As has been widely reported, Chateau Mouton Rothschild last week confirmed that its wine label for the 2008 vintage has been produced by a Chinese artist - namely Xu Lei, artistic director of Today Art Museum, Beijingís leading contemporary art gallery, and a graduate from the prestigious Nanjing Academy of Fine Arts.
I wrote the story for Decanter ( http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/508516/xu-lei-confirmed-as-mouton-2008-artist ) but thought I would go into a little more detail about how the artists are selected, and why Mouton is very much not jumping on the 'must get to China' bandwagon'.
Most importantly, the label was not chosen by the management committee of Mouton, but entirely by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, as she does every year - and as of course her father did before her. I spoke with her on Saturday (by telephone) about her selection process, and she is very clear about her reasoning. 'I would never put an artist on the label unless I very much like their work, that is first and foremost my reasoning for selecting an artist. For this year, I was helped by the very charming Michael Goedhuis (an art dealer based in London and New York who specialises in Asian contemporary art www.goedhuiscontemporary.com) who suggested several suitable artists to me, and I made the decision from there.'
It is worth pointing out that this is not the first time Mouton Rothschild has featured a Chinese artist on the label . Way back in 1996, before many of the classified growths of Bordeaux were even clocking up their Cathay Pacific airmiles getting over to Hong Kong and China, Baroness Rothschild asked renowned Chinese calligropher Gu Gan to create the label.
Gu Gan has several works on display in the British Museum, and several of his paintings are reflections on the political and economic reforms in China over the past few decades. He now lectures on modern Chinese calligraphy and is president of the Society of Modern Calligraphy and Painting. During a long period spent in Europe, he visited Mouton in 1996 and created, in the Baroness' words, 'a beautiful, rather sombre calligraphic label. I felt, 15 years ago now, that it was the right time to ask a Chinese artist.'
The 2008 label by Xu Lei is a figurative reworking of the classic Mouton emblem with a delicate ink drawing that depicts the famous ram standing between two halves of the moon. 'I like that is is figurative and abstract' said Baroness Rothschild. 'You can't be sure exactly what he wanted to express, and that gives it a haunting quality.' Unlike Gu Gan, Xu Lei did not visit Mouton in person, but studied the previous labels that had been created, and learnt about the wine through drinking it, and understanding the role that art has played in its character. Interestingly, Madame de Rothschild says, 'By looking at all that, an artist will understand what Mouton is. For me, the link between creating art and making wine is obvious. It is as important to me as it was to my father ever since 1945.'
The Mouton Rothschild Artists label series began in 1924, and has seen a new label created every year since 1945. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Prince Charles have all featured. And, however noble the reasoning behind the selection of artist this year, it has certainly had an effect on prices. When speculation of a Chinese artist first surfaced in late 2009, the price immediately moved upwards from the opening £1800 per case to around £2200. Right now that seems like a bargain Ė recent weeks have seen the 2008 vintage trading at between £8,000-£10,000 per case.