Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Tasting Great Moutons from the Collection of Henry Moore

March 2005

Henry Moore was not just a great sculptor – perhaps the 20th century’s greatest – but also an avid collector of fine wine, particularly claret. His collection must have received quite a boost in 1967 or thereabouts, for it was then that he received a generous allocation of 1964 Château Mouton Rothschild – the customary reward for each artist who designed the Mouton label for the year in question.


When friends – descendants of Henry Moore – invited me along to taste the ’59 and ’45 Mouton at their home in London, I did not hesitate for a second. Even though I was warned that the levels in both bottles were fairly low.


On my advice, the bottles were stood upright the day before and left in tranquillity in a secluded room which was, fortuitously, both dark and cold.


On arrival, I was asked to uncork and decant the two bottles. Both, I was pleased to discover, were chilly to the touch (bottles heat up all too quickly in a warm dining room). The levels were indeed low: the ’59 mid-shoulder, the ’45 at mid-low shoulder. The capsules were in good condition, though, and the labels were clean and unfaded. This suggested that the bottles had been kept in a cool rather than cold environment with fairly low humidity.


The only corkscrew to hand was a conventional lever-action one. I carefully removed the top of the capsules and began, with some trepidation, to try to remove the corks. As I feared, the ancient corks (neither bottle had been recorked since being bottled) were soft and crumbly and both broke, with the lower half – exceedingly friable – remaining in the neck. With the utmost care I inserted the rather short spiral rod into the remaining cork, but at an acute angle in order to increase purchase (the residual cork was now much wider than it was deep). Luckily, I was able to extract both remaining halves more or less intact. Both crumbled into tiny pieces as they left their respective bottles. It was then possible to decant the wine, leaving the sediment behind.



1959 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD

Deep and intense blackberry black-purple with medium browning at the rim. The huge, vital nose is distinctly roasted and conjures up blackberry jam, prunes, chocolate, and mushrooms. There is also a strong hint of cigar box. This is a weighty, forceful nose, almost peremptory in its sweep.


The flavour, too, is very powerful, with masses of concentrated Pauillac fruit, though initially with distinct bitterness. The acidity is noticeably low and the aftertaste is long, voluminous, and very assertive. Chocolate and spice (a hint of cloves) join the other elements. Not entirely agreeable to begin with, the flavour starts to round out and grow sweeter and fatter. The bitterness abates and the levels in our four glasses start to go down with accelerating speed!



In the meantime, food arrives and the wine grows increasingly tasty. It is at its best as the last drops are consumed. Though not in perfect condition, the wine was none the less very good to drink – and fascinating to taste.



1945 MOUTON ROTHSCHILD

Splendidly deep, nuanced black-purple colour with advanced browning but no suggestion of decline. The nose is huge – even more weighty and expansive than the ‘59’s – and altogether different in mode: dried fig, Christmas pudding, chocolate, raisins, ripe plum, and (quite pronounced) sealing wax. The figlike aroma suggests the presence of a fairly high proportion of extremely ripe merlot grapes.


As full and weighty as vintage port in the mouth, the wine is very viscous and compact, and the taste combines ripe melon, dried fig, with jams based on various ripe autumn berries. Cinnamon and oak show on the long, assertive finish, which exhibits the woodiness typical of so many wines from the forties and beyond – a quality that derives from the almost universal practice in those times of keeping the wine in wood for at least 30 months.


I have previously tasted perfect bottles of both wines. They, of course were altogether more youthful, fruitier, glossier, and more seductive. But even though the Moore bottles were not in perfect shape (we knew this was impossible, given the storage conditions) both showed elements of greatness and were a joy to drink.

 


© Copyright Frank Ward 2005

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