Reflecting on 50 Years of Mouton: Surprising Insights, Triumphs, and Challenges

By | 19 March 2024

A special tasting inspires some reflections on (im)perfection.


Andrew Jefford

Andrew Jefford tastes 1986 Château Mouton-Rothschild along with a flock of other mature Mouton vintages in Riga.

Ideal tasting weather: a lightly mottled sky gleamed down on freshly fallen snow. The last unculled plants on the balcony wore white top hats. Cautious cars crawled along the salt-darkened road below, but the bare trees in the small park nearby dazzled us, as we looked out, with their fretwork of white branches and bronchioles. Inside the large, airy flat, 12 of us gathered to shepherd a flock of 11 Moutons home to oblivion over seven hours or so. A home-cooked lunch brought leisurely punctuation.

Yes, only four issues have passed, and I’m back to enjoying Mouton once again. Wow! It’s not due to editorial generosity or a lucky draw win, but due to happy circumstances. Writing about “Wine and Art: Six Decades of Mouton-Rothschild” was part of the autumn session of the Riga Wine & Champagne Festival: The World of Fine Wine’s long-time Bordeaux scholar Michael Schuster tutored guests on the wines, festival organizer Aigars Nords talked about the label paintings, and Aigars’s wife Marite prepared delicious food for us. I was a lucky guest.

The youngest pair were from 2004 and 2005; the oldest, from 1952 and 1962. In-between we had 1970, 1973, and 1975; then 1982, 1985, and 1986; and finally 1996. Beforehand, Michael and I took notes, but final opinions were derived, as they should be, from the drinking. Each person got three votes, for both paintings and wines.


The wines came from a variety of places, but there were no disappointments, not even the unfavoured 1952, with its worryingly low level (below shoulder). I will discuss the main surprises from the tasting later, but no one felt let down by Mouton, and the wine’s warmth and comfort were regularly displayed. These were Pauillacs of breath and breadth, of generous hospitality.

Many admired the labels, including the somewhat approachable brown pines of Cap d’Antibes painted by Prince Charles (as he was known at the time) for the 2004 Mouton-Rothschild label, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale. This bottle was actually served at the Versailles Hall of Mirrors dinner in honor of King Charles III on September 20, 2023. The most appreciated artwork, however, was Giuseppe Penone’s captivating sketch for the 2005 vintage – a composition of a handprint and vine leaves.

Unfortunately, there were two labels that did not receive any acclaims: Gu Gan’s calligraphic piece for the 1996 vintage, and Warhol’s collage-like attempt for 1975. Similarly, the 1975 vintage also failed to obtain any praise. The group’s favorite was the wonderful 1982 vintage, with other strong contenders being the 1996 and 1973 vintages, and the crowd-pleasing 2004 and 1970 vintages.

The next plot twist was the most admired wine: the 1962 vintage with its still vibrant color and timeless, balanced style. On the other hand, the 1986 vintage – a famous label, that multiple critics had highly rated – failed to satisfy; it earned only a single vote. This is not to say that the wine was of poor quality, but the idea of calling it “perfect” seemed odd. The way one perceives perfection in wine, according to the group, is that it should be lovely first and foremost. Comparing wines like the ’62, ’73, ’82 with ’86 only confirm this argument.

So, do we over-value qualities that seem commendable, overlooking the fact that these qualities have to also make the wine desirable, and enjoyably drinkable?

This Mouton ’86 also highlighted the folly of the flawless score. It might have been “perfect”—once. However, our tasting suggested it isn’t so anymore. “New issue with 12 100-point wines!” announced a Wine Advocate promotional email I received on December 21, 2023. Can perfection truly be regular, standard, or routine, as this email suggests? Who will do the verification? And when?

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