In praise of Philippe Dhalluin
Château Mouton Rothschild director – and all around great fellow – to retire
by Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
14 July 2020
“People in the north of France, they know Bordeaux wines. They love wine in general.”
I met Philippe Dhalluin, the director of Château Mouton Rothschild, last month while on a short visit to Bordeaux for Decanter Magazine. We met at Café Lavinal next to Château Lynch Bages for lunch to talk about the 2019 vintage when he broke the news to me. As I noticed the massive, new cruise ship like construction nearby, just the overground part of the impressive new cellar space at Lynch Bages, Philippe said: “I think it is time to go fishing”. Of course he does like to fish, but in announcing his retirement at the end of this year, he looks forward to indulging his keen interest in repairing and collecting classic cars, flying mini planes via remote control and cultivating a passion for physics, as in lab physics. He was coy about too much detail, but Philippe has serious scientific inquiry on his mind. And he is one of the nicest people I have ever met in Bordeaux: generous, smart, kind and a true bon vivant.
Winemaking did not run in the family, but wine drinking sure did. His father worked in the aviation industry near Lille, in northern France, but moved to Bordeaux because of the wines. “My father loved Bordeaux,” Philippe, 63, recalled. But what awakened his interest in wine was not Bordeaux at all. “It was a Châteauneuf du Pape 1970, which friends from Provence brought to our home. It really affected me. It was delicious and explosive.”
Philippe’s career with Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A. and such famous estates as Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Clerc Milon and Château d’Armailhac in Pauillac and Opus One in Napa Valley, among others, began nearly 20 years ago back in 2003. As much as he loves opulence, he increased the finesse of the mighty Mouton to match its customary richness. His first priority had been to improve grape selection, dividing the vineyards into parcels and even micro-parcels according to soil, microclimate and vine age. He oversaw the construction of a renovated vat room back in 2013. And critics have praised him justifiably for fine-tuning in the vat room, where the harvest is fermented, and in the cellar, where the wine ages. He has reduced the amount of toasted oak, for example, which can give wine a slightly heavier aspect.
In more recent vintages, he started picking earlier to maintain freshness, partly in reaction to climate change. And he has overseen changes not only at Mouton Rothschild but also at two other Pauillac properties belonging to Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A.: Château Clerc Milon and Château d’Armailhac, both ranked “Fifth Growths” from the celebrated and (almost) immutable 1855 Classification. As most readers know, Mouton Rothschild was promoted in 1973 to First Growth, in a very rare change.
Some 10 years ago, when I had interviewed Philippe for France Today at the Restaurant Saint Julien over another lunch, he said that the wines at Château Clerc Milon would get “better and better”. By 2011, in a brand new space, he had set up 40 fermentation tanks, one for each of the 40 hectares (100 acres) in production. The proof is in the pudding: Under direct management of Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy, who will be replacing Philippe at the helm starting in January next year, I recall tasting the best ever barrel sample of Château Clerc Milon, the 2016 vintage, proven again when tasted from bottle two years ago.
Philippe also improved Mouton Rothschild’s white wine, Aile d’Argent, which we enjoyed over Arcachon oysters. The 2019 had just been bottled, and it ranks among the best whites I have sampled in the 2019 vintage. “We harvested very early (5-11 September) because I wanted to avoid overripe aspects”, he explained. One gets the sense of a solar vintage with pineapple aspects, for example, but also lively citrus lends verve; a bit of white peach from the Semillon lends palate contour and full body.
Philippe spoke about another innovation under his watch. He had bottled half of the 2017 vintage in the Diam 30, the thickest Diam enclosure, and the other half in cork. Since the Diam enclosure works better, he uses only Diam for the white wine. He explained how the product is 95% organic and stuck together by natural beeswax. In any case, having tried a barrel sample in late May that Philippe kindly sent to my home in Strasbourg, and then trying it just bottled in Bordeaux, I am convinced that the Aile d’Argent counts among the best white wines of the 2019 vintage in Bordeaux.
Mouton and a great cheeseburger
But the pièce de résistance proved to be the carafe full of wine that Philippe had prepared for the main lunch course: violet in color with light bricking on the rim, it didn’t look older than 15 years, and I commented that it is a rather young wine. Philippe nodded in agreement. Engagingly rich aromas, with much black cherry and cassis along with hints of truffle, suggesting age. While tasting the wine, I recalled how the Château Latour 2005 and the Château La Conseillante 2005 – two fabulous wines in their own right – had started already to open up in recent experiences with both, so when I drank this Mouton, I was struck at just how pleasingly enveloping it was on the palate, but also displaying fine structure. There was some decadence to it, so I should have guessed correctly, but I went for 2005.
Nope! It turned out to be the… Château Mouton Rothschild 2009, which at Mouton, is terrific. It envelops the palate with layers of opulence, but with much vivacity. The long finish, with lift, conveys elegance, too. Too often people generalize about a vintage and associate 2009 with, say, 2003, but they are very different. Sure, 2010 is often compared to the 2009 as having more freshness, but the best 2009s also have freshness, and Mouton Rothschild is no exception. Paired with a quality cheeseburger, kudos to Café Lavinal, it was brilliant. And hard to keep away for too long… Philippe noticed an old friend and his wife at a table nearby and shared some of the wine with them, too.
Philippe’s first wine job after his oenology studies at Bordeaux University in 1982 was at the famous Tacama vineyard in Peru, one of the first vineyards of South America, and the oldest in that country. “After my studies, many places offered me work,” he remarks. So why Peru? “It is an extraordinary area; we had the impression of being in another world,” he had told me. “The French expression for anyplace exotic is ‘C’est le Pérou,’” he explains. He also liked the idea of working with soils different from those of the Old World. “I found a way to see what the soil could offer to people in terms of wine, and I am passionate about geology. Certainly there are great places in California and Australia, but Peru was less well known.”
From 1982 to 1985, he worked with Emile Peynaud, the father of modern French winemaking, who was Tacama’s consultant. “He was a living encyclopedia and I drank his words,” recalls Dhalluin. “We had a good relationship, and I benefited enormously from his instruction.” After he returned to Bordeaux, and before his work with Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., Philippe worked at Château Beaumont in Haut Médoc, where he first met Jacques Boissenot, the famous oenologist who had been a consultant to some 180 estates in Bordeaux, including Mouton Rothschild, until his death in 2014. Since the death of Jacques, Philippe (and many others in Bordeaux) work with son Eric Boissenot, who continues his father’s style of excellent consultation. “Boissenot emphasized the need for balance and freshness, to exude aromatic complexity. He has been a formidable influence to me,” Philippe said of Jacques Boissenot. And it shows in the vintages Philippe crafted at both the estates of Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., and at his previous assignment from 1988 to 2002 at Château Branaire Ducru.
The then owner of the celebrated classified growth in Saint Julien, Patrick Maroteaux, hired him as winemaking director. Sadly Patrick has since passed away, but he had told me on several occasions that “Philippe really put Branaire Ducru back on the map.” Indeed, Patrick and Philippe worked together to renovate the château and to rework the soils, which provided a fine platform for Jean Dominique Videau, who has been working at Branaire Ducru since Philippe left. Philippe emphasizes the excellent terroir of Branaire Ducru that is sometimes overlooked by many wine buyers. Indeed, the 2019 vintage of Branaire Ducru is one of the best price/quality ratios en primeur.
In more recent years with Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., Philippe oversaw reconstruction new cellar facilities at Mouton Rothschild and Clerc Milon, with the next step at Château d’Armailhac. When I asked him back in 2010 where he would be in 10 years, he was unsure, but he hoped that Mouton by 2020 will be “absolutely, perfectly equipped” and that “Clerc Milon will be appreciated by the world.” Certainly he has achieved these goals and the same can be said for Château d’Armailhac, which will improve even more with its new facilities next year.
As we approached the end of our lunch, Philippe and I enjoyed a delectable strawberry mascarpone. It was one of those lovely French lunches that lasted a couple of hours, but he needed to go, and I was heading to an appointment at Château Montrose in Saint Estèphe to assess their 2019 barrel samples.
As much as I wish Philippe well in his future endeavors, I will miss his jovial, easy going manner, blended with professionalism. One thing is certain: he has found an excellent replacement in Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy. Visiting the estates will be just great.