Robert Temple - Author of The Sphinx Mystery

Below is an account I wrote in 1988 of an amazing experience we had then in the Rheingau in Germany. Now that Count and Countess Matuschka-Greiffenclau have both tragically died young and their wine estate Schloss Vollrads has passed out of the family's hands, we are close friends of their only child, Francesca, who is described in this account as a four year-old child. Francesca is now eighteen, a stunning tall beauty with a magnificent singing voice and irresistible personal charm. She has learned fluent English very quickly, and during one year spent at an English boarding school, she has won several regional prizes for speaking competitions, which is extraordinary for a foreigner who has only known English for a few months. For Francesca's sake, I have decided to include in the Nostalgia section this memory of 'the old days' when she and her family celebrated their 775th anniversary in their magnificent castle, before a series of disasters struck and brought the nearly eight centuries of family tradition to a close. All of us who were present at the occasion described here can never forget it. We were the only people from Britain who were there. To celebrate the 775th anniversary of any family's continuous activities on the same spot and in the same occupation is a landmark in world history, and apart from the British Royal family, I wonder if there is any other example of such a survival through time. Now it is Francesca who will carry on the family history in whatever way she chooses, though she is temporarily without a castle and without a vineyard, and will probably chart a new course altogether in life. This memory is a token of our affection for her, and a salute to her bravery and strength of character in surviving several terrible family tragedies while preserving her composure, her dignity, and her sense of humour. Here, then, is the unchanged text of what I wrote about her parents when she was still a child. She may be seen with her parents and Carla the dog in the accompanying photograph which I took on the evening which I now describe:

Erwein, Count Matuschka-Greiffenclau, is Germany's most imaginative and dynamic wine-grower. So when he and Countess Sabine held a banquet to celebrate his family's 775th anniversary of continuous wine production at the same vineyard, it was a glittering occasion. The Greiffenclaus are known to have produced wine at Schloss Vollrads vineyard from the year 1211, so that they have been in this business for longer than any other family in the world. Indeed, their original house still stands, converted to a restaurant named the Graues Haus, and some architectural historians believe it dates from the ninth century and is the oldest surviving stone house in the whole of Germany. It is two or three miles from the present castle (Schloss Vollrads). Count Matuschka uses his restaurant to demonstrate his theories on how food and wine should go together, with an emphasis on the superb wines of his region, the Rheingau. So far, Count Matuschka has compared sixty cheeses with eighty wines to find the best match and to prove his points.

Count Erwein and Countess Sabine Matuschka-Greiffenclau and their daughter Francesca Countess Matuschka-Greiffenclau, at Schloss Vollrads in the Rheingau on the evening of the big dinner.
Matuschka is forty-eight years old and has been married for only five years. 'We married late.' He says, 'because we needed to mature like good wine. Every New Year's Eve he and his wife spend at home alone. They cook each other separate meals in two different kitchens of their enormous house and invite each other in turn to two successive rooms to have a series of courses of food and wine. They always make a point also of welcoming each other with flowers and a fine dinner service. Such amusing habits are typical of Count Matuschka, who gets some of his greatest enjoyment from playing a series of elaborate games with his dog, Carla. When he drives away from his castle, the Count pretends to leave Carla behind. He stops the car at the end of the drive and Carla is allowed to 'attack' the car by way of reprimanding him. She always savages the tyres with her teeth, growling ferociously, as if it were the car which had been naughty in leaving her behind. The Count then graciously gets out of the car and invites Carla to enter, letting her have the back seat. 'I have to open the door for her like that,' he says, 'because she is a lady.' Whenever the Count has been for supper at the Graues Haus, Carla goes to the far end of the street, pretending that she doesn't know he is leaving. He starts up the car without her, drives on, and then she suddenly catches up with him and he lets her in again. 'We play these little games,' says Matuschka, 'and I must say, I like them.' Carla was actually Sabine's dog before they got married, but she has switched her primary allegiance to the Count, with whom these games seem to be a form of flirtation. The Count likes to tell the story of how a French wine-grower came to stay and got into a dispute about whether Rheingau wines could possibly be as good as French wines, affirming that this was impossible. Matuschka said: 'But how can you say that, when even my dog knows that Rheingau wines are superior?'

The Frenchman was incredulous and said: 'What do you mean, your dog knows that Rheingau wines are superior to French ones?' 'Well,' said Matuschka, 'I'll show you.' So he took two bones, soaking one in Schloss Vollrads wine and soaking the other in a fine French wine. He offered them both to Carla, who instantly chose her master's version. 'There, you see,' said Matuschka, 'even my dog knows which is better.' The Frenchman admitted defeat, and said he would come back in two or three years when he had trained his dog to eat bones soaked in French wine by way of reply. At the 775th Anniversary Celebrations, Carla wore her customary white bow tie which is de rigeur for formal occasions. And the much-prized only daughter, Francesca, aged four, was on hand in a pretty frock to flit between the legs of arriving guests. In all, about forty of the world's leading wine and drink magnates turned up, including such luminaries as Keizo Saji, who owns Suntory Ltd. and the world's largest distillery in Japan. Schloss Vollrads is often known as the 'Chateau Lafitte of Germany', but Count Matuschka does not produce red wines (although a light and velvety red is produced only a few miles away, just north of Rüdesheim). He specializes in dry white wines with considerable fruit and high acidity. They are some of the driest wines in Germany. He also produces a champagne which he calls 'brut brut', as it is one of the driest made anywhere. A historical wine-tasting preceded the banquet, commencing with two bottles of Vollrads 1862, which tasted a bit like sherry or Madeira but was still quite drinkable after 124 years. This was followed by an 1893 Vollrads which was at its peak of perfection, one of the most delicious wines I have ever tasted. The exceptional acidity of the wines of the Rheingau enables them to be preserved for such unusual lengths of time. Equal in its excellence though far more vigorous was the next wine, from 1937. It seemed to have captured the genie of the grape within the bottle. Although it lacked the subtle and profound depths of maturity which astonished one in the 1893 wine, this one from 1937 seemed to contain all the freshness of eternal youth, and one felt that if one could drink it every day, one would never grow old. The 1893 wine had all the overtones of a grand piano, but the 1937 was as invigorating as a Vivaldi flute concerto. Each was perfection in its own way.

The historical wine-tasting was followed by a magnificent banquet laid in another room, where six more vintages were served with the six courses. Matuschka's chef from the Graues Haus, Egbert Engelhardt, prepared this feast, and came in to receive generous and heartfelt applause at its conclusion. The food was heavily influenced by French nouvelle cuisine. The six courses in succession were:

1. Smoked fillets of rabbit on white cabbage salad.
2. Leek soup with smoked eel.
3. Pigeon breast with potato dauphinoise and crisp haricots verts
4. Poached fillet of salmon with baked oysters, garnished with wild samphire herb
5. Roast rack of lamb with rosemary
6. Mousse of white chocolate in elderberry sauce, garnished with sprigs of elderberries. (These were gathered by the local children.)
After some more modern vintage, we went back again in time to 1929 to taste some of the dessert wines, beerenausleses and trockenbeerenausleses, working up to 1959. They would have tasted like a divine form of honey if they had not been more appropriately described as ambrosial. Each of them surpassed a 1970 Eiswein which I had had elsewhere not long before. These rare sweet wines must be among the best of their kind in the world, and it is only to be regretted that the Matuschkas have an exceedingly dry taste and do not particularly enjoy drinking them. The pinnacle of taste in this historical wine-probe then came last. After working our way through a 1949 trockenbeerenauslese as if we were swimming in a honeycomb, we came to the finest sweet wine I have ever tasted, an 1897 Vollrads trockenbeerenauslese. I wish I could remember more about it, but as I was by then transported into heaven, I was distracted by the angels' wings which were folding over me. But I know that it was the best, and one lives in hope of another such experience. Will it and I be there at the 800th anniversary celebrations, I found myself desperately wondering. [These would have taken place in the year 2011.] The entire evening's festivities had lasted no less than seven hours, but recollections of the event will last much longer. Count Matuschka delivered inspired and elegant discourses on each wine, and individually toasted every guest present with a mild flattery which was actually heartfelt. He is a sentimental soul, about 6'5", with impeccable manners and dashing good looks. He is the only German wine-grower who is also a true gourmet, and his hundreds of experiments in combining wine and food are unmatched anywhere in the world. He looks upon himself as a scientist, and tackles the combinations of food and wine with all the energy and rigour of a professional chemist.

Matuschka's vineyard grows only Riesling grapes, which he believes to be far superior to any other German grape. It is in the heart of the Rheingau region near Rüdesheim on the Rhine. He also owns the adjoining Fürst Löwenstein Vineyard, which produces less dry wines with a slight flavour of peaches. (This is the perfect wine for duck, as he proved to me at his restaurant by comparing it with red wines at the duck course.) As head of the Rheingau Wine Growers' Association, Count Matuschka leads a fierce campaign to persuade the world that Rheingau wines are the equals of many of the finest French wines. He disposed of his entire 1984 vintage of 580,000 bottles for anonymous sparkling wine rather than release it under his label, because it didn't meet his own high standards. Although the French occasionally do this sort of thing, Matuschka seems to be unique in Germany in accepting such huge financial losses to maintain quality standards.

The Matuschkas work so hard that at the time of their anniversary party, they were getting up at 4 AM every day to get everything done. They take turns touring the world giving wine tastings and demonstrations of food and wine, often accompanied by two or three famous chefs. One of them always stays behind with their daughter at the castle, so they often overlap for only a few hours in their jet-setting lifestyle. Their anniversary celebration was a triumph of organisation and sophisticated entertaining, but perhaps the greatest feat accomplished by the Matuschkas at the event was in not nodding off during dinner, as they were both so exhausted that they would gladly, if they could, have foregone the 1897 dessert wine for forty winks.

© Robert Temple 2009-2022