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.
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.
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.
During the war, the estate was taken over by the Germans who set up barracks to house their troops. The wine was still produced but under the authority of the Germans. Allegedly, Herman Goering supervised the production. At the end of the War, Philippe returned to Bordeaux and the vineyard was brought back to its top performing status. A new label was designed by Philippe Jullian which featured a V for Victory design. It was also the start of a new tradition. Philippe commissioned a new label every year by an artist. The artists get paid in wine for their work. Over the years, the world’s most famous artists including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol have designed labels for Mouton. The only exception to this was for the 2000 millennium bottling which featured a gold enamel bottle. Twice there have been two labels in the same year. In 1978 Jean-Paul Riopelle submitted two designs. Phillipe liked both designs so much that he split the production and used both labels. More infamous, the 1993 label was a nude drawing by Balthasar Klossowski, who is more commonly known as Balthus. It was rejected by the ATF in the United States so the label was redesigned with a blank space for the US market. The use of the labels has proven to be a great attraction to the collectors market. Many off vintages are still in demand as people collect the art work.
Despite making some remarkable advances that were copied throughout Bordeaux and the world, perhaps Philippe is best remembered for obtaining the only significant change in the 1855 classification (Chateau Cantermerle was added in a minor change made in 1856), the upgrading of Mouton from second to first growth status. By the second half of the 19th century, the wines of Mouton had established a reputation and price that put it with other first growths. The problem was the 1855 classification was never designed to be permanent. Therefore, it was never designed to be updated. What started out as a snapshot in time, took on an unintended permanence. This situation was unacceptable to Philippe who created this motto: Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis, which translates: First I cannot be, second I do not deign to be, I am Mouton. The slogan was printed on the labels and became his mantra. After fifty years of campaigning and using his influence, Mouton was elevated to First Growth status in 1973. Philippe, accordingly, changed his slogan to Premier je suis, second je fus. Mouton ne change, or First I am, second I was. Mouton does not change.
The 1973 vintage was not only the first release as a first growth, but the label was designed by Pablo Picasso. Unfortunately, the 1973 was poor and the wine was one of the weaker efforts of Mouton.
Philippe remarried in 1954 and with his wife Pauline, created the Museum of Wine and Art which displays artifacts and exhibits tracing wine from early pre-history up to present times. Sadly she died in 1976. Philippe died in 1988. Today the estate is run by the daughter of Philippe, the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild.
Chateau Mouton is located in the village of Pauillac, about thirty miles northwest of the city of Bordeaux. There are 203 acres of vines. The red varieties include 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. The average age of the vines is about fifty years. The soil is mostly gravel on a subsoil of marl and clay. The Grand Vin is known as Chateau Mouton and approximately 20,000 to 25,000 cases are produced each year. The wines are fermented in oak vats and matured in new oak barrels. A second wine called Le Petit Mouton has also been produced since 1993 using grapes and barrels that did not meet the strict selection requirements for the Grand Vin. The label of Le Petit Mouton is also a design of Jean Carlu who you will remember designed the first Mouton label back in 1924. Chateau Mouton also makes a white wine called Aile d’Argent. This is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon and Muscadelle grapes as well. They make approximately 1200 cases each year.
Mouton has taken a place in popular culture over the years. In the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, the 1970 Mouton was the highest rated French wine finishing as the second highest rated red wine. In the novel Goldfinger, James Bond is served a 1947 Mouton Rothschild. In the movie Diamonds are Forever, James Bond sees thru a villain’s disguise when he did not know that Mouton Rothschild was a Claret, the British word describing Bordeaux reds. Also, in the movie Weekend at Bernies, the 1982 Mouton is consumed during a restaurant scene.
As with other First Growths, pricing put it out of reach for most wine drinkers. A great vintage will now cost over $500 on release and the lesser vintages are still $300+. The most recent vintage, the 2009, which is being sold on futures as it has not yet been released, is selling for $750+. The famed 1982 vintage, highly rated by the critics, now sells for over $1,000 a bottle. Personally, I doubt I will be buying any more for personal consumption. Yet, any wine enthusiast should really try a bottle at some point. Perhaps it means getting seven friends together and splitting the cost so that everyone can get a taste. If you are lucky enough to try a glass; savor it. You are drinking more than wine, you are drinking history and determination.