Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Major Tasting of Mouton Rothschild

April 2002

The Masters of wine hosted a vertical tasting of Mouton-Rothschild in London in January and I was one of several score who turned up, palates primed, to sample eight vintages of one of the world’s greatest wines. All eight were fascinating in their various ways, even if two famous vintages, while delectable, did not reach the ultimate heights. One wine, the 1986, towered over them all, and seems sure to develop into one of the greatest Moutons in living memory.

The tasting was in chronological order, with the youngest – the ’98 – appearing first.Though not showy in any way, and certainly not a blockbuster, it was an excellent wine with many years of improvement ahead:

1998 CHATEAU MOUTON-ROTHSCHILD ***

With the dense purple colour of youth, but not the blackish tinge of the ’96 or ’86, it has a refined, cedary aroma compounded of blackcurrants, bilberries, liquorice, and coffee. Lots of subtlety to this focused, precise, but still reticent nose which, if it seems a little lean at present, will certainly fill out in time. One is immediately struck by the similarity to the excellent ’88.

On the palate, medium-full, with just the right degree of concentration for a wine of this build, with toasted oak giving a suggestion of eucalyptus to a flavour of damson jam, prunes, and liquorice. Closed and very elegant, with the smoothness and harmony typical of wines from which all inferior fruit has been ruthlessly eliminated. Initially only medium-long, but growing more persistent, it clearly needs at least a dozen years to begin open, but won’t really be at its best before around 2015-2025.

Retasted about 40 minutes later, after the ’90 has been sampled, it proves to have more substance and force than the older (and more highly-regarded) vintage, showing the classic claret traits of subtlety, finesse, and harmony.

That the wine does not have maximum concentration is not surprising, given the high yields of that year: 55.7 hectolitres per hectare. The fact that only 57% of the harvest, however, went into the grand vin, or definitive bottling, shows what efforts went into trying to make the best possible wine in a year that was good but not great.

1996 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ****

The colour is only slightly more evolved than that of the ’98 but is distinctly blacker, denser. The aroma, too, is more complex and shows more minerality. The extra depth conferred by Cabernet-Sauvignon when overripe is also in evidence.

Cigarbox, smoke, and truffle intermingle with blackberry and black cherry jam aromas to produce a rare blend of exhilarating power and great restraint. The firm, even brutal, earthiness of Pauillac can be felt behind the rich fruit. In this respect, I am fleetingly reminded of the ’00 Latour: the terroir can’t be missed. A bit of time, and a few shakes of the glass, coax forth new aromas: blackcurrant and red rose. There is a feeling of great aromatic potential.

In the mouth, real Pauillac volume and weight, very complex, with the sort of delicious acidity found in ripe black cherries. Very long, effortlessly harmonious, and (while still closed) with suggestions of all manner of burgeoning subsidiary flavours and even a hint of Mouton “gout du capsule” – not unlike the faint taste of lead you get from a piece of shot left in a roast pheasant. Distinct Pauillac character on the masterful finish. Superb ripe tannins.

Though it only contains a little more Cabernet-Sauvignon than the ’95 which comes next, the ’96 is much more Cabernet in style. A great Mouton that should not be touched for 12-14 years and ought to go on improving for a good 25 more thereafter.

1995 CHATEAU MOUTON-ROTHSCHILD ****

With the richest, darkest colour of this first trio, the ’95 has a huge, fleshy aroma which, nonetheless, also shows ample structure and complexity. Having the most emphatic nose so far, it is also the most overtly Pauillac. There is a suggestion of overripe decadence (and the enticing degeneracy I associate with crasse de fer) to a nose which hints at black cherry, blackcurrant, and freshly-sharpened pencil (Cabernet-Franc).

The flavour is delectably rich, round, and fat, with the sweetness of perfectly ripe grapes, and makes me think of damson jam, truffle, prunes, and smoke. Rich and voluminous, any tendency it has to heaviness is offset by a fruity acidity which gives cut to the long smoky aftertaste.

Though seemingly more extrovert in style than the ’96, this big wine actually has less to say about itself at present. Given more time in the glass, and more aeration, it shows more and more Mouton (and Pauillac) power on an aftertaste of damson, autumn berries, and smoke. It also grows increasingly mineral.

The ’95 is altogether fleshier than the ’96 and this could mislead one into thinking that it won’t last as long. But if the younger wine seems more sinewy, this is because its structure is more clearly defined at this early stage. In my view, both need over a decade to open, with a good quarter-century of steady improvement thereafter.

1990 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ***

The colour, while solid and deep, is browner than one might expect from this top year. The perfumed aroma shows the kind of truffly voluptuousness also found in certain top Burgundies (a Rousseau Chambertin, for example). The round and spicy Merlot, accounting for 13% in this vintage, makes its presence felt in an aroma that suggests cocoa, truffle, plum jam, dried fig, and cedar. There is also a hint of raspberry.

In the mouth, it is charmingly round, fresh, and voluptuous, but has only about 80% of the concentration one might expect of a First Growth from this great vintage. Deliciously fruity on the palate, but only medium long, the wine looks like being at full stretch in only 6-7 years though is unlikely to fade much before 2025.

I would very much like to have a case or two of this wine in my cellar because of its sheer deliciousness. But it has to be said that one ought to be able to expect much more depth and durability from a First Growth in so great a vintage.

1989 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ***

The wine has the solid blackberry-purple tinge that is so typical of ’89, with noticeably less browning than the 1990. Dense and compact on the nose, very ’89 in style (round, viscous, sweet, yet faintly brutal), with an aromatic meld of blackberry jam, dried fig, cigarbox. Some overripeness can be picked out in an aroma which, while clean, does not have the exceptional purity and precision of the ’98, ’96, and ’95.

In fact, it has an affinity to some of those ’83s clarets marked by too much overripe Merlot. After a while, though, the Cabernet-Sauvignon, which gives backbone to all true Médocs, makes its presence felt with a sudden gush of something richer and firmer, and the flavour turns more towards black fruits.

The flavour is rich, slightly sweet, but just a little blunt. The style is very ’89 in that a percentage of drier tannins marr the fine texture imparted by tannins of the riper sort. The roasted aftertaste is long and tannic and suggests damson jam, prunes, and morel mushrooms. In contact with the air, the wine grows softer and longer on the palate and the Merlot starts to show again, this time on the finish that grows molasses-like. A decade or so ought to bring the wine to a maturity that should persist for a further 15 or so years.

1988 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ***

The “robe” has a youthfully blackish tinge and there is less browning than in the ’90 or ’89. The nose is medium full, very elegant, and shows fine Pauillac character – a salutary reminder that this commune can deliver finesse as well as power and depth. Reticent at first, the aroma of black cherry jam, coffee, raspberry, and cloves expands in the glass, showing increasing structure.

The medium-full flavour is excellent, with the Cabernet-Sauvignon giving intensity, freshness, and poise. There are suggestions of damson, roast chestnut, and liquorice, the latter probably from the Petit-Verdot grapes. While still closed, the wine has a firm, specifically Pauillac terroir character on a finish that grows more and more persistent. Indeed, it goes on expanding for as long as any drops remain in the glass.

Not wholly mature, this stylish 13-year-old needs about 5-6 years to turn the corner, after which it should fill out somewhat and go on developing for a good 15 or so more (it would then be perfect with Pauillac lamb!).

1986 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

This wine has a deep, black-purple colour with scarcely any browning – in appearance, easily the youngest and densest in the whole tasting. The dynamic aroma of black cherries, peonies, violets, and crème de cassis signals a wine that is weightier, more complex, and altogether richer than all the others, the ’86 (the most similar) included.

Behind the first wave of aromas lie others of still greater subtlety and depth, and because of its seemingly limitless depths the wine could not be mistaken for anything other than a First Growth at its most majestic.

The flavour is wonderfully rich and ripe, with vast underlying complexity and depth, its exuberance held in check, but in no way diminished, by the classically balanced structure brought by completely ripe and healthy Cabernet-Sauvignon grapes. Mouton only contains 2% Petit-Verdot; but this grape, the blackest and densest of all, gives extra density and weight. The very long, slightly tarry aftertaste shows quintessential Pauillac – and Mouton – structure and authority.

The wine is so complex that, after closing up after about 30 minutes, it opens again thereafter to show still more volume, depth, and complexity. At this stage I cannot resist letting a few drops run down my throat, enjoying a classic, smoky Mouton finish that reminds me of top vintages from the ’50s ’40s, ’30s, and ’20s.

I’m not sure that the wine will be mature even in 15-18 years from now; but it will certainly be wonderful to drink then. But the full grandeur of which it is capable may not show until around 2030-2050. Sceptics should bear in mind that the ’26 Mouton was undrinkable for many decades before becoming delicious (see below).

1982 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ***(*)

Solid, evolved, very Pauillac black-purple colour with distinct browning. The big spicy, truffly bouquet is typical of Mouton in its mock-Pomerol mode, being very round, sweet, and dense, with suggestions of chocolate, plum jam, dried fig, cloves, and prunes. There is an almost syrupy weight and fullness to it.

The plump, smooth, slightly medicinal flavour hints at damson and plum jams (with the stones left in) as well as dried figs and brown sugar. It grows truffly, and more chocolaty in the mouth but the voluptuous finish is medium long rather than very long. A little like the ’90 in style but richer and more long-lived. Not in the same league as the ’96, ’95, and still less the ’86.

I am not suggesting that this is anything less than a wonderful wine that will give much hedonistic pleasure over the next 15-20 years. But I cannot see it improving for the 30-40 years that would be normal for a Mouton from a vintage of this quality.

The 1975 and 1976 vintages. The former, still closed up, still needs several more years to peak, while the latter, which is round, spicy, and viscous, has been delicious for years but is still improving.

After the tasting, I looked up the notes I’d written on the 1982 Mouton when tasting it from the cask, in the Mouton chai, in March 1983, just a few months after the harvest. They show that I was less positive about the wine than some tasters at the same time (the best known of them was moved to give it a maximum 100 points). It was the gnarled maître de chai Raoul Blondin who poured out the sample for me. “Look at that colour: the grapes were cooked by the sun! Goût du soleil. Un phenomène de la nature. To get this quality you have to go back to 1893. I’ve never seen the like before. My father, my grandfather, and I made this wine – it’s taken us three generations to bring it off! It isn’t supple, it’s round. And that roundness masks the tannin, the acidity, the concentration.”

Almost 19 years ago, in the darkness of the Mouton cellars, I wrote in my wine-stained notebook: “very deep cassis colour, almost opaque. Very profound, extremely soft nose, slightly “cooked”, slightly spicy. Big-bodied, tannic, concentrated.” But then a certain reserve begins to creep in. “Cooked smell and flavour. Smells and tastes pasteurized. How will it develop? “

Over the years I have had the good fortune to taste 44 vintages of Mouton – a great many but a lot fewer than some, no doubt. Like a good shepherd, I grieve most over the moutons that are lost! Some of the rarest and oldest that came my way were courtesy of the veteran buyers at the now-defunct Swedish state wholesale monopoly, Vin & Sprit.

The “biggest” of them all was surely the 1945, a massive, black wine that had so much volume that a single glass tasted as if three had been compressed into one. It had a huge concentration of fruit, a long, nuanced aftertaste, and great profundity. But my all-time favourite, because of its sheer finesse, was the 1949.

 

The one (of many) that got away. A vintage of Mouton-Rothschild not yet tasted by Frank Ward - a lost Mouton.

During my years in Sweden I had the luck to have an eccentric, very generous accountant who spent much more time treating me to wine and food in various restaurants than on unravelling my tax problems. Certainly, the amount he spent on this hospitality vastly exceeded what he charged in fees.

Many years earlier, the old monopoly had bought large volumes of ’49 claret, the Mouton among them, and had locked them away for a good 20 years. The ’49 Mouton had just been placed on sale in the monopoly’s shops, and the price must have been the lowest anywhere on earth – though still daunting to fledgling wine writers.

Bo, my accountant, loved the wine and saw to it that we shared many half-bottles, as well as some full bottles, over a number of years. They were invariably delicious. Better than all of them, though, was the single magnum that I bought at great sacrifice, brought over to England, and kept for a further 20 years or so. It was finally uncorked and shared with friends three years ago.

Though I hadn’t sampled the vintage for quite a few years, I took the calculated risk of decanting the magnum – which showed scarcely any ullage – several hours in advance. As it turned out, I had erred on the side of caution, for the wine, explosive from the outset, simply went on developing fresh nuances for hours. Indeed, the dregs were still fresh the next day. It was instructive to note that this wine, one of the very greatest I have ever tasted, contained below 10% alcohol. Most dry wines made today dose 12-14° alcohol. Many will fade in less than a decade.

Still young in colour, browning certainly but still with a blue-purple cast, it had a fresh, enticing bouquet full of ripe, autumn berry fruit with a strong, truffly element but something piney too. On the palate, sumptuously fruity, vibrantly youthful, with ripe-grape sweetness, but also structured and precise as to form. The aftertaste was spectacularly long and very focused, with a myriad component flavours.

An hour after we had started to drink the wine, I became aware that it was continuing to develop, and at an accelerating pace. The danger was that, because the wine was so delicious, we would finish it off before it revealed all that it had to offer. Fortunately, a bottle of ’82 Ducru-Beaucaillou stood upright in my cellar, ready to be decanted if needed. It was needed most urgently. A few minutes later it was upstairs, being sipped with great appreciation while the ’49 Mouton was left in peace to grow still more expansive.

Some time later the Ducru was gone. We then turned again to the Mouton which, in the intervening hour, had developed into an even more majestic and enthralling wine. There really did seem to be no limit to its depths. The flavour steadily grew younger rather than older, its texture silkier and more opulent, its aftertaste longer and more profound. When the decanter was empty I was devastated to register that my one and only magnum of ’49 Mouton was gone forever. But we were all uplifted by the realization that we had drunk a wine that was as great as a wine can be.

Perhaps the best insight into Mouton (and First Growth claret in general) was afforded me by a big tasting in Stockholm in the late 1980s. It featured 14 vintages of all five First Growths from 1982 (the youngest year) back to 1926. The notion was to show one top year and one off-vintage from each of the seven decades in question (98 wines): ’82 & ’80; ’73 & ’70; ’67 & ’61; ’59 & ’52; ’48 & ’43; ’37 & ’34; and ’28 & ’26.

The choice of years was, of course, a bit arbitrary: the various châteaux would doubtless have performed differently had the selection of vintages been different (Lafite would have come out much better had the ’59 and ’53 been shown, for example). As it was, Mouton was judged overall to be the best wine in the 14 vintages. It should be pointed out that the tasting was partly blind: we knew the identity of the wines but the order in which each vintage was served was constantly changed.

At the end I found that I had gone along with the consensus, in that my aggregate scores gave Mouton first place. I was in a minority, though, in finding Latour the better wine in the ’70, ’28, and ’26 vintages.

What did emerge clearly from the tasting was that, for most of the period in question, both Latour and Mouton were far better-made than Lafite and Margaux. The latter pair did not begin to perform consistently at their best until 1976 (Lafite) and 1978 (Margaux). In both cases this was thanks to the immense expertise, not to say genius, of Emile Peynaud, who took over as wine-maker in those respective years.

The most impressive Mouton vintages in the Stockholm tasting were the ’82 (it showed spectacularly well on that occasion); ’70, ’61, ’59, and ’26. Somebody (probably one of the older tasters at the monopoly) had told us that the ’26 Mouton had been hard and obdurate for decade after decade and been more or less given up on. But the bottle sampled on that occasion was a miracle of subtlety and refinement. It had a flowery bouquet that suggested a Margaux, without any hint of sharpness or hardness, while the flavour, reminscent of strawberry compote and plum jam, was very long and delicate but in no way fragile. “Not a false note to this fresh, vibrant wine,” I noted. “One of the stars of the whole tasting.”

Another of bottles enjoyed in Sweden was consumed by me illegally, with the full collusion of the then chief buyer at the old state monopoly, a wonderful man and a great taster called Carl Andersson. He died quite a few years ago so I can tell this story without causing embarrassment.

I had been commissioned to write an article about the old monopoly – a very singular organization (but that’s another story) – and contacted Mr Andersson to arrange an interview. Our meeting took place at the monopoly’s headquarters on the outskirts of Stockholm, a vast complex that included its own harbour, railways sidings, and deep rock chambers for the storage of wines. Our discussion was followed by a blind tasting of many wines from the monopoly’s range. We took all the time in the world, analyzing each bottle in turn and splitting hairs. When we reached the last two I was elated to discover that they were ’49 and ’45 Mouton-Rothschild. More time was spent over those two than the others put together. By this time darkness had fallen and the monopoly building was empty except for us.

"The wine, explosive from the outset, simply went on developing fresh nuances for hours. Indeed, the dregs were still fresh the next day." The 1949 Mouton-Rothschild when it was 50 years old.

Mr Andersson picked up the ’45 Mouton, smiled, and asked, “How would you like to drink this with your dinner tonight?” Thinking the question a rhetorical one (the wine was technically in bond) I laughed and said that that would have been marvellous had it only possible. “Take it, it’s yours,” said Mr Andersson and thrust the bottle, emblazoned with its famous “Année de la Victoire” label and still almost full, into my hands.

I set off on the long walk home with the contraband bottle clutched to my chest. Passers-by must have thought me odd, for I was grinning to myself and letting out the occasional chortle. Money was tight at the time, for I had just ceased to be an impoverished artist and begun my sideways progression into wine; but I decided that we simply had to have something to eat which would be a fitting accompaniment to so great a wine. I called home and told my wife to go out and get the best piece of meat that money could buy.

In due course we sat down to dinner. There was little money in the bank, our flat was small and poky, our furniture shabby and old. But on our plates was succulent beef and in our glasses was 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild, First growth of the Médoc and one of the world’s greatest wines from one of the noblest vintages in living memory.

© Frank Ward 2002

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