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Through the grapevine – the secret ceremony of Château Mouton Rothschild’s artist collaborations

8 December 2022

The making of great wine is ritualistic and for Château Mouton Rothschild, the creation of each vintage’s label is an essential part of its viticultural mysteries.

Courtesy Château Mouton Rothschild

On 30 November, the chateau hosted its annual dinner to reveal the design for its 2020 vintage release by the Scottish painter Peter Doig. Several generations of the most respected Bordeaux negotiants and merchants with whom Château Mouton Rothschild works gathered at the Palais de la Bourse in Bordeaux, a 19th-century temple of commerce. Guests entered the salon to see the artwork and bottle hidden under a velvet curtain. Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild made the announcement, the curtain dropped to reveal the artwork and bottle, and the artist appeared behind an adjacent door – a modern-day Eleusinian mystery in the Gironde.

Though the chateau prepares the bottles of the new vintage, the labels are not printed until after the ceremonious reveal. Even the estate workers are not privy to the secret of the artist’s identity and begin work to attach the labels following the announcement. This year, dinner guests were given a new vintage bottle encased in a wooden box with a code that was not disclosed until the embargo was lifted the morning after.

Continuing the tradition started by their grandfather, Baron Philippe, and continued by their mother, Baroness Philippine, the current owners of the chateau decide on an artist between themselves – the confidential discussions begin months or sometimes years in advance and are spearheaded by Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, who is responsible for the artistic and cultural initiatives of Mouton Rothschild.

Peter Doig Château Mouton Rothschild

Peter Doig and Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild at Château Mouton Rothschild. Photo: Mathieu Anglada

The selected artist is invited to pay a secret visit to the vineyards and the estate in order to understand the terroir, experience the chateau and explore the previous artworks and labels in the family’s art collection. The original artworks created by every participant since 1945 are on permanent display at in Mouton’s ‘Paintings for Labels’ exhibition, in a specially built exhibition space, between the grape vat house and the Museum of Wine in Art. Working on the small scale of a wine-bottle label can be a challenge. Sometimes the artist will create an artwork, but the image, when reproduced on the label, appears quite different.

Doig’s artwork for the label is a luscious depiction of a nocturnal scene in a vineyard with a full moon. ‘It’s dreamy with a romantic streak,’ he said at the ceremony, ‘as if someone spontaneously decided to sing it in the vines. It’s a moment of poetry.’ A central figure plays a guitar while two figures work the land; the setting is magical and enigmatic, with echoes of Gauguin and van Gogh. Doig wanted to capture ‘something of what goes on behind the scenes in the production of wine – what happens offstage, as it were […] It’s a sort of ode to the workers, to all those involved in the various stages of making a wine before it’s finally bottled,’ he said.

The Rothschild family has been commissioning contemporary artists to create art for their premier cru labels since 1945, when Baron Philippe asked the young painter Philippe Jullian to produce a new design in celebration of the end of the Second World War. Many of the artists who followed in Jullian’s wake were drawn from the theatre world, including Jean Cocteau and Jean Hugo, but it was Georges Braque’s design for the label for the 1955 vintage that paved the way for some of the most renowned international artists of the 20th century including Picasso, Chagall, Miró, Dalí, Warhol and Bacon.

Courtesy Château Mouton Rothschild

Mouton Rothschild artists are given free rein to interpret the assignment as they wish. The interpretations include a cartoon of the Mouton symbol (Keith Haring, 1988), and a single crimson brush stroke (Lee Ufan, 2013). Doig’s piece belongs to the subset that are inspired by the terroir, the land and the cultivation of the grapes, ‘where you can take your time. It’s neither really day nor really night, but rather something in between, between waking and sleeping. It is possible to see it as a progression, a dream journey in the world of the harvest,’ Doig said.

The artists selected for the commission do not receive a fee for the work but are rewarded with vast quantities of Château Mouton Rothschild, including cases of their own vintage. Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild said of Doig’s work: ‘We wanted an artist who uses canvas and pictorial material to express figurative subjects. Unrivalled as a colourist, Peter Doig focuses entirely on painting and has become one of his generation’s foremost exponents of the discipline. There is something very special about this technique and his universe that sets them apart in contemporary figurative art. His subjects are very varied, his painting resists any classification: he has succeeded in creating his own, inimitable world.’

In celebration of the new label, Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A. held an auction with Sotheby’s for a unique lot of Château Mouton Rothschild 2020 that also included a double magnum signed by Doig and the only available Nebuchadnezzar to date (15 litres, fit for serving 100 people), with the proceeds of the sale going to the firefighters of Bordeaux to invest in new fire prevention technology and equipment. The auction raised €175,000. ‘We wish to add our voice to the universal expressions of gratitude and admiration they so richly deserve and support their work in a practical way, especially in terms of prevention,’ the family said. Wildfires are an unfortunate factor in contemporary winemaking and hopefully not one to which future artists will have to respond for their label designs.