Mouton 2014 Launch

Last Friday Baron Jacob Rothschild hosted a private party at Spencer House to unveil Sir David Hockney’s painting created for the label of the 2014 vintage of Mouton Rothschild, the first cases of which have recently been shipped from the chateau.  Addressing guests, Rothschild praised the artist, saying that in a year which will celebrate Hockney’s 80th birthday, as well as imminent exhibitions at Tate Britain and then Paris’ Centre Pompidou, it was an honour for the château that 2017 would commence with their collaboration...

(If you can't be bothered to read all the background, interesting quotes and thoughts on the vintage, a properly edited version was published in FT How To Spend It.)

A number of wineries around the world have close associations with art and artists – Taittinger in Champagne, Castello di Ama and Ca’ del Bosco in Italy, Bodegas Tradicion in Jerez and Robert Mondavi in California to name a small selection, but none as well known or iconic as Mouton Rothschild.  After an early experiment in 1924 with a cubist-influenced label from designer Jean Carlu, the tradition began in earnest in 1945 when Baron Philippe commissioned the relatively unknown Philippe Jullian to design a label to celebrate the end of the war.  Based on Churchill’s famous “V” for victory sign, the image and sentiments are especially appropriate given that 1945 Mouton Rothschild is still widely regarded as the greatest Bordeaux and possibly even the greatest wine ever made.  The roster of artists whose work has adorned subsequent vintages includes Braque, Dalí, Miró, Chagall, Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol and latterly Anish Kapoor and Jeff Koons whose works respectively embellish the bottles from the most successful modern vintages - 2009 and 2010.

Hockney is only fifth British artist to grace a Mouton label, after Lucien Freud in 2006, Prince Charles in 2004, Francis Bacon in 1990 and Henry Moore in 1964.  He was a close friend of Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, for whose passing in 2014 his label commemorates (“In tribute to Philippine).  He even appeared with her on stage at the Guggenheim in New York in 1984 in a play by Picasso.  Hockney had previously visited Mouton Rothschild in the 1970s and told the guests at Friday’s unveiling he commended the château then “for making the best homemade wine that I’ve tried”. 

Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, the Baroness’s elder son, who has succeeded her as Chairman, commented that his mother appreciated Hockney because “they shared the same sense of humour about life”.  He mentioned that when his mother was presenting the château’s wines in her own inimitable style, she would unexpectedly request him to contribute comment or, as I saw first-hand at a lunch with them both, even cede the floor to her son without prior warning to introduce one of the wines (1961 Mouton as I recall).  Conversely, when Sereys de Rothschild was presenting, the game had been to see how long it would be before she interrupted him:  “On average it was 30-60 seconds”, he smiled wryly.

He also praised his brother, Julien de Beaumarchais, for his patience and persistence in convincing Hockney to accept the label commission, saying; “Julien has a great relationship with artists and understands the need to build the relationship at their pace. That process takes more time than the actual art work.”  De Beaumarchais himself later observed that; “Getting David to agree was a mountain to climb… but we succeeded in scaling Mount Hockney".  When discussing past commissions with artists that had not come to fruition, Sereys de Rothschild mentioned that his grandfather had on occasion examined potential label designs with their creators and commented: “Good… but could we have a little more green?” which such appraisal had led to the end of several potential collaborations.

Turning to the 2014 wine, Philippe Dalhuin, who has been the head winemaker and director at the château since 2004, stated:

"2014 is an excellent vintage and were it not for the primacy of 2009 and 2010 it would be our best vintage since 2006.  During the en primeur tastings there may have been a perception that it was a bit straight, classic, almost austere, but barrel ageing has revealed freshness without aggressive acidity. The tannins are mature and refined with a sweetness in the attack and good balance between vibrancy and maturity. The wine will continue to evolve and improve but it is already approachable.

Asked what makes Mouton special, Dalhuin replies “Mouton is unique.  Many chateaux are unique but Mouton is more unique than others”.  He continues “its character allows Cabernet to express the whole spectrum of flavours, grown on soils with the greatest concentration of gravels and sand”.  He then explained the majority of vineyards lie between two plateaux, north shared with neighbours Lafite, and the south Carruades, which provide a natural sun trap that encourages “very ripe grapes with a creamy and smoky roasted berry character”.  Despite the grapes’ ripeness, Mouton’s alcohol levels remain moderate, rarely dipping much over 13%, very old vines being one of the reasons for this continues Dalhuin:  “We have six hectares that have not been replanted since 1900, and these have sufficiently deep roots to avoid hydric stress during hot years”.

Discussing what the future holds for the château, Dalhuin says “the blends for 2016 have now been completed.  There is a density in the wine and really creamy tannins with our highest ever levels of polyphenols.  Last year we picked small, concentrated berries which have given us a very balanced wine, fresh but with velvety tannins.  Everybody is happy with this vintage” he concludes before suggesting that 2014, 2015 and 2016 have the potential to be a latter day 1988, 1989 and 1990. Asked if there were any significant developments at Mouton, Dalhuin replies just that “every year we aim to make wines that are more precise, more pure, from grapes harvested at perfect maturity”. Sereys de Rothschild adds: “the hardest thing when you are on the top is to stay there - it requires constant effort” and despite an evolving and competitive market, echoing Baron Philippe’s famous motto, Dalhuin concludes “Mouton ne change”.

Mouton Rothschild 2014 tasting note:

Recognisable Mouton aromas – lead pencil shavings and a solid hit of cassis, with roasted and toasted notes and the whiff of a recently smoked Cohiba. Typically refined and aristocratic, the palate is cool, vigorous, supple and refreshing if not generous, blackberries of course and ripe Merlot fruit with touches of spice and cocoa.  A refreshing rapier of a wine which, if French might be tackled now, if English or American will be left in the cellar for another five years. 46.5/50