‘Tarty’, was how one wine trade insider pithily put it.
For some time there has been a faintly patronizing, not to mention tenacious attitude towards Bordeaux First Growth (hence one of the wine world’s most celebrated producers) Château Mouton Rothschild. Particularly among the more traditional members of the trade, maybe those whose memory stretches back to when, uniquely, it was promoted from deuxième cru classé to the vaunted premier in 1973, making the club of four a quintet. It was an arriviste – grasping, overly ambitious, and with a tarty wine to match.
This view is fast becoming a distant memory, as outdated as it is unfair. It’s true, as Richard Bampfield MW commented at this fascinating seminar, that Mouton has a, ‘dynamism, energy’ and certain can-do spirit about it, which isn’t always the norm in the established Bordeaux elite. It’s also true that this wine can do drama and exotic allure – a characteristic reflected in its owner, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild – like few others.
But it’s also true that Mouton has, according to fine wine trading hub Liv-Ex, been one of the most reliable and best performing first growths over recent years – some turbulent ones for the fine wine market. And it’s unjust to define the wine as flashy; for all its occasional opulence, this is a serious, well grounded wine that is up there with some of the planet’s very best.
Philippe Dhalluin – unassuming, engagingly upfront – is the technical director for all the BPDR estates, from Mouton Rothschild to Pauillac neighbours Clerc Milon and d’Armailhac plus the Mouton Cadet brand, Baron’arques in the Languedoc and joint ventures Almaviva in Chile and Opus One in Napa. He was presenting not only a fascinating vertical of the grand vin from 2003 to 2011 but also, in unprecedented fashion, a tasting of the component parts and nearly finished blends of Petit Mouton (the second wine) and the grand vin for the 2013 en primeurs. A preview of a preview.
Tasting notes follow below. My favourite from the main tasting was the 2010, followed by the 2005 and 2009, with standout performances also for both the 2004 and 2007.
What struck me from the varietal tasting was the utterly beguiling nature of Cabernet Sauvignon on the Mouton terroir, with its tell tale smoky, masculine style: plush, dynamic and thrilling, with tremendous energy but also elegance.
There was also the stark insight into the difference vine age makes (neophyte producers take note). Dhalluin instigated the practice of conducting separate harvests for vines over and under 15 years old. The younger vines go to the second wine or other tiers (eg the Mouton Cadet programme) whereas the older vines are hived off with more prestigious aims in mind (Mouton has an average vine age of around 50 years, with some dating back to 1900).
‘The differences are spectacular,’ says Dhalluin, a point amply demonstrated by tasting Petit Mouton against the grand vin in 2013. Dhalluin also suggests the naturally lower vigour old vines produce less alcohol due to the reduced canopy size and poor gravelly soil. ‘We don’t worry about alcohol,’ he stressed.
As for the 2013, it was showing pretty well for such a testing vintage, a fresh but rounded style. ‘This was a vintage when you needed to have the right means,’ stressed Dhalluin – by which he meant the ability to harvest fast (rot pressure meant he was forced to harvest Mouton four days earlier than he had envisaged – they had 695 people harvesting on 9th October) and have the right winemaking kit on hand (Mouton’s new vat house was opened in June 2013). Not just that, but also taking the financial hit on sales: this was the lowest production of Mouton’s grand vin in recent times, he pointed out.
Dhalluin noted how it had been a very rainy spring, leading to coulure and lower yield in Merlot, then a decent summer but a rainy, rot-threatened vintage. Mouton started on 30th September and finished on the 12th October.
‘Cabernet was the winner for us, with Merlot difficult to harvest in good shape.’ He confessed he was surprised when the fruit didn’t show signs of greenness (noting even that Carmenère went into the Clerc-Milon grand vin, as it does eight years out of ten). Speaking of the grand vin, he was generally bullish in the face of 2013 naysayers (‘It’s pretty decent for a 2013, no, so not all disastrous?’ he jested.)
CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD TASTING
2013 components and en primeur samples
Château Mouton Rothschild Merlot 2013 – a blend of two plots, I was expecting this to be a bit more opulent in style. Perhaps due to the vintage, it’s actually quite tangy and fresh, albeit with rounded firm tannin. Plummy, leafy notes, quite edgy in style.
Château Mouton Rothschild Cabernet Franc 2013 – Dhalluin describes the Cabernet France as adding a ‘mineral, almost salty’ edge to the blend. He used it in his first vintage (2004) but left it out of the grand vin until 2011 – because, he says, it showed awkwardly when the wine was young (an implicit criticism of the en primeur system?) But I get the feeling Dhalluin likes Cabernet Franc in the grand vin – it’s there in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – because, in his words, ‘it adds another dimension: herbal rather than fruit.’ It’s certainly earthy, leafy and with roasted pepper notes. Lovely juicy crunchy style. Direct, tangy, lithe. Beautiful freshness and vibrancy, with ripe tannin. A good blending element.
Château Mouton Rothschild Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 – and suddenly it all becomes clear. This is what Mouton is all about: a thrilling, punchy, compelling, elegant core of delicious Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark fruit, roasted pepper aromas, vinous already (unlike the previous two samples). With that smoky, almost carnal edge that is the hallmark of this property’s best wines. Lovely acidity, freshness and lift on the finish. Young but energetic and focused. Fresh in style with underlying graphite complexity. Bravura Cabernet.
Château Petit Mouton pre-primeurs assemblage 2013 (93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot) – in normal years, some 25% of Mouton’s production is Petit Mouton while around half is grand vin. In 2013, Dhalluin revealed, this was more like 30-35% Petit Mouton and 40% grand vin – one of the lowest productions ever, even versus 1991, in response to the challenging conditions. Given the earthy/vegetal, quite lifted and light palate style of this wine, without the weight of that amazing Cabernet sample, I assumed this had more Merlot (and some Cab Franc) in it. But Dhalluin noted how it’s the younger Cabernet vines that make this wine and the comparison between this wine and the grand vin is a fascinating illustration of the difference that vine age makes. This is tangy, juicy, edgy and lacks the palate weight and complexity, the tenderness and richness, of the prime cut. Solid, not spectacular.
Château Mouton Rothschild pre-primeurs assemblage 2013 (89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc) – You immediately feel the weight, the gravity and class of that Cabernet Sauvignon. Smoky dark cassis notes. Rounded, grounded and focused. Beautifully gravelly. Juicy, firm style, really lifted but also quite sensual and urgent. The smoky perfume is allied to a vegetal spectrum – it seems a fresh style, reminiscent of 2007 or 2004, which is encouraging. Fine tannic weight, without the perfect harmony and concentration of a top vintage but not bad at all at this stage, in the circumstances.
Grand vin vertical 2011-2003
- Prices quoted are from Liv-Ex per case of 12 bottles in bond
Château Mouton Rothschild 2011, Pauillac, 13% (8-8.5/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£3,200) – Dhalluin commented that this warm, dry vintage resulted in the earliest harvest for 40 years. ‘Opulent, good maturity though maybe too fast,’ he mused. Initially, this is a ‘wow!’ wine, with super glossy creamy hedonistic aromas of sweet spices and velvety fruit. Verges on dried fruit/raisiny, with gravelly graphite undertones. Energetic, young, woody. Lots of energy and concentration but does fall away a bit on the finish. A bit raw and stoney, needs a bit more fruit delivery. Nice texture, though. (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc; harvest 12-28 Sept)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2010, Pauillac, 13.5% (9.5/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£5,200) – The total opposite to 2011, which flatters on the nose but disappoints on the palate. This is all about brooding, latent power – a simmering volcano of a wine, dense and replete but not at all overdone, so elegantly swathed in fine velvety tannin as it is. Very deep colour. Utterly harmonious, exponential in style. Close to complete Cabernet. Brilliant achievement – a case study in how power and intensity can be delivered in elegant, savoury style. ‘A lot of virility here,’ comments Dhalluin. ‘I’ve never seen texture like it; it’s the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon we’ve ever used.’ Sensational, and a long way to go yet. (94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot; harvest 29 Sept-13 Oct)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2009, Pauillac, 13% (9.2/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£5,150) – Another stark contrast: where 2010 is a vinous black hole, this is something of a supernova: dazzling, opulent, charming. While I prefer the 2010, and think it will age better, this 2009 is undeniably complex, enticing and carnal – hard to resist, with its smoky, meaty, spicy allure. The treasure trove of aromas features mineral, animal and vegetal elements, really layered and heart-warming. Maybe a touch hollow on the finish? Will be fascinating to see how it evolves. Says Dhalluin: ‘We love this vintage, very mature but not over mature, rich and long. The 2009 and 2010 were two of the best vintages I’ve ever made; this was the last one made in our old vat house, the 2010 and 2011 were made in provisional facilities until the new one was ready for 2013.’ (88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, harvest 23 Sept-13 Oct)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2008, Pauillac, 13% (8.7/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£3,150) – ‘It might not be as concentrated and complex as the 2009 or 2010,’ reasons Dhalluin, ‘but it’s got good flesh. This was a late harvest after changeable weather.’ It’s a change of register, definitely. From the heady heights of 2009 and 2010, this is a more low-key, workmanlike wine (in the context of Mouton). Engaging aromas of pressed red and black fruits with notes of graphite and cedar. Touch of black pepper and coffee. Firm, fine gravelly tannin, good crisp acidity. Lots here. Not as naturally harmonious or impressive as the 2010 or 2009: trying hard but not as complete on the finish, a bit dusty. Plush but not super meaningful. Impressive, nonetheless, and may be a sleeper. (83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot; harvest 2-15 October)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2007, Pauillac, 13% (8.8/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£3,000) – Small yield, normal harvest time: ‘classic’ in Dhalluin’s view, with the smoky notes typical of top Mouton. This wine really impressed me, albeit in a leafy style, for its cogency, tenacity and typicity. Some 2007s are a bit weedy and weak but this has a deep brooding hue. Leafy, bell pepper aromas segue into smoky, gravelly, cedary tones. Classic Pauillac. Lovely lift on the finish, fine tannin and great vigour. Might not age as well as 2010 but this still has notable power and focus, with the structure to develop nicely. Under-rated. (81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot; harvest 26 Sept – 11October)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2006, Pauillac, 13% (8/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£3,450) – The least impressive of the flight, lacking the tension, energy and complexity that makes for the best Mouton. Aromas of leafy dark fruit, quite ripe in feel. The palate is plump, with fine tannin but lacking definition. All a bit soft and inconsequential. (87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot; harvest 20 Sept – 5 Oct)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2005, Pauillac, 13% (9.3/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£3,950) – This vaunted vintage was only Dhalluin’s second in charge so he concedes he was still getting into his stride. Nonetheless, it’s seriously impressive. Aromas include mint, baked cream and ripe dark fruit. Seems classic, cool and steady, but only still emerging. Lovely smooth juicy complex style with flavours of graphite, cedar and tobacco. Real energy here. Great savoury depth. Beautiful, silky, sensuous but profoundly savoury and compelling. Favulous expression of Pauillac Cabernet, reminiscent of the 2010 in the way it combines power with elegance in savoury proportions. You really feel the profundity of those deep gravel soils. Fine firm tannin. Touch of alcohol warmth on the finish. (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc; harvest 21 Sept – 6 Oct)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2004, Pauillac, 12.5% (9/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£2,950) – ‘The exact opposite of 2005: very classical’ says Dhalluin, also noting the high proportion of Cabernet Franc, a grape that he eliminated in later vintages but then comes back to in 2011. Deep hue. Lovely plush talc-like nose initially. Some meaty, smoky tones too, another vintage marked by that classic Mouton trait. On the palate, it’s quite sinewy and slender but beautifully proportioned, classic claret, with a focus and elegance that does not have the breadth of 2005 or 2010 but it has just as much beauty. Lovely, lovely wine. The beautiful paradox of claret – power with elegance – is captured here. Love it. In its own slightly understated style. Still has a way to go, though. (69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot; harvest 29 Sept – 15 Oct)
Château Mouton Rothschild 2003, Pauillac, 13% (8.5/10, PR, Feb 2014) (£3,400) – Not a bad effort by any means in this very warm vintage, but it definitely bears the traits of this sun-blasted year. Aromas of sun-baked fruit and warm earth. Dried fruit. Tobacco notes. Nice fine tannin, has a bit more concentration and grip than the 2006, but isn’t top drawer: I prefer the focus of 2004 and 2007. Decent, but not great. Slightly dusty on finish. (76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot; harvest 15-26 Sept)