Wine has been the muse – and the fuel – for artists for thousands of years. And today the world is full of vinous eye candy, if you know where to look: the Vendemmia d’Artista designs for the super-Tuscan Ornellaia, which are auctioned for charity each year; the gardens at the Tuscan estate Castello di Ama, which are dotted about with work from the likes of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Louise Bourgeois; the label on Tonnix, the own-brand wine at Hix Soho, which is an original Tracey Emin.
Still, you have to wonder how many of these collaborations would exist were it not for Bordeaux’s Château Mouton Rothschild, which has famously commissioned a different artist to design the label for its first wine every year since 1945. David Hockney, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud are just some of the great names who have designed Mouton labels over the years, helping to make the bottles as unique, and collectable, as the wine inside. This spring, five of these vintages will be brought together by Mouton Rothschild to create 100 limited edition cases, 75 of which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles. The quintet, which all sport labels by artists who have exhibited at Versailles, include some of the best vintages of the past 50 years: the stellar 2009, illustrated by Anish Kapoor; the 2010, with a label by Jeff Koons; and the 2005, designed by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone. The Versailles mandate means there are some curveballs in there too: the tricky 2007, with a label by Bernar Venet, and the notorious 2013 designed by the oenophile Lee Ufan.
“When Catherine Pégard, president of Versailles, proposed bringing together this quintet of wines, I immediately loved it,” says chairman and CEO of Mouton Rothschild, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild. “Versailles has so many layers – it’s famous for its architecture, art and gardens, and it’s also a fascinating representation of power.”
Successful bidders at the auctions in London, Hong Kong and New York will be welcomed at the estate in Pauillac, and also receive an invitation to a gala dinner at Versailles on September 21, where four celebrated Mouton vintages will be served. Three of those remain a secret, but the fourth, I can exclusively reveal, will be Mouton Rothschild 1945, perhaps the most sought-after Mouton vintage of all. The last time the family opened this wine for a public dinner was… well… so long ago that no one can actually remember. Harvested in the dying days of the second world war and illustrated, at Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s behest, with a Churchillian “V” to celebrate the allied victory, Mouton Rothschild 1945 commemorates a seismic moment in history, and also a fabulous year for Bordeaux: very hot, dry, almost drought-like, characterised by wines of exceptional concentration and longevity.
As any collector will know, the 1945 is also important because it’s the first in the artist-label series. The Frenchman who designed it, Philippe Jullian, was a complete unknown (in fact, he went on to become a playwright). But it paved the way for a tradition that the baron, his daughter Baroness Philippine and now her children, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, Camille Sereys de Rothschild and Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, have maintained ever since. Artists are never paid to design a Mouton Rothschild label (though they are recompensed in wine), and the approach to selecting them is, you could say, refreshingly unstrategic. “People always ask me, ‘Do you plan the artists you work with?’ And the answer is ‘No’,” says 55-year-old Sereys. “The whole collection is a huge disorganisation, really. There are no rules or objectives. It’s just about friendship and what we think is interesting.”
Most artists are thrilled to be asked. But a few have played harder to get. “My mother wanted Francis Bacon to do a label very much, but he didn’t reply to her letters. So she went to London and knocked on his door,” recalls Sereys. “Bacon didn’t want to answer or discuss the labels, but she was very stubborn, so she just sat down and waited. Eventually, he opened the door and she said, ‘Well, if you don’t want to discuss the labels, what are you doing today?’ And he said, ‘I was going to buy some socks.’ So my mother and Francis Bacon ended up going sock-shopping together.” Her persistence paid off in a gloriously nightmarish painting of a disembodied arm extending a goblet of wine. You can see it on the label for the 1990.
A lot of the early submissions were, rather hair-raisingly, just squirrelled away in the baron’s paperwork. It was Baroness Philippine who had the idea of pulling them altogether in an exhibition, which can now be viewed, by appointment, at the château. Seeing the finished artworks up-close is thrilling, but the miscellany is just as good – the brush used by Miró, still slick with paint; the note from Keith Haring asking, most politely, if the Rothschilds could get a bloody move on and decide whether they wanted to use his illustration or not.
Some artists created huge artworks – the 1994 design by Dutch painter Karel Appel is 1.5m x 1m at least. Others design them actual size: the dog-eared bit of card Georges Braque used looks a lot like a crumpled shopping list. David Hockney, true to form, drew his label for the 2014 on an iPad. Cerulean blue, with two wine glasses (one full, one empty) that seem to twinkle in West Coast sunlight, it is inscribed “in tribute to Philippine” in memory of the baroness, who finally got Hockney to design a label after two failed attempts by her father.
“Some artists give us several options,” says Julien, a former art dealer who now oversees the appointment of the artist each year. “And at some point I want to create an exhibit of those works that were never used.” One label that almost didn’t make it was the 1993 Balthus drawing of a young female nude. “It was banned in the US for being pornographic,” he recalls. “So we had to do two labels, one with just the background paper for America, and the other for the rest of the world.” The label for the 2010, featuring a Pompeii fresco of the birth of Venus graffitied by Jeff Koons, also raised a few eyebrows in the US.
But the man who made the estate what it is today, Philippe de Rothschild, was never afraid to ruffle feathers. It was he who campaigned successfully to get Mouton Rothschild promoted to the status of first growth (which he celebrated with a 1973 label featuring a Picasso). He also caused consternation when he commissioned the poster artist Jean Carlu to design a label for the 1924 – the art deco depiction of a ram and a clutch of arrows was not well received by the wine establishment and it would be 21 years before he commissioned another artist.
Many of the drawings, including Salvador Dalí’s gold-ink doodle, riff on the first growth’s famous emblem: the Augsburg ram (which the family chose partly because the baron was an Aries, and partly as a pun on the “Mouton” of Mouton Rothschild, which is thought to refer to the mounds, known as mothon in Old French, on which the estate sits). Bacchic themes also abound. But the artist is never given a brief. Lucian Freud supplied a study of a zebra and a pot plant.
Some of the labels are beautiful, some are intriguing and some just plain mystifying. But the very best have a way of cementing the wine in your palate, heart and head in a way that the liquid alone cannot. Over lunch, we taste the Anish Kapoor-designed 2009, a wine with a crimson halo and an inky-black centre so deep it would not look out of a place in a real Kapoor. Born of a long, warm growing season, the wine is silky, yet powerful, with masses of the exquisite blackcurrant fruit that this gravelly terroir is famous for. There’s a little smoke and fine, spicy tannin on the finish. As I savour the wine, I look at Kapoor’s painting of what could be a root, with its little hairs pushing down through the earth, and think about the burgeoning life under my feet.
Are there any artists that got away? “Basquiat,” replies Sereys. “And Louise Bourgeois – we never got the chance to ask her. I regret that very much.” Mouton Rothschild’s most recent signing was the South African multimedia artist William Kentridge, who is known for political work with a witty edge. His design for the 2016 vintage, a procession of dancing silhouettes entitled Triumphs of Bacchus, was meticulously torn by hand out of individual pieces of paper.
Mouton Rothschild won’t reveal the artist for the 2017 vintage until this autumn. “But I must say, this is one I’m particularly excited about!” says Sereys with a twinkle in his eye. I employ all my journalistic wiles to try and extract a name, but to no avail. For now, the Rothschilds are keeping this one in the family.