You should never judge a book by its cover. But sometimes, just sometimes, it pays to judge a wine by the label. Take the case of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and his life-affirming, mortgage-requiring Mouton bottling. On inheriting the modest estate in 1922, Philippe decided to forego the usual cursive-typography-and-sketch-of-the-chateau shtick in favour of a label more in line with his bohemian tastes.
The result was an impressionistic, hand-drawn label designed, for the world-beating 1924 vintage, by poster artist Jean Carlu. By 1945, Philippe had decided to let other artists in on the act, and soon the Mouton cellar collection rivalled that of a first rate gallery, only with a far more enjoyable gift shop: Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Dali, Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Joan Miró, David Hockney. (Even HRH the Prince of Wales deigned to lend a hand at one point).
To this day, the family maintains there is no official artistic brief, though a spokesman notes that “the vine, the pleasure of drinking, and intoxication prove a rich source of inspiration.”
There are other sources, of course. Things got particularly frothy in 1993 when Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (or Balthus to you) decided that the year’s crop was best personified by a line drawing of a nude, pre-pubescent girl, much to the outrage of the chateau’s American importers.
In a very Gallic ‘baise toi’ to the Yankee market, Philippine (the formidable daughter of Baron Philippe) decreed that the US labels should be left utterly blank. “The idea that it is kiddie porn is abominable,” the Baronness said in an interview. “So if it’s not Balthus, it’s nobody. Tant pis – too bad for them.” (It’s not clear who had the last laugh here – the blank labels now change hands for even greater sums than the Balthus versions.)
But what are the modern collaborations that might rival this ancient Bordelaise tradition? And how can you get your hands on these unexpected works of art?
Berry Bros. & Rudd
Berry Bros. & Rudd, the venerable St James wine merchants, have long adorned the labels of their Good Ordinary Claret with artistic renderings. The artwork on a limited 2014 bottling, by long time friend of Gentleman’s Journal Luke Edward Hall, was particularly lovely, with its happy tumble of dusty pastel shades and its aquiline portrait.
Equally fun was the most recent vintage, drawn by artist Kate Boxer (who happens to be Gentleman’s Journal columnist Jackson Boxer’s mother), which shows a St James dandy firing a pistol into the air. The GOC collaborations come in limited crops, so cases of them, bought in bond via BBR, tend to accrue value quite niftily.
Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, Australia
Based in Margaret River on Australia’s West Coast, Leeuwin Estate likes to reflect the heritage and flare of its winemaking with artistic labels of colour and character.
Their Art Label series tend to sell out quickly, usually thanks to the artists in question — most often much-hyped contemporary Austalian sensations. The wine itself it pretty punchy, too — the 2014 Chardonnay is a happy rival to any decent white Burgundy, with great structure and sliver of rich oak.
Gut Oggau, Burgenland, Austria
Each illustration on cult winemaker Gut Oggau’s bottles depicts a different member of the Tscheppe-Eselböck family who own the brand.
Local artist Jung von Mat creates new drawings for each vintage, and every one attempts to distill the life history of the individual into its characterful monochrome. Pleasingly, the labels now span three generations, from the founders down to their grandchildren. The wine is reliably superb, too.
Jolie-Laide Winery, California, USA
Jolie-Laide is French for ‘beautiful-ugly’, a rough and ready principle that these Californian winemakers hope applies to their process as much as their labels. But there’s nothing really ugly going on here — the artwork, like the wine, tends towards the beautiful end of the spectrum.
Their spring release this year features ten Californian artists in a vibrant burst of watercolour, ink and oils that illustrates perfectly the playful character of the wines inside.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild Versailles celebration cases
If these young pretenders don’t quite butter your parsnips, there’s always the grand originals. And why get one when you could have five? Throughout Spring, Sotheby’s will be auctioning off 75 limited edition cases of art-adorned Mouton Rothschild bottlings in celebration of the rich artistic history between the Palace of Versailles and the chateau.
All the money raised will go to the fund restoring the Palace — so you’ll be buying a work of art and repairing one at the very same time. The artists in question speak for themselves, and each one of them, rather pleasingly, has exhibited at the Palace of Versailles in their time: Giuseppe Penone fronts the 2005 bottling, with Bernar Venet on the 2007, Anish Kapoor on the 2009 vintage, Jeff Koons on the 2010, and Lee Ufan on 2013’s edition.
Now discover the 8 white wines that we’re drinking this year…