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