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Tasting at Château Mouton-Rothschild

Notes on the 2010 wines from the first-growth and its siblings, d’Armailhac and Clerc-Milon
Photo by: Conseil des Grands Crus Classés
Château Mouton-Rothschild's 2010 should be another example of the château's deserved first-growth status.

Posted: Mar 25, 2011 10:00am ET

All of James Molesworth's blogs and tasting notes can be found in the complete 2010 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting Package.

Château Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac is the only Bordeaux classified growth ever to have been promoted; in 1973, it rose from second-growth to first-growth. Proud yet unyielding, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the owner at the time, proclaimed the château’s motto: “I, Mouton, do not change.”

But since taking over the winemaking here in 2004, Philippe Dhalluin has made changes—and the wines here are embarking on a new era of purity and elegance, while still retaining their classic, ironclad power.

Dhalluin, 53, is the technical director in charge of all the Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA (BPDR) estates and works on the joint ventures in Chile (Viña Almaviva) and California (Opus One) as well. He joined the company in 2003 and worked for a time with Patrick Léon before assuming full control with the 2004 vintage. Dhalluin had been at Branaire-Ducru since 1988, before joining the BPDR team.

Dhalluin’s changes have been subtle but numerous. Fermentation temperatures have been lowered; now they do not exceed 84° F. Less press wine is included in the blend; it used to make up as much as 20 percent, but now has been reduced to around 10 to 12 percent. The grand vin is still matured in 100 percent new oak barrels, but the barrels are now less heavily charred. And in the powerful 2010 vintage, Dhalluin put all his changes to work.

“The philosophy here is to go for less extraction,” said Dhalluin. “The 2010 vintage gave a lot of tannins, so you have to take care to manage the extraction. We prefer to extract slowly, but for a longer period, while maintaining a lower maximum temperature during the fermentation. If you extract too much, too soon, you can’t go back.”

Perhaps most drastically, the pattern of the harvest has been altered. Mouton used to bring in all its plots in perhaps just eight days; today, it takes anywhere from 11 to 20 days, depending on the vintage, all aimed at picking parcels at just the right moment of ripeness. That’s a formidable task, considering Mouton and its sister properties of Clerc-Milon and d’Armailhac account for 494 acres of prime vineyards in Pauillac, while being run as three separate estates.

The ’10 reds here are indeed powerful, but they are refined and balanced too, with the elevated alcohol levels offset nicely by acidity, thanks to the vintage’s more modest temperatures. (2010 was not as warm as 2009.)

“The wines hit 15.5 [degrees alcohol] in Merlot and Petit Verdot for example, and we never see that here,” said Dhalluin. “But it was a natural ripeness. The grapes were just perfect. It seems that if you could have the perfect vintage, it would be ’10.”

We started the tasting with the second wine of Mouton, Le Petit Mouton, which has undergone a renovation in recent years (as have many other second wines from top estates). Instead of a selection done solely in the cellar, today it is done more in the vineyards; top parcels from the two plateaus on the property go into the grand vin, while Petit Mouton gets the parcels that are on the edges of those two plateaus.

(All the wines described below were tasted non-blind. As these are unfinished wines, they are scored in four-point ranges—eg. 89–92 points—to indicate that the ratings are still preliminary.)

Representing about one-quarter of the total Mouton crop, the 2010 Petit Mouton shows a solid, muscular beam of raspberry and red currant, with sweet spice and tobacco in the background. The round, roasted vanilla finish is nicely integrated already (91–94).

Both of Mouton’s sister properties represent terrific value, often at just a fraction of the price of the Petit Mouton, let alone the grand vin.

The Château d’Armailhac Pauillac 2010 is a blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 23 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and 2 percent Petit Verdot, sourced from almost 175 acres of vines on the southern border of Mouton, near Pontet-Canet. Limestone soils dominate here, a factor in the higher portions of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and these varieties show prominently in the wine’s briary core and dark fig and plum fruit. There’s also a backdrop of roasted sage and tobacco. This has nice muscle and heft, but shows the rounded feel of the new house style too (92–95).

In contrast, the Château Clerc-Milon 2010 features a blend of 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 36 percent Merlot, 11 percent Cabernet Franc, 2 percent Petit Verdot and 1 percent Carmenère, sourced from 99 acres (40 hectares) of vines located between the plateaus of Mouton and Lafite and the Gironde estuary. “It’s like a parquet floor,” said Dhalluin of the vineyard. “In 40 hectares we have 230 plots. That makes the selection process a bit more difficult.” Similar parcels are vinified together.

The wine shows an even more rounded feel than the d’Armailhac, with cassis, black licorice and plum sauce carried by very supple but substantial tannins and terrific acidity. The long finish has a solid tarry edge. As with d’Armailhac, assuming current price trends hold, this promises to be a steal in ageworthy Pauillac (93–96).

The 2010 harvest was the first from Clerc-Milon’s new plantings. Some parcels have been replanted entirely since 2004, the first time replanting has been done here by parcel; previously, individual vines were replaced when they died.

For the grand vin, the ’09 Mouton had the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon ever—until the 2010, which is 94 percent Cabernet, with the rest Merlot. This is due to several factors. There was less Merlot available, as coulure (shatter) reduced yields, and drought affected the remaining Merlot, resulting in slightly severe tannins, according to Dhalluin. In addition, the Cabernet Sauvignon was simply superb.

The Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac 2010 is another battleship in the making, with a massive core of red currant, plum and blackberry fruit laced with iron and roasted apple wood and backed by massive grip. Despite the heft though, it’s sleek and long, with terrific poise (95–98).

Following the reds, the Château Mouton-Rothschild Bordeaux White Aile d’Argent 2010 is a welcome refresher. Made from a blend of 60 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 40 percent Sémillon, and barrel-fermented in 50 percent new oak, the wine starts with melon and verbena notes and a hint of richness, before turning racy, with hints of chartreuse, lemon curd and vanilla (89–92).

Q&A with Jean-Guillaume Prats

Today, Château Cos-d’Estournel’s managing director, Jean-Guillaume Prats, answers the questions I’ve been posing to other major figures in Bordeaux. (See my Q&As with Christian Moueix, Paul Pontallier and Christian Seely.) Notes from my tasting at Cos-d’Estournel will be published next week.

It’s early, but how do you think ’10 measures up to ’09 in terms of quality and style?

2010 is 180 degrees from ’09. ’09 is glamorous and baroque. ’10 is a very powerful, aristocratic vintage. It’s back to the future, like ’47, ’49. It’s the same level of quality as ’09, but has nothing to do with ’09. We’re taking ’09 out [of cask] to bottle in May, but the ’10 might probably get one more racking, and then I wouldn’t be surprised if we leave it until the following August or September for bottling. It’s a totally different wine.

Do you look for finesse more than power in a wine, and if so, how do you handle a vintage like ’10?

I don’t call it finesse, I call it precision. We’re trying to produce wines with great definition. The precision we get with the quality of the fruit. We didn’t have to wrestle anything in ’10. For example, I prefer to reduce the crop at veraison. Whatever is not uniform, we drop. That helps to reduce yields and then ameliorate the alcohol in a vintage like ’10. Also, we did a more gentle extraction, with lower temperature than ’09, as well as shorter post maceration than usual. Otherwise we would have gotten a bitterness, which of course we don’t want.

Suddenly, ’05 seems to have become a forgotten vintage. Does it measure up to ’09 and ’10?

Sure, it’s a commercial issue—the vintage for sale is the dominant topic of course. And at the time, everyone was really blown away by the ’09. But it’s a very difficult statement to say which one is better. You need 40 years of experience to say which one is better.

But we should remember that ’05 brought great success to Bordeaux, which was then reinvested. That allowed us to handle ’09. Bordeaux is in a cycle of prosperity for sure, which reflects itself in the ability to surpass expectations in the great years. If it weren’t for ’05, we wouldn’t have been able to capture what we did in ’09 and now ’10. There have never been so many great wines produced all around the world. The pressure is more every year—we have to surpass expectations every vintage, just to keep up.

All of James Molesworth's blogs and tasting notes can be found in the complete 2010 Bordeaux Barrel Tasting Package.

Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  March 26, 2011 8:23pm ET
So how does the 2010 Mouton compare to the 1986 Mouton? Both tannic vintages.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  March 27, 2011 2:36am ET
Karl: '86 and '96 are the vintages that some winemakers compare '10 to, in terms of the tannins. During the earliest parts of the élevage, they worried they might have one of those types of vintages on their hands - powerful, but perhaps a bit drying in the long term. Yet the ripeness and acidity in '10 are better and so the overall balance looks to be far superior...
Paul Megarity
holywood Co Down N Ireland  —  March 27, 2011 4:28pm ET
I am concerned that in 2010 we seem to have yet another 'vintage of the century' The bordelais are masters at hype and I feel another massive price hike is on the way. Surely we need to be more critical when assesing these wines ???
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  March 28, 2011 11:33am ET
Paul: Sure there’s hype – because 2010 is the best vintage of the last 12 months. And the economic reality is that the Bordelais will be talking about the vintage for sale. They readily admit that in the Q&As I’ve been posting as well. Plus it's clearly a vintage of high quality - so surely you can understand their excitement.

Hype is a two way street though – producers create it and consumers chase it. In the middle are the journalists, who can lean either to aiding the producers in their hype, or helping consumers to sift through the hype. My responsibility is to the consumers. To that end, after my visits are done, I’ll be sitting down to taste a large cross section of the vintage, tasting the wines bind and giving as fair and independent assessment as possible.

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