Tasting Your Way Through 90 Years of Vintage Bordeaux

International Herald Tribune

April 28, 1976

The tasting at Château Mouton-Rothschild was supposed to cover a fell century – a wine from every year ending in 6 back to 1876. It ended 10 years short because there is no '76, even in the château's "archives" of sample bottles from virtually every year back to 1859. But then '76 was not much of a vintage and it is asking a lot of even a very good wine to remain drinkable for 100 years.

Yet the "bad" years were almost as numerous as the "good" years, and more than one was a surprise.

But first things first. How, and why, does a tasting of ancient vintages of a famous first growth of Bordeaux, worth hundreds, and at least collectively even thousands, of dollars, take place?

First of all, you have to have a bibliothèque, or wine "library," big enough to come up with such an unbroken series. Four generations of Rothschilds have laid down some 120,000 bottles, magnums, jeroboams and imperials (equivalent to eight bottles) since they bought Mouton in 1853, and the present owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, is unusually generous with this stock.

It obviously does not hurt to have Mouton talked about, yet at the same time it serves as a reminder that there is more to Bordeaux than politically inspired wine-fraud trials. But self-interest and genuine pleasure are in no way incompatible, although the baron himself was absent on a trip to Russia.

The hosts were the baron's régisseur, or estate manager, Philippe Cottin, and his assistant, Alain Maurel. The guests were two journalists, myself and the editor of the Revue du Vin de France, Odette Kahn, the only woman present; Pierre Marquet, Jean-Marie Mas and Henri Bernard of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, which oversees all aspects of the making of quality wines; two shippers, one from Langon in the Graves area, Pierre Coste, who has one of the most discerning analytical palates in the country, and Léon Beyer of Eguisheim in Alsace, who had the distinction of having drunk nearly as much Mouton as his own excellent Riesling; one restaurateur, Roland Flourent of the Bordeaux two-star Dubern, whose wine list is one of the most comprehensive in France; and one vintner, Noël Lagrue, whose richly stocked Vinothèque is the first stop for most wine lovers visiting Bordeaux.

With the help of Mouton's cellarmaster, Raoul Blondin, who knows more about Mouton vintages than anyone, the tasting began about 11:30 in the morning. First, from the barrel, the 7-month-old 1975, a complex, powerful wine that already showed its rich harmony and breeding. A truly great year in its infancy. The 1974, still in barrels, followed. It had less distinction, although it was very fruity and promised to become a very pleasant wine. Oddly enough, it seemed less developed in many ways than the 1975.

The tasting of older wines then began in the chais, or storage buildings. A glass for each wine, served from magnums, on a simple white tablecloth, with bottled water, mild Dutch cheese and crackers, although I did not see anyone resort to them. We sat with white bibs clipped around our necks to keep wine from dribbling or splattering onto our clothes as we spat into half-barrels filled with sawdust.

Spat? Yes, spat. Because if you are going to taste as many wines as we did, there is no way you are going to keep your wits about you unless you spit, even if it is Mouton-Rothschild 1916. And was that the best year of the tasting? One of the best, certainly, but that's as far as we got before lunch. The older wines were reserved for the meal.

The 1966 was unanimously proclaimed a very good year but not ready to drink. It was a wine of fine balance and distinction, but far too young and tannic and remained almost as much out of the comparative tasting as the 1975 and 1974. Yet many opinions changed at table, for the same wine drunk by itself and accompanying food can be two very different things. Tasting a wine by itself in the morning is usually something done by experts in the exercise of their calling. But drinking it with a good meal is the true purpose of any wine, however great or rare. The former is what the French call a déformation professionnelle while the latter is a pleasure available to anyone, within the limits of his means or luck.

The first big step back in time brought us to 1956, which produced a tiny harvest of generally miserable wine. This one was definitely showing its age, brick-colored at the rim with a pronounced minty aroma that left a vaguely unpleasant resinous taste in the mouth. It was still holding together, which was about all that could be asked of it.

The 1946 was a pleasant surprise, for that had not been considered a very good year either. The color was deep and rich, the aroma complex with the typical resinous character of the cabernet-sauvignon grape (which accounts for 90 per cent of the vines at Mouton), and in the mouth the wine left a strong tannic finish. Despite a slight tendency to dryness it was a fine wine and still has a future.

With the 1936 we hit the nadir of the tasting. It was not a "bad" wine – none of the Moutons were – but it was on its way out. The color was very brown, the smell quite pleasant, fruity and flowery with a hint of cedar, but it lacked body. It had a curious woody flavor of jam and was thin and drying out.

The next wine was just the opposite, though 10 years older. The 1926 was a deep brownish red, with an elegant, rich bouquet of dried leaves and jam. It was a big, powerful wine, rich in alcohol and reminiscent of old port. There was perhaps a slight excess of tannin but it was one of the best wines in the tasting.

The last wine before lunch, the 1916, was exquisite but not typically Mouton. It was quite brown though lighter in color than the '26. It had great distinction, was very smooth, fruity and well balanced. It was perhaps the most purely drinkable and graceful, and it might almost have come from Mouton's neighbor and arch-rival to the north, Lafite-Rothschild, although you are not supposed to say things like that.

We broke off then for a tour of the cellars and chais where we saw Mouton's mostly traditional winemaking equipment, including a mechanical wooden latticework to separate ripe grapes from unripe and the stems, which are processed separately, and a wide, vertical press with wooden slats. All this machinery is on the floor above the wooden vats which may thus be filled by simple gravity flow.

We moved on to the little "château" with its marvelously overdecorated Second Empire salon for a champagne apéritif before settling down to more tasting with a lunch that was perfect in its simple harmony to set off the wines: grilled sea bass stuffed with fennel, salt-meadow leg of lamb served with green beans and a crown of sautéed potatoes, salad that was refused by everyone to avoid clashing with the wines, cheese that many also refused for the same reason and a deliciously fresh strawberry sherbet with a purée of strawberries.

We began with a glass of Mouton Cadet Blanc, a simple white Bordeaux, and moved on to a 1966 Mouton Baron Philippe, a fifth growth of Pauillac, which served as a point of reference for the great wines to follow. It was indeed a very fine wine in itself, ready to drink, elegant and harmonious but it was out of its depth.

The first old wine at table was the Mouton 1906, which resembled the '16 in its flowery grace, but it did not have the same balance and in the mouth it was less satisfying, slightly drier. It was, however, one of the best in the tasting.

The 1896 rivaled the '16 for top honors in a very different style. It was typically Mouton, a deep browning red with a rich concentrated fruitiness, the resinous power of its cabernet grapes still youthful, a truly great wine that perhaps gave a hint of what the equally great 1945 will be when it too attains 80 years of age.

Our last Mouton, the 1886, could not compete with such a mighty successor and indeed it came from the terrible years of the phylloxera and mildew diseases against which little could then be done. It was fading but not at all senile, a well-preserved 90-year-old, a bit light and drying but still fruity with a slight hint of mushrooms in the bouquet, no doubt caused by the heavy exposure to mildew.

The tasting did not, unfortunately, end on a very good note. With dessert a 1926 Rayne-Vigneau, a first growth of Sauternes, was served but it was completely "maderized," worn out, tasting of little more than iodine, its fruit completely gone.