The Mouton Revival

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This post, submitted by Bordeaux-based journalist Wendy Narby, is a participant in the 2014 Guest Bloggers' Program sopnsored by the Great Wine Capitals Global Network.


After 3 years of frustration on the part of visitors to Bordeaux, Chateau Mouton Rothschild is once again open to wine enthusiasts. It was worth the wait, the wine making cellar has been transformed but so has the cultural part of the Chateau.

Bordeaux architect and winery specialist, Bernard Mazière, has created the spectacular 2 storey gravity-fed cellar allowing the Mouton team to incorporate the latest wine making techniques whilst remaining true to their traditions.

Palettes of hand picked bunches of future Mouton Rothschild are lifted up in crates, almost 16 metres, to the top floor where they are de-stemmed and the grapes are selected both by hand and by optical sorting machine. Once crushed, they are carried in small stainless steel hoppers on rails and tipped into the 44 traditional oak vats. Each vat is a different size and corresponds to a specific plot of land, giving the cellar master a much larger palette of wines to blend in than in the previous cellar.

One of the hoppers above the new vats.

(Photo credit:  Wendy Narby)

The vats are pretty amazing. At first glance they seem classic but they have a Plexiglas ‘window’ running down each side, so the wine maker can clearly see the fermentation process taking place. They also have built-in radiators to cool and warm the must as needed during the alcoholic and malolactic fermentation and there is a canny trap door in the base to allow the cap to be easily removed for pressing in the five traditional vertical presses.

The plexiglass window in the side of a new oak vat.

(Photo credit:  Wendy Narby)

Alongside the oak vats are twenty in stainless steel, used essentially for the bottling. These were christened for the bottling of the 2011 this summer, which will be shipped towards the end of the year once the name of the latest artist to sign the label has been selected.

Mouton has always been at the cutting edge. After taking over the property in 1922, Baron Philippe decided in 1924 that his entire crop would be bottled at the chateau, a dramatic decision then, as it only became mainstream for the top Bordeaux properties in the 1970s. Even today, only about 50% of Bordeaux is Château bottled.

Although the new cellars were only open again to visitors this year, the 2012 vintage was the first to be vinified here. The 2010 and 2011 vintages were made in the recently renovated cellars of neighbouring Chateau Clerc Milon, 5th growth of Pauillac, also owned by the Rothschilds. Mouton wines are not afraid of a little oak. Their power benefits from the ageing in 100% new oak barrels each year. However, to attenuate the influence of the 100% new oak vats used for fermentation in 2012, this percentage was reduced to the 70%. As the vats are used over the next few vintages this percentages will slowly rise back to the classic 100%.

Not everything has changed however. There is still the Baron’s ram head collection at the entrance to the cellars and the barrels are still lined up in the impressive first year ‘Great Barrel Hall’ designed and built by architect Charles Sicilis in 1926. This ‘Grand Chai’ is 100m long and was built to age the wines following the Baron’s decision to Chateau bottle. Holding over a thousand barrels the whole harvest, an equivalent of 300 000 bottles, can be stored on a single level facilitating all the work that needs to be done (topping up, racking, etc.) during the first 6 months. The wine is then transferred to the underground cellars, built in the 30’s, to finish its 18-20 month barrel life. Previously not open to visitors, the private family cellars run along side these cellars,  you can now stroll through and admire this vast collection of wines from the family estates.

But there is more to Chateau Mouton-Rothschild than wine. Baroness Pauline, the Baron’s second wife, created the Museum of Art in Wine at Mouton in 1962. It now holds over 400 pieces some dating back to ancient Greek and Rome and follows the work of artists who have been inspired by wine through the ages. This museum has always been a highlight of any visit to Mouton but since the renovation, the ‘Painting for the Labels’ exhibition is another reason to visit.

This is a creation of the current Baroness Philippine who has continued the tradition started by her father of commissioning a different contemporary artist for each vintage. Despite turning 80 this year, she still has a finger on the pulse of the art scene, as her annual selection of an artist attests. Dating back to the first chateau bottling in 1923, the idea was not well received and he left the project to one side until 1945 when a commemorative label to mark the end of the war re-launched the idea.

The l'Art et l'Etiquette exhibition

(Photo credit:  Emanuele Scorcelletti)

The exhibition, showing the original artworks for the labels of Mouton was a rarely seen, itinerant show that has now found its home.  The fascinating collection, accompanied by the stories behind the artists and the different art works proposed by the artists for each label is worth a visit all by itself.

More touching is a series of family portraits of the Baron and his first and second wives both who died before him, leaving him widowed until his death in 1988.

Mouton has always been the exception of the 1st growths of Bordeaux in being open to the public, with a team of multilingual guides ready to welcome visitors whether wine enthusiasts or interested in discovering more about the Rothschild myth. For a fee you can experience some of the ‘mystique’, history and of course the wine that is such an integral part of this family. Depending on your level of enthusiasm for wine or for art, you can choose between a visit based on the art and museum exhibition or more concentrated on the wine, with or without a tasting.

This new cellar is a fitting tribute by his daughter to a gentleman who was both a major player in, and a witness to, some of the key changes that have made Bordeaux what it is today. If you are going to come all this way, schedule in a couple of hours to experience his influence through the cellars, the art and the three family wines; Mouton, Armailhac and Clerc Million.

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