winery in the world still producing wine is Staffelter Hof in the Mosel region of Germany. The winery is established in 862 and founded at the Benedictine abbey of Stavelot. This land is in the abbey’s possession until 1805 when Peter Schneiders buys the winery. To this day, it remains in the family and is known for organically produced riesling, muscat blends, and other wines produced in a natural style.
Coming in as the second oldest winery is Château de Goulaine in France. Housed in the first castle built in the Loire in the 12th century by Jean de Goulaine, the estate is fortified over the years to defend it from the Normans. A family of the old nobility, members of which participate in the seventh crusade, keeps control of the land continuously save for roughly 69 years - in 1788 a Dutch banker buys the estate. This turn of events holds the estate from being dissolved during the French Revolution due to foreign ownership. In 1858, it is bought back by the Goulaine family who maintain ownership to this day. Wines were initially produced for family consumption only. When it became a commercial enterprise is not clear, but today you will find classic Muscadet, Sancerre, and Vouvray.
Back to Germany for the third oldest - Schloss Johannisberg from the Rheingau region. Claiming over 1,200 years of winegrowing history, the first recorded mention of the vineyards located here is 817. The name Johannisberg translates to St. John’s Hill, referencing St. John the Baptist. A quick history - Emperor Ludwig the Pious acquires vineyards from the important Fulda Abbey. In 1100, a Benedictine Abbey is built on the land and thirty years later the monastery becomes an independent site. Rough times for the next several centuries include the tale of many owners and a monastery left in ruins. In 1716, the construction of a palace begins on the ruins and four years later, the land is planted with riesling and becomes the first closed vineyard of riesling in the world. In 1775, “spätlese” is accidentally produced for the first time as there is a delay in receiving the official permission to harvest. This delay allows the grapes to fully ripen on the vine and produce a unique wine – much to the delight of the winemaker and community. A legend in wine is born; a wine made from grapes harvested later (“spät” means later in German), these wines are fragrant, complex, and rich. The winery changes hands a few more times, next after Napoleon is defeated in 1814, and then again in 1816 to Prince von Metternech in honor of his success at the Congress of Vienna. In 1858, the first “eiswein” is made – a transcendent wine made from frozen grapes harvested off the vine in the dead of winter - hedonistic, expressive, and breathtaking. In 1942, the winery is partially damaged during the war and rebuilt by Paul Alfons Furst von Metternech. His widow, Princess Tatiana, lived on site until she passed in 2006. Today, it stands as an icon of Riesling.
There are more to note, each with fascinating tales of historical importance and legendary enjoyment such as Schloss Vollrads in Germany (they lay claim to having the oldest wine bill in existence), Ricasoli in Chianti (we can thank them for the Chianti Classico “recipe”), Frescobaldi (ancient and important banking family in Florence, Italy), and Antinori from Tuscany (the current family is the 26th generation and responsible for my second epiphany wine - Tignanello). Fifty years is a very respectable milestone, especially in the US wine industry – yet, arguably and wonderfully still youthful as are many things from 1973.