Rediscovering Mouton Cadet – A Winery Profile

Re-inventing the Négociant: The legacy of Baron Phillippe de Rothschild through the lens of Mouton Cadet
by Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by Arterra Wines Canada.

Emblematic of Bordeaux, Mouton Cadet has been a dependable presence on the shelves of wine shops worldwide since before many of us were born. Although it is easy to overlook big brands, Mouton Cadet has gone through a significant makeover recently, and not just on the surface with a more modern, light-hearted label design. The family company of Baron Philippe de Rothschild (henceforth referred to as BPR), has developed an innovative sourcing strategy focused on individual parcel selections in partnership with a network of grower-producers. Since its conception in 1930, the project maintains the same aim of bringing Bordeaux to a wider audience thus creating one of the first major French wine brands. Today, the brand remains strong in Canada as it is one of the company’s top 5 most important export countries out of 150 worldwide. The brand has had over half a century to build recognition as records at the winery indicate that Mouton Cadet was imported to Canada as early as 1953.

There is no pretense surrounding Mouton Cadet as a large-scale commercial production. With over 12 million bottles of Mouton Cadet produced, (9 million in red, 2 million in white and 1 million in rosé) this is BPR’s most affordable, recognizable brand. What is surprising is the complexity in which it is made involving a multitude of individual producers. Seven lead winemakers oversee the Mouton Cadet project and there are over 300 grower-winemakers involved in the creation of the wines. Originally, Mouton Cadet was developed as a négociant project. A “négociant” or “wine merchant” is a buyer of grapes, must or wine that often completes the vinification and bottles under its own name. Wine was largely produced this way until the last quarter of a century when many growers became producers in their own right. Having developed a poor reputation as hasty purchasers and purveyors of wine, many such négociants have turned around their reputation by becoming partial land owners or focusing on a diverse portfolio of high-quality wine. In the case of Mouton Cadet, the dynamic changed in 2004 when the company switched focus from basic négociant activity to a more hands-on approach in an effort to showcase the richness and individuality of Bordelaise producers.

With aspirations at 10 on a scale of 10, a system of logistics had to be established in order to maintain quality and a like-minded vision of this new Bordelaise tapestry. Like a co-operative winery, basic levels of quality standards were established. Unlike a co-operative, the winegrowers were not owners and thus the control of quality from the vineyards and winery is the responsibly of the seven head winemakers of BPR. Despite the large scale, the aim is to encourage the distinct personality of winegrower partners to shine through. A heartening community was thus formed among partners who consider themselves part of a family and benefit from a substantial support network established by the company. To that end, a new app has been created to allow producers to connect to each other in order to share equipment, resources and information. The majority of the 1,500 hectares of vineyards quality maintained by BPR are located in the Côtes de Bordeaux and Bordeaux appellations with much of the white derived from Entre-deux-Mers. This expansive portfolio of growers allows Mouton Cadet’s team the benefit to pick and choose from a wealth of quality-minded producers.

Orphelie Loubersac

One of those seven BPR winemakers, Orphelie Loubersac, spoke to me in Toronto recently of her role on the team and of the extraordinary effort that goes into producing a bottle of Mouton Cadet. She sees her job as part counsellor, part quality enforcer and part holistic interpreter. No small feat for a relatively young winemaker but her ability to multitask and empathize has helped her along the way. Having graduated with an agricultural engineering degree from the University of Montpellier and after a stage with BPR in 2011, Loubersac was drawn back to the company’s large operation. Following a stint with BPR’s Chilean bodega in Maipo, she chose to stay within the BPR fold contributing more profoundly to Mouton Cadet’s operation in Bordeaux.

Pioneering Efforts in Bordeaux

Let’s now go back to the beginning, at least to the beginning of the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who inherited Château Mouton Rothschild through the ranks of three generations. A 20-year old Philippe de Rothschild took over the estate in 1922 and imposed innovative changes that would drastically shape Bordelaise, and some might argue, global wine culture. Firstly, he resolutely decided that wine should be bottled at the Château instead of the common practice of selling barrels to merchants. Secondly, he had the artist Jean Carlu to illustrate the label for the vintage which became on ongoing tradition of visual artistry.

Mouton Cadet came to light in 1930 as the declassified vintage of the Grand Vin of Château Mouton Rothschild. The name “cadet” is a reference to the “younger son”, en français, as Baron Philippe was indeed the junior of the family. Château Mouton had toyed with this idea of a “second label” using the name Carruades de Mouton just after 1927 but Mouton Cadet label solidified this concept. The wine allowed Parisian enthusiasts a taste of the legendary Château Mouton at a more accessible price. The concept was wildly successful and contributed to the growth of these “alter ego” wines throughout Bordeaux.

Although Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s 60-year reign over the company was multifaceted and included a partnership with Mondavi to create Opus One in 1979, his death in 1988 brought another innovator to the forefront. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild was instrumental in changing the ways in which the company developed partnerships with winegrowers. Her focus was to achieve better quality with a hands-on approach to the more traditional négociant model. The Baroness encouraged collaboration with individual growers responsible for producing their own wine at their own estate. Strict maturity and quality controls were to be overseen by the aforementioned BPR winemakers. The quality required from the growers exceeds those of the generic Bordeaux appellation. Currently contracts with partner winegrowers are three years long but most of them continue to renew indefinitely.

A love of art was one of the Baroness’ defining traits and thus she decided to take the rich collection Mouton Rothschild’s label paintings on the road as a travelling exhibit. She remained a staunch supporter of the arts until her death in 2014. Her work in expanding brands and estate holdings in Chile proved an enriching facet of the company. As a result of joint ventures in Napa and Chile, an expanded portfolio and an emphasis on modernization, the company was in good shape for the appropriation by the Baroness’ three children: Camille, Julien and Philippe. Carefully guiding the new négociant model to fruition, the three siblings rebirthed the Mouton Cadet brand with the landmark 2015 vintage.

The changes won’t stop there. The newest generation of Rothschild’s have a mandate of 100% sustainably certified production by the year 2020. By the end of this year, half of the Mouton Cadet growers will be HVE certified. This threefold, Ministry of Agriculture accreditation requires vineyards to increase biodiversity, control the use of pesticides and fungicides as well as  improve systems of water management.

The Wines

Winemaker Orphelie Loubersac meticulously led a tasting of the Mouton Cadet range which includes three general list products: Blanc, Rosé and Rouge along with the Vintage Edition and Reserve series that are available through Private Order only via Arterra Wines Canada. A hot bargain, the Reserve series from Saint-Emilion and Pauillac were on the whole very representative examples of the distinct appellations at an impressively affordable price.

Mouton Cadet 2018 Blanc, Bordeaux, France $15.95
This sauvignon blanc/semillon blend is dominated by the fresh, exuberant and lightly grassy character of sauvignon. Easy-drinking, with an appealing texture and notes of lemon pith on the palate. Expressive with no oak. Sourced mostly from both Entre-deux-Mers and from the eastern Côtes de Bordeaux. Tasted June 2019.

Mouton Cadet Blanc 2018

Mouton Cadet 2018 Rosé, Bordeaux, France $15.95
The significant merlot content of this rosé adds more depth and concentration that a Provençal style. The colour is surprisingly pale and the perfumed nose is enhanced by a cabernet franc component. Built for patio weather, this clean, dry rosé is effortlessly drinkable. Tasted June 2019.

Mouton Cadet Rosé 2018

Mouton Cadet 2016 Rouge, Bordeaux, France $16.95
A blend of both Côtes de Bordeaux and Bordeaux appellations from more gravelly sites, this newest cuvée pours a perfectly ruby colour and displays classic characteristics of the 2016 vintage. An appealing ferrous quality is notable on the palate along with lightly toasted oak treatment and tannins adding an approachable degree of texture. Mid-weight with moderate alcohol and a ready-to-drink nature. Tasted June 2019.

Mouton Cadet Rouge 2016

Mouton Cadet 2016 Vintage Edition, Bordeaux, France $24.95
The Vintage Edition is a step up from the basic Bordeaux offering more structure and tightness. The oak treatment is more apparent here too but it is well integrated. A premium price for a generic appellation but the higher quality fruit inclusive is evident here. Tasted June 2019.

Mouton Cadet Vintage Edition 2016

Mouton Cadet 2016 Reserve Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France $40.95
Earthy and pleasantly gamey with a richness of mouthfeel. Cabernet franc and merlot dominant with a wild aromatic profile and a lush palate. Notes of laurel and rosemary bramble and berry pie. Only a portion of the harvest is oak aged and the cuvée is blended with a discreet level of spice in mind. Very charming and a notably pure expression of the appellation. Tasted June 2019.

Mouton Cadet Réserve Saint Émilion 2016

Mouton Cadet 2016 Reserve Pauillac, Bordeaux, France $40.95
A textbook representation of Pauillac, almost exaggeratedly so. The price quality ratio here is significant and one that is hard to come by. Notes of graphite, black currant and violet are supported by a firm tannic structure and a touch of classic dustiness. Excellent length. Best 2021-2026. Tasted June 2019.

Mouton Cadet Reserve Pauillac 2016

Santé!

Sara

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This feature was commissioned by Arterra Wines Canada. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries and wine agents pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.