The director of Château Mouton-Rothschild shuns the pomp and circumstance that goes with being at the helm of a Bordeaux first growth, preferring to remain immersed in the vineyards and the winery, finds Stephen Brook. As published in Decanter's January 2013 issue.

Dhalluin
at a glance
:

Birth:
1957 in Valenciennes

Education:
Faculty of Oenology,
Bordeaux University,
graduating 1982

Career:
1982–1985:
Tacama Estate, Peru;
1985–1988:
Ch Beaumont;
1988–2003:
Ch Branaire-Ducru;
2003-present:
Ch Mouton-Rothschild

Interview:

The directors of Bordeaux’s first-growth châteaux
tend to be showmen as well as administrators,
acting as front men for their prestigious properties.
You’re as likely to encounter Pierre Lurton of Cheval
Blanc and Yquem or Paul Pontallier of Margaux in
Chicago or Shanghai as in Bordeaux.

Philippe Dhalluin of Mouton-Rothschild is the
exception, probably more at home in the vineyards
than in five-star hotels or at dinners attended by
Masters of the Universe. But then he’s a very busy
man, entrusted not only with running Mouton, but
with directing two other classified growths and
important properties in Chile and California too.

He arrived at Mouton in 2004 with solid
winemaking and managerial experience behind
him, although he grew up in northern France,
where his family consumed good Bordeaux and
Burgundy. In the late 1980s he ran the very large
Château Beaumont, just south of St-Julien, and in
1988 moved to Branaire-Ducru, which he turned
into one of the leading properties of St-Julien.

The move to Mouton could have gone to
Dhalluin’s head. Yet he remains as courteous,
thoughtful and modest as he has always been. Even
his office is plain and functional. I’d have put up a
chandelier or two and borrowed some canvases
from Rothschild collections, but Dhalluin just
doesn’t seem interested in pomp and power.

He came to Mouton as technical director of the
châteaux owned by Baroness Philippine de
Rothschild and her family, but his role has
expanded. ‘Each of our Bordeaux châteaux –

Mouton, Clerc-Milon and Armailhac – has its own
technical director, vineyard manager and teams of
workers, and I work with them all,’ Dhalluin
explains. ‘I also travel to Napa four times a year to
visit Michael Silacci at Opus One. In California my
role is essentially that of consultant. We discuss
whatever he thinks needs to be done at Opus, and I
help with the blending of each vintage. But Michael
has the final say. And it’s much the same set-up at
Almaviva in Chile and at our property in the
Languedoc. Here in Pauillac I’m much more closely
involved with the vines and the wines.’


New broom from Branaire

Once at Mouton, he didn’t waste any time.
Replanting was the priority, and the various
vineyard managers were asked to provide detailed
information about yields and vine vigour. ‘We had
to work out the correct use of rootstocks, clones,
varieties and drainage. I made it clear from the
start that I favoured massal selections, when
feasible, over clones, and by now such selections
account for half the 12 hectares we’ve replanted.

‘Coming here from Branaire, I could bring a fresh
view. It was obvious that we needed a new winery
for Clerc-Milon, and once that was under way, we
would have to take a look at Mouton-Rothschild.
The new winery for Clerc was built just east of
Mouton. It opened in 2007 and the new barrel
cellar was ready in 2011.’

Dhalluin’s job calls for diplomacy as well as
decisiveness. Although the vineyard and

winemaking teams at the châteaux are highly
expert, disagreements can arise and objections
can’t easily be dismissed. ‘In almost every case we
reach some kind of agreement. In the very few cases
when we can’t see eye to eye, well, then I have to
make the decision I feel is best.’

The first growths of Pauillac have been snaffling
up lesser estates over recent years, especially if they
own vines close to, or even within, the Rothschild
estates. In 2011 Latour swallowed up La Bécasse
and Mouton has acquired Fleur Milon and
Colombier Monpelou. It’s Dhalluin who has to
assess the quality of those vineyards and the
contribution they could eventually make to the
wines. Like the other first growths, he is extremely
cautious about permitting wines from these lesser
properties to enter the principal blends.

Talking to the firsts

The most sensitive decision of all is how to pitch
the price at which the new wines are offered to the
trade, as well as the proportion to be released after
the en primeur campaign. Here Dhalluin takes a
back seat, while the commercial directors take over.
‘Then of course it’s the shareholders, and principally
Philippine, who make the final decision.’

Each year there is speculation about whether the
first growths collaborate before announcing their
opening prices. That speculation has been
diminishing as strong-willed directors, such as
Frédéric Engerer of Latour, step out of line to make
decisions based on long-term strategies [Latour
pulled out of en primeur this year]. But Dhalluin
admits he is in contact with the other directors.
‘Not that we meet that often, as we all lead very
busy lives and travel a great deal. In the last month

alone I’ve been in Chile, in the US twice, and in
China and Canada. Two days ago at the Montréal
wine fair, I was alongside Pierre Lurton and
Jean-Philippe Delmas from Haut-Brion, so inevitably
our paths cross frequently. And for 25 years we’ve
worked together in the Club des Neuf, which
includes Pétrus, Cheval Blanc and Ausone as well as
the Médoc first growths and Yquem. We collaborate
on research projects, such as natural treatments as
an alternative to conventional treatments against
vine disease, and we’re studying yeast populations
and the control of nematodes. We also have our
own projects at Mouton, run by someone with a
doctorate in oenology.’

Some of his opposite numbers are highly visible
at tastings and other promotional events. Dhalluin
seems happier in the background. ‘I do get involved
in tastings and other wine events, but Philippine
has fortunately been willing to promote our wines
so energetically around the world. That saves me
from a great deal of presentational work, but
nonetheless part of my job is to maintain contact
with top sommeliers, journalists and restaurateurs.’

Does he regret Bordeaux’s mad dash to Asia,
seemingly at the expense of traditional markets in
Europe? ‘We do our best, working with négociants,
to supply our traditional clients in Europe and
elsewhere, but we know perfectly well that much
wine dispatched to London or San Francisco ends
up in Hong Kong or Shanghai. And many private
clients sell on their wines to Asia as fast as they can.’

Vineyard to glass

Dhalluin is clearly not greatly at ease being
interviewed, but he smiles broadly when asked
which aspect of the job gives him the most

satisfaction. ‘The same aspect as for 30 years! Each
year I love to follow the whole process from the
vineyard to the final product, which I hope will be
an outstanding and constantly improving wine.
What I’m saying is that it’s the wine that counts,
and producing the best wine possible is centre stage
of everything I do. In practice that means that
during harvest I’m here all the time, talking every
day to our vineyard managers, helping to organise
the harvest, and tasting the fermentation vats.
Remember we have 700 harvesters here. If we
wanted to, we could pick the whole of Mouton in
four days. With this immense force at our disposal, I
find I’m like a general deploying his troops. My job
is being the managing director of our various
estates, but my passion is the wine in the glass.’

The wine critics of the world are also monitoring
the wine in the glass, Mouton especially, and
Dhalluin is under pressure to maintain and, if
possible, improve the quality. ‘I’ve instigated
changes that may not have an immediate impact on
wine quality, but which will certainly do so in the
long term. Apart from the building projects and the
replanting programme, I’d say it’s the stricter
selection at our properties, including Mouton.
There we have a lot of centenarian vines, and the
average age is over 50 years. But we practice
complantation, so there are many young vines
inside the oldest plots. Since 2004 all vines younger
than 15 years have been marked and picked
separately. So in effect we have two harvests at
Mouton. As yet the young-vine lots have never made
it into the Mouton blend, although it could happen
in theory. What this means in practice is that the
volume of Mouton has diminished. It’s not a
marketing strategy, but a way to ensure that only
the very finest lots end up in the blend. And the
technical developments haven’t been negligible.
We’ve eliminated all pumping at Armailhac, and
the new winery at Clerc-Milon is gravity-operated.

‘Now we’re turning our attention to Mouton. It’s
still very much a work in progress, so I can’t go into
great detail, but, for example, we are installing
many smaller tanks so as to have more parcel
selections. That means we will have more lots to
work with at blending. And once we’ve dealt with
Mouton we’ll turn our attention to Armailhac!’

Terroir and toast

Dhalluin denies that he has changed the
fundamental style of Mouton. ‘Our goal isn’t
stylistic, but rather to express the personality of the
terroir here to the maximum, and to achieve the
greatest possible consistency. I’ve reduced the
toasting of our barrels, but I see this is as a return
to the classic style of Mouton until the late 1980s.
A heavy-toast barrel can make an impression on a
wine, in particular one made from young vines, and
I don’t want the oak to dominate. But I firmly
believe it’s not the role of the winemaker to impose
his personality on the terroir. Mouton as a wine can
have a charred character, but that’s derived from
the vineyards, and I felt that using heavy-toast
barrels just exaggerated this natural character.’

Certainly, Mouton has been on a roll since
Dhalluin arrived. The 2005, drunk in 2012, is a

delicious wine, flamboyant and concentrated,
typically Mouton in its lushness and lavish
opulence, and surprising only in its accessibility.
The 2006 is exemplary, its huge tannins balanced
by gorgeous depth of fruit; it’s a wine considered by
many to be the best Médoc of the vintage. The 2008
shows great purity of fruit, as well as grandeur and
volume. The 2009 and 2010 are on top form too,
though I have not tasted the wines in bottle.

Clerc-Milon has been first rate in the same
vintages, with less complexity than Mouton, but
with excellent fruit, balance, consistency, and
refinement. At present Armailhac, while
undoubtedly a fine wine, lags slightly behind
Clerc-Milon.

These days Opus One seems to run on auto-pilot
under the immensely experienced and fastidious
Michael Silacci. Dhalluin and Mouton winemaker
Eric Tourbier (a former UC Davis classmate of
Silacci’s) undoubtedly make their contribution, but
the highly consistent quality of Opus must be
credited to Silacci. Almaviva too requires little
interference, since the winemaker, Frenchman
Michel Friou, was previously responsible for the
excellent wines of Casa Lapastolle. Almaviva
combines opulence with grip, and shows a refined
use of oak. Easily mistaken for a fine Bordeaux, it
does show French influence.

It would be simplistic to attribute this string of
successes to Dhalluin alone, and he would never
make that claim. But it does seem to be the case
that the wines are more consistent than ever, aided
of course by a run of great vintages, as well as by
severe selection.

The great growths of Bordeaux are led by men
and women of exceptional calibre; but none shows a
lighter touch, combined with a firm sense of
purpose, than Philippe Dhalluin.

Written by Stephen Brook