Our most ambitious and most highly anticipated tasting of the year – six decades of the famous First Growth Bordeaux, Château Mouton Rothschild. What makes Mouton so famous? It is the only château to have had its ‘Cru’ changed since the 1855 Grand Cru Classification, being elevated in 1973. Uniquely, each vintage is also labelled with a painting from a selected artist, which has included unknown artists as well as the likes of Picasso, Warhol and Dali. The artist, in return, receives two cases of that vintage, but more importantly the label becomes a collector’s item itself. Mouton has made some legendary wines in the last century, many being given the magic 100/100 from Robert Parker. This includes the 1945, which at one stage was the most expensive wine on the planet.
We bought the wines from a collector who had almost every vintage from the ‘60s to ‘90s, all stored perfectly in a Eurocave. We decided to present a tasting of the wines and let 14 people experience them, rather than sell them to another collector. The Orient boutique hotel just west of Pretoria served as the perfect setting for this sensational tasting. Thanks to Cobus, Chantel and the rest of the team who made the weekend even more memorable.
The tasting was something of a journey through six decades of one of the world’s most loved wines. Whilst the 2008 and ‘90s were unyielding and difficult to appreciate in their infancy, it was only when we got to the stellar ‘80s and mature ‘70s that the tasting set fire. It’s difficult to describe the poise, balance and enjoyment the top vintages of Mouton can deliver in maturity. The interesting ‘60s led perfectly to the grand old ladies of the ‘50s, which were alive for about 30 minutes in the glass and then quickly died.
The top wines of the tasting, by a show of hands, were the 1982, 1970, 1986 and 1955.
By far the heaviest bottle, broadest shoulders and deepest punt. But with the shortest cork in the entire flight! The nose exudes espresso, chocolate, spice and cassis fruit. Even though decanted for three hours, the oak plays a large role in this wine. Although it has the hallmark fine tannins and cassis density of Mouton, it’s a bit unbalanced now. Not the classiest Mouton but rock solid. We will have to wait for a decade to discover aromatics and the oak should integrate with time. Let’s trust the centuries of cooperage (Mouton have their own!). R7,550
Perhaps the wine that was most disappointing on the night considering the hype of the left bank vintage. Two hours decanting still left it rather tight and unyielding. The top 1996s have very firm acid structures and hard tannins and the Mouton is no different. Whilst it would pair well with rare aged meat, it doesn’t have the pleasure and texture of a mature Mouton. Compared to the luscious 1995, it also seems to fall slightly short on the palate. Time will only tell if this turns into a magical wine. R6,450
One of the wines of the tasting and certainly showing better than the slightly awkward 1996. It shows floral and spicy notes with massively rich fruit and an unctuous density. It dances on your palate with the supple tannins and velvety fruit that coats your mouth and glides down your throat. The finish is sweetly textured and long. A bottle that you wish was a double-magnum. R6,250
For some reason Mouton made poor wines in both ‘89 and ‘90, two stellar vintages in Bordeaux. Whilst the other First Growths are tight, rich and backward, the Mouton ‘90 is lean, mature and soft. Some tasters even found it somewhat over the hill, although I enjoyed the fine red fruits and spice. The tannins are soft and diffuse, requiring food to rein in the frayed edges. In the glass it opened over 30 minutes and certainly was more attractive. R5,400
A legendary Mouton that was in supreme condition on the night. 1986 was a great Northern-Médoc vintage and this wine is clearly the best of the best. On decanting it still holds a purple edge and it hardly changed over three hours of air. Through the evening, it wowed the tasters with its density, youth and power. There is some very ripe fruit, but it’s certainly not over-ripe and holds ample freshness and poise. A wine where the fruit, acid and tannic structure all seem to be one entity, perfectly balanced, holding a sensual mouthfeel and extremely long finish. Not quite at its optimum maturity yet, expect the finish to unravel even more with another two decades in the bottle. Stored well this wine should live to a century. R11,000 and Parker 100/100
A vintage that Parker discarded was raved about by the British press and Broadbent gave it five stars. It is now considered a benchmark ‘classic vintage’ that shows the good kind of herbaceousness that Bordeaux varieties offer. Often referred to as tea leaf, forest floor or perhaps garrigue, here the greenery adds complexity, lift and enjoyment rather than awkwardness and bitterness. Red and black fruits dance around leafy complexity and a concentrated mid-palate. The wine is in perfect harmony, balance and maturity. Although a pleasure to drink now, I believe this wine will last another two decades… R5,700
The 1983 struggled a bit in an amazing flight of top wines, but still showed wonderful Mouton characteristics. Not as successful in Pauillac as Margaux, the’ 83 is similar to the ‘85 but with less precision, fatness and depth. Here the acidity is higher and the herbaceousness makes the palate less sultry and refined. Perhaps better a decade ago, expect this wine to lose enjoyment as the fruit continues to fade. R5,900
One of the largest crops in history was initially thought to be an early drinking vintage. Only a young Robert Parker believed in the quality of the vintage and, in putting his name behind it, he became the most important wine person in the world today. It was also the start of modern Bordeaux, where viticultural and winemaking practices allowed for challenges during the harvest to be more easily overcome.
On previous occasions I have found the’ 82 to be more tannic and unforgiving. But this bottle, perhaps a little more advanced, was absolutely singing a tune of gloriousness. How the aromatics and depth of fruit transcended from the glass and fondled your senses is almost indescribable. The palate is packed with crunchy red fruits and a spicy, meaty complexity that flows into one, like a hearty winter stew. It only got better in the glass and left your palate reeling with joy for minutes. A wonderful experience with a legendary wine. R17,200
The 1978 is better than the 85 points given by Parker. It certainly has a leafy edge that flows from the nose through to the palate, but I don’t find it as earthy and bitter as suggested. There is red berry fruit in a medium-bodied, fragrant, feminine shell. Quite structured and fresh, I expect it to keep in its beautiful state of maturity for another decade if not more. R5,600
The hottest vintage on record with serious drought conditions, even worse than 2003 in some respects. This made for a very early vintage with the harvest starting three weeks ahead of usual. The Mouton displays the vintage characters well, with super-ripe cassis fruit at the fore but the promise is short-lived and the palate ends rather abruptly. It is very pleasurable and is not falling over, but- unlike the ‘75 – it doesn’t have the freshness and complexity. R5,300
Probably the best vintage in the ‘70s, it was an abundant crop of good quality, especially after a number of poor years. It is a towering vintage of Mouton that has been tannic most of its life apparently. It remains youthful with a serious structure but doesn’t have the depth and charisma of the 1970 and top ‘80s. There is lots of cassis, cedar and a hint of tea-leaf complexity. You would be hard pressed to say it’s almost 40 years of age. A pleasure to drink. R5,500
The surprise of the tasting and THE best value as one of the cheapest wines that we tasted. Renowned as a good vintage in Pomerol, it was a large crop on the left bank. Like 1982, it was thought to be a large and forward vintage, but many of the top wines took decades to integrate the hard tannins. Although mature, the wine still holds a gorgeous structure and wonderful poise. It has the typical Mouton fragrance with ample cassis, spice and tobacco reminiscent of Pauillac. A wonderful wine and one of the top four wines of the day. R5,200
A cool vintage of low quantities that didn’t make any real benchmark Bordeaux wines. The coolness of the vintage produced a slight minty note and shrub character on the palate, adding appeal and complexity. Certainly not as suave and fine as the ‘66 or ‘70, it is fully mature, rewarding and classic. The age also brings delectable smoked meats and forest floor. The tannins are almost melted away and the acidity is starting to peer through. A wine that will only deteriorate in your cellar, but very enjoyable. R6,900
An excellent vintage in the Médoc, though not all the First Growths made top wines. Château Palmer was perhaps the wine of the vintage. The Mouton is a lovely wine, however, that shows an old-school Bordeaux character in an elegant, ripe vintage. The tannins have melted away to sweet fruits, tobacco and even some mint and coffee. Generous, medium bodied and rather sexy, it is really delicious to drink but won’t hold for much longer. R7,300
Both this and the 1955 had ullage to about mid-shoulder, expected of wines at this sort of age. Otherwise, the cork and colour of each was perfect and I was very happy with the quality in the glass. When one gets to ‘old’ bottles such as these, you really can be hit-or-miss on every bottle, even if stored 100% correctly through its entire life. Using a normal screw-pull I was able to get the cork out fully intact. It was moist and heavy, revealing where most of that ullage went!
The ‘59 was the first modern-day ‘vintage of the century’ even though, similar to the 1982s, it was low in acidity and ‘lacking backbone’. I only opened this as we tasted it. Initially tart, after a few minutes it started coming together with a myriad of tertiary notes, cold coffee, marmite, tobacco, leather and spice. As it opened up, the red fruit started taking centre stage and danced on your palate with joy and excitement. After 15 minutes it started to sing, very much like the 1982, and finally after another 30 minutes it faded and dried out. What a memorable, once in a lifetime experience! Parker 100/100 R35,000
Apparently lesser to the stern 1959 vintage, I found the 1955 more impressive. It was a large, healthy crop that was under-rated at the time and has been compared to the modern-day 1988. More plush and slightly rounder than the 1959, with more fragrance and less acidity. It unravelled even more to really shine in the glass, shimmering with exotic fruits and Asian spice. Amazing to think this wine is 58 years old and still offering primary nuances and a delicate structure. Another absolute benchmark moment that answers all your questions of wine. R32,000
The evening finished off with another ten vintages of Mouton from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Apart from the horrid 1965, which was really only made because of the artwork, all were in good shape and a pleasure to drink. A comment from one of the senior and experienced guests summed up an amazing event: ‘The best tasting I have ever been to in my life!’
Roland Peens – April 2013