Chateau Mouton – The Most Recent of the Bordeaux First Growths Deserves Its Upgraded Status

In the original 1855 classification, there were four chateaus granted first growth status.  Over the ensuing years there has been one major change.  In 1973, Chateau Mouton Rothschild was granted an upgrade from second to first growth status.  It was a promotion that was deserved for many reasons.  Foremost, of course, the quality of the wine, but Chateau Mouton Rothschild has long been an innovator and leader of Bordeaux.

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No one is sure where the name Mouton originated.  The estate is on a higher ground, one of the Bordeaux words for such a hill is motte.  It is also possible that sheep grazed on the hill, the French word for sheep is mouton.  The history of this estate is just as unclear.  It appears that as early as 1311 the land was owned by a knight, Pons de Castillon, although it is doubtful that grapes were grown.  In the early 15th century it became the property of the Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of Henry V.  When the English were defeated in the Hundred Years War, all of Bordeaux returned to French control with the Foix family taking control over the land that would become Mouton. 

At least as early in the 18th century grapes were planted.  In 1718 Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur added it to his holdings which included Chateau Lafite and Chateau Latour.  In 1720 Joseph de Brane purchased the property which had a small vineyard on it.  He renamed the estate Brane-Mouton and expanded the vineyard holdings.  Under Brane, quality and pricing of the wine slowly escalated and, while never at the highest levels, the wines still commanded an elevated price.  In 1830, Hector de Brane sold the estate to Isaac Thuret for 1.2 million Francs.  Thuret was a banker in Paris and hired a nègociant to manage the property.  In fact, up until that time, no one lived at the property as no homes had yet been built.  The vineyards under Thuret suffered from his absentee ownership and while the wines still fetched good prices, quality lagged.  The timing for this decline could not have been worse. 

The property was purchased in 1853 by Nathaniel de Rothschild of London who renamed the property Mouton Rothschild.  Thuret took a loss on the sale of 875,000 Francs.  Rothschild employed Théodore Galos as the estate manager who began to bring the property back to its previous high quality.  There was, however, apparently not enough time before the 1855 classification to regain all of its lost glory. 

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No one really knows for sure why Mouton did not receive first growth status in 1855.  It was probably a conglomeration of rationales.  Mouton still lacked a grand Chateau that can be so impressive.  The years under Thuret had an effect on pricing.  Although there had been some escalation since the sale to Rothschild, the wines had not fully achieved parity.  Rothschild was both English and Jewish, either or both of those factors may have had some bearing on the decision.  Whatever the reason, Mouton was not spoken of in the same breath as Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Haut Brion.  The members of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce declared the estate to be a Second Growth in their 1855 classification. 

Despite the categorization, Rothschild continued to invest in the vineyards and improve quality.  It was clear that Mouton, while not a First Growth, was clearly the top of the Second Growths.  Nathaniel died in 1870 and his son Baron James Rothschild took over.  He built the first chateau on the land, calling it Le Petit Mouton.  Unfortunately, James died the following year at the young age of 37.  The estate passed to his wife and then to his eldest son Henri who had little time or interest in it.  In 1922 Henri’s second son Philippe took control of the property.  He had been evacuated there during World War I and apparently liked what he saw.  Things began to change in 1922 although it was not until 1947, at the death of Henri, that Philippe bought out his brother and sister’s share and assumed full ownership. 

In 1924 Mouton became the first winery in Bordeaux to bottle all of its wines at the estate.  Previously all the wines had been sold off in barrel.  In 1926 Philippe commissioned Charles Siclis as the architect to build the Grand Chai, a building used to store the wines prior to bottling.  There were many benefits including higher profits, but the biggest benefit was the Mouton had more control over the quality and integrity of the wine bearing the Mouton name.  A new label was designed by artist Jean Carlu and signed by Philippe.  That is, except for the 1938 thru 1940 labels, when Philippe was not present to sign the labels.  Philippe was imprisoned by the Vichy at the start of World War II.  He escaped and fled to England.  His wife Vicomtesse Chambure was not as lucky; she was murdered in a concentration camp in 1945.