Rogov's Ramblings: Mouton and Lafite: The War Between The Rothschilds

Daniel Rogov

Ever since the 14th century, when the French and the English fought a series of wars that lasted more than 116 years, the people of those two countries have had problems relating to each other. The French accuse the English of being snobs and the English are convinced that all Frenchmen are libertines. The French sneer at what the English call "cooking", and the English laugh aloud at what they call the "vulgar behavior" of the French.

Although the members of the lower classes in both countries take these charges rather seriously, more sophisticated people realize that they are little more than a form of friendly banter - a mildly competitive way of showing pride in one's own nation and its social habits and rituals. In no case has this been better demonstrated than the now almost 200 year old "war" between the London and Paris branches of the Rothschild family.

The competition started in 1853, when Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild acquired a Chateau and estate in the French commune of Pauillac. Located in the Medoc area of Bordeaux, the 175 acre estate, today known as Chateau Mouton Rothschild, had already been producing fine wines for more than a century. Not to be outdone, fifteen years later, Baron James de Rothschild purchased the adjoining estate, Chateau Lafite, which had 225 acres and was equally famous for its fine wines. That both chateaux have produced wines consistently rated among the finest in the world, is beyond question. This may have proved enormously satisfying to wine lovers but the two sides of the family have, at least until recently had an ongoing argument over just which wine is best.

Fire was added to the debate in 1855, when the wine of Chateau Lafite Rothchild was clasified as first growth or "Premiere Grand Cru" and those of Mouton Rothschild were insulsted by being classified only as second growh or "Deuxieme Cru Classes" behind the wines of Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and Lafite. Even though the Mouton Rothschild wine was still considered one of the best wines of Bordeaux, the family refused to accept this second-growth classification and adopted the motto, which appeared on all its bottles, "First I cannot be. Second I do not deign to be. Mouton I am." It was not until 1973 when the French ministry of Agriculure rated Mouton Rothschild a premier grand cru that the rivalry between the two family estates subsided. Mouton had won a major battle in the war. This, after all, was the only revision ever made to the 1855 classifications.

The simple truth is that the battle was really for nothing be- cause wines of both of these splendid chateaux are held in reverence by connoisseurs. Their wines, often among the most expensive in the world, both have years great enough to bring tears of joy to the eyes of the most devoted lovers of wines.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild

Few of the chateaux of Bordeaux have a reputation as great as that of Lafite. During the Middle Ages, the owners of these vineyards were always among the most influential families in France. During the reign of Louis XV, Lafite was regularly served at the royal table. The notorious courtesan, Madame Pompadour, is said to have drunk it every day of her adult life and later, the revolutionary Danton admitted that he drank it whenever he could afford to buy it. The estate was nationalized during the French Revolurion, later passed into Dutch ownership and, in the second decade of the 19th century was bought by Samuel Scott, an English banker. Baron James de Rothschild, of the Paris banking family purchased Lafite in 1868 and the estate has been in the Paris branch of the family ever since.

The Lafite vineyard is located in the highest part of Pauillac and the Chateau, with its conical towers that appear on the label, is not far from the banks of the Gironde River. The wine of Chateau Lafite is a blend of four different types of grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot, making the wine soft and delicate in character. And, because Lafite uses generous amounts of Merlot it tends to mature a bit earlier than wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite this softness, the wine does not reach its peak for at least a decade after the harvest.

The cellars of this great chateau are cool and so damp that water constantly oozes from the walls and ceilings. Because of this, most of the bottles have no labels, for the moisture would make them disintegrate. Individual bins and sections of the cellar are identified by vintage dates, and not until the bottles are ready for shipping do they receive their labels.

Special guests are invited to see a small section known as "the librarym" in which vintages from as early as 1797 are kept. These old bottles are moved only to be recorked every twenty five years and, because the temperature is so cool and consistent, the wines tend to remain in very good condition.

Occasionally, one of these old Lafites turns up at an auction, but no one should count on drinking them, because as soon as they leave the cellar they are subjected to sudden temperature changes and the kind of shaking that invariably occurs during transportation. Most extremely old Lafites are therefore of doubtful quality for drinking and, even though a bottle may fetch as much as 100,000 pounds sterling, these are generally set aside for show.

The wines of Chateau Lafite are big but not overwhelming, delicate but not light and have an extraordinary balance and elegance. Most connoisseurs agree that the wine has a bouquet that is rich in almonds and violets, a richness that is incomparable and a body that clearly shows its high breeding.

When describing the best vintage wines of Chateau Lafite, it is difficult not to use a good many superlatives. One critic wrote that the character of the wine can best be described as "the perfection of elegance". Another feels that the wine "has a supreme balance, persistence of flavor and a breed that is best known as 'regal'." By whatever terms one choses to use, Chateau Lafite has provided wines for discriminating millionaires for over 200 years.

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild

Despite its classification as a second growth, the wines of Mouton-Rotshchild have been listed as among the greatest red wines of the world for many generations. Since the chateau, which adjoins the grounds of Chateau Lafite, was first acquired by Baron Nathaniel Rothschild, it has passed through five generations of family ownership but none of the owners has done more for the rep- uation of the wine than Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who took charge of the estate in 1922.

In addition to making some of the best vines in the region, the estate also has a superb wine museum. The construction of the museum, which is partly underground, was accomplished in such great secrecy by Baron Philippe so that when it ceremoniously opened in 1962, many of the nearby winemakers and villagers were completely surprised because they thought they knew everything that took place in their community.

With paintings, tapestries, pottery and every kind of wine receptacle known, some of which date back more than 9,000 years, and many of which are made of gold and silver set with precious jewels, the museum makes an unforgettable visit.

Starting in 1924, Baron Philippe's exquisite sense of showmanship also extended to the labels on the bottles of the chateau. Every year has a different label, each bearing a design commissioned by a leading artist.

The labels, painted by such notables as Marc Chagall, Salvadore Dali, Dufour, Braque, Cocteau and Miro so special that the originals have been put together in a collection that now travels around the world and appears in the most prestigious Modern Art Museums of America, Europe and Asia. Each label is individually numbered and indicates how many bottles of each size, from halves to imperials (which contain six liters), were produced in each vintage.

The rarest bottles of all date back to 1797 and are marked "R.C." - reserved for the chateau and are not for sale. If one of these bottles occasionally shows up at an action, it was originally given as a gift by Baron Philippe.

Almost from the moment he took over the Chateau, Baron Phillippe, who was generally acknowledged as a flamboyant and multi-talented genius, led the fight to have the wine elevated to its higher, well justified category.

Finally, after more than fifty years, when the change was made, the Baron celebrated by serving his workers a jerobaom of Mouton Rothschild 1923, the first vintage year after he took over as proprietor. He also changed the motto of the Chateau to: "First I am. Second I was. But Mouton does not change".

When the Baron died he passed the estate on to his daughter, the talented, charming and determined Philippine. Philippine has continued in her father's tradition and under her leadership one can see that there is much good sense in this new motto, for even though the neighboring Chateau Lafite has had some bad periods (the wines of the 1960s and 70s were generally uninspired), the wines from Mouton Rothschild have been consistently excellent even in off years.

It may be that these wines, the biggest and fullest of all Bordeaux reds, excel during nearly all years partially because they are made almost entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Some say that the wines of Mouton Rothschild are best described in the same terms that were used to describe Baron Philippe and Baroness Philippine - opulent, flamboyant, rich and full.

The Mouton wines display the deep black currant bouquet of wines dominated by Cabernet sauvignon and, at their best are deep red, have a huge bouquet, a delightful hint of spice, and an overwhelming succulence.

© copyright 2008 by Daniel Rogov, all rights reserved

To contact Daniel Rogov directly, write him at drogov@cheerful.com

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