Young people — and by young I mean over 21, guys — tend to drink beer, tequila and that sort of thing when they choose to imbibe. I remember, when I was that age (yes, that was a long time ago, don’t rub it in) I thought of wine as a drink that came shareable, often in a box. Expensive bottles of wine were for suckers. Wine-in-a-box alongside a box of Ritz crackers and some supermarket cheese? Ready to party. In short, I lacked “wine education.” That all changed when my now-spouse and I received a bottle of 1994 Mouton Rothschild red Bordeaux wine as a gift. Now, it’s pretty easy for a bottle of wine to be better than a box of it, but this Chateau Mouton Rothschild Cabernet Sauvignon was so outstanding, so revelatory, that it opened my eyes (and palate) and changed my views on wine forever. Imagine my excitement, then, when I learned that part of the Viking River Cruise Chateaux, Rivers & Wine press trip itinerary was a lengthy, immersive Bordeaux wine tour of the Mouton Rothschild winery in Medoc, Bordeaux region of France.
There are three guided Bordeaux wine tours at the Mouton Rothschild winery: an hour-long, abbreviated breeze-through, a Bordeaux wine tour of Chateau Mouton Rothschild that focuses on the technical aspects of wine making, and the Art and Wine tour in which my group participated. All end with wine tasting, which includes glasses of three different varieties of Mouton Rothschild reds. The Art and Wine tour is special, and unique among the world’s great wineries, due in large part to the history of the Rothschild family estates as well as the one-of-a-kind art and antiquities on display in the winery’s Museum of Wine in Art. The history of the Rothschild family estates is fascinating, and so organically intertwined with the art and antiquities collection that one cannot be completely appreciated without the other.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild History
The Rothschild name is a famous and historic one; the family first made a name for themselves in banking, and a couple of scrappy Bordeaux vineyards were bought as an investment. Chateau Mouton Rothschild was one of these, the other, Lafite Rothschild.
During the Napoleonic era, wines were shipped to Paris and beyond and needed simple quality guidelines: local vineyards were judged basically by the popularity and price of the bottles they produced back then, and Lafite Rothschild was named a Grand Cru, or First Great Growth i.e. top of the line. This, the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, is still touted today as a marker of first great growth world class French wines. Mouton Rothschild later received a bump up to this class and to this day remains the only winery to get a “promotion” (although it should be noted that this is an archaic rating system from the 1800s hence New World Wines are excluded no matter how popular or well-ranked they are). From the 1800s to today, the Chateau Mouton Rothschild red wine is consistently known to be one of the best in the world.
The Rothschild family wasn’t paying much attention to their vineyards (remember, this was a big name in international banking, and the world-class wine was a secondary investment) until Baron Philippe de Rothschild fell in love with the beauty of France and the Bordeaux region in particular; he also fell in love with the art of wine making, and moved to Medoc with his wife, Elisabeth. Under his active ownership, Chateau Mouton Rothschild became the first winery in the world to bottle on site, as compared to shipping barrels to offsite bottlers. He was also the Rothschild who was inspired to feature artists’ designs on Mouton Rothschild bottles, with each new year bringing a new artist’s design to the labels.
His wife and daughter lived in Bordeaux and Paris with him until Hitler rose to power and France rolled over into Vichy France. During the German occupation of France, the Rothschild father and daughter moved to England but Philippe’s wife Elisabeth was, tragically, sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She died there. Elisabeth de Rothschild was the only member of the Rothschild family to die in the Holocaust.
After the end of World War II, Philippe de Rothschild returned to Bordeaux and (along with his loyal employees) repaired the vast damage done to Chateau Mouton Rothschild by the Nazis. He remarried, but had no more children. Today, his daughter Baroness Philippine still runs the Rothschild wineries, along with her three sons. She takes special pride in the collection at Mouton Rothschild’s Museum of Wine in Art.
Chateau de Mouton Rothschild Art and Antiquities
The Viking River Cruises’ Chateaux, Rivers & Wine itinerary includes a detailed tour of the art collection at Chateau de Mouton Rothschild. Absolutely no photographs are allowed at this Museum of Wine in Art, so you’ll have to take my word for it: this is an incredible collection, rivaling any smaller art museum. Every antiquity and piece of art is at least tangentially related to wine, be it an Etruscan wine bottle, a glittery rare gem barrette with a grapevine design, a Kiddish cup from the 1800s, Medieval tapestries, or paintings of Bacchus/Dionysus and tableaus of women drinking wine by artists such as Pablo Picasso. There are also several pieces of art based on rams’ heads, as “mouton” means sheep in French, so the Rothschild family took on the ram’s head as symbolic of their estate.
Equally interesting is the Chateau Mouton Rothschild winery and estate’s collection of the original designs and paintings for its wine bottles. As started by Philippe de Rothschild, every year an artist is selected to design a unique painting that is then on every label of that year’s vintage. Artists include Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Keith Haring, Salvador Dali and Jeff Koons. Jeff Koons is the most recent artist, having designed the label for the 2010 vintage. Note: While this creative endeavor started in 1924, it stopped and didn’t recommence until 1945 due to World War II.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild — Old World Wines Connection to New World Wines
The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 is self-limiting; wine enthusiasts know that New World wines from Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and even Willamette in Oregon can have vintages of similar high quality and ratings as a Grand Cru of Bordeaux. Perhaps in light of this, or perhaps as a marketing move, Baron Philippe de Rothschild partnered with Robert Mondavi — one of the best big winemakers in Napa Valley — in 1980. The two men first met while vacationing at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on Hawaii (nee Big) Island. The resulting Opus One Winery in Oakville (Napa Valley) created a Bordeaux style Cabernet Sauvignon blend and today Opus One Winery is still co-owned by the Mondavi group and by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. The name is derived from their desire to merge Old World and New World wines into one opus.
It’s nice to know that a reasonable facsimile to a genuine Mouton Rothschild red wine can be relished during a long weekend in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. However, the joy of three glasses of different Cabernet Sauvignon blends at the actual Chateau de Mouton Rothschild, after a small group tour through the winery and its Art of Wine in Art Museum, cannot be replicated. Those glasses contain Cabernet Sauvignon blends that are inarguably among a small, elite group of the best red wine in the world. It makes for an incredible day of wine, history and culture, as does the entire Chateaux, Rivers & Wine itinerary on Viking River Cruises. Certainly, it’s better than a box of wine and Ritz crackers.
I participated in a Viking River Cruises launch and week-long press trip in France, from Avignon to Bordeaux. The Art and Wine Tour at Chateau Mouton Rothschild was a highlight of the attenuated Chateaux, Rivers & Wine river cruise press trip.