“Premier je suis, Second je fus, Mouton ne change.”
“Premier je suis, Second je fus, Mouton ne change.”
A name unequivocally linked with power and prestige, with wines of the utmost quality, produced in the noble appellation of Pauillac, Château Mouton Rothschild is the youngest of the Five Bordeaux First Growths. Originally ranked a Second Growth in the 1855 Classification, the château was eventually upgraded to First in 1973, after decades of fierce lobbying by its visionary owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild – the only such change, in fact, ever to be made to the historically rigid system. Perhaps above all else, the legendary estate symbolises the achievement of a seemingly impossible goal through complete dedication to a single cause, and the tremendous list of accomplishments that can be realised in a single lifetime.
In the history of the legendary Bordeaux First Growth Château Mouton Rothschild, the year 1853 will always be remembered as the year it all began. It was in 1853 that Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, from the English branch of the highly successful Rothschild family, set his sights on Bordeaux with the hopes of purchasing a château and serving his own wine to his prestigious guests. Baron Nathaniel acquired the château, then named Château Brane-Mouton, at auction. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, this château had produced some of the best wines of Bordeaux under the ownership of Marquis Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur and the Barons de Brane, though the quality took a dip around the 1840’s due to neglect. Upon his arrival, Baron Nathaniel renamed the property Château Mouton Rothschild, and a new glorious chapter of the estate began. As the vineyards had been neglected in the decades leading up to the purchase, there was a lot of work to do at the Pauillac estate, in the heart of the Médoc.
The next most important date in the history of Château Mouton Rothschild is 1922, when Baron Nathaniel’s great-grandson Baron Philippe de Rothschild took over the property. A true visionary with a strong personality, great resolve and unconquerable spirit, Baron Philippe would remain at the helm of the estate for 65 years. He is still today regarded as the “soul” of Château Mouton Rothschild, the single character in the estate’s history most responsible for its current success and world renown. Baron Philippe did not hesitate long to make key decisions that would revolutionise both the property and the world of Bordeaux wine at large. In 1924, he decided that all Château Mouton Rothschild wines should be bottled at the estate rather than sold to Bordeaux négociants (wine merchants) in barrels. This decision acted as catalyst for the expansion of storage space at the château. In 1926, the iconic 100-metre Grand Chai (Great Barrel Hall) of Château Mouton Rothschild, designed by architect Charles Siclis, was constructed. It was around the same time, that Baron Philippe asked artist Jean Carlu to design a poster for the estate. He chose a Cubist illustration of the château’s “mascot” – the ram – on a poster announcing the wine to have been bottled at the estate. This first venture into the world of art shows Baron Philippe to have been thinking of marketing much before its time, and would prompt a rich tradition of collaboration between art and wine at Château Mouton Rothschild.
In 1930, Baron Philippe introduced Mouton Cadet under the Mouton label, which would one day become the world’s leading Bordeaux AOC branded wine. In 1933, he acquired a wine-trading businesses based in Pauillac, which would transform over the years into the today highly successful Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA. In the spirit of expansion, the Rothschild family also began purchasing other châteaux in the same year, beginning with Château Mouton d’Armailhacq (now Château d’Armailhac) in 1933 and eventually Château Clerc Milon in 1970. During World War II, Baron Philippe was detained and stripped of his French citizenship. He fled to England and joined Charles de Gaulle in the Free French forces. During this time, he suffered the loss of his wife Elisabeth Pelletier de Chambure, who was arrested by Nazi forces and passed away in a concentration camp in 1945.
Upon his return to France at the end of World War II, Baron Philippe felt inspired by the spirit of Allied victory and commissioned a young, unknown artist by the name of Philippe Jullian to design a label for the 1945 vintage, which would commemorate the “année de la Victoire” and the return of peace to France. Jullian submitted several drafts for this very special label and one was selected, a design based on Winston Churchill’s famous “V for Victory” speech. With this label, a brand new tradition was born at Château Mouton Rothschild, one that would continue into the present day. For each new vintage, a different famous artist was chosen by the estate to design the logo of its famous Grand Vin (First Wine), bringing together some of the most celebrated names in art history: Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Dali… The year 1962 saw the inauguration of the Museum of Wine in Art, housing a collection of precious wine and art related object, situated next to the Great Barrel Hall of Château Mouton Rothschild. The museum was the brainchild of Baron Philippe and his second wife Baroness Pauline, a woman of exceptional taste and fondness for art.
After the War, Baron Philippe began what would be one of his life’s greatest projects, one that would require almost 20 years of constant effort on his part. Back in the famous 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, Château Mouton Rothschild had only received Second Growth title, even though the estate’s wines were widely believed to be on the same level of quality as those of the four châteaux ranked First Growths: Margaux, Lafite, Latour and Haut-Brion. But promotion in such a rigid system was no small feat to achieve and it would take Baron Philippe two decades of non-stop lobbying to elevate the position of Château Mouton Rothschild to First Growth status. He finally triumphed in the year 1973, when Jacques Chirac (then Minister of Agriculture) signed an official decree, declaring Château Mouton Rothschild the fifth First Growth of Bordeaux. The motto of the estate, previously “Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis” ("First, I cannot be. Second, I do not deign to be. Mouton I am.") was officially changed to “Premier je suis, Second je fus, Mouton ne change.” ("First, I am. Second, I used to be. Mouton does not change.")
Having invested immensely in his Pauillac estate, Baron Philippe was also passionate about extending the Bordeaux winemaking savoir-faire to the New World. At the end of the 1970’s, he formed a partnership with famous American winegrower Robert Mondavi, which culminated in the creation of the legendary Opus One, an ultra-premium, cult wine produced from California’s Napa Valley terroir but with Old World French savoir-faire. This grand project would be one of Baron Philippe’s last. The visionary figure, incredibly influential in the world of fine wine, passed away in 1988. He left his beloved Château Mouton Rothschild in the hands of his only child, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. Fully accepting the grand responsibility that came with this treasure, Baroness Philippine ended her successful career as an actress in the Comédie Francaise in order to dedicate herself to the château and the family company, eventually bringing both into the 21st century.
As a way of showcasing on the world stage the link between Mouton and the arts, a link established by her mother and father, she established in 1981 a traveling exhibition named “Mouton Rothschild – Paintings for the Labels.” On display were the château’s collection of First Growth labels, which have now been welcomed in over 40 museums around the world.
In the year 1991, shortly after her takeover, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild released the debut vintage of the Château Mouton Rothschild Aile d’Argent, a high-quality white wine produced from 20 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle vines planted in the 1980’s. Just two years later, in 1993, she announced the release of the first vintage of Le Petit Mouton de Château Mouton Rothschild, the estate’s Second Wine. Since then, Le Petit Mouton has become one of the most sought-after (if not, the most sought-after Second Labels of Bordeaux). Baroness Philippine also furthered her father’s dream to the New World by contributing a brand new winery to Opus One in California in 1991, and forming a new partnership with Chilean winegrower Concha y Toro in 1997 to produce the now world-famous premium wine Almaviva upon Chilean terroir. In the Pays d’Oc region of France, she created Domaine de Baronarques in 2003, which now produces both red and white wine.
While quite active abroad, Baronesse Philippine never forgot about her beloved Bordeaux châteaux. In 2011, the Fifth Classified Growth Château Clerc Milon saw the inauguration of a 3,600 square metre complex, including a half-underground barrel hall, cellar, tasting rooms and reception area. Château Mouton Rothschild got a magnificent new modern vat room, as well as a tasting room overlooking the vines, designed and built by scenographer Richard Peduzzi and architect Bernard Mazieres. With her infectious energy and fierce dedication to carry on her family’s legacy, Baroness Philippine was a great figure in the history of Château Mouton Rothschild, the Bordeaux winemaking community and the world of wine at large. She passed away in 2014, leaving her son Philippe Sereys de Rothschild as Chairman of the family company’s Supervisory Board. Today, Philippe Sereys, together with his siblings Camille Ogren and Julien de Beaumarchais, work closely to continue elevating Château Mouton Rothschild and its wines to higher and higher levels of excellence.
Château Mouton Rothschild is situated in the appellation of Pauillac, in the region of Medoc, on the Left Bank of Bordeaux, 30 miles northwest of the city of Bordeaux. The estate is home to 220 acres of vineyards, situated in the northern part of the Pauillac commune, just south of Château Lafite Rothschild. The topography of the Medoc region is characterised by the presence of several hillocks, maximum 40 metres high. In fact, Mouton Rothschild’s very name alludes to this characteristic landscape. A little known fact: “mouton” did not actually come from the name of the animal but from the French word “motto” or “mothon,” meaning “rise” or “mound.” Medoc vineyards slope down towards the Gironde Estuary, which irrigates the soil and moderates the temperature of the vineyards, protecting the vines from the harsh winter and hot summer months. At the same time, the vines enjoy a subtle maritime influence of the nearby Atlantic Coast.
The Mouton Rothschild vineyards are planted on a hillock of 27 metres above sea level, with roughly 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. This proportion does not, however, exactly represent the final blend of the estate’s First Wine, which varies from one vintage to the next. The vines are 44 years old on average and densely planted, at 10,000 vines per hectare, in order to limit yield and favour quality.
The vines of Château Mouton Rothschild are planted in several metres of gravelly soils, along with sand and some clay mixed in, upon a clay and limestone base. The stones and pebbles forming the base of this topsoil have the advantage of retaining the heat of the sun, allowing the fruit to ripen gradually. This is the ideal terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon, first planted in the region in the 19th century. Actually, Château Mouton Rothschild is recorded as having used exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon throughout much of the 19th century and its former owners, Baron Hector de Branne and Jacques Maxime de Branne, were strong proponents of planting Cabernet Sauvignon in the Medoc.
In early fall, the fruit is harvested manually and transported in open baskets to the winery, where they are destemmed and meticulously hand-sorted on vibrating tables. Only the best quality fruit is chosen and transferred into bins, and then fermentation vats, by a 100% gravity-fed process. The vat room at Mouton Rothschild, inaugurated in 2012, is a wonder to behold: a gravity-fed, two-level, high-tech space built of wood and steel. It houses 44 oak vats, whose sizes correspond to the relative yields from the estate’s various parcels, allowing the team to carry out strict parcel-by-parcel fermentations. The vat room is also home to 20 stainless steel vats. After vinification, the wines are matured in exclusively new oak barrels in the traditional Medocain manner, with regular topping-up of the barrels, and fining with egg whites before bottling. All of these processes take place in the estate’s iconic Grand Chai. The maturation process takes roughly 20-22 months, during which time the barrels are moved from the Grand Chai to the estate’s second-year cellars, where they remain until they are finished. Near the second-year cellars are the Mouton Rothschild bottle cellar, housing 120,000 bottles from other great estates in Bordeaux, and the reserve, which is home to the estate’s most valuable treasures: 24 bottles, 6 magnums and 3 jeroboams of Mouton Rothschild, with the oldest vintage dating back all the way to the 1859 vintage!
The estate’s second wine Le Petit Mouton, first released in 1993, is made in much the same way as its older brother, except that the fruit is taken from younger vines.
True to the motto “I, Mouton, do not change,” the elaboration of the wines of Château Mouton Rothschild have been left in the care of a limited team of experts constituting the very best in their field. From the ploughing of the vines to the bottling of the finished wine, each step is carried out by these skilled individuals, with the savoir-faire often being passed down from one generation to the next. It is this legacy of savoir-faire, so deeply engraved in the identity of Mouton Rothschild that makes possible from one year to the next the production of one of the world’s most celebrated, sought after, and expensive wines.
The namesake flagship First Wine of Château Mouton Rothschild bears a signature style easily recognised by connoisseurs of fine wine around the world. It is perhaps the most exuberant, the most flamboyant of the five Bordeaux First Growths, truly splendid and refined in character. The aromatic palette is powerful and rich, with an exotic and complex bouquet of black fruits – notably, blackcurrant – along with hints of spice, tobacco, graphite and fresh cedar. On the palate, Château Mouton Rothschild offers a structured texture with mouth-coating tannins and a slightly mineral finish. These are the general characteristics usually found on the tasting notes of a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild, though each vintage has its own distinct personality.
This important distinction of character from one vintage to the next is beautifully showcased by the unique piece of art gracing each bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild. Each year, the climatic conditions and savoir-faire yield a wine with a distinctive character, as different from the one before and after it as the works gracing each bottle of the estate’s precious First Wine: the surrealist red grape by Joan Miro on the 1969, the flux of colours on the 2015 by Gerard Richter, the charming and innocent sheep on the 1958, conceived by Salvador Dali…