Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Counting Moutons

April 2014. Trinity House, overlooking the Tower of London, was the recent venue for a tasting of every vintage of Château Mouton Rothschild from 2011 to 2003, together with a mock-up of the infant 2013. Philippe Dhalluin, the man in charge at this renowned First Growth, was there to talk about the wines. In a daring – and unconventional – move, a sample was offered of Mouton’s grand vin from the 2013 vintage, a year that’s largely been written off by trade and collectors alike. More daring still, was a showing of samples of the Château’s three main grape varieties from that same derided year: Merlot, Cabernet-Franc, and Cabernet-Sauvignon.

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How were the wines? You’ll find out below. My descriptions will mean a lot more if you have time to read the following preamble.

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In the 1855 classification of the Médoc, Mouton was only graded as a Second Growth, with just four châteaux – Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion (co-opted from the Graves) – being deemed worthy of First Growth status. But the potential was always there. The night after the tasting I lay awake counting Moutons. Of older top vintages of the wine I’d tasted over the years – 1926, 1928, 1934, 1943, 1945, 1948, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1959, 1961,and 1982 – all were the equals of some of the First Growths in those same years, and often superior to one or more.

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Mouton possesses one special trait that distinguishes it and the other First Growths from all other wines: the quality of being unique. Over the decades they and their peers on the right bank (Pétrus, Cheval-Blanc, and Ausone) have all shown a style as individual and distinct as the musical styles of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, and Haydn.

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Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who took over the run-down property in 1923, soon set about improving things, starting up château-bottling – a rarity in those days – in the very next year. In due course he began agitating for promotion to First Growth status. In the meantime, fittingly for the poet he was, he printed on the Mouton labels the words:

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Premier ne suis / Second ne daigne / Mouton suis

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(First I am not /Second I deign not / Mouton is Mouton)

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In 1973 – ironically, as Mouton was not performing all that well at the time – the French state stepped in and promoted the Château to First Growth status “by decree”. A rare case of justice actually being served through somebody moving the proverbial goal-posts!

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Over the next couple of decades performance was variable. The 1982 was undeniably great but the ’90 was disappointing for such an outstanding year. Certainly, 1995 and ’96 were both very good while the 2000 was truly great. But it was only after the arrival in 2004 of Philippe Dhallhuin, the new M.D. and Winemaker, that the property began to give of its very best not just now and then but in each and every vintage, whatever the harvest conditions.

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Philippe_Dhalluin_portrait_24

Philippe Dhalluin, the man who has directed operations at the Mouton Rothschild estates since 2004.

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Just before we get to the wines themselves, here are some short notes on the varieties planted in Mouton’s 78 hectares of vines. The average age of the plants is an impressive 50 years, Mr Dhalluin told us, while quite a few are a century old. Old vines are worth their weight in gold, giving complexity, profundity, and a special kind of mellowness – not to mention the most complete expression possible of each variety’s quintessential traits. The current grape mix is 83% Cabernet-Sauvignon (CS), 11% Merlot (M), 5% Cabernet-Franc (CF), and 2% Petit Verdot (PV). The latter was uprooted after the 2004 harvest but replanted in 2008. It has not yet been used in the grand vin due to its extreme youth.

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Now to the Tasting:

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1.THE PURE VARIETALS IN THE 2013 VINTAGE

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2013 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD – MERLOT

Medium deep purple with a pure, very fruity aroma, about 80% concentrated, of damson, elderberry, red rose, and carnation. Fills out somewhat in contact with the air and turns quite fleshy. Quite high acidity but no greenness.

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2013 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD – CABERNET FRANC

Faintly paler, this has an intensely fruity nose of red and purple cherries and raspberry. The flavour is precise, a little sharp, and there’s a hint of green paprika that’s typical of the CF when not extremely ripe (this recedes after a while). The tannins, discernable behind the malic acid, seem to be of the ripe kind. This sample reflects the innate delicacy of the Cabernet-Franc.

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2013 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD – CABERNET-SAUVIGNON

Much richer colour, with a faint blackish tinge. Full, quite complex old-vine aroma of blackberry, morel, elderberry. Slightly smoky, even toasty. Some blackcurrant shows. As expected, the flavour expands, turning towards black fruits, liquorice, and coffee-and-chicory. Easily the densest, most vinous, of the three.

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2013 CHÂTEAU PETIT MOUTON (Mouton’s 2nd wine) – PROVISIONAL ASSEMBLAGE

(93% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 7% Merlot)

Darker than all three previous samples, this has a round, characterful nose of blackcurrant, elderberry, and cinnamon. It’s truly a “petit Mouton” in style: with similar traits of opulence, roundness, and vigour but on a reduced scale. It smells and tastes like a meld of berries, damson, liquorice, smoke, coffee, and date. Longish aftertaste. Should drink best around 2020-28.

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2. THE LATEST MOUTON (not yet in bottle)

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2013 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD – PROVISIONAL ASSEMBLAGE

(Probable composition at bottling: 89% Cabernet-Sauvignon (CS), 7% Merlot (M), 4% Cabernet-Franc (CF))

Much darker still, though not as black and lustrous as the 2010 or 2009 (see below). The nose is dense and vital, with a leathery aspect, suggesting black cherry, damson jam, and blackcurrant. Its core of ripe grape sweetness probably owes much to the plot of 80-year-old C.-S. vines mentioned by M. Dhalluin. The palate is closed, but not so closed as to obscure flavours of damson, Victoria plum, and liquorice wood. The tannins are ripe. About 85% concentrated, this is a workmanlike effort in one of the most difficult vintages in recent times. Will last 2-3 decades.

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M. Dhalluin told us that, as timing was of the essence in 2013, a team of nearly 700 pickers – a hundred more than usual – had been brought in, to ensure that the various plots could be harvested the very moment they achieved optimum ripeness. As selection had been even more rigorous than usual, the definitive Mouton will only account for about 50% of the estate’s 2013 production, with 25% being used for the Petit Mouton and the rest being reserved for Mouton Cadet.

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3. DEFINITIVE BOTTLINGS 2011 – 2003

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2011 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ***(*)

( 90% CS, 7% M, 3% CF)

Still deeper, this has that typically blackish CS look, its aroma more specifically Pauillac than Mouton. The old-vine scent of chocolate, black cherry, truffle/morel, is dense and harmonious, while the full, fleshy flavour has an excellent texture and fine musculature. After a short while it develops more of a distinct Mouton character, with hints of truffle, liquorice, and black cherry on the longish, fresh aftertaste. A full, well-balanced wine that should drink well early on – like the ’07 (see below) – but will develop well for at least 30 years.

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2010 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

(94% CS, 6% M)

The true Mouton look: black, opaque, with an inner glow. The seamless aroma emits a lovely perfume of black fruits, raspberry, cinnamon (from medium-toast oak), blackcurrant, with hints of fig and molasses. It smells weighty, concentrated, buoyant. It’s a lovely aroma, the essence of Mouton. The lush, velvety flavour is packed with energy, with all the concentrated fruit one could wish for. The acidity is perfect – like that of a lushly fruity black cherry – the tannins of the ripest kind. Almost hidden, at the very core, are suggestions of fig and aubergine. Superbly balanced, this is a truly great wine. Some will doubtless drink it immediately. But it won’t start to show its best for at least 12-15 years, peaking magnificently around 2040-50 and probably beyond.

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2009 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

(88% CS, 12% M)

Not as black but just as intense, this has a glorious, totally seductive aroma of sweet black cherry, peony, crème de cassis, and truffle: a sumptuous nose of perfect equilibrium. It’s chocolaty and spicy, too, and so opulent I find myself thinking of Romanée-Conti!

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It’s hugely concentrated on the palate, with a cornucopia of sub-flavours. Black fruits dominate but there are plenty of truffly flavours as well. It’s round, harmonious and long, with the same type of black-cherry acidity as the 2010. The tannins on the sweeping finish are of the finest kind. A great Mouton. Even more seductive at present than the ’10, it may well tempt many to uncork it in the next few years. Much too soon! – real maturity won’t arrive in less than 12-15 years and will persist for decades more.

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As this was one of my (several) favourites I retasted it at the end of the tasting, after it had been in the glass some two hours. This showed that its apparent forwardness is deceptive. Now the effect of the wood – beneficial in the long term – was much more apparent. One could really taste the smoky and cinnamon-like flavours conferred by the medium-toast oak. In my view, it will take 12-15 years for this to be fully digested, though the wine will drink well over much of the interim. True maturity in about 40 years! I predict that few bottles will remain uncorked that long.

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2008 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ****(*)

(83% CS, 17% M)

The black-purple robe shows some evolution, the aroma is noticeably more restrained, but shows poise and subtlety. A bit leaner but in no way thin. A close-meshed scent, suggestive of blackcurrant, truffle, chocolate, espresso, and black cherry. It’s more cerebral than usual and so refined, in fact, that I find myself thinking of Lafite. As with all top wines, its aroma expands, with hints now of tobacco leaf and raspberry. After 20 minutes it grows more Mouton-like, revealing lovely black-fruit depths with a suggestion of fig ( from ripe Merlot). Less substantial than the ’10 and ’09 but a superb wine that will age for many decades.

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2007 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ***(*)

(81% CS, 19% M)

Impressively dark, almost opaque, this has an excellent, very Mouton, smell of black cherry, fig, molasses, and truffle. It’s “blunter”, less clean-cut than the preceding wines, but attractively full and fleshy, with high viscosity. Almost the weight of a Châteauneuf. Cinnamon (from toasty oak) shows now. The flavour is fat, round, and richly vinous, suggesting sweet prune, black cherry, fig, and brown sugar. This is what the French call a vin gourmand. Can be enjoyed now but will improve noticeably for 5-6 more and will then be good to drink for at least another decade.

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2006 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ****(*)

(87% CS, 13% M)

This has the most evolved colour so far – it looks 8-10 years’ old – and though slightly paler is still purple at the rim. The very Pauillac aroma shows much tensile strength, exhaling liquorice, chocolate, truffle, and coffee-and-chicory. Altogether, a disciplined, sleek, smoky wine reminiscent of black fruits and berries, coffee, and truffle. The long aftertaste is pronouncedly Pauillac but could be taken for a Latour. As often happens with wines from great vineyards, it gives an uncanny echo from a decade earlier, being not wholly unlike the ’86 if much less stern. It will open earlier too (the ’86 remains closed to this day): 12 years at least to peak, then at least 25 more of steady improvement.

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2005 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

(85% CS, 14% M)

Darker than the ’06, this has a grainy, rotund aroma of black cherry, red rose/peony, damson, blackcurrant, and raspberry. Though many-facetted it’s all of a piece – a seamless meld of its constituent parts. Lushly fruity, but with classic restraint. The flavour is all about harmony, a perfect concentration of ripe fruit encased in tannins of the finest kind. The latter provide structure and guarantee longevity, but don’t mask the velvety black fruit and raspberry on the sustained finish. A truly great claret, fusing Mouton richness with Pauillac structure and complexity. The most closed-up vintage yet, it will improve for decade after decade. Much cheaper than the ’09 and ’10, despite being their equal (and just possibly their superior) it’s a bargain at present at less than £4000 the case in bond. Possibly another 1949.

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2004 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ****

(69% CS, 15% Merlot, 13% CF, 3% PV)

This has a beautiful, black-tinged, specifically Pauillac – and Mouton – colour. No browning whatever. The nose, of great tensile strength, is packed with fruit but there’s also a hint of magnesium and furniture polish/sealing wax. The Petit-Verdot shows, giving edge and grip. Crème de cassis, damson, and sloe are the dominant scents. The flavour is clean cut and vinous, but very closed up, emitting suggestions of liquorice, crushed stone, molasses, and truffle. Tough but not obdurate, it’s a masculine wine with a finish that, while closed-up, is very long. More Pauillac in character than specifically Mouton.

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M. Dhalluin pointed out that he’d reduced the toasting of the barrels – a process that can distort a wine’s character if carried too far – from this vintage onwards.

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2003 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD ?

(70% CS, 14%M, 8% CF, 2% PV)

The aroma of this sample proved to be somewhat oxidized. One of those present reported “bottle variation” in other ’03 samples too.

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HOWEVER…I had a bottle of the ’03 in my cellar and decided to uncork it the day following the tasting.

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2003 CHÂTEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD, SECOND SAMPLE ****

(decanted 5 hours before)

Blackish shiny “robe” and big, balsamic aroma of damson jam, bilberry, blackcurrant, violets, and graphite. A hint of cardamom. This fresh, vital scent leads into a dynamic flavour of damson jam, smoke, liquorice, sweet prune, and chocolate. Full bodied but not heavy, very round and fleshy, and extremely appetising. It has a delectably soft, round mouth-feel and rather good acidity for so hot a vintage as ’03. After some 30 minutes it tastes very like black cherries cooked in their own juice, their stones imparting a hint of kirsch. Like the ’07, a vin gourmand.

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As the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild might have said, had he read these lines:

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Mouton suis!

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© Frank Ward 2014

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Related articles :

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