It was the final day of our wine scribe Jim Walker’s 1988 weeklong assault on the storied wineries of Bordeaux. That morning he and his thirsty band of imbibers had visited three storied chateaux. Read on to find out about the apt conclusion to their seven day bacchanalia.

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A rose amid the thorns … Loïc, Hélène, moi and Arnaud in the vineyards

It had been a glorious wine tasting morning capped off by lunch at Château Saint-Pierre with Henri Martin and Jean-Louis Triaud (see last month’s Gentleman’s Portion wine post Marvellous Margaux and More for all the tasty details). After bidding our hosts a fond adieu, we motored the short distance over to the Pauillac region and our penultimate destination, Château Mouton Rothschild. I had expected to see a monumental chateau of the grandest order, but as we approached there was just a stately manner house nestled in a copse to the right and a massive, long, off-white, two-story building straight ahead. The latter turned out to house the wine-making and barrel storage facilities and was where we met the guide for our visit.

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Baron Philippe

Before going on, let me tell you a bit about Château Mouton Rothschild and its Rothschild owners. Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild of the English side of the Rothschild banking dynasty acquired Château Brane-Mouton in 1853 so that he could serve his own wine to prestigious guests. In 1922, Nathaniel’s great-grandson Baron George Philippe de Rothschild acquired control of the estate at the age of 21. Before getting the urge to take over the family wine business, Philippe had been a Grand Prix race-car driver, a screenwriter and playwright, a theatrical producer, a film producer and a poet (not to mention playboy extraordinaire). Two years later Philippe stopped delivering his wine to the Bordeaux merchants in barrels as was the tradition, preferring to bottle his own elixirs and enjoying the quality control that went with it. At that time he commissioned the French graphic designer Jean Carlu to create the label for the new bottles. This practice was not repeated until 1945 but that continues to this day (except for the 2003 vintage which featured Baron Nathaniel to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his acquisition of the estate). The 1945 label, one of the first noted works by Bordelais artist Philippe Jullian, featured the V for victory sign commemorating the end of World War II.

1973 Picasso Label

1973 Picasso label

The 1855 Bordeaux classification decreed (many say unfairly) Château Mouton-Rothschild to be a Second Growth (second tier) wine. The fact that Mouton was not a First Growth really got into Philippe’s craw and he lobbied assiduously for years to get it elevated. Finally, in April of 1973, Jacques Chirac, then minister of agriculture, decreed that Château Mouton Rothschild would join the top rank. This prompted a change of motto. Previously, it was Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis (First I cannot be. Second I do not deign to be, Mouton I am). It became Premier je suis, Second je fus, Mouton ne change (First I am, Second I used to be, Mouton does not change). Pablo Picasso (who died in early 1973) designed the label for that wine.

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Your scribe, Christian and Raoul Blondin

Today, Château Mouton Rothschild is comprised of 222 acres of vines made up of Cabernet Sauvignon (81 per cent), Merlot (15 per cent), Cabernet Franc (three per cent) and Petit Verdot (one per cent). Their wine is fermented in oak vats (they are one of the last châteaux in the Médoc to do so) and then matured in new oak casks. Annual production of the eponymous wine is about 240,000 bottles. The LCBO recently sold a single bottle of the 2005 vintage for a mind-numbing $1,650! Ed Bradley once did a wonderful 60 Minutes interview with Baron Philippe and his daughter Philippine. In it, the Baron divulged that he drank a bottle of Mouton with every lunch. Just imagine the street value of all the lunch wine he drank over his lifetime. The Baron died just a few months before our visit.

Now, back to our visit. Our driver, Christian Forment dropped us off by the vineyards as François trotted off to find our hostess. We happily traipsed among the verdant vines knowing that we were walking on sacred ground. François soon returned and we were ushered into the vast winemaking and cellaring building. An elderly gentleman sat near the entrance. Christian whispered that it was Raoul Blondin, the cellar master who had overseen more than 60 vintages beginning with the 1924. M. Bondin retired just a little later, in 1989. As coincidence would have it, the cellar master at Château Beaumont where we were staying, Philippe Dhalliun, took over the Mouton helm from Raoul. As one would expect, the wine making facility was gleaming and immaculate with the huge oak vats looming over it all. What really impressed was the Great Barrel Hall with its seemingly endless rows of new oak kegs lorded over by the large Mouton crest on the far-end wall.

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Arnaud and Loïc admiring the labels

We then moseyed over to an adjacent building, the Museum of Wine in Art that had been opened in 1962 by Baron Philippe and his second wife, Baroness Pauline, a very imaginative and cultured individual. They had filled it with priceless wine and grape-related objects from all ages and every corner of the world. The Mouton labels were on display along with the works of art that inspired them. And, along one wall where various-sized bottles of Mouton sat proudly was an array of tasting glasses and some opened bottles. Oh, the anticipation!

1978 Riopelle Label

Jean-Paul Riopelle’s twin 1978 labels

We began with a recent vintage of Mouton Cadet, a brand created by Baron Philippe in 1930 in order to sell the production of wine deemed unsuitable for the primary Mouton label. 1930 to 1932 were very poor vintages in the Bordeaux region. As a testimony to the Baron’s astute marketing skills, Mouton Cadet in its greatly expanded current form has become one of the world’s best-selling brands. It was quite nice, but paled in comparison with the other wines we had tasted that day. The second wine we tried was the 1978 Mouton. By great coincidence the label was created by the Quebec abstract expressionist Jean-Paul Riopelle. Most of our party lived in Quebec at the time. I should say labels, because when presented with a selection of Riopelle’s works, Baron Philippe couldn’t decide between two. So he chose both, adorning half of the 1978 production with one, the remainder with the other. I was not impressed with the wine however. I found it to be surprisingly austere and lacking fruit and concentration. Perhaps we were drinking it too early?

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All spiffed up for dinner at Château Beychevelle

All in all, our visit to Château Mouton Rothschild had been fascinating, although perhaps a little disappointing. But when we returned to home base at Château Beaumont, François found wonderful news waiting. We had been invited for a late afternoon tour and tasting at Château Lafite Rothschild! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! But my moment of unrestrained joy was cruelly dashed. “We can’t go,” lamented Becky. “We have to prepare for this evening.” We were invited for cocktails and dinner at Château Beychevelle. “Besides,” threw in Nora, “we’ve already had enough to drink.” There might have been a grain of truth here. I got no support from the lads, so we repaired to our respective rooms, some to primp, me to sulk.
I was nursing my funk when from our bathroom emerged a resounding crack and a piercing screech. I rushed in to find out what catastrophic mishap had befallen. There was Hélène, pale as a specter, pointing breathlessly at the shattered toilet seat. Apparently what had transpired was that in the absence of a full-length mirror, she had clambered up onto the toilet seat in order to adjust the hem of her skirt in the above sink mirror. The laws of gravity and stress dynamics predictably took over. The chateau had recently been totally renovated including new toilets. Upon checkout the next day, Hélène expostulated with the front desk clerk about the poor quality of the bathroom fixtures.

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Gratefully receiving the 1982 Beychevelle from Yves Fourault

So, off we went to Château Beychevelle, a Fourth Growth located in the Saint-Julien appellation. From the outside, Château Beychevelle was absolutely gorgeous with its manicured gardens, expansive terraces and stunning, classic architecture. Referred to many as the Versailles of Bordeaux, the chateau is splendidly situated on the left bank of the Gironde River. Back in 16th century, the property was owned by Jean Louis de Nogaret de La Valette, the first Duke of Épernon and Admiral of France. The Duke was such a powerful and important man that ships sailing by his estate had to lower their sails as a sign of respect. This is the origin of the name Beychevelle (Baisse Voile), which meant lower the sails in the dialect of the time.

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The 1961 Ducru-Beaucaillou

We met up with Yves Fourault, Export Director for the winery who took us on a quick tour of the estate and winery and led us into the tasting room. Oh, glorious sanctuary. There we tried several wines, the most enjoyable being the 1982 Beychevelle. It was a big, powerful fruit-forward wine with a bouquet of cedar, black currants, tobacco and licorice. Superb stuff! Then we went outside to the main terrace where we met up with Yves’ wife Monique and enjoyed apéritifs as the sun set over the river. This was followed by a delightful dinner in the chateau’s formal dining room. Finally, with cognac snifters in hand, Yves showed us a few of the chateau’s principal rooms which were in unexpectedly tatty condition. It seems that the various owners over the years did not have the funds to properly maintain the vast estate. Today, Château Beychevelle belongs to Grands Millésimes de France, which is part of the Castel and Suntory groups. These deep-pocketed folks have made the necessary investments in the chateau, vineyards and winemaking facilities to bring them up to world class standards.

It was with a large measure of sadness that we left our friends and Bordeaux the next morning and headed off to Paris, after denigrating the chateau’s plumbing fixtures, of course. What an incredible week it had been. I have often been asked if there was a single wine that stood out above the rest. Yes, the 1961 Ducru-Beaucaillou that we enjoyed with the Bories.

This magical experience was made possible by our friend and guide François Chandou. His father Raymond Chandou, a highly respected force in the Bordeaux wine industry, had died shortly before our invasion. François organized our visit as homage to his dad. François and I had not communicated in over 30 years. I tried in vain to find his coordinates in preparation for this series of articles, 11 in total. By sheer chance, François somehow came across the first installment in Gentleman’s Portion, O! Bordeaux – Arrival and immediately got in touch. Here’s how he ended his message: “I very much enjoyed your company and, frankly, I’m not sure that such tour would be possible today.” Amen to that.

Cheers! Jim

PS: If you enjoy fabulous wines from the Rhône Valley, take a gander at our Arthur’s Cellar website. Better yet, for those of you residing in Ontario, sign up on our homepage to receive our electronic bulletins – no fees or other obligations; just great wine.

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Featured image: Snuff boxes in the Museum of Wine in Art at Château Mouton Rothschild

Categories: Wine

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