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A wine label often displays information dictated by legislation or regional requirements. However, this space on a bottle has infinite possibilities for design and semiotics. There are as many labels as there are wines and producers. Just as we know not to judge a book by its cover, connoisseurs have also learned not to judge a wine by its label. The exceptions to this rule are the labels on the First Growth wine of Château Mouton Rothschild, an estate that not only established important changes in the production of fine wine, but also created the standard for how such wines are presented to the world, turning the design of a bottle —and how it communicates what is contained inside—into an art form.

Labelling wine is as ancient as the beverage itself. There is evidence as far back as 1352BC of wine jars in King Tutankhamun’s burial site having papyrus labels stating vintage, region and even the winemaker. Around a millennium later, during the Persian empire, labelling was accelerated to cover new varieties from Greek and Phoenician producers. In the 17th century, a Benedictine monk and cellar master, Dom Pierre Pérignon, provided handwritten labels tied to bottles with string. The invention of the lithograph produced the first paper label in Germany in the 1780s, and the practice took off.

By the early 20th century in Bordeaux, Mouton Rothschild’s wines were already highly desired and respected in the industry, but still not classified to the exacting Bordeaux Classification of 1855. When 20-year-old Baron Philippe de Rothschild arrived to take over his family estate in 1922, he was considered an outsider and upstart in the traditionalist Médoc. He set out to make changes in the production and marketing of wine. These were later adopted by the global wine industry, and oenophiles perhaps take them as a given today.

For instance, up until 1922, the château’s wine was sent in barrels to Bordelaise merchants to bottle for each producer. Baron Philippe decided the estate could do this itself and inaugurated the practice of “mis en bouteille au château“—bottling, labelling and storing the wine in cellars at the estate. This allowed the family to oversee and control wine quality and production, from the vines to the bottling, and made a compelling marketing case for conducting every stage of the wine production on the estate’s 84 hectares.

Baron Philippe wished to mark this change by commissioning a new label for the wine. He asked a young artist and graphic designer, Jean Carlu, to come up with a label. Carlu had already produced commercial work, especially theatre posters and advertisements, and won awards— accomplishments he had achieved with one arm, having lost the other in a tram accident. Carlu’s work engaged with dominant artistic movements, starting with Art Deco, Cubism and on to Surrealism. His label incorporated the Rothschild family’s five-arrow crest and the ram’s head mask rendered in bold, modern typography as a statement of intent.

Bordeaux’s wine trade did not take to Carlu’s label, yet the family continued to produce the wine. By the time of the Second World War the family had to flee to Lausanne, and the commissions were paused until 1945, when another young artist, Philippe Jullian, was asked to reignite the process, celebrating the end of the war with a V for Victory label. For the next decade, thanks to Baron Philippe’s daughter, Philippine de Rothschild, who had a successful career in the Comédie-Française, the vintage labels were designed by a coterie of artist friends from the theatre world, including Jean Cocteau (1947), Léonor Fini (1952) and Jean Hugo (1946). It was in 1955, when Georges Braque approached the château and requested he design a bottle, that the practice became a “game-changer”, according to Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, the youngest of the three siblings who run the château today. Suddenly, any prejudices about artists designing practical, mass-produced objects such as wine bottles, were dispelled. “Art came to accompany us and to be our partner in this adventure,” says Julien. It helped that the wines were regarded as world-class.

The label artists became friends of the family, and the progression of vintages not only charts the development of the family’s wine, but also their tastes in art. Baron Philippe enlisted Salvador Dalí (1958), Henry Moore (1964), César (1967) and Joan Miró (1969), among others. Max Ernst was commissioned to produce the 1965 label, but instead handed the project to his wife, Dorothea Tanning. She produced a row of five rams in a jubilant line dance.

After Baron Philippe passed away, it seemed his daughter Philippine charmed her way into many major 20th-century Modernist artists’ hearts, as those who made labels include Georg Baselitz (1989), Francis Bacon (1990) and Lucian Freud (2006). The family have amassed letters, anecdotes and archives relating to each artist and their friendship with the matriarch. Stories include how she pursued Balthus for years to design a label. Her pincer movement included commissioning his wife Setsuko Klossowska de Rola to design the 1991 vintage before him. Balthus finally conceded and made a drawing for the 1993 vintage depicting the artist’s signature nude young woman. The label was banned in the United States and an alternative released, with a blank white space where the image should have been.

The relationships between the artists and the family worked because they were based on admiration and friendship. The artists were never chosen just because they were famous or fashionable. This continues today, with Julien responsible for the artistic direction and liaison in the winemaking. “We believe artists should have complete creative freedom,” he says. “Therefore, we don’t impose any size restrictions for those who collaborate. The works can be gigantic, such as Karel Appel’s (1994), or tiny, such as Hans Hartung’s (1980). Every year, the artists take possession of the space and take hold of it in their own way.” Ideally, the family do not “want to cause controversy”, and they do have to be sensitive to markets. Even with this freedom to decorate the labels, nearly every artist has chosen to interpret an element of the wine, vineyard, grapes or drinking of the wine in this decades-long tradition.

The 1973 Pablo Picasso tribute label for Château Mouton Rothschild

Ultimately, the château has been able to blend both artistic and winemaking excellence and maintain that distinction while being innovators in the industry. And it has included artists of all mediums in the story to augment the message and symbolism of such a pioneering approach to winemaking. “The artists who illustrate the labels are not only painters,” Julien says. “They are also sculptors, such as Bernar Venet (2007), or scenographers, such as Robert Wilson (2001). We love the diversity of these artists and their media. I was delighted when David Hockney (2014) created his work on an iPad.”

Such stories are displayed within the family’s Paintings for the Labels Room, on the premises at the Pauillac château since 2013, and relaunched in 2020. Open to the public, the museum contains all the original artworks that informed the labels, the original label designs, which had been on tour since 1981 to over 42 cities globally.The space has been reimagined under the artistic direction of Julien, with the display cases designed by Francis Lacloche full of sketches, handwritten notes, archival photographs and the original artworks for all vintages. The museum is a survey of the best artists of the 20th century – Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Warhol, Freud, Bacon – leading up to notable contemporary artists, such as Gerhard Richter and Anish Kapoor.

Drinkers may not fully comprehend, perhaps, the importance of this balancing act when they enjoy this Bordeaux First Growth. Arguably, the combination of creative excellence and commercial success makes it the first truly luxury wine. As Julien says, “This expansive vision of culture, which Mouton Rothschild reflects in the union of its wine and its Paintings for the Labels exhibition, offers those who appreciate such things high-level pleasure for both the eye and the palate. With each vintage, the works created by great artists for our labels show us the perfect union of the beautiful and the good that the ancient Greeks called kalos kai agathos [beautiful and good].”

Mouton Rothschild also further developed the business of Bordeaux winemaking through its eccentricity and by pursuing its vision in this strict appellation. This independent spirit was eventually rewarded when the winery was upgraded to the highest distinction of Premier Cru in 1973, for which the family had lobbied for decades. This was the year Picasso died, and the family honoured both milestones by asking his widow Jacqueline Roque to select a work to decorate this vintage.

Contemporary artists continue to celebrate the wine and undertake the commissions with Julien. Olafur Eliasson decorated the 2019 vintage, as he had been “fascinated by the Rothschild family’s long history of working with artists” and wanted to be part of that tradition – or, as he put it, “as part of a river. The many artists here are inspiring, as they all together have shaped the river that I am now part of.”

Peter Doig (2020) undertook the commission because he wanted “to capture an ode” to the magic that “goes on behind the scenes in the production of this wine”. Chiharu Shiota, in illustrating the latest vintage of 2021, honoured the emotions we feel when we are connected to the seasons, which are magnified in a vineyard.

In the same way that a perfect vintage is the result of all the natural factors of vineyard conditions and human blending skills, the art collection cannot be replicated, because it is a response to a particular time and terroir. “If someone tried to start what has been done at Mouton since 1945 again, it would not be possible,” says Julien. “You would not have the exact vintages or the exact artists responding the way they did. What has been made is unique for each vintage and each time and place.”

Nevertheless, there are plenty of examples of wineries that now find it imperative to include artists on their labels, from Australia to Lebanon to Chile. All credit Château Mouton Rothschild for the inspiration and for breaking and reworking the rules into a system where art is just as much a part of the expression as the wines’ tasting notes. Mouton Rothschild, in the meantime, will continue this project into the next century. “I hope that this adventure between Château Mouton Rothschild and art will last as long as possible,” Julien says. “But more than anything else, I hope that in 100 years’ time, Mouton Rothschild will still be producing wines as fine as those of today.” Given the château’s commitment to good taste, be it in the bottle or on the bottle, this hope becomes a guarantee.

  • chateau-mouton-rothschild.com

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