Rothschild vs Rothschild, Mouton vs Lafite – as seen in 1893

On Bordeaux is an anthology of wine stories from 1833 to the present day. Here we reproduce an 1893 entry from the great comic writing duo Somerville and Ross, who travelled the Médoc one autumn with their notebooks, sketchpads and a new device they called ‘the Kodak’ for their only venture into wine writing – with hilarious and still familiar results

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

A postcard of the old Victorian Petit Mouton chateau
"We did not dare ask why the Baroness should have chosen the square modern type of villa, dear to the heart of the retired solicitor": Château Mouton-Rothschild in 1893

A couple of undulating miles brought us in sight of a comfortable-looking white stone villa, flanked by long outhouses, and surrounded by a small and phenomenally brilliant flower garden. The vineyards ran like a smoothly swelling sea round the borders of this island that had been preserved from their inroads; the blinds of the villa were drawn down, and it seemed to look with ‘a stony British stare’ upon the vintage operations going forward all day under its eyes. Monsieur Z told us that it had been built in imitation of an English villa by the Baroness de Rothschild, but we did not dare to ask why she should have chosen the square modern type, dear to the heart of the retired solicitor. We asked instead why it should be called Mouton Rothschild, and found that once, in the dark ages, the whole of this part of the wine country had been given over to sheep, and that consequently the word mouton had survived; but why it should be tacked on to the name of a family could not be explained. It would be neither kind or clever to call a newly built house in the neighbourhood of Limerick, Pig Robinson or Pork Murphy; but in France, Sheep Rothschild is a name held in uninquiring reverence by the négociant en vins.

Aerial photo of Chateau Mouton Rothschild today
Mouton today: the old residence is now Petit Mouton, framed by the chai and outhouses of Grand Mouton, whose construction began in 1960

We left the carriage, and proceeded with all dignity to the cuviers at the rear of the villa, while the hot and tawny vent d’Afrique blew suffocatingly in our faces and covered our white veils with yellow grit, and turned the most inviting shade to mockery. It was doubtless of such heat as this that the lady’s maid remarked to her mistress that it ‘quite reminded ’er of ’ell!’ But for all that, we had a kind of glory in it; it made us feel that we were really abroad, and that we should be able to bore our friends about the vent d’Afrique when we got home, in a manner that would surprise them. At this juncture we were halted in front of a palatial building of two storeys, and following our guide into it, we found ourselves in the twilight aisles of one of the great fermenting houses of the Médoc.

Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild
Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, wishing to serve his own wine to his prestigious guests, bought Château Brane-Mouton at auction in 1853, and changed its name to Château Mouton Rothschild
Cousins Edith Somerville (left) and Violet Florence Martin (aka Martin Ross) co-wrote 13 books. While the 1894 novel The Real Charlotte is considered their masterpiece, their most popular works were the series on the life of a rural Irish magistrate. In the Vine Country was their only venture into wine writing

Right and left stood the huge barrels on their white stone pedestals: belted monsters, spick and span in their varnished oak and shining black hoops, with a snowy background of white-washed wall to define their generous contour, and a neat little numbered plate on each to heighten their resemblance to police constables. This was an édition de luxe of winemaking – at least, so it seemed to us after what we had seen of dingy sheds, wine-stained barrels, and promiscuous rubbish, with magenta legs splashing about in juice, and spilt dregs as a foreground.

We were taken up a corner staircase to the upper floor, and were there received by the superhumanly well-bred and intelligent official who is invariably found in such places; we were also received and closely examined by the swarm of fat wasps that, in the cuviers, is fully as invariable, and rather more intelligent. No one seems to object to these wasps and their pertinacity; Monsieur Z and the manager merely gave a pitying glance in the direction of my cousin, when, in the middle of a most creditable question about the phylloxera, her voice broke into a shriek, and after a few seconds of dervish-like insanity, she brought up from the back of her neck the fragments of a wasp, and hurled them to the floor with a dramatic force that was quite unstudied. The wasps congregated most thickly about an arched opening in the wall, through which a crane poked its long, lean arm into the open air, and dangled its chain for the tubs full of grapes that were brought underneath it by the oxen. Up came each purple load, already battered and robbed of its bloom by the crushing and packing, with the bloated yellow wasps hanging on to it, and the long arm of the crane swung it round to the pressoir, which here was a broad truck on wheels. The method then became of the usual repulsive kind. The grapes were churned from their stalks in a machine, the juice ran in a turgid river round the pressoir, and, paddling in this, the bare-legged workmen shovelled the grapes into the cuves, whose open maws gaped through trap-doors in the floor. Other men packed the stalks into a machine like a pair of stays; when it was full, the tight-lacing began by means of a handle and cogged wheels, and when it was over, the stalks were taken out dry and attenuated, and flung from a window, with the cheerless prospect of being utilized at some future time as top-dressing for their yet-unborn brethren.

It is not only in wine that Mouton Rothschild is beaten by its nearest neighbour. In the matter of a château, Lafite scores still more decidedly

When we got into the carriage again we were crammed with information, and a silence as of indigestion settled upon us as we whirled along the hog-backed vineyard road to Château Lafite Rothschild. It is not only in wine that Mouton Rothschild is beaten by its nearest neighbour. In the matter of a château, Lafite scores still more decidedly; of that no one could have any doubt who saw this old country house, with its pointed towers, its terraced gardens with their ambushing perfumes that took the hot wind by surprise, its view over the soft country to other châteaux, and its delightful wood, where grassy walks wound away into the shadows. After these things, going to see the cuviers and the winemaking was like beginning again on roast beef after dessert; but the appetite came in eating. It was Mouton Rothschild over again, only more so; it could not be more dazzlingly smart than its kinsman, but it was larger: more outhouses and more imposing, a greater number of cuves, a more ambitious manner of regulating the temperature. We were truly and genuinely interested, but nonetheless were we penetrated by a sense of the gross absurdity of our pose as students of viticulture, while Monsieur Z and the manager of Château Lafite imparted fact upon fact antiphonally and seriously, without a shadow of distrust of our capabilities. Indeed, in all our vintage experiences we met with this heartfelt devotion to the subject, and this touching belief in our intelligence, and it was both a glory and a humiliation to us.

Lafite then and now: "The manager of Château Lafite imparted fact upon fact antiphonally and seriously, without a shadow of distrust of our capabilities."

Enfiladed thus by a crossfire of what might be called grape-shot, we progressed in fullest importance round the quiet nurseries of the claret for which such an incredible future of dessert-tables is in store, and entered at last the doorway of a long, low building. A few steps led downwards to another doorway, where a grave and courteous attendant presented us each with a candle placed in a socket at the end of a long handle, and unlocked a door into profound and pitchy blackness. It was like going to see the mummies at Bordeaux; it was even more like going into the cellar at home to look for rats, and my cousin’s skirts were instinctively gathered up and her candle lowered to the ground as the darkness closed its mouth upon us. It was cool and damp, it smelled of must and wine barrels, and in some way one could feel that it was immense. Our guides turned to the right without hesitation, into a gallery whose walls, from the sandy floor to the vaulted ceiling, were made of bottles of wine. We walked on, and still on, trying to take it in, while on either side the tiers of bottles looked at us out of their partitions with cold uncountable eyes, eye-browed sometimes, or bearded, with a fungus as snowy and delicate as crêpe lisse, on which the specks of dew glittered as the candle-light procession passed by.

‘There are here 150,000 bottles of claret,’ said the manager, with prosaic calm. ‘Some of them are a century old. This is the private cellar of Baron de Rothschild.’ 

‘He will not drink it all,’ said Monsieur Z; and we laughed a feeble giggle, whose fatuity told that we had become exhausted receivers. 

More and yet more aisles followed, catacombs of silence and black heavy air, but full of the strange life of the wine that lay, biding its time according to its tribe and family, in a ‘monotony of enchanted pride’, as Ruskin has said about pine trees.

We saw very little more of winemaking, when we got out again into the blustery heat, and crawled back to the carriage, feeling cheaper and more modern than we had done for some time. A new phase of sightseeing was in store for us, and one with which we were even less fitted to compete. The inner life of a French country house does not come within the scope of the ordinary tourist; and when, later in the afternoon, we were led up the curving and creeper-wreathed steps of a château, and ushered into an atmosphere of polished floors, still more polished manners, afternoon tea and a billiard table, there was only one drawback to perfect enjoyment of the situation. The ladies of the household – there were several of them – did not speak English…


The front cover of the new On Bordeaux book

In the Vine Country, by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross was published by W H Allen & Co (London) in 1893; this excerpt is reprinted in On Bordeaux, published by Academie du Vin Library Ltd (London) 2020.

To buy On Bordeaux at a special discount price of £25, click the link above and enter the code CLUB2020 on the checkout page