The Mouton Mystery

By: Stuart George

Stuart George tells the story of his purchase of a special wine from the cellar of a special house with special owners...

Faringdon House is a 14,510 square feet house in Faringdon, Oxfordshire, England. The house is Grade I-listed, protected as a “building of exceptional interest”.

It was built 1770–85 for Sir Henry James Pye, who was the then Poet Laureate (an honorary position appointed by the monarch of the United Kingdom).

Faringdon House was a remote, quiet country manor until Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, inherited it from an uncle in 1918.

From his youth, Berners was notorious for his eccentricity. Upon hearing that a dog could be taught to swim by throwing it into water, young Gerald decided that a dog could be taught to fly by being thrown out of a window. Happily the dog survived.

Lord Berners moved in to Faringdon House in 1931 with his companion Robert Heber-Percy, known as the “Mad Boy” for his uninhibited behaviour, which included horse riding naked through the surrounding woods.

Fictionalised as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love, Berners dyed pigeons in vibrant colours and entertained Penelope Betjeman's horse Moti to tea at Faringdon. Other visitors included the American writer Gertrude Stein; the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky; the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí; and the English author H. G. Wells.

Berners built the 140-feet tall Faringdon Folly in 1935, which still stands above the Vale of White Horse in Oxfordshire. He installed a sign that said, “Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.

Unexpectedly, in 1942 Heber-Percy married the 21-year old Jennifer Fry, who gave birth to their daughter Victoria in 1943. For a short time, mother and daughter lived at Faringdon House with Heber-Percy and Berners in an unconventional domestic arrangement. Fry separated from Heber-Percy in 1947 and later married the Calcutta-born poet and cricket writer Alan Ross.

In 1950, Lord Berners died and Robert Heber-Percy inherited Faringdon House, which was sold by his granddaughter Sofka Zinovieff (daughter of Victoria) in December 2017 and its contents auctioned in April 2018.

Among the contents to be sold was a single bottle of wine – Château Mouton Rothschild 1945.

Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 – a great wine

Coming at the end of World War II, the “victory vintage” in 1945 was a wonderful symbol of peace.

In his book Vintage Wines, former head of Christie’s wine department Michael Broadbent MW describes it as “arguably one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century [producing] long-lasting wines of the highest quality”.

Throughout France ungrafted, mature vines – none had been replaced during the War – gave the highest quality grapes. In Bordeaux, Mouton Rothschild, despite having an ill-equipped winery and being “only” a Second Growth, was particularly brilliant and is now acclaimed as one of the greatest wines of all time.

Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 is so exceptional that Broadbent gave the wine six stars (in a five-star rating system) in Vintage Wines, writing that “There is simply no other wine like it.” In June 2001, he reckoned that Mouton 1945 was “Seemingly tireless – indeed another half century anticipated.”

The US wine critic Robert Parker wrote of Mouton 1945, “A consistent 100-point wine (only because my point scale stops at that number), the 1945 Mouton Rothschild is truly one of the immortal wines of the century. This wine is easily identifiable because of its remarkably exotic, over-ripe, sweet nose of black fruits, coffee, tobacco, mocha, and Asian spices. An extraordinarily dense, opulent, and rich wine, with layers of creamy fruit, it behaves more like a 1947 Pomerol than a structured, powerful, and tannic 1945. The wine finishes with a 60+ second display of ripe fruit, extract, and sweet tannin. This remarkably youthful wine (only light amber at the edge) is mindboggling! Will it last another 50 years?”

After tasting Mouton ’45, the Financial Times’ wine correspondent Jancis Robinson MW wrote, “Great sheen and lightening now but great shaded ruby. Chocolate and rich rum toffees on the nose – halfway to a Vin Doux Naturel – almost rancio! Cleans up in the glass. Really sweet and intense and you can really see the relation with 1961 – a great hot concentrated vintage. With amazing depth. Made at the end of the war with Philippe in his prime. Very clean but amazingly rich and intense. Life and zest and lilies and treacle but great energy. So long and rich and peacock’s tail. So different from the elegance of the 1953 Lafite and much richer than the Latour 1961. 20/20 points.”

The art of fine wine

Broadbent described Mouton 1945 as “a Churchill of a wine”, and not just in reference to the wine itself, either.

An Art Deco label was commissioned from the poster artist Carlu for the 1924 Mouton vintage. To commemorate the end of the war, 1945 was the second vintage of Mouton to feature a bespoke label, based on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory”, by a young French artist called Philippe Jullian. Every vintage since, Mouton has enlisted an artist to design a new label. Although the artists are never paid for their work, they do receive ten cases of wine – five of that year’s vintage, plus five of their own vintage year.

In June 1993, the château’s then owner Baronne Philippine de Rothschild served the ’45 to more than 200 guests at a dinner. The idea was to pour magnums, of which only 1,475 were made. However, when a magnum was opened for inspection, the maître de chai decided that the wine was not yet ready and bottles were served instead. This is truly a wine built to last.

Doing diligence from a distance

At Vins Extraordinaires, we always advise that high-value bottles and cases should be inspected in person but it’s not always possible.

A full appraisal would include a personal inspection of the bottle to examine label colours and papers, printing processes, the colour of the wine, and if there is any sediment in the wine, as well as possibly sampling the wine and studying archival evidence to establish provenance – but that is another subject.

Owing to many other commitments, we were unable to inspect the bottle personally before the auction so we had to do due diligence based on the auctioneer’s images and condition reports to make an assessment of the bottle before bidding for it.

Label inspection

• Very damp-affected and not a pretty sight but correct for something that has been stored in a cool, damp country house cellar for half a century.

• The Mouton label format from 1945: Artwork at top; the ram emblem; declaration of the number of bottles produced; the proprietor's signature; the name of the wine; the year – all present and correct.

• The label should have two separate pieces, with the top “V” piece fractionally less wide than the main label – present and correct.

• From 1945 to 1958 the vintage appears below the ram emblem – present and correct, though here it’s damp-affected and with a small tear.

Glass bottle inspection

• Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 was bottled in a green, broad-shouldered bottle with the shoulders slightly wider than the base, so that the bottle tapers slightly towards the base – present and correct.

• The “75 cl” is seen on authentic examples.

Bottle fill level or ullage inspection

• The wine is at top shoulder level, which is a normal and a good level for wines over 15 years old. For wines over 20 years old, this demonstrates excellent storage conditions. For a 73-year old wine, it’s exceptional and shows the benefits of having been stored in a cool, damp country house cellar for half a century.

Capsule inspection

• All present and correct: Faded red, embossed at the top with “MOUTON ROTHSCHILD MEDOC” in circular uppercase and an “arrows” emblem in the centre, surrounded by an embossed circular line; “MIS EN BOUTILLE AU CHATEAU” is embossed on the capsule at the top of the neck; below this is a very faded embossed logo.

Mouton and modesty

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge commented, “people do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to”.

Muggeridge was writing about politics but his words are just as applicable to wine. People who are normally sensible can do silly things when confronted with an amazing bottle of old and rare fine wine.

You might want to believe that a bottle is genuine – but the facts will tell you otherwise. As the American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan said in 1965, “Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb.”

Could a fraudulent bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1945 have made its way into the cellar of Faringdon House 70 years ago? It’s not impossible but – based on the provenance and the forensics – it’s very unlikely. Although the vendor and auctioneer were unable to find evidence of exactly when and where the Mouton 1945 was purchased, it is believed to have been bought by either Lord Berners before 1950 or Robert Heber-Percy after 1950.

If you approach old and valuable bottles with diligence, integrity and – especially – humility, you will rarely get it wrong.

About The Author

Stuart George started his wine career 20 years ago working alongside Burgundy expert and former Christie’s Senior Consultant Anthony Hanson MW. A holder of the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits since 2000, Stuart has tasted vintages back to 1780. He was UK Young Wine Writer of the Year in 2003 before working with Hugh Johnson OBE at "The World of Fine Wine" magazine, which won several awards during his time there. Stuart founded Vins Extraordinaires in 2016.

Visit Stuart George's web site