Tasha Brandstatter on September 10, 2016 0 Comments Miquel Barceló 2012 The Bordeaux winery of Château Mouton Rothschild is one of the most well-known in France, and indeed the world. Famous for its bold, high-quality red wine, Mouton was the highest-rated of all the French wines in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting. It’s been at the center of the wine business and technical innovations since the early 20th century, and continues to be an influence on wine making around the world. If you’re only familiar with one winery in Bordeaux, it should be this one. History of Château Mouton Rothschild The land around Château Mouton Rothschild, in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, has been used for cultivating vineyards since the early middle ages. It is in fact the crown jewel of Bordeaux’s left bank, producing the region’s finest wines. But even among these stars, Château Mouton Rothschild stands out: this winery occupies the highest point in Pauillac (in fact, its name — Mouton — originally meant “hill” rather than “sheep” in Old French), and has the best drainage and rocky soil for growing wine grapes. Yet for many years Mouton was overlooked, abandoned and neglected. In the early 18th century, Château Mouton Rothschild was simply called Château Mouton and was owned by the Marquis de Ségur, who also owned several other famous châteaux (read: wineries) in the area. After changing hands a few times following the French Revolution, Mouton was bought by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, an English banker, in 1853 and was renamed the Château Mouton Rothschild. The real turning point in the Château’s history, however, came when 20-year-old Baron Philippe de Rothschild took it over in 1922. The black sheep of his famous family, Baron de Rothschild was a wily and gregarious character who left an indelible mark on Mouton’s wines. He not only saw what the Château was (which, after World War I, was a completely rundown and neglected vineyard), but what it could be. He poured all of his considerable personality, energy and wealth into making Château Mouton Rothschild one of the greatest wineries in the world. One of the innovations he introduced to the Château was in-house bottling (indicated by the mis-en-bouteille you see on some corks). Today we take wineries bottling their own product for granted; but at the time, very few wineries in France, and none at all in Bordeaux, bottled their own wines. Instead, wines were sold to négociants in casks, after which the négociants would bottle the wines and sell them to stores, restaurants, and the like. Baron Philippe realized bottling his wine at Mouton would help to maintain a higher standard of quality and avoid fraud, so he cut out the négociants and started bottling on site. The Baron also had a genius for marketing. If you’re even vaguely familiar with Bordeaux wines you’ve probably seen Mouton Cadet at your local liquor store. This affordable wine is actually a product of Mouton Rothschild (although it should be clear it’s not made at the Château, but comes from lesser-quality vines throughout the region). It was the first of its kind: a Bordeaux of decent quality branded for the cheapest market. The Baron was the first Bordeaux winemaker to not only brand his wine, but to create wine priced for every level of the market place, a tradition that Château Mouton Rothschild continues to this day. But the Baron’s greatest victory came in convincing the French government to elevate the status of Château Mouton Rothschild from a Second Growth to a First Growth wine, a feat that should not be underestimated. The status of the Bordeaux crus — what we call in English the growths — was set over 100 years ago at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. All the châteaux surrounding Mouton Rothschild received the highest classification — that of Premier Cru or First Growth — but Château Mouton Rothschild received a classification of Second Growth. To this day, no one knows why, although there are many theories (one being that the French panel didn’t want to give a First Growth classification to a winery owned by an Englishman). For 118 years, the classification of wines in Bordeaux remained inviolate, until the Baron finally convinced the French government to elevate Château Mouton Rothschild from Second Growth to First Growth in 1973. Even today, it remains the only château whose classification has been changed. Another fun fact: Château Mouton Rothschild is the only winery to participate in the 1855 Bordeaux Wine Official Classification that is still owned by the same family. Ilya Kabakov 2002 The Winemaking Process Château Mouton Rothschild goes through a unique winemaking process that focuses on preserving the integrity of the grape, and marries tradition with technology. Grapes (81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and just 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot) are picked by hand and transported to the Grand Chai, the building where all of Mouton’s vinification processes happen, in open baskets. After they are destemmed by a machine, the grapes are hand-sorted on vibrating tables and then transferred to gravity-fed vats. Essentially, these vats allow the grapes to be pressed and fermented entirely through all-natural processes. The vats at the Château each contain only the grapes from individual parcels on the estate. This makes it easy for the head winemaker, Philippe Dhalluin, to pick out the best blends for each vintage. Most of the vats are made of oak — in fact, Mouton is one of very few wineries in the Médoc region to still use traditional oak vats — but there are some stainless steel vats for certain parcels on the estate as well. After fermentation, the wines are transferred to new oak barrels to age for about 20 months. The Château follows traditional topping off and fining with egg whites to make sure their wines are crystal clear once bottled. The Wine Mouton bottles three types of wine on the estate. The highest-end wine is, of course, the eponymous Château Mouton Rothschild itself. Only an average of 40% of the wine produced on the estate is declared good enough to be blended into a bottle of Mouton Rothschild. All of it is harvested from the older First Growth vines and then selected for quality by Dhalluin. Like Baron Philippe Rothschild himself, these wines are not shy and retiring, but flamboyant, full of extravagant spices, personality and decadence. It’s a wine for hedonists and sensualists. Ian D’Agata described the 2009 vintage in Decanter as, “Opulent, luscious and rich: Mouton at it’s exotic, showy best. Multi-layered and complex, with wave after wave of ripe red and dark berry aromas and flavors, complicated by sweet spices, violet and cigar box. Rich and ripe but marvelously precise and light on its feet.” The second wine bottled at Mouton is Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild, which is harvested earlier in the season and made from the estate’s younger vines. However, it still goes through the same vinification and selection process as Château Mouton Rothschild, and is a very high-quality Bordeaux. It’s been described as well balanced and fruit-forward, with plenty of spice notes. Finally, the estate produces one white wine, Aile D’Argent, made with 53% Sauvignon Blanc, 35% Semillon, 11% Sauvignon Gris and 1% Muscadelle grapes. It’s characterized as “rich, complex and elegant,” but is only produced in very small quantities. What wine is left over from blending the Mouton Rothschild and Le Petit Mouton vintages is bottled as Pauillac Baron Nathaniel wine. Compared to its more exalted cousins, this brand is an incredible bargain, going for only $20-50 a bottle. If you ever see it in a store, snatch up as many bottles as you can afford! Xu Lei 2008 Labels and the Château Baron Philippe loved art and literature, and this has certainly left its mark on the Château and its wines. One of the things that makes Château Mouton Rothschild wines so unique is their labels, a marketing idea that the Baron dreamed up after the success of his 1945 Victory label, which celebrated the end of World War II. He decided to have every vintage’s label from then on designed by a different, famous artist, and the list of people who’ve designed Château Mouton Rothschild labels since reads like a who’s-who of 20th-century art: Pablo Picasso, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Dorothea Tanning, Amish Kapoor. The labels are so popular and sought-after that they’ve made the more recent vintages of Château Mouton Rothschild worth much more on the collectors’ market than older vintages, which had the standard (though still very stylish) Château Mouton Rothschild crest. Baron Philippe’s love of art is also reflected in the palatial grounds of the winery itself. This is not a space built purely for practicality: the Grand Chai was renovated under the direction of stage designers as well as architects and oenologists, and the pathways on the grounds are raked to resemble Zen gardens. It’s so well-maintained it’s almost like a fairyland of winemaking, embodying the English and American ideal of what a French winery should be. And that’s undoubtedly how Baron Philippe Rothschild saw it.