Reflections on Mouton Rothschild: Bordeaux’s Gloriously “Unclassifiable” Wine

I was fortunate enough to lead a tasting of 10 of the best vintages of Chateau Mouton Rothschild hosted by New York Vintners on a cool, wind-swept drizzly evening in mid-October. It may have been unpleasant outside, but inside, around the table of 17 eager wine collectors, tasters and wine aficionados, the atmosphere was heavy with anticipation and expectations for a memorable evening of vinous experiences. Did the 10 vintages of Mouton—ranging from the powerhouse 2000 back to the inimitable 1945—live up to those expectations? Beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Among the evenings’ many triumphs—large and small– was the remarkable fact that there was not one off bottle: no corked wine, no over-the-hill bottles, no strange aromas, no flaws attributable to questionable provenance. Each bottle presented the vintages in the best and most accurate possible light. Naturally there were differences of opinion and preference among the 17 participants. It would not be a wine tasting in New York if everyone agreed! More important than the differences was the fact that most of the wines displayed the special character of the singular vinous animal called Mouton Rothschild in its own way. Why do I say singular animal?  Because Mouton is unlike any other red wine made on the left bank of Bordeaux where Cabernet Sauvignon rules the varietal roost. Everyone who has had the opportunity to smell and taste Mouton in comparison with its peers knows exactly why I call it a singular animal. The history of Mouton’s status among the great wines of Bordeaux is as unique as it is revealing: When Napoleon III asked the merchants of Bordeaux to produce a classification of the regions’ best red wines, little did he know that his request would result in a qualitative ordering that would affect Bordeaux for hundreds of years. Any classification is bound to be somewhat controversial even if there is general agreement that there are some wines that are special and deserving of their own category. These “best of the best” were ranked as Premier Grand Cru—1st growths as we say in English. Only 4 wines, out of more than a thousand properties making wine on the left bank were privileged to achieve this exalted status: Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut Brion. It seems that the merchants given the task of creating the classification has a really hard time with one wine in particular: Mouton Rothschild. They would not include it among the 1st growths. Instead they placed it at the head of the 2nd grand crus. Where did Mouton truly belong and why was it not placed among the other 1st growths? There is no easy or definitive explanation for this curious problem. From the financial records we know that Mouton was fetching the same prices as the four Chateaux ranked 1st growth. The market had spoken so to speak. But something clearly made the merchants of Bordeaux—a closed circle if ever there was one—uncomfortable about Mouton and unwilling to add it to The Four. Could it have been that it had an absentee owner for many years prior to the classification of 1855? Or did it have something to do with resentment that a member of the English Rothschilds—Nathaniel in fact—had very recently (1853) purchased the estate and that it was the only potential 1st growth not in French hands at the time? Or was it something about the wine itself which these fine gentlemen found too wild, independent and different from the other potential 1st growths?  We can only speculate. Perhaps all these factors played a role in the decision. Shortly after the classification the labels of Mouton featured the following statement: “Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis”  “I am not a first growth. I do not deign to be a second. I am Mouton” Nothing cold better capture the singularity of Mouton and its refusal to accept an arbitrary status than this memorable sequence of 8 powerful French words. I would suggest that the merchants of Bordeaux in fact did Mouton the greatest favor by making this “error” in denying the Chateau official 1st growth status. This enabled Mouton to go its own way and prepared for the era of Philippe Rothschild, who at the ripe old age of 20, took over the reins at Mouton in 1922. Philippe’s single-minded mission was to right the “monstrous injustice” done to his beloved Mouton in 1855 and at the same time to magnify the wine’s singular position among the wines of Bordeaux. He accomplished this task in a number of ways: He was the first proprietor of a classified Bordeaux to insist that all the wines made each vintage be bottled at the estate—a rare practice when he took control of Mouton! After World War II, Philippe Rothschild instituted the policy of having a well-known artist create a label for each vintage. This fascinating succession of labels has no parallel anywhere else in the world of wine. I would suggest that the flamboyance of Philippe Rothschild’s personality exactly parallels the flamboyance of the wine and the man who succeeded in having Mouton raised to first growth status. This did not happen until 1973—some 52 years after he assumed command of Mouton. Another testament to Mouton’s inimitable position is that it is the only Chateaux, among the 61 originally classified in 1885 to have its official status changed.

Let me return to the question of what makes Mouton different from its peers. First there is the bouquet—a spicy, ripe, exotic, aroma which is both more extroverted and more intense than the aromas of the other 1st Growths. Do not get me wrong—each of the 1st growths has distinctive, compelling aromatics. But Mouton’s bouquet greets the taster with a vibrancy and assertiveness not to be found in any other wine from the left bank. To highlight this aromatic virtuosity, Mouton is aged in heavily toasted new oak barrels. The resulting aroma combines the smoky. Tobacco scents of the oak with the fabulous sweetness of the fruit of Mouton. No one will ever confuse this bouquet with that of any other Cabernet based wine! Mouton’s soil heavily favors Cabernet Sauvignon which makes up nearly 90% of the blend in most vintages. The power, majesty and high tannin content of Mouton’s Cabernet—softened with just a little Merlot—gives the wines a size, volume and density which again distinguish it from its subtler 1st growth associates. Mouton has large and lean vinous muscles! The paradoxical combination of brooding power and firmness with irresistible, sexy fragrance and sweetness define the special character of Mouton. In 1973 the “monstrous injustice” done to the Chateau in 1855 was righted by Governmental decree. Mouton was now classified a 1st Growth officially. This is the only change ever made in the classification of 1855—yet another indication of the unique status of Mouton. The label now says: “Premier Je suis, second Je fus, Mouton ne change”—“I am a first growth, I was a second. Mouton has not changed” Of no other wine made anywhere in Bordeaux could these words be said.

Below are selected tasting notes of the 10 Moutons we imbibed.  Firstly, some general observations seem in order: Mouton benefits greatly from ripe vintages. This is true of all Bordeaux but none as much as Mouton. Full ripeness allows Mouton to achieve that hypnotic fragrance for which it is justly famous. In less ripe vintages—1999, 1998 and 1995, Mouton does not seem to be fully itself. The new vineyard management and wine making team at Mouton since 2003, brilliantly headed by Philippe Dhalluine, have worked successfully in reducing the gap between the top and the lesser vintages that prevailed at Mouton. Among the technical changes that Dhalluine has instituted is a reduction in the amount of time the fermenting juice stays on its skins and a temperature control process which guarantees that the fermenting must never get over 30 degrees Celsius ( 86 Fahrenheit). These changes will help maintain the consistency of Mouton from vintage to vintage and impart a finesse to the wines of Mouton they have sometimes lacked.  A recent blind tasting of the 2007 Bordeaux—the weakest vintage since 2002, showed the Mouton aromatic intensity usually found only in riper vintages along with unusually suave, polished tannins.  This is good news indeed.  Of the wines we tasted, 5 were from ripe vintages—2000, 1986, 1982, 1959 and 1945. And these were indeed the star wines of the tasting. 3 of these—the 1986, the 1982 and the 1945 were as good as wine is ever going to get. All of us in attendance could only feel privileged to have experienced such extraordinary wines. I am certain that 20 years from now all of the participants will remember what they did on Wednesday evening Oct 12, 2011. The notes below are from Robert Millman and Dylan York. We have included tasting notes from Robert Parkers’ The Wine Advocate, always an invaluable reference. The wines are listed in the sequence in which they were tasted.

 

A note on methodology: The wines from 1982 through 2000 were opened 8-10 hours before the tasting began and double decanted. The older wines were opened 2 hours before the tasting and double decanted.

 

RM—Robert Millman, Co-Director of Executive Wine Seminars

DY—Dylan York, Director of Education at New York Vintners

RP—Robert Parker, Founder of The Wine Advocate  [Please bear in mind that the Parker notes for the wines of 1986 through 2000 are from tastings he did either at the Chateaux or shortly after the wines were bottled. For the older wines, the last date of tasting is indicated in parenthesis]

2000 Mouton Rothschild

RM—Sweet, sexy, spicy, toasty bouquet. Very Mouton. A big, powerful wine with a lush, ripe entry followed by massive amount of tannin reflective of both the vintage and the vineyards of Mouton. Needs a decade or more to achieve full development. Outstanding potential.

DY—”Deep ruby core and rim with aromas of sandalwood, green herbs, dusty stones and red liquorice. Flavors of ripe blackberry, cassis, leather and mineral with toasty vanilla undertones.  Concentrated and intense texture that will develop nicely over the next 15-20 years.”

RP—“A rich, tannic, earthy style, with loads of crème de cassis and floral notes, the final blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Merlot is a full-bodied wine with plenty of coffee, earth, chocolaty notes, and still plenty of tannin to resolve.”

1999 Mouton Rothschild  

RM—Some Mouton sweetness on the nose—but much gentler and less pronounced than the 2000. Smooth and fluid on the palate. Lack the Mouton power and grip. A touch vegetal. A gentile Mouton. Could not be more different from the 2000.

DY—“Deep ruby core, pale rim. Aromas of baked fruits—fig with dark minerals background. Flavors of cherry cola and coffee grounds, some stemmy, vegetal nuances, Medium bodied, dry finish.”

RP—“.Exhibiting an admirable mid-palate, stuffing, and fatness, low acidity, and ripe, sweet tannin, this will be one of the more forward, seductive Moutons produced over the last two decades. As the wine sat in the glass, notes of new saddle leather, coconut, and smoke emerged. This should be an uncommonly precocious, delicious Mouton-Rothschild.”

 

1998 Mouton Rothschild

RM—Brilliant color. Brighter, more youthful than the 1999. Smoky, mineral bouquet. Misses the perfumed sweetness of the riper vintages. Intense, vigorous and fresh on the palate. Plenty of tannins. Elegant weight and balance. Quite a long dry finish.  Very good if not outstanding.

DY—“Clear, with a deep ruby core. Aromas with red fruits, cheese rind and mineral. Flavors of red currant and black cherry. Dry, medium to high acidity, well defined tannins.”                                                                                                                              

RP—“An extremely powerful, super-concentrated wine offering notes of roasted espresso, crème de cassis, smoke, new saddle leather, graphite, and licorice. “

1995 Mouton Rothschild

RM—Very dark color to the rim. Massive, aggressively tannic and dry with much more mineral and earth flavors than fruit. Quite drying as is typical of many 1995 Bordeaux. Not much charm but plenty of Mouton Power.

DY—“Deep ruby core and rim. Medium viscosity. Dry, apple skin like acidity. Dusty tannins. Little apparent fruit. Mostly structure.”

RP—“reveals an opaque purple color, and reluctant aromas of cassis, truffles, coffee, licorice, and spice. In the mouth, the wine is “great stuff,” with superb density, a full-bodied personality, rich mid-palate, and a layered, profound finish that lasts for 40+ seconds.”

1986 Mouton Rothschild

RM—Fabulously sweet, perfumed bouquet. Not as exotic as the 1982 but just as compelling. Overtones of expensive leather and Cuban tobacco. Amazingly fresh, alive and sassy on the palate with irresistible balance of sweet fruit and earthy flavors. Endless finish. Outstanding Mouton

DY—“Intense deep core of youthful redness. Iron aromas with cherry lozenges and an earthy, farm house note. Very balanced with perfectly toasted flavors. Ripe and concentrated.”

RP–In 1986, Mouton-Rothschild produced the most profound wine of a great northern Medoc vintage. The sensational opaque black/ruby color may be even denser than that of the 1982. It requires coaxing and extended airing to bring forth the subdued bouquet of minerals, celestial blackcurrants, smoky new oak, and spices. The wine possesses incredible concentration, full body, fabulous length, and is – well – perfect.

1982 Mouton Rothschild

RM—The best bottle of this justly famous wine I have ever tasted. Fabulous Mouton bouquet—sweet, exotic, almost erotic in its inviting focused intensity. Could a wine ever produce a more compelling scent? This core sweetness carries over to the palate. Both rich and elegant, the tannins having melted into the now smooth yet buoyant texture. Harmonious from start to finish. Extraordinary wine.

DY—“Youthful freshness with aromas of toasty vanilla, intense powdery floral notes with a well-defined farm house and mineral component. Concentrated and complex layers of black fruits, stony minerals and earth.”                                                                              

RP—[From a recent tasting] “The 1982 has thrown off the backward, youthful style that existed during its first 25 years of life, and over the last 4-5 years has developed such secondary nuances as cedar and spice box. The crème de cassis, underlying floral note, full-bodied power, extraordinary purity, multilayered texture, and finish of over a minute are a showcase for what this Chateau accomplished in 1982. The wine is still amazingly youthful, vibrant, and pure. This is a great, still youthful wine, and, on occasion, one does understand the hierarchy of Bordeaux chateaux when you see the complexity and brilliance of this first-growth.”

1970 Mouton Rothschild

RM—In the mold of the 1998. An elegant, refined, aging beauty with a touch of the caramel and sweetness which marked the 1970s in their youth. Not a blockbuster, but a pretty, now gentle Mouton. Difficult to taste after the awesome 1982.

DY—“Clear color showing some orange at the edge. Aromas of coffee ands pickling spices. Elegant and dry with flavors of cherry and hay. Overtones of caramel and saddle leather.”

RP [From a 1992 review—19 years make a big difference] “With coaxing, some of the minty, cassis, lead-pencil Mouton perfume emerged. The wine is full-bodied, with excellent richness and concentration, but it has a tight, austere, surprisingly tannic finish. Still firm and relatively unevolved, this wine could benefit from another 5-7 years of cellaring.”

1959 Mouton Rothschild

RM—Still garnet and totally clear. Looked younger than its 52 years. Very rich wine with a pronounced tobacco leaf and cedar bouquet. Rich and almost sweet but volatile and alcoholic in the after taste. 1959 was a very hot, big production vintage. Perhaps past its peak drinking years.

DY—“Deep garnet core and pale rim. Powerful aromas and flavors of ripe red fruits, sun dried raisins and figs. Hints of dark chocolate. Well integrated tannins.”

RP—[from a 1997 tasting] “Astonishingly young and unevolved, with a black/purple color, the wine exhibits a youthful nose of cassis, minerals, and new oak. It is exceptionally powerful and super-extracted, with the fruit supported by high levels of tannin and some lusty quantities of alcohol.”

 

1949 Mouton Rothschild

RM—Lovely color of mature Bordeaux. All cedar, leather, minerals and earth tones in both the bouquet and flavors. Dry and elegant in the manner of this vintage. The fruit has gone. What is still very much present is the pure taste of the Mouton terroir. I liked the wine more than most of the other tasters.

DY—“Pale garnet core and rim. Aromas of herbs and cherry with some youthful acidity. Balanced flavors of nuts, bell pepper, dried fruits and chocolate.”

RP—[from a tasting in 1994] “The 1949’s bouquet offers copious amounts of sweet, ripe cassis fruit, herbs, spicy oak, and a touch of coffee and cinnamon. Medium-bodied, with moderate tannin still noticeable, this compact, dark garnet, opaquely-colored wine possesses superb concentration and a remarkably long finish. It appears to be fully mature, yet the balance, length, and tannin level suggest this wine could last for another 20 years.”

 

1945 Mouton Rothschild

 

RM—This is the most famous wine that Mouton has ever produced. Many tasters regard it as the best Bordeaux made in the 20th century. It carried with it a lot of expectation. How did our bottle do? The wine of the night even in the face of 2 masterpieces that preceded it—the 1986 and 1982. An uncanny combination of immortal sweetness, spice, cedar and dark chocolate on the nose with a freshness, liveliness, even exuberance on the palate which defies comprehension in a wine which is 66 years old. This bottle still showed some wonderful supporting tannins, impeccable balance and an endless finish.

Non plus ultra. Beyond praise.

DY—“Pale garnet core. Aromas of vanilla bean and crème de caramel. Flavors of roasted game with a long, lingering sweet red fruits finish.”

RP—[from a tasting in 1997]  “A consistent 100-point wine (only because my point scale stops at that number), the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild is truly one of the immortal wines of the century. This wine is easily identifiable because of its remarkably exotic, over-ripe, sweet nose of black fruits, coffee, tobacco, mocha, and Asian spices. It is an extraordinarily dense, opulent, and rich wine, with layers of creamy fruit, behaving more like a 1947 Pomerol than a structured, powerful, and tannic 1945. The wine finishes with a 60+ second display of ripe fruit, extract, and sweet tannin. This remarkably youthful wine (only light amber at the edge) is mindboggling! Will it last another 50 years? Last tasted 8/97.”

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