Tue 23 Mar 2010
Philippine de Rothschild was going to be in town for the opening, at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, of an exhibition of the labels and label art that adorn bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, the great property in the Pauillac commune of Bordeaux. Though I contributed my weekly wine column to The Commercial Appeal newspaper on a free-lance basis, and had been doing so for not quite a year, my editor asked me to cover the event and conduct an interview with the daughter of chateau owner Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The Baron died in 1988, and his daughter inherited the title and the estate, along with other chateaux and the family business in Bordeaux. The chateau, whose roots go back to the 1720s and the de Brane family (their name survives in Chateau Brane-Cantenac), was acquired by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in 1853. Philippe de Rothschild took charge in 1922, when he was 20; even then he was a powerful and transforming figure.
Early in June, “Big John” Grisanti, who had been generous with his time and his wine, asked me if I had ever tasted wine from Mouton-Rothschild.
“Well, hell, boy, how are you gonna write about the wine if you’ve never tasted the wine? Get over to my house Sunday afternoon and let’s try some.”
Would you have refused?
So, on a brilliant Sunday afternoon I drove to Grisanti’s house in East Memphis and presented myself to him for tutelage. It was just the two of us. Grisanti’s underground cellar, reached by spiral stairs from a hallway off the kitchen, held thousands of bottles of wine and could easily accommodate eight or 10 people, standing. First, on this occasion, to whet (and perhaps wet) our palates, he opened a bottle of the Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc 1979, Napa Valley, which I recorded in my notes as “one of the absolutely best white wines I have ever tasted.”
Then, he picked five vintages of Mouton for us to try: 1981, ’79, ’78, ’76 and ’73, in that order. Now the decade of the 1970s was not the best for Mouton; the wines lacked the typical Mouton opulence, nervosity and pinpoint minerality, qualities regained in abundance in 1982. Still, tasting these wines, my first encounter with Mouton-Rothschild, was a privilege, and I will forever be grateful to Big John for opening his cellar to me on this and other occasions. Here are my notes from that day.
1981: “Deep purple; wonderful flowery spicy cedar nose; expanding tannin, deep intense flavor with fruit waiting to emerge. Mouth-filling with a long finish. Decades of life ahead.” This is #32 of my Chronicle of 100 Wines.
1979: “Dark ruby; witch-hazel, earthy, fruit, less cedar; still tannic as hell, fruit is there somewhere — a big wine.”
Clive Coates, who in October 1990 tasted 38 vintages of Mouton, from 1987 back to 1900, found in the ’79 “a suggestion of swimming baths, tanks,” which I assume corresponds to the touch of witch-hazel I noted five years earlier. This is in his majestic Grands Vins; The Finest Chateaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines (University of California Press, 1995).
1978: “Still deep purple; deep and complex nose — spice, blossoming fragrance, cedar, lead pencil; mellowing tannin but still tons of it; slightly astringent, though well-balanced as levels of fruit emerge.”
1976: “Still keeping the color, medium ruby; milder tannins — fruity and maturing nose; beautiful balance, smooth but still tannic — color just beginning to fade; depth on depth of fruit and spicy layers slowly emerging — years to go.”
1973: “medium ruby fading to mahogany; slightly sharp on the nose but smooth, soft fruity flavor; a pretty good wine from an off-year, in fact better than many others made in good years, but not quite Mouton — still quite respectable, lacking the usual Mouton depth.”
Baron Philippe de Rothschild campaigned tirelessly to have Mouton elevated from a Second Growth wine in the 1855 Classification to First Growth, a task at which he succeeded — no other wine on the roster has changed position — to be greeted, in the year of official recognition, with the mediocre vintage of 1973. Undaunted, the Baron designed a special label that commemorated, as well as his victory, the death that year of another great man and force of nature, Picasso, and he composed a new motto for the estate: Premier Je Suis Second Je Fus Mouton Ne Change. “First I am, second I was, Mouton does not change.”
Big John was pretty much a force of nature himself. Certainly his excitement about wine and and his pedagogical bent were boundless and infectious, and once he started opening bottles in his cellar, it was difficult for him to stop. After the Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc ’79 and the five vintages of Mouton, Grisanti started plucking other bottles from the shelves, and we went on to a succulent Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 1982, Santa Barbara County; a stunningly subtle, supple and sweetly autumnal Clos-Vougeot 1971, from Bernard Grivelet (actually the greatest wine of the afternoon and still one of the greatest Burgundies I have ever tasted — and #33 of this Chronicle of 100 Wines); and — still acknowledged as one of the best wines of the vintage –a Heitz Cellars Bella Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Napa Valley.
Earlier, as we sat in the cellar tasting Mouton, Grisanti’s wife came down the stairs, measuring cup in hand, and said that she needed some red wine for the spaghetti gravy. “Sure, honey,” said Big John, pouring out a cup of whatever Mouton he had in his hand, “this’ll do just fine.”