The Greatest Story Ever Uncorked

For a century and a half, Château Mouton Rothschild has epitomized Bordeaux at its finest, but, Martin Filler reports, full recognition was a long time coming.

One day in May 1853, a cosmopolitan English-Jewish banker startled the local yokel attendees at a rural auction in the southwest French province of Gironde. Bidding from the back of the room, he paid the astronomical price of 1,125,000 francs for a decrepit 65-acre vineyard in the nearby hamlet of Pauillac. Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, scion of the most famous financial dynasty of modern times, was indulging a personal whim not at all typical of his clan's uncanny knack for making money in unprecedented quantities. Or so it seemed at the time.

Like the California dot-com tycoons of the '90s, Baron de Rothschild thought it would be cool to serve his friends wine from his own vineyard, with his name on the label. It was not meant to be a profitable enterprise, and indeed wouldn't become one until Nathaniel's brilliant great-grandson Philippe took control of the estate seven decades later. But in buying the run-down Brane-Mouton winery and renaming it Mouton-Rothschild, the baron set in motion one of the most remarkable sagas in the history of viticulture, resulting in some of the finest wines ever to emerge from the world's most celebrated wine-growing region.

Now, on the 150th anniversary of that historic acquisition, Château Mouton Rothschild stands at the pinnacle of international fame, a watchword for peerless quality in winemaking and for enduring star power in the high-end marketplace. In France, which still dominates the worldwide luxury-goods industry, the operative adjective is prestigieux, and you simply do not get more prestigious than Château Mouton Rothschild. But that fact has less to do with pedigree than with the family's determination to remain on top, thanks to the two remarkable personalities who have presided over the vineyard for more than half its lifetime.

At a series of lavish entertainments held last June in Pauillac at the Mouton estate (which has more than tripled in size, to 203 acres), the winery's reigning doyenne, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, the only surviving child and namesake of the legendary Baron Philippe, had much to commemorate. This November, Madame la Baronne, as formidable a figure as her father (who served with the Free French during World War II), will celebrate her 70th birthday. The occasion will allow her to look back proudly on her considerable contributions since taking control of Mouton after the baron's death 15 years ago. Among her innovations have been the establishment of a second wine, Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild; the creation of Mouton's first premium white wine, Aile d'Argent; and a cooperative venture in Chile to produce an acclaimed premium red wine, Almaviva, with the huge Concha y Toro firm.

At the center of all the hoopla is the standard-bearing Mouton wine itself, particularly the newly released and already much-praised 2000 vintage. Presented in a dazzling black glass bottle that is incised and enameled with the image of a regal ram (the mouton) in gold, the 2000 is a tour de force of high-style design. Though still far too immature to savor fully, the millennial wine gives every evidence of being right up there with the historic vintages that make Mouton fans swoon.

Even those with the rare privilege of unlimited access to Mouton do not take its consumption lightly. Decades ago, the Dutch wine writer Hubrecht Duijker told of a visit to the Mouton cellars with the estate's renowned maître de chai (wine master) Raoul Blondin, who offered him a glass of the sublime '61, announcing, "Et voilà le grand Mouton." Duijker noted that, contrary to professional tasting practice, the vintner, "who has tasted quite a fair amount of Mouton in his time, refused to spit out the wine."

Just as Château Margaux is renowned for its haunting aroma of violets, so is Château Mouton Rothschild instantly identifiable by its telltale cedar fragrance and taste. But that is just one of several exotic sensations that cascade around the mouth and throat as you explore this extraordinarily complex and yet exquisitely refined wine. Spices, currants, and minerals can all be identified, but the sequence of unfolding flavors is so richly layered that not one of them dominates. Gorgeously colored and enticingly perfumed, Mouton in its landmark years is impossible to top.

I discovered that fact in the late sixties when, as a college junior, I unwittingly jumped to the head of the class in my knowledge of wine thanks to Château Mouton Rothschild. While housesitting for an elderly cousin in his New York apartment, I invited a few classmates over for dinner. When I mentioned that my relative kept a wine rack in the pantry closet, one friend insisted that we check it out. Among the treasures we discovered was a 1961 Mouton. Goaded by my chum, I uncorked the bottle and poured.

Here was a revelation: This towering vintage, now regarded as one of the three greatest Moutons of the 20th century ('45 and '82 are the others), was still in its infancy, but had already developed enough to give me an instant shock of recognition. As opposed to the sweetish mass-produced American wines I was used to drinking in order to—let's be frank—get drunk, the Mouton was so complex you simply could not guzzle it. The steady pileup of distinct sensations was impossible to process all at once.

At the same time I was turning on to Mouton, the château was in the final phases of the crusade for official recognition that Baron Philippe had been waging since he assumed the management of the struggling winery almost a half-century earlier. But the drama began long before that.

In 1855 the French government decreed a formal classification of the wines of Bordeaux. Left to a jury of bordelais insiders, the final lineup was topped by four premier grand cru classé châteaus—Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild (which at the time was entirely owned by the French branch of the family), Latour, and Margaux. Conspicuously absent was Mouton, which was decreed a second growth—perhaps because the estate's title had passed to the English Rothschild interloper just two years previously, and he hadn't yet had time to whip the depleted operation into competitive shape. Nonetheless, the rebuke stung deeply, and Mouton adopted as its motto the wounded words, Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis. ("First I may not be, second I disdain, I am Mouton.")

Whatever the reasons behind the omission, it soon became clear that it was as unjustified as it was unjust. Mouton, even before Rothschild ownership, had been considered one of the best clarets since the 18th century. But by 1922, when the 20-year-old Baron Philippe took charge of Mouton, he already had a keen grasp of what status can mean to marketing. And thus he made his mission the upgrading of his wine to premier grand cru classé.

To counter the notion that Mouton held lesser standing than its peers, the entrepreneurial young Rothschild in 1924 dreamed up an exclusive Bordeaux trade organization called The Association of Five, designed to link his shunned château to its natural equals. This palliative lasted until 1953, when—gallingly—Mouton was expelled from the very group Baron Philippe had founded. To make matters worse, the action was prompted by Lafite, which was headed by Philippe's distant cousin and archrival, Baron Elie de Rothschild.

Jealousy surely played a part in the dispute. Beginning in the 1920s, Baron Philippe came up with several big ideas that changed the Bordeaux wine business forever. To maintain quality control, which had been slipping badly throughout the region, he instituted the practice of estate bottling, guaranteeing that what went into the flask came from the vineyard on the label. Though competitors, including Lafite, initially balked, they soon fell into line, and now the practice is so pervasive that it's hard to imagine that one person was responsible for it, like D.W. Griffith's invention of the closeup.

Then there was Baron Philippe's pioneering production of a high-quality mass-produced wine, long an oxymoron in the industry. After several poor harvests produced grapes unworthy of the Mouton grand vin, in 1931 he came up with the idea of using them for a low-cost blend he called Mouton Cadet. Now made with grapes purchased from other local growers, Cadet is the biggest of all Bordeaux labels, with 1.4 million cases sold annually. Its function in the Mouton empire—which also includes the fifth-growth châteaus of d'Armailhac and Clerc Milon—is much like that of licensing the designer perfumes, sunglasses, and scarves that help finance the extravagant loss-leader expenses of haute couture. Finally, the baron got in on the ground floor of wine globalization by partnering with his American counterpart, Robert Mondavi, on the creation of a super-premium Napa Valley red, Opus One, in 1979.

Nothing is as delicious for outsiders to witness as a grudge match between rich relations, and the Baron Philippe-Baron Elie standoff was the Olympian version of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. But the Rothschild rivalry is seen by some to have had a stimulating effect. As Jacob, Lord Rothschild (head of the English branch of the Rothschild family and a one-sixth owner of Château Lafite) has observed, "The strength of the Rothschilds today is not so much that they work together, but rather that they derive a sense of energy from competing with one another."

Whenever people insist that a long-simmering vendetta has nothing to do with money but instead with the principle of the thing, you can be sure that it's all about money. And in the postwar runup of Bordeaux prices, which reached giddy heights after the great series of vintages of '45, '47, '53, '55, '59, '61, '66, and '70, a great deal more was at stake than ruffled egos.

As Baroness Philippine has confirmed, the antagonism between her artsy father and his more conventional Lafite cousin lay at the root of the feud. "They didn't get along at all," she said. "The chemistry just wasn't there. It was an enormous problem: two men who couldn't stand each other."

The alarming plunge in Bordeaux prices during the recession of the early seventies finally made Baron Elie realize that it was best for all the top-tier châteaus to band together, and after years of opposition he relented: Mouton was at last raised to a premier grand cru classé. With dignified irony, a new motto was printed on the Mouton label: Premier je suis, second je fus, Mouton ne change. ("First I am, second I was, Mouton does not change.")

Unquestionably, Baron Philippe was the Rothschild who best understood how to exploit his family's fabled name to financial advantage. Among his marketing masterstrokes was his decision, in 1945, to ask different and quite eminent artists to design a Mouton label each year, reinforcing the notion that the wine, too, was a work of art. (In doing so he anticipated the wider commercial exploitation of arts patronage, through which big corporations and fashion designers alike have enhanced their images in recent decades.) The Mouton roster of artists has included such 20th-century giants as Kandinsky (1971), Picasso (1973), Miró (1969), and Warhol (1975), as well as crowd pleasers like Chagall (1970), Dalí (1958), and Keith Haring (1988). Only once did a major problem arise. In 1993 Balthus produced one of his characteristically steamy studies of a nude pubescent girl. Fearing legal repercussions in the United States, Mouton had a special American label printed, replacing the suggestive drawing with a blank cream-colored rectangle.

An aesthete to the bone, Baron Philippe did not depend on packaging alone to convey his high artistic calling. In 1950 he found his creative equal when he met Pauline Fairfax-Potter, a Baltimore-born fashion designer who could well lay claim to being the chicest woman of the 20th century, a tall upper-class bohemian with intellectual aspirations and original style in spades. Pauline must have won the heart of the baron when he introduced himself to her and she replied, "Oh, the poet!" alluding to his beloved avocation. (The baron's first wife, Elisabeth—Philippine's mother—was killed in a Nazi concentration camp.)

They married four years later, and the like-minded couple threw themselves into the restoration of an old Mouton storage building, creating a magnificent new home. They also established The Museum of Wine in Art (adjoining their residence), which displays wine-related treasures from antiquity to the present day.

The aura of celebrity has surrounded Château Mouton Rothschild for so long that it sometimes can seem as though the wine itself were just one component in the larger legend. This is a mistake, for there can be no doubt about the seriousness and commitment to viticulture that prevails at Mouton. Consider how obsessively its precious grapes are handled at harvest. Instead of being gathered in huge hods, they are placed into small cardboard boxes carefully stacked to prevent the fruit from being prematurely crushed. Only when the grapes are ready to go into the huge oak fermentation vats are they lightly squeezed by hand to start the maceration process. They are never pressed mechanically—the weight of the fruit itself sets free the noble juices.

Alas, no Mouton is a sure thing. There can be a surprising gap between truly outstanding vintages at the château, even when other, lesser growths are turning out a more consistent product through thick and thin. The high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Mouton blend means that it tends toward the tannic, giving it uncommonly long life but often making it hard to drink pleasurably during its early years.

No working agricultural establishment in the world maintains such a high level of aesthetic control as does Château Mouton Rothschild. The broad gravel pathways leading through the parklike landscape to the château are raked with geometric precision, bringing to mind a Zen garden in Kyoto. The interiors of the chai, where the wines are made and stored, remain as immaculate as an operating room yet as mysterious as a Romanesque chapel.

Thanks to Philippe's gift for dramatic lighting and Pauline's flair for the perfect decorative touch—such as the gnarled vine roots she had affixed to the chai walls like abstract sculptures—these spaces are no less striking than the much-published interiors they created in their house across the courtyard. In the dim light of the Mouton cellars, illuminated by circular chandeliers fashioned from ancient iron barrel rims, you can make out cobwebbed bottles dating back to the first years of the Rothschild stewardship. It is here, with the musty scent of history in your nostrils, that the defiant words now printed on the label come back to remind you that "Mouton ne change."

A Mouton Sampler

The grand vin of Château Mouton Rothschild exhibits astounding longevity—some feel that the immortal 1945, perhaps greatest of all 20th-century Moutons, has yet to hit its peak. But here is an array of more recent vintages available at retail.

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 1961 As a young man I lost my fine-wine virginity to this temptress, and it will always remain my first love among great wines. Huge, complex, and compellingly fragrant—sorting out all the notes could be a full day's occupation—this is a bottle for the ages. $1,600

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 1962 With a few more years of cellar-life left, this insiders' favorite can still be enjoyed (if you're lucky enough to find it) as a superb sleeper that followed on the heels of its more imposing forerunner. But even in its twilight, this dusky masterpiece still has the power to seduce. $450

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 1970 At its best, this lovely example shows all the hallmark Mouton qualities—deep color, big concentration, and that famous aroma of cedar. Try it, as we did at the château, with roast quail. It's turning out to not be so long-lived as many bottles from other stellar Mouton vintages, so drink fairly soon. $200

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 1982 A blockbuster year for everyone in the Médoc, this epic vintage saw Mouton outdo its own high standard. Problem is, this colossal wine is still far from mature. To wake it up, decant a minimum of 12 hours in advance, and a full day would even be better. And lay some down for your grandchildren, too. $600

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 1997 This good but far from great year is now being touted by wine merchants as a bargain ideal for current drinking. Maybe so, but I found the '97 Mouton a letdown—tight and tannic, with aeration doing little to perk it up. But some will consider the sprightly Niki de Saint Phalle label worth the price. $125

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 1999 Much better than the '97, this is smooth, deep, and yet tannic enough to make it a versatile food wine. I'd venture away from the classic Pauillac pairings of roast lamb or game fowl toward somewhat racier dishes, such as Moroccan-spiced salmon, as this can surely stand up to them. $170

CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD 2000 A banner harvest across the Médoc, this first vintage of the new millennium served up another stupendous Mouton. Once again, protracted decanting, for as long as two days, is a must before you can approach this deep-purple powerhouse. Why not just cellar it for a decade? $425

Martin Filler profiled sommelier Tim Kopec in the May/June issue.