Wine Rating: 95
This month brings with it an interesting situation for me. For the first time since starting this review, I didn’t have a wine on hand to write about. This is not to say I don’t have any wine in my possession—in fact, quite the contrary. The cellar is stocked with beauties that are resting comfortably until they reach the perfect age. As I didn’t have a reasonably priced wine to offer up this month, I’ve decided to punch things up a notch and go old school, the keyword being old. With flashlight in hand, I venture down into the darkened corners of the wine cellar, making my way through cobwebs outlined in the dust. Here, in the sweet smell of wood crates, their sides branded with markings from all over the world, I feel right at home. Haut Brion, Petrus, and Gaja stare back at me. Some of the older bottles have peaked and, as a result, have leaked a bit, that moisture seeping into the shelves over the years, perfuming the air.
Wines that have peaked—meaning that they have become too old to drink, as their texture and flavor is long gone—still live in my cellar. They make wonderful gifts for some friend’s birthday or anniversary. How would you like to own a Chateau La Tour bottled the year you were born, the year you married? Depending on the year, the wine may still be palatable. This depends on the quality of the grape, the way it has been stored for all those years and whether the cork shrank enough to allow air to get into the bottle and turn it.
Deep within the dark cellar, I spot a beautiful bottle bearing one of my favorite labels, perhaps one of the most famous names in wine. The uniqueness of their label and the quality of their grapes are renowned. With gentle care, I lift the bottle from the dusty shelf and let the flashlight’s beam fall onto the glass, illuminating it so I can observe the fill level and clarity of the wine. This one will do. It’s time to review a classic. But such a wine needs to be shared with friends on a special occasion, and that can only mean one thing: make a reservation at Napa Rose for a party of 10 on Valentine’s Day.
There are many factors to be considered in drinking an old bottle of wine. One is that you have a 50/50 chance that it will be past its prime. The other is that once opened and decanted, the wine may only have a few minutes before the entire essence is gone. I recently drank a 1964 Chateau Le Trebuchet, and, after the sommelier poured it for us, I had him try it first. (When a sommelier is on staff at a restaurant, I find making that offer to be a very nice gesture and I always do.) Our sommelier nosed it and found it had great hints of olive and fig and, when he tasted it, he looked at me and said, “You have about 10 minutes before this wine is gone.” So we did what any wine aficionado would do — we killed that bottle in five minutes. I did save about a quarter of a glass and let it sit for an hour and, sure enough, by then it was flavorless.
Back to the cellar. I place the wine on my pouring table and clean it up with a soft towel. This particular bottle has seen better days, but, as I know its history and know it’s been properly stored in a controlled environment for nearly 50 years, I’m confident we stand a better-than-average chance that it will have held up.
I’m the second owner of this beautiful 1966 Château Mouton Rothschild. The previous owner was a surgeon in San Francisco and, when he died, his wine collection went up for auction. I purchased a mixed case of some of his old Bordeaux and because I went after the war-torn and stained labels, I was able to get them for a good price. Since I wasn’t putting these wines on display and, as they were meant to be consumed, the quality of the label was not of great importance. The label of a bottle of wine may be compared to the dust jacket on any rare book: a dust jacket in excellent condition is about 80% of the book’s value. For avid wine collectors, the same holds true of labels. It’s all about condition, condition, condition.
Although it would have been great if these bottles had pristine labels, in this case, it was not important, as I’d be drinking them with friends. So again, what would normally be an essential for me just wasn’t, this time. My only concern with this lot was cork seepage and shoulder height. A bottle with some good age to it will always have natural evaporation through the cork, as the cork is a naturally breathable substance. I look for a mid-shoulder on Bordeaux, that is, where the bottle starts to bow out from the neck.
For me, Château Mouton Rothschild was “the one.” The wine that made me fall in love with wine. If you read my article a few months back, when I shared my story about working at Morry’s of Naples while I was in college, you’ll understand the training I received from working there. Morry’s had everything from wine to craft beers, plus a full deli and wine lockers upstairs. Every few months we would reach out to the owners of inactive, forgotten or abandoned wine lockers and if, after numerous attempts to reach them, we did not hear back, the locker would be sequestered and the contents removed. There was always a waiting list to get a wine locker at Morry’s so that locker would not stay empty for long. This was not like Storage Wars; we did not auction off the contents. Morry’s took the wines and sold them in the store to pay for the lost revenue of the space. But once in a while, a bottle or two would have cork seepage or the label might be damaged and, in those cases, the bottles would be opened and the wines would be shared with the staff. If you happened to be working that day, it was a good day indeed and in my case, I certainly benefited.
Once, while going through one of the sequestered lockers we came across a 1975 (Warhol label) Château Mouton Rothschild that had really bad cork seepage to the point where it had actually leaked on several other bottles. Not thinking much of the wine itself, our manager, Allen, opened it and decanted what was left. It was just the two of us working the closing shift. We smelled it and it was actually quite nose worthy. Could a wine with that much spillage still be good?
Before we drank, Allen told me what to look for in the wine: the nuances of the grape, the structure, and depth of the bouquet. I was a young kid who drank mostly California cabs and had not had much experience in a big French red. We smelled it, swirled it, and looked at the legs dripping down from the glass, made a toast to Bacchus and hoped that this one would be remarkable. (Note: Toasting a new bottle of wine for me is a must. I find it unconscionable not to salute a newly opened bottle; it’s sacrilegious, uncivilized and downright tawdry. And yes, that goes for every new bottle. Period.) We sipped, swished, swallowed and let the finish find us.
With that very first drink, my eyes lit up. This old wine had made it, the heavy tannins were still present and I felt like I had socks on my teeth. The flavors burst through my senses, from ripe, just-picked black cherries, to apricots, to cinnamon. I’d never tasted anything this balanced! I felt like Charlie at Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory after he drank the Fizzy Lifting drink, overwhelmed with flavors, smells, and brilliance. Drinking wine would never be the same for me.
Even with what was lost from the leakage, we each got almost a full glass out of that bottle. I would never forget what a near perfect wine could taste like. Allen kept the bottle, as it had the artwork from Warhol on it; more on that in a moment. I kept the memory, which still defines for me, all these years later, what great wine drinking is all about. Like any junkie, I’ve been chasing that superb taste ever since and have actually found it in a few bottles over the years. But that ’75 was life-changing for me. Allen and I could only conclude that the bottle must have just leaked while being moved out of the locker so it hadn’t had time to spoil; it had actually decanted instead.
In the village of Pauillac in the Médoc, you will find the wine estate of Château Mouton Rothschild. As I said before, the wine is considered one of the world’s greatest clarets (a dry red wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France). The estate was originally named Château Brane-Mouton until 1853 when Nathaniel de Rothschild (an English member of the family) purchased the estate and changed the name. In 1922, Baron Nathaniel’s great-grandson, Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, fell in love with the estate and took Mouton into the future of winemaking. He was only twenty years old.
When Phillipe took over the estate in 1922, the wine was being sold in casks to a merchant in Bordeaux. This merchant did everything from maturing to bottling, labeling and promoting. The vineyard essentially had no control over their own product. One of Philippe’s first decisions upon taking back complete ownership of the winery was, at the time, revolutionary. He decided to bottle the entire harvest before it left the estate. This had never done before.
The vineyards are on the slopes leading down to the Gironde Estuary, in the Bordeaux region, where today they mainly produce Cabernet Sauvignon. With 203 total acres, the varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon (77%), Merlot (11%), Cabernet Franc (10%) and Petit Verdot (2%). They are also one of the last Châteaus in the region to ferment their wine in oak vats and then transfer and mature the wine to new oak casks. Also please do not confuse Mouton Rothschild with the widely sold and very low-priced Bordeaux Mouton Cadet. There is also another Rothschild estate in Médoc, owned by a different part of the Rothschild ancestry: Château Lafite Rothschild, which is also considered to be one of the best wine producers in the world.
Two years later, in 1924, Baron Philippe yet again took an original, creative and bold leap with their brand, when he commissioned poster designer Jean Carlu to design the label for their new vintage. Today that label is considered to be one of the greatest examples of the Cubist influence in commercial art.
In 1945, in an effort to celebrate the return of peace as World War II ended and the freedom of France began, Baron Philippe conceived the idea of bestowing upon that year’s vintage, (considered to be one of the greatest of the century, next to 1982) the title “The Year of Victory.” This time he commissioned the young painter, Philippe Jullian to produce a graphic design that was based on the “V” sign, made prominent by Winston Churchill during the war.
From 1946 on, a contemporary artist has been commissioned every year to create an original work for the label, which would embody the vintage. The relationship between artists and estate has always been based on friendship and trust, shared objectivity and creative vision. Every artist is allowed to follow their own inspiration; however, the estate has the final say on whether to accept the work or, if it did not capture what they had envisioned, reject it. The artists commissioned are not paid for their work, but rather, they are given a specific number of cases of wine from two different years.
Over the past 50 years, the world’s best artists have created labels for Mouton Rothschild. A few of the artists included were Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Francis Bacon, Robert Wilson, and, for the 2010 release, Jeff Koons.
Since Baron Philippe’s death in 1988, Baroness Philippine, the Baron’s only daughter, has become wholly involved in running of the estate. It has become her responsibility to choose that year’s artist to design and create the label.
The vision created back in 1924 has not faltered in 90 years. That is commitment and that is what is required. Art and wine seem destined to be entwined within the walls of Château Mouton Rothschild, where, with each new year, boundaries are pushed and the previous year surpassed. This is an example to be followed.
The great American winemaker Robert Mondavi, who became a business partner with Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1980 when they founded Opus One winery in Napa, California, sums up the philosophy of wine by saying “Wine to me is passion. It’s family and it’s friends. It’s the warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It’s culture. It’s the essence of civilization and it’s the art of living.”
Note: After this article was written, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, died August 22, 2014, in Paris at 80. She was laid to rest at her beloved Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux, next to her father, Baron Philippe.
Château Mouton Rothschild
Current Winemaker: Philippe Dhalluin
Label Artist: Pierre Alechinsky
Winery: Château Mouton Rothschild
Appearance (Color): A bold ruby with a hint of fog
Aroma (Complexity): Fig and Artichoke
Body (Texture and Weight): Full classic Bordeaux
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Fig, Plum, Spice, Forest Floor
Finish (What lingers): Cinnamon
Price: $800 (at auction)
Food Pairing: Heavy meats, Strong cheese, Dark chocolates
Serving Temperature: 64°
When to Drink: Now