The Decanter interview: Philippe Dhalluin

  • Thursday 19 September 2013

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.

Bordeaux 2012 En Primeur Philippe Dhalluin

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.

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