A few days ago by officially classifying Château Mouton-Rothschild a "first great growth" of the Médoc, the French Minister of Agriculture Jacques Chirac set in motion a process that will certainly create a furor in the wine world. It could also create an entirely new standard for Bordeaux, superseding the once sacrosanct classification established in 1855 by the Bordeaux Chambre Syndicale des Courtiers.
Behind the minister's decree lies half a century of unremitting efforts by Philippe de Rothschild to right a wrong suffered by his great-grandfather, Nathaniel, who had bought Mouton only two years before the vineyards of Médoc and Sauternes-Barsac were fixed into a rigid hierarchy.
Was it because Nathaniel was a new owner, and a British absentee landlord to boot, that the highly regarded Mouton was classified first of the second growths rather than the equal of the first growths – Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion (in Graves)? Price was a deciding factor, but it could have gone either way. Mouton sold for somewhat less than the four first but for more than any of the other 14 second growths.
Whatever the reason, it was a blow to Rothschild pride, reflected in the motto devised for Mouton:
Premier ne puis,
Second ne daigne,
(First I cannot be, Second I do not deign to be, I am Mouton.)
And there the matter rested until 20-year-old Philippe de Rothschild was put in charge of Mouton by his father in 1922. The time was inauspicious, to say the least. Phylloxera (introduced from America in the 1860s), mildew, and other diseases and pests were still a serious problem at that time and the economic situation was disastrous.
Prohibition had closed the American market, Czarist Russia had become the Soviet Union, Germany's borders were sealed to "useless" imports because of inflation; and the great Austrian empire had disintegrated into a multitude of new nations scarcely able to stand on their own economically.
Sales were so bad that the French government was paying farmers to tear out their vines. At Mouton itself there was no running water, telephone or even a paved road from Bordeaux.
The new owner's first step was to persuade the four first growths to join him in an unheard-of practice – to bottle the entirety of the 1924 vintage, and all succeeding ones, at the châteaux, a now standard procedure for nearly every quality wine of Bordeaux.
Philippe de Rothschild made many other improvements and scored impressive firsts for Médoc and Bordeaux. In 1945 he began asking artists – Braque, Picasso, Miro and Chagall, among others – to decorate Mouton labels.
He and his wife Pauline began collecting art devoted to wine and opened a museum to house it in 1962. It draws 15,000 visitors a year.
Thus he thinks of Mouton as the "flagship of the Médoc" and had repeatedly sought to have his wine reclassified. His final successful effort began two and a half years ago.
But the baron has opened a Pandora's box. Nearly everyone agrees that the 1855 classification is out of date, but the majority of owners of classified châteaux are perfectly content to leave things as they are and accuse the others of wanting to rock the boat.
However, certain classified châteaux no longer exist as such (Château Desmirail, a third growth, has been absorbed by Château Palmer) and others have exchanged parcels of land. Some wines are not so well made as they once were and others, far better. A number left out entirely in 1855 could readily be included, and not merely as fifth (or lowest-ranking) growths.
And should a new classification once again be restricted to the Médoc? What's wrong with Graves, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, the last of which has never had any sort of classification except by reputation.
The commission organized to reclassify the first growths presumably is to go on with the rest of the job. It will be painful, thankless work.
But it is high time. Yet one nagging question remains: What will Philippe de Rothschild choose as a new motto? The old one has obviously outlived its usefulness. He could, or course, simply retain the proud last line: Mouton suis.