Art and wine: a marriage as old as time
Art and wine is a marriage as old as time. From the adorned ceramic pots of ancient Greece, right the way through to the contemporary paintings of Frankie Thorpe, artisans globally have tried to capture the often unquantifiable appeal of great wine.
In the present day there’s been more of a mesh between the two mediums than ever before. At the upper end, we see top class estate’s such as Lafite Rothschild marrying the two forms through their annual photographer commission. In the everyday the ever-popular natural wine movement is famous for its producers who often turn to eye-catching labels to draw in the grapethirsty masses. Of course, we are told to never judge a book by its cover, but today wine-estates are growing more aware of the importance of how something looks on a shelf or on a table, and in the case of investment-grade wine, the influence of a special edition label or bottle can even impact its value on Liv-ex (the fine wine exchange).
But whilst playful labels are something that seems particularly zeitgeisty when it comes to wine these days, it’s actually a trend that many estates having been going for decades. Leading the movement is the Pauillac-based Chateau Mouton Rothschild, whose label commissions are almost as famed as the wine itself.
Since 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild have been commissioning a mixture of emerging and leading contemporary artists to respond to a particular vintage. Marking the end of World War II with perhaps one of the most iconic vintages in recent memory, the legendary chateau set out on commissioning the Bordeaux illustrator Phillipe Jullian to create a label that celebrated the allied victory. From here this marked a new era for the estate, as an organisation that not only created some of the most coveted wine in the world, but who nourished and platformed artists that shared their passion.
Counting names such as Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Keith Haring, David Hockney and more within their portfolio of great designers, Mouton Rothschild’s labels reveal a fascinating timeline into (particularly European) art history, mapping out works by leading artists from specific points in time. We have picked a few of our favourites below.
The Universe of Mouton, Chiharu Shiota, 2021
Featuring a squashy cluster of cellular looking balloons, the 2021 label commission by Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was immediately met with mixed reactions by the Cru Wine team as we weren’t initially sure what it was supposed to depict. Created by leading performance artist Chiharu Shiota, The Universe of Mouton perfectly translates her physical works onto paper, featuring her trademark string motifs which wriggle throughout her sculptural pieces.
Shiota’s practice is so often concerned with the tentative balance between power and control, as she continually explores how our experiences of life, death, and relationships all tangle together. In The Universe of Mouton she depicts a figure holding onto four pieces of string, all of which represents the four seasons and act as a sobering reminder of our dependency on nature’s whims, and the fragility of this relationship.
Many critics and wine experts tout 2021 as a relatively lacklustre vintage for Bordeaux due to the difficulties of harvest. This particular year saw washes of extreme frost as well as a particularly scorching summer, resulting in a vintage that failed to live up to the prestige of previous years. Shiota’s 2021 label therefore couldn’t be a more perfect fit, as this vintage shows us that the quality of our produce is so often left to the hands of mother nature.
The Augsburg Ram, Special Millennium Bottling, 2000
With the title of “Mouton” deriving from the old French word “motte” which translates to little hill, Mouton-Rothschild’s charming name actually takes cues from its rolling landscape, and not the fluffy friend of which it is associated with today. But for years the estate has formed a close link to this animal, as seen through the two rams that feature on its crest, as well as the acquisition of the famous Augsburg Ram (1590) that sits pride of place within the estate’s art collection.
Due to its links to the famous First Growth estate, in the wine world the ram is a symbol that embodies excellence. Throughout the years many artists have paid attribute to it on their labels, including the dancing sheep in Keith Haring’s 1988 label, to the wrestling bucks of Miquel Barcelo’s 2012 work. But perhaps the most famous representation amongst Mouton-Rothschild’s collection can be found in relief on its 2000 bottling.
Going against the usual tradition of commissioning a leading artist to respond to the estate, to mark the turn of the millennium Mouton-Rothschild enlisted master glassblowers BSN to create a special bottle that features a replication of the Augsburg Ram on its side. To this day it exists as one of the most coveted bottles of wine in the world, with prices reaching upward of £10,000! When a bottle of wine looks this spectacular, I’d almost be too scared to drink it. Almost.
Bacchanale, Pablo Picasso, 1973 (originally 1959)
Much like the 2000, the 1973 label by Pablo Picasso breaks away from the estate’s regular habit of commissioning a contemporary artist, and is perhaps one of the most (or arguably most) famous artists on the list. Originally created in 1959 by Picasso, Bacchanale was selected by his wife, Jacqueline, to feature on the 1973 label as a celebration of the late artist’s life. However, whilst drawing on the end of a chapter for one of art history’s most notable figures, the label also represents a new beginning for the famous estate, as 1973 was the first year that it was promoted to First Growth status.
Featuring a crowd of frenetically dancing figures, it would appear as if Picasso’s characters may have indulged a little too much. However, when discovering that Mouton-Rothschild is the only ever Bordeaux estate to have changed its ranking within the 1855 classification, this unwavering hedonism seems completely appropriate to me.