At This French Winery, the Bottles Are Works of Art

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The French village of Pauillac may be small, but its wine bottles are making a very big impression.

The Médoc region in France is famous for its vineyards, châteaux, and foie gras. But at the Château Mouton Rothschild, situated in the small village of Pauillac, wines are prized not just for their character or tannin content, but for the very bottles that contain them. That’s because each vintage at the estate, beginning in 1945, is illustrated with an original artwork specially created for Mouton by a contemporary artist. Labels designed by Salvador Dalí (1958) or Andy Warhol (1975) or Jeff Koons (2010) for example, have become tiny portraitures as iconic as the fermented drink they preserve. 

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In 1853, Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild bought Château Brane-Mouton at auction so that he could serve his own wine to his guests. Nearly a century later, in 1824, the baron’s great-grandson Philippe decided that the château would henceforth bottle its own harvest (at the time, estates typically shipped wine to merchants for offsite bottling)—a practice soon adopted by other wineries in the region. Even more unusual was Philippe’s vision for a strong partnership between Mouton and the arts: together with his wife Baroness Pauline, he established in 1962 the first Museum of Wine in Art

Situated in a former barrel hall at Mouton, this little gallery contains over 400 works of art and precious objects, some of them extremely rare. Wine-related treasures such as 17th-century German silverware, jeweled goblets and jugs, Medieval tapestries, paintings, ivories, glassware and porcelain, delight oenophiles and curious visitors alike. But the real showpiece of Bordeaux is Mouton’s permanent exhibition, where visitors can view each of the label paintings. 

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“It was my grandfather, Baron Philippe, who first had the idea of associating wine and contemporary art in Mouton label design,” says Monsieur Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, the younger son of Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (1933-2014) and a co-owner of Château Mouton Rothschild (along with his sister and brother). Today, the estate’s collection of bottle portraiture brings together some of the most celebrated artists from around the world: Georges Braque, Mark Chagall, Keith Haring, Yaacov Agam, Marie Laurencin, even his royal highness Prince Charles, to name a few. 

Artists that work with the winery are given full creative license, though certain motifs—the vine and the ram, Mouton Rothschild’s emblem—make frequent appearances. Original artwork commissioned specifically to illustrate each vintage brings something unique to Mouton’s wine: what Julien Rothschild describes as “that extension of the soul which sings not only in the bottle but also on it.” L’Art et l’Etiquette, the exhibition first presented in 1981 by the Baron’s daughter Pauline, showcases original artworks corresponding to 73 separate vintages, one added each year. 

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A gravity-feed vat room and two cellars (one of which contains several jeroboams of the château’s rarest vintage, preserved for posterity) display the estate’s sophisticated barrel technology. Mouton’s hilltop position—the château sits on 84 hectares of gravelly soil a few hundred meters above the Gironde Estuary, and its vines enjoy sunlight exposure almost year-round—allows Mouton Rothschild to produce some of the most noteworthy varietals in the region, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. And the château continues to uphold its mission of philanthropy in the arts: twenty-five limited edition cases of Mouton Rothschild fetched £750,000 in a London sale, part of the proceeds of which went to repairs of the Notre-Dame cathedral, which was damaged last year in a fire. 

“Our mission is to give visitors an opportunity after the winery tour to discover the château’s other wonderful facet: art.” Indeed, Mouton Rothchild’s unique geography, storied history, and contributions to the art world make this winery one of the most captivating spots in the region. Note: visitors must book tours well in advance, and the château limits the number and size of groups each year.