The property in the 18th century, along with Lafite and Latour, of the “prince of vines”, the Marquis Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur, then the Barons de Brane, Château Mouton Rothschild took its present name after it was acquired by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, from the English branch of the famous dynasty, in 1853. For many years, despite the increasingly acknowledged quality of its wine, Mouton aroused little interest among its owners, unwilling to make the journey to a then-neglected region. So it was a red-letter day when, in 1922, Baron Nathaniel’s great grandson Baron Philippe de Rothschild, barely 20 years old, took in hand the destiny of an estate to which he would devote his entire life.
Bearing the stamp of his constant personal commitment, spirit of independence and visionary genius, the long reign (1922-1988) of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, poet and man of action, was marked by a series of key decisions, some of which would revolutionise the world of wine.
In 1924, Baron Philippe decided that all the wine should be bottled at the château, asserting the role and responsibility of the owners of top growths in the face of the all-powerful Bordeaux wine trade. Hitherto, the wine had been delivered to the merchants in barrels.
This decision, soon taken up by others, meant that storage space at the château had to be increased. The spectacular Grand Chai (Great Barrel Hall) at Mouton, designed by the architect Charles Siclis, was built in 1926. In the same Médoc spirit, in 1933 Baron Philippe acquired a small wine-trading business in Pauillac, destined for a flourishing future under the name by which it is now known, Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA. Among other wines, the company would produce and market Mouton Cadet, created in 1930 and now the world’s leading Bordeaux AOC brand.
Later, the family extended its holdings around Mouton with the acquisition of two classified growths in the revered Pauillac vineyard: Château Mouton d’Armailhacq in 1933, renamed Château d’Armailhac in 1989, and Château Clerc Milon in 1970.
Baron Philippe also made a point of forging strong links between Mouton and the arts. The 100-metre-long Grand Chai already constituted a remarkable feat of architectural prowess. Then, each year from 1945, the label for the vintage was illustrated with the reproduction of an original artwork specially created for Mouton by a contemporary artist. In 1962, the château itself was transformed into one of the Bordeaux region’s leading tourist attractions with the inauguration of the Museum of Wine in Art. Designed by Baron Philippe and his second wife, Baroness Pauline, the museum, located beside the Grand Chai, contains a collection of precious objects from all ages associated with the vine and wine. The Club, an attractive little building used for tastings and as a visitor centre, was added in the 1970s.
For twenty years, Baron Philippe fought to enhance the image of Mouton Rothschild and secure its elevation to First Growth status. He finally triumphed in 1973, when Mouton officially joined an elite to which it had belonged de facto for many years, following a decree signed by Jacques Chirac, then Minister of Agriculture.
Baron Philippe was also keen to take the know-how of the great Bordeaux châteaux to other parts of the world. In the evening of his life he entered into partnership with the American Robert Mondavi, a famous winegrower in California’s Napa Valley, which culminated in 1979 in the creation of Opus One, the first Franco-Californian ultra-premium wine, planted, made, matured and blended in the traditional Bordeaux manner.
Château Mouton Rothschild spans 90 hectares (222 acres) of vines to the north-west of Bordeaux, on the edge of the Médoc peninsula, itself situated, as its name indicates, in medio aquae, amid the waters: those of the Gironde estuary to the east and of the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The Médoc vineyard, which dates back to Roman times, now covers around 16,500 hectares (41,000 acres). The vines are planted on a narrow strip of land 80 km long and 5 to 10 km wide, close to the river, which irrigates the soil in depth and moderates differences in temperature. Bordering the northern limit of the Landes forest, the Médoc benefits from the mildness of the ocean climate while also being protected from its excesses.
Made up of gravel – stones and pebbles which retain the heat of the sun – mingled with sand and some clay, the Médoc soil is poor and unsuitable for growing anything other than vines, which produce the finest wines in the world. The thin and poor, gravelly soil extends down several metres over a clay-limestone base. The vines give elegant, powerful, richly tannic and long-lived wines.
The topography consists of a series of hillocks, generally less than 40m high, separated by lower-lying land. Their gentle slopes favour natural drainage and exposure to sunlight. The best vines often grow on these hillocks, which give their name to certain famous châteaux: Mouton doubtless comes not from the animal but from “motte” or “mothon”, an old French word meaning a rise or mound, while Lafite comes from “faîte”, or ridge, and Cos d’Estournel from “côte”, or slope.
FROM VINE TO WINE
The grapes are hand-picked and placed in open baskets that keep them intact. After destemming, they are hand-sorted on vibrating tables. Those that pass this rigorous test are transferred into mobile bins and fed into the fermentation vats by the action of gravity alone. Thus, from vine to vat, the fruit is not subject to any non-natural pressure or constraint.
At the cutting edge of technology, the gravity-feed vat room ushers in a new era in Mouton’s history. Built on two levels linked by elegant metal pillars in a harmonious marriage of wood and steel, it remains true to the Mouton tradition of oak vats. Of different size, the vats correspond to the different parcels of the estate, helping to optimise both selection at harvest-time and the blending of the wine. The vast majority of the vats at Mouton are made of oak (44 vats, fitted with transparent staves, so that the vinification process can be monitored), the others are made of stainless steel (20 vats).
After vinification, the wines are matured in new oak barrels and the various stages in the maturing process are carried out in the traditional Médoc manner, including topping-up, and fining with egg-white which is intended to clarify and stabilise the wine by precipitating the particles suspended in it. During the maturing process, which lasts about twenty months, the barrels are transferred from the Grand Chai to the second-year cellars, where the wine stays cool until the end of its stay at the Château.