Vertical Tasting of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild

Mouton Rothschild is one of the renowned five first growths of Bordeaux, although in the classification of 1855 it had been placed at a lower level, as the top of the second growths.  But thanks to the intrinsic quality of the wine and then-owner Baron Philippe de Rothschild's incessant work aimed at rectifying what he and many others felt had been a mistake, Mouton was elevated to first growth status in 1973--to date the only change that has ever been made to the original classification.

It is generally felt that Mouton's placement among the second growths, at a time when prices of first and second growths were not too far apart, was mainly due to the fact that the estate, though it made exceptional wine, had limited history up to that point.  In fact, there is little mention of Mouton in 18th century documents, while Châteaux Latour and Margaux, for example, were frequently mentioned.  Baron Philippe deserves to be remembered for many other achievements as well, not the least of which was helping to convince the other owners of first growths to sell their wine only in bottle, rather than sell it in bulk to négociants, who would then bottle it themselves.  Thanks in large part to his pioneering efforts and vision, château bottling became compulsory by law in 1972.

Today nobody questions the fact that Mouton is a very deserving first growth, with wines like the 1982 and the 2006 arguably the best of the first growths in their respective vintages.  It is always a quintessential Pauillac:  long-aging and powerful yet refined, often characterized by an opulent texture that is Mouton's signature.  The estate and the wine have always been associated with a strong presence of cabernet sauvignon in the final blend, while cabernet franc, which was deemed to be of good enough quality for the grand vin only one year out of three, has been uprooted and replaced with cabernet sauvignon. There are also plans to replant some merlot in the lower part of the plateau, where there are fresher soils and more water availability, as this variety is more sensitive to water stress in hot years. The estate also plans to put in a little more petit verdot.  Over the years there have also been winemaking changes: for example, today during the activity of the yeasts, the temperature never goes above 30°C and the wine stays on its skins for only about two weeks, depending on the characteristics of the particular vintage.

As is the case at all estates with centuries of history, wine quality at Mouton has had its ups and downs over the years, but things have never been better since the arrival from Branaire-Ducru of the talented Philippe Dhalluin, named general director in 2003.  He followed in the footsteps of Patrice Léon, the long-time winemaker at Mouton (to ease the transition, the two men worked together in 2003).  Today, Dhalluin oversees a large team featuring technical directors, winemakers and viticulturalists who work at the various Rothschild properties (Mouton Rothschild also owns Bordeaux estates Clerc Milon and d'Armailhac, as well as Almaviva in Chile and Opus One in Napa Valley). 

Eric Tourbier has been technical director at Mouton since 2001, although he has been at Mouton since 1989.  Interestingly, Tourbier believes that not enough is said about Mouton's terroir.  "We have been studying Mouton's terroir for years, and are beginning to understand it more and more, with the aim of making better and better wines.  It's a little like music: if you can't read it, then you can't really understand it."  For example, the importance of the water table at Mouton has only recently been understood.  "Today we know that Mouton rests on a water table that follows the undulations of the soil and subsoil: on the plateau at Carruades water delivered to the roots is very regular and the water table is not too high, whereas elsewhere on the property, when it rains there are large variations in water supply to the roots.  This is typical of the less outstanding vineyard parcels, where the water supply either rises or falls too fast, which is not an ideal situation.  Instead, the auto-regulation of water delivery to the roots--just enough at just the right time--is a characteristic of all the greatest terroirs."  For Tourbier, knowing information such as the location of the water table in each portion of Mouton's vineyards allows for more accurate predictions as to where the best grapes might come from each year.
The following vertical tasting was conducted in May 2011 at the château with Erick Tourbier on hand (Philippe Dhalluin was away at the time); Tourbier was the source for the technical data cited below.  I was extremely impressed by the consistently very high level of the wines.  Looking over the results, I was tempted to say that, at least based on this tasting, Mouton does very well in years ending with the number six.  Tourbier laughed at the remark and noted: "You know, after all, Mouton has six letters!"

Show all the wines (sorted by vintage)

--Ian D'Agata