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Wine Legends of 2011: Château d’Yquem 1921

Every month in the magazine we celebrate a different bottle of wine that we believe should be recognised as a 'wine legend', this year's selected 12 include Dom Perignon 1961, Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 and Graham's Vintage Port 1945.

Wine Legends of 2011: Château Mouton Rothschild 1945

Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France

A legend because…

All the first growths excelled in 1945, yet it is widely recognised that Mouton, then a lowly second growth, was the wine of the vintage. Moreover, for many years the 1945 fetched higher prices at auction than the first growths. This boosted Baron Philippe’s campaign for Mouton’s promotion to first growth, which only succeeded in 1973. The 1945 vintage was produced shortly after the end of World War II. As a Jew, Baron Philippe de Rothschild had fled to Britain after escaping from prison, but once the war was over he returned to supervise the harvest at Mouton. Despite the fact that he had been unable to manage the estate for some years, it produced something quite extraordinary.

Looking back

Mouton was considerably smaller in 1945, with 51 hectares under vine compared with 82ha today. Although the property had been confiscated by the Germans during the war, it was well run by their appointed weinführer whose job it had been to keep the Bordeaux wine trade functional. The château became a military headquarters and wine was produced more or less normally.

The people

Baron Philippe was flamboyant and artistically inclined and had taken over the management of the family property in 1923 at the age of 20. In 1945 he began to commission the famous ‘artist’s labels’, one for each vintage, and in the 1960s he opened a Museum of Wine in Art. The 1945 label, designed by Philippe Jullian, defiantly displayed the words ‘Année de la Victoire’. The legendary Raoul Blondin, Mouton’s cellarmaster for over 50 years, supervised the wine’s production.

The vintage

Heavy frosts on 2 May – an unusually late date – severely reduced the crop in the Médoc. Thereafter the climate was superb, with a hot, dry summer that led to an early and uncomplicated harvest. The grapes were super-ripe, with some batches apparently reaching an alcohol level of 15%. Quantities were considerably reduced and this was the smallest vintage since 1915.

The terroir

Most of the grapes used for the grand vin come from the Grand Plateau, a parcel lying west of the winery. Here the soil is classic Pauillac: a layer of gravel up to 8m deep, lying over a subsoil of larger stones, clay and marl. The estate’s other main sector, the Carruades, lies on a plateau shared with its neighbour (and rival) Lafite. This gives a slightly more rugged expression of Cabernet Sauvignon than the more powerful but elegant Grand Plateau.

The wine

Although Mouton had continued to produce wine during the war, the property would have suffered from the absence of Baron Philippe’s exacting gaze. The vineyard had not been renovated for some years, although this was probably an advantage, since it increased the proportion of old vines in the 1945. The wine would have been fermented in large wooden vats, but there would have been few, if any, new oak barrels in the cellar.

The reaction

Michael Broadbent, reporting on the wine over 20 times between the 1950s and 1990, notes that it is ‘simply unmistakable’. Moreover it has been exceedingly slow to mature, so that characteristics noted in its youth still seem to apply today. Broadbent notes the very deep colour, and an extraordinary bouquet: ‘The power and spiciness surge out of the glass like a sudden eruption of Mount Etna: cinnamon, eucalyptus, ginger… Impossible to describe but inimitable, incomparable… Its fragrance is reflected on the palate. Still lovely, still vivacious.’ The French critic Michel Dovaz also commented on the nose: ‘Baroque, spicy, luxuriant, almost uncontrolled’. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, tasting the wine in 1970, noted: ‘It did not taste like a typical Médoc; but then Mouton seldom does.’ Robert Parker hails it as ‘one of the immortal wines of the century’ and concurs with Broadbent that it is ‘easily identifiable because of its remarkably exotic, overripe, sweet nose of black fruits, coffee, mocha and Asian spices.’ Like Broadbent, he believes it has decades of life ahead of it. D “ Robert Parker called it one of the immortal wines of the century, with decades to go ”

The facts

  • Bottles produced: 74,422, plus 1475 magnums and 24 jeroboams

  • Composition: No record

  • Yield (hl/ha): about 10 hl/ha

  • Alcohol level: No record

  • Release price: No record

  • Current price: £10,000 per bottle

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