A wine auction of the Nassau domain administration

Wines have been auctioned at Eberbach Monastery in the Rheingau since 1806 - first out of necessity, then as an exclusive distribution channel, finally to uphold tradition and as a rarity show. On 11 March 2023, the time has come again. Parallel to my article on the history of the Eberbach wine auction in FINE - Das Weinmagazin 1/2023, here is the reprint of an article on the wine auction in 1836, perhaps the most important ever in the history of Eberbach Abbey.

6 mins read
Original of the article
Original of the article

In the first months of 1836, the Rhenish newspapers, the Prussian Staatszeitung, the Augsburger Allgemeine, the Amsterdam Handelsblatt and the most respected Parisian, London and St. Petersburg papers published an advertisement for a wine auction at Eberbach Monastery on 14 and 15 March, which aroused the attention of all those who had to do with wine, whether for business or pleasure, and virtually caused an uproar. The auctioneer was the Herzogl. nass. Domänen-Direktion. In order to understand this auction, which is unique in the history of viticulture, a brief historical review is required.

When it took over the administration of the vineyards in the three castles of Erbach in the Rheingau, Biebrich and Weilburg and the Eberbach monastery, the domain directorate of the new Duchy of Nassau found wonderful treasures. No less than 179 stuck of noble wines from the vintages 1706 to 1811 were stored there. The nobler ones were called Kabinet wines, the less noble table wines.

Eberbach abbey today

In Weilburg there were Hochheimer from 1706, 1746, 1779, 1783, 1802, 1806, 1811. Rüdesheimer from 1726, 1760, 1776, 1781, 1783, 1794, 1811. Marcobrunner from 1807. Hattenheimer, Hochheimer and Wiesbadener Neroberger from 1811. Nürnbergerhofer (Frauensteiner) from 1807, 1811, Cauber from 1815. Niersteiner from 1760, 1783, 1788 and Moselwein from 1748.

In Biebrich were stored: Hochheimer from 1806, 1807, 1811; Marcobrunner and Steinberger from 1804, 1806, 1811; Hattenheimer from 1806, 1807, 1811; Rauenthaler and Neudorfer from 1806; Wiesbadener from 1811; Forster from 1802, 1813 and Aßmannshäuser from 1811.

And in the Eberbach cellar rested: Steinberger from 1806, 1807, 1811. Rüdesheimer Berg, Hinterhaus and Kiesel from 1806, 1807, 1811. Hattenheimer, Marcobrunner and Hochheimer Domdechaney from 1811.

Failure Bottling

Kabinett cellar

All pearls, real wine pearls! The best and finest that the golden sun had created from the soil in the Rhenish wine country in the course of a century, collected and cultivated by loving and understanding hands. One can only wonder that these noble wines did not find their way through the gullets of the otherwise clever, ever-thirsty and truly impious warriors in the storms of wartime. In short, they were still there. But they could not and would not be kept forever. In order to make the world acquainted with these treasures and thus also to promote the reputation of Rheingau wines and to make the Eberbach monastery cellar famous in a similar way to the cellar of the prince abbot of Fulda in former times, the domain management decided to first sell the older vintages that were available in several cases, especially those of the years 1804, 1806, 1807 and 1811, as well as younger wines.

For the time being, it filled a portion of the best 1811 Steinberg into bottles of ½ Maß (1 litre) and placed them in the Kurhaus restaurants of Wiesbaden, Ems and Langenschwalbach at a price of initially 6 fl. 30 cr. (Mk. 11.03), later 8 fl. 6 cr. (Mk. 13.80) for sale. It was a failure. Although there will not have been a lack of connoisseurs – the 1811, the famous comet wine, had too great a reputation for that – there were unfortunately too few connoisseurs with deep pockets. So they tried less expensive Rheingau wines, an 1811 Steinberg at 5 fl. 30 cr. (Mk. 7.65), 4 fl. (Mk. 6.80), 3 fl. 30 cr. (Mk. 4.95) and a Neroberger, Rüdesheimer and Hochheimer at 2 fl. 42 cr. (Mk. 6,60) per bottle. Even if this offer failed to achieve the great success that had been hoped for, it did have the good effect of drawing the attention of wider circles to the large stock of valuable wines in the Eberbach Kabinettskeller.

Limited space

Kabinett cellar at Eberbach Abbery

With each passing year, the stock increased. In 1815 alone, 86½ stuck were added, and when in 1821 the older vintages of the Weilburg Schlosskeller were also transferred there and 1822 again brought a rich harvest of excellent quality, there was almost no end to all the liquid gold, and of necessity, the stocks were severely liquidated.

The sale of bottles was abandoned, as it had led to conflicts with the wine trade. Only a number of friendly courts were still supplied directly at the Duke’s request.

Initially, 35 stuck of older wines that had become firn and younger ones that had not developed in the expected way were discarded for sale. In the following years, the domain administration continued this purge. Now there was some breathing space. But as it goes in the Rheingau, after a series of lean years, there finally came another bull’s eye, the God-blessed year of 1834 with its bumper harvest in terms of quantity and quality. The domain stored 111 stuck of white wine and 8 ½ stuck of red wine of its own growth and in addition 377 pieces of tithe wine and 4 pieces of interest wine. The coffers were finally filled again and the shortfall of the previous years could be paid off. In 1835, the domain brought no less than 430 stucks of wine to the market and earned an average of 392 guilders for a stuck of tithe wine (tithe wine came from different vineyards, from different owners, from good and poor vineyards, in a word it was poured together), but an average of 1087 guilders for the 1834 domain wine.

Division of the barrels

Model of the monastery complex
Model of the monastery complex

Again, the question was whether one should not finally sell all the old Kabinett wines, especially those of the 18th century. If it had not been for the head cellarer, the question would have been decided in the affirmative. In the wise realisation that it would be irresponsible not to preserve such a rarity as the Kabinettskeller for the countryside, he pushed through the idea of auctioning off the wines, of which there was only one left, and suggested that for commercial reasons the old wines should be divided into smaller barrels. In this way, he could at least save a certain quantity for the Kabinett cellar and a sight for the country that no longer existed anywhere. And so it happened. This memorable auction is the subject of the introduction to this essay.

Old presses
Old wine presses at Eberbach Monastery

The following were offered for sale: One half-stuck each of Hochheimer from 1706, 1748, 1779, 1783, 1806, 1827, 1828, 1831, and one whole stuck each of Hochheimer from 1807 and 1819, one half-stuck each of Rüdesheimer from 1783, 1794, 1807, 1911, 1818, 1822, and one whole stuck each from 1806 and 1819, one half-stuck each of Rüdesheimer Berg Riesling from 1825, 1831, and one whole stuck from 1826, one half-stuck each of Markobrunner from 1811, 1822, 1825, 1826 and 1831, one half-stuck each of Steinberger from 1811, 1818, 1829, 1825, 1831 and one whole stuck from 1822 and 1826, furthermore 40 pieces of Steinberger, 6 stucks of Markobrunner and 15 stucks of Hattenheimer Domänenweine from 1834, finally 16½ stucks of Hattenheimer and Erbacher tithe wine from 1834.

A lunch for tasting

A drawing of w wie auction at Eberbach Monastery
A wine auction at Eberbach Monastery. A drawing by K. Kögler

Just as it is customary today to pass around buns or “Wasserweck” at large wine auctions “to cleanse the tongue”, the Nassau domain administration had the nice custom at that time of donating a free midday meal to the visitors of its wine auctions. This expense was not as bad as one might think at first glance, the peripheral location of the Eberbach monastery itself ensured that the primitive means of transport did not give rise to the kind of public gatherings we have come to know in our days. In the certain expectation of a very large attendance this time, however, this custom was presumably suspended for this auction, but care was taken that the visitors could have a midday meal for their money, to which the domain administration nobly donated ½ bottle of wine to everyone.

The calculation proved to be correct. No less than 600 people from all over the world flocked to the old Cistercian monastery in the remote valley of the Rheingau during these spring days. There was a confusion of languages almost like at a meeting of the League of Nations. The greatest wine connoisseurs were all on hand. The result exceeded all expectations. However, not with the very old wines. In the words of Wilhelm Busch, they had become “crooked and wrinkled, grim, greyish, misshapen”, they had lost the strength and the jewellery of youth and manhood and had exchanged a considerable barrel firn for it. Just think, the oldest was already 30 years old and still stored in the barrel! It was probably not yet known that wine only develops its noble qualities in the bottle and becomes more and more valuable. Up to a certain age, of course, which varies from wine to wine.

The results in numbers

Old wine tools

The half-stuck of 1760 Hochheimer was bought by Deinhard in Koblenz for 325 gulden (there is not a single bottle left, as she informs us), the half-stuck of 1828 Hochheimer by Vogt in Frankfurt for 655 gulden, and the one from 1779 by Urbach in Cologne for 485 gulden. And now the price began to rise steadily: the Hochheimer half-stuck from 1783 was already 580 gulden, the Rüdesheimer half-stick from 1783 665 gulden. A half-stuck of Rüdesheimer Berg Riesling from 1825 bought at auction for the Duke of Cambridge already fetched 2255 gulden. The highest prices were paid for the 1822 Riesling, 2915, 3900 and 4510 florins for each half-stuck. A half-stuck of Steinberger was sold to Prince Emil of Hesse for 6105 florins. The Grand Duke of Baden bought a half-stuck of 1834s for 4005, the Duke of Cambridge one for 5100 florins. The average price was 2900 gulden.

Georg Fiebig, Freiendiez. In: Koblenzer Heimatblatt (= Koblenzer Generalanzeiger, Supplement). 5. 1928, No. 28, p. [4].

[Remarks of the editor:
Stuck means a Rheingau Stückfass of 1,200 litres, the half-stuck or Halbstück of 600 litres.
The currencies are gulden [fl. = florin] and kreuzer [cr.] or mark [Mk.].
The conversion rate according to https://www.eurologisch.at/docroot/waehrungsrechner/#/ is 24.90 Euro for 1 gulden. This means that the average price of the auction for a bottle of 0.75 litres today was 90.27 Euro. The 1822 Steinberger cost the Prince of Hesse about 190 Euro a bottle].

© of all photographs: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images

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