An Adventure with the Ram

This post took me longer than usual to write as I learned the blogger’s lesson the hard way: I drafted my post online and lost the finished piece. 

I’ve been a very busy girl over the past couple of weeks. The Bordeaux Grand Tasting. A Classified Growth Tour in the Medoc. Portes-Ouverts in Pessac. Chateau Haut Brion. The end of the year scramble. School work. My internship. I’ve also been a very lucky girl. I have a great boss who encourages my adventures. I’ve got motivated friends who have organized visits and confirmed reservations. I’m so lucky in fact that one week after a friend organized a visit at Chateau Haut Brion another organized a visit at another First Growth, Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

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Located in the heart of Pauillac, about an hour drive from the Bordeaux city center, vines first appeared on the mothon, an ancient French word meaning hill, in the 18th Century. But it the history really begins in 1853 when Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, wishing ot serve his own high-quality wines to prominent guests at his home, purchased a wine-making farm in the center of Pauillac known as Brane-Mouton. It was this critical moment that would trigger the meteoric rise of the estate thenceforth known as Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

DSC_0204But it would not be until the 1920’s that the estate would evolve to become the icon it is today. Baron Philipe, the grandson of Nathaniel, was traveling through France when he paid his first visit to the family wine estate and fell in love. Recognizing the potential of the property, Nathaniel began to pressure his father not only to visit but to invest in the property. Fed up with his son, Philipe, who was in his early 20s at the time, was given permission to take control of the estate and make changes. It was in 1924 that he first began to bottle the estate’s wine and the iconic ram symbol was developed. Unlike most Bordeaux estates, Mouton Rothschild was a humble farm and lacked the elegant Chateau buildings. As such, the estate lacked a defining feature to include on the label. Inspired by the word mouton, meaning sheep, Philipe looked to his own astrological sign, Ares, and created the estate’s first avant garde label. Well ahead of his time, this would later serve as inspiration for one of the estate’s additional defining characteristics, the inclusion of a unique piece of modern art on the label. While many years would pass before art was again included on the label, the idea would be reinstated in 1945 to commemorate the Allied Victory in World War II.

Large Format of 2000 VintageBut Chateau Mouton Rothschild is famous for another reason. The 1855 Classification, ordered by Napoleon III for the World Exhibition in Paris, has long been considered the defining ranking of the best of Bordeaux. Immovable and long lasting, the system doesn’t change…with one exception, Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The classifications were based primarily on the 1855 market value of the wines, with the understanding that at that time price was a reflection of quality. But price wasn’t the only factor. The appearance of the property and the architectural beauty of the Chateau were also critical factors. As a humble farm, that nonetheless produced great wines, Chateau Mouton Rothschild was classified a second growth. But as time passed the wines were celebrated as matching first growth quality and continued to command comparable prices. This was reinforced by the investments of the Baron Philipe. After years of investment and tireless campaigning, Baron Philipe successfully lobbied for a status change and in 1973 the Chateau was upgraded to Premier Cru Classé. To date it remains the only estate to have changed from its original classification.

DSC_0158The Baron eventually passed his legacy to his daughter Philippine, who started her working life as an actress. However, much like her father she proved to be an able businesswoman and a great female figure in wine. While affectionately called ‘The Baroness’ the title in actually passes only through the male line. When the Baron passed away in 1988 the title passed to a cousin instead of to his only child, his daughter. Sadly today there remains some confusion over who actually received the title. But most importantly, Philippine continued to build upon the legacy her father built, a legacy that included both fine wine and modern art.

DSC_0194Unfortunately the Baroness passed away this past fall, but her children will continue the family legacy. I had the lucky chance to taste wine from grapes harvest during the last vintage overseen by Philippine, the 2013. as a barrel sample. And I will confess to being impressed, much more so than I was by the 2007 Haut Brion, which had been finished and bottled. Despite being a difficult harvest, 2013 was rich and complex. Carefully sorted by two optical sorting machines, the berries were then vinified in the new vat room completed just in time for the harvest. The nose delivered stunning notes of cherry, cedar, chocolate and a touch of rich black earth. A blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc the wine was warm and clean with a full body, structured and yet with soft tannins. A slight acidic bite promises a potential for age and further development. The wine will continue to rest in the barrel until June, when it will be bottled and a new label, chosen by Philippine’s children will be created in her memory.

The 1920s 1000-Barrel CellarBut in addition to having the great chance to enjoy the tasting, we also got to enjoy a unique tour of the estate and the label museum. We arrived during the blending of the 2014 wines. The cellar staff were busy cleaning barrels and adding the blend to the barrels stored in the early 1920’s cellar. A feat of architectural engineering, this stunning cellar accommodates 1000 barrels and is supported without columns. We also got to see the underground cellar where the 2013 wines were being fined and the Wine Library, containing wines dating back to 1859. Ok we didn’t actually tour the Library but we got to peak between the bars. I can’t say I blame them, I’m not sure I would trust a bunch of strangers around that kind of a cellar. The museum contains all of the original artwork used on each of the unique labels.

Understandably wanting to protect the artwork, there were no photos allowed within the museum, but I do have additional photos from the estate. Click here to see the whole gallery.

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