Chateau Mouton Rothschild (often simply referred to as “Mouton”) is truly one of the world’s greatest wine estates. It is relatively rare but sought after by collectors all over the world which has resulted in very high prices upon release, that over time can increase in multiples as wealthy connoisseurs chase the opportunity to have a bottle. We were very privileged to taste this wine and hear its amazing story at the winery as a part of an exclusive wine trip with Iberian Wine Tours.
Mouton sits on top of a small rise on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, in the commune of Paulliac, in southwest France. Adjacent to the vineyards is the pale yellow stone building that houses the winemaking facilities and their huge (100 metres long!) barrel room. Other buildings on the property include the Rothschild family home and The Museum of Wine in Art, their incredible collection of centuries of art from across the world. The entire property is meticulously maintained and is visually stunning.
Few wine estates in the world can match Mouton for richness in history. In 1853 Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild acquired what was then Chateau Brane-Mouton at auction. The term Mouton means small hill. Baron Rothschild bought the estate after the previous owner allowed it to fall into something of a state of disrepair. His motivation for acquiring it was not financial but to have an ability to serve his own wine to his guests.
That was the start of Chateau Mouton Rothschild but perhaps the real birth of the famous, top wine making estate did not occur until 1922 when Nathaniel’s 20 year old grandson Baron Philippe de Rothschild took over the estate. At this point Mouton was producing excellent wine and had been awarded the status of Second Growth within the 1855 Classification of the Medoc and Graves. (This classification ranked the 61 top estates of the Left Bank into 5 crus or “growths” from first to fifth. For more detail see our Bordeaux Primer). Baron Philippe was passionate about wine and immediately set about making changes and improvements at the estate that were innovations at the time. These improvements have withstood the test of time and have been widely adopted throughout Bordeaux. One of the more important innovations, now practiced by most estates, was to bottle at the estate. Previously the custom was to sell your wine in barrels to negociants (distributors) who would bottle and label the wine. The phrase mis en bouteille which appears on the back of most French wine bottles means estate bottled.
After implementing these innovations, Baron Philippe became convinced that Chateau Mouton Rothschild was as good as any First Growth and he was bitterly disappointed with his Second Growth status. The estate’s motto at that time was Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis. (“First, I cannot be. Second, I do not deign to be. Mouton I am.”) The Baron then set about lobbying the regulators to elevate Mouton from Second Growth status to First Growth status. Though many at the time agreed with the Baron’s assessment of the quality of his wine, getting the regulators to make a change was a formidable challenge. No changes to status had ever been made since the original Classification was drawn up in 1855. In fact only one change had ever been made by the regulators. In 1856, the year after the original classification was drawn up, Chateau Cantemerle was added to the Classification bring the number of classified estates up to 61.
But Baron Philippe was tireless in his efforts. He continued to focus on improvements in the vineyard and in the winery and upping the quality of his wine. While doing this he continued to lobby the regulators, to have them taste his wine to convince them that Mouton was and should be a First Growth. Finally, in 1973, 118 years after the original Classification was drawn up, the regulators made their first change to the Classification. Chateau Mouton Rothschild was elevated from Second Growth to First Growth, raising the number of First Growths to five. In the 45 years since then, no other changes have been made to the Classification. Mouton was the only estate that changed status in the 163 years since the Classification of 1855 was created. To observe this momentous event, the winery changed its motto to Premier je suis, Second je fus, Mouton ne change. (“First, I am. Second, I used to be. Mouton does not change.”)
Vineyards and Winemaking
Mouton has 222 contiguous acres (90 ha.) under vine that produce their grand vin, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, from the best plots on the estate. Grapes not used in the grand vin go into the estate’s second label, Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild, created in 1993.
The vines at Mouton average 50 years old. The oldest vines are over 100 years old. Today the vineyard is planted 80% to Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% to Merlot, 3% to Cabernet Franc and 1% to Petit Verdot. The soil is a layer of stones and gravel with some clay on top of a limestone base. These stones retain the heat of the day and help to fully ripen the thick skinned Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs a lot of heat to attain phenolic maturity. The soils are poor, not much good at all for producing most crops but ideal for producing fine wine grapes. The poor soil causes the vines to struggle to grow. This struggle makes for a less vigorous canopy of leaves which allows sufficient sunlight on the grapes for optimum ripening. It also results in smaller berries which have higher skin to juice ratios that produce more concentrated wines of intense flavours.
Mouton has developed a unique approach to developing the different plots within their vineyard. Each plot has its own individual crew which is responsible for all aspects of growing and harvesting of that individual plot. Each plot has its own designated large oak fermenter which vinifies the pressed grape juice from that plot. There are 28 of these oak vats which are fed the juice of their grapes (called “must”) via gravity. Gravity is the preferred way to move the must as it is a more gentle from of handling than using pumps, and results in smoother, more polished wines. The contents of each vat is vinified separately utilizing different techniques, depending on the nature of the grapes that its plot has produced. This means that wines from different vats can be vinified at different temperatures and for different lengths of time with varying amounts of punch downs or pump-overs.
At Mouton there is no average treatment for all grapes. Each plot is given the individual attention that produces the best result from that small area. It is an extraordinary attention to the finest detail. After primary fermentation in these 28 vats, the wine is then placed in 220 litre new French oak barrels. The wine will stay in those barrels for a minimum of 18 months and up to 22 months, depending on the characteristics of the vintage. Finally, the best barrels are then selected and blended into the grand vin. During each vintage, 25,000 to 30,000 cases of wine are produced at the estate, roughly split between the grand vin and the second label.
Tasting at Mouton
Before we went to the private tasting room we did a tour of the adjoining Museum of Wine in Art. Baron Philippe created the museum in 1962 by converting the old barrel room. It now houses hundreds of paintings, sculptures and other objets d’art that are related to wine and winemaking and cover a span of centuries and continents. The museum is huge and it is fascinating. Among its treasures are the original paintings that have adorned various labels of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The first artist created label was placed on the 1924 Mouton. The artist was Jean Carlu. In 1945 Baron Philippe decided that the artist’s label would become a tradition and a new artist has been chosen to create a new label for every vintage since. These include some of the most renowned artists of their day: Picasso, Miro, Dali, Jeff Koons and others. Also creating labels have been persons famous for other pursuits who enjoyed art as a hobby, such as Robert Wilson (stage director); John Houston (filmmaker) and Prince Charles.
Viewing all of these wine-related artistic treasures definitely increased our excitement and anticipation for tasting the wines. Not only did we taste Mouton, we tasted the wines of two other Bordeaux estates that are owned by Mouton: Chateau Clerc Milon and Chateau D’Armailhac. Visiting the estate, seeing the museum and the label art and then finally tasting the wines was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
2003 Chateau Clerc Milon
Clerc Milon sits just down the road from Mouton, also in the commune of Paulliac. It has the distinction of sitting right across the street from Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Clerc Milon is a Fifth Growth. 2003 was a notoriously hot year in Bordeaux so we were expecting to taste a wine that resembled a Napa Cab. We were surprised to find a very well-balanced wine that showed lots of Bordeaux typicity: dark fruits and cassis, medium+ body, firmly tannic, with subtle notes of forest, cigar tobacco mocha. The wine seemed fully mature but certainly had enough fruit and structure to go longer.
2011 Chateau d’Armailhac
Also in Paulliac, D’Armailhac is a Fifth Growth planted to 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. 2011 followed two of the greatest recent Bordeaux vintages: the 2009 and the 2010. A wickedly hot June was followed by an unseasonably cold July. Drought conditions compounded vintners’ problems. These challenges were evident in our glasses: the body of this wine was much less than that of the Clerc Milon that preceded it and it also fell short of that wine in complexity. Perhaps our view was impacted by the wines that surrounded it, but we found this to be a simple, though pleasant Bordeaux, more reminiscent of an Haut Medoc than a typical Paulliac.
2012 Chateau Mouton Rothschild
2012 was a better vintage in Bordeaux than 2011, but it was a vintage that presented a different set of challenges. Many within the wine press reviewed it as a “Merlot vintage” meaning that it was a slightly cooler vintage, one that generally favoured the Merlot-dominant wines of the Right Bank. But work in the vineyard, dropping fruit and tending to the canopy could allow Cabernet-heavy producers to succeed as well. This played right into Mouton’s hands as their 28 teams tended to their plots in just the right way. Mouton is generally regarded as the most flamboyant of the First Growths. It can also be the most structured, requiring a decade (or even two) to enter its plateau of maturity. To us the 2012 Mouton was classically Paulliac: black cherry, cassis, cedar and minerals delivered on a very full-bodied and still tannic frame. This a very big wine, showing lots of black fruit flavours that are matched by the still youthful tannins. At this stage in its development it becomes a bit difficult to assess. It comes across as extremely young, showing loads of potential of what it could be as those hard tannins break down and the mouthfeel becomes more appealing. Our rating reflects our evaluation as it is drinking today, but we could well envision a rating of extraordinary in another decade.
Excellent+ (Available at BC Liquor Stores for $900 + taxes)