In Excelsis: Château Latour 1887 – 2010
BY NEAL MARTIN | JULY 3, 2018
Having toured through the five First Growths in my “Bordeaux In Excelsis” article, I now turn the spotlight onto Château Latour. Though the “first” in “First Growth” denotes Latour’s official status as per the 1855 Classification, personally speaking, the word has alternative meanings.
Château Latour is the first estate I ever visited...
Trip one. Day one. Visit one. It must have been around summer 1997. Memories are vague, although I can remember touring the vat-room with my Japanese employers watching women wrap each bottle ensuring that the tower emblem was visible. Most people wait years to visit a First Growth. This twenty-something was clearly on the fast-track program.
Château Latour is the first First Growth I ever tasted...
The 1958 Latour to be exact – lunch at pinstriped, royally approved merchant Justerini & Brooks. My heart skipped a beat as I sat down and read the menu. I had waited a long time to pop my First Growths cherry and presumed it would never happen since I could ill-afford the prices, even back then. Then the 1958 Latour was served. It was perfectly respectable for an off vintage and two decades on, it remains my solitary encounter.
Château Latour is the first wine I ever awarded a perfect score...
The1961 Latour at Avenue restaurant in Soho hosted by my friend Claire and a mutual Japanese pal. The bottle was standing on the table when I arrived, a double-take upon spotting the vintage, our munificent host informing the ullaged bottle had come with commensurate discount and cost a couple of hundred quid. The level made no difference. Upon inhaling the bouquet, I immediately knew I had entered a different realm to anything I had consumed before. It ticked all the criteria outlined in my previous article on what makes a ‘perfect’ wine. Dumbfounded by its structure and ineffable complexity, it redefined what wine could be and duly jotted down my first 100-point score.
Over my career I have composed several articles on Latour, though not one in recent years. So, here I will detail its history, the vineyard and vinification, and review almost 40 vintages culled from two separate tastings spanning a dozen decades, both iconic and forgotten, in order that Vinous readers have up-to-date information on how the wines compare and how they are evolving. The purview is historical and my intention is to pen a companion piece that will focus on modern vintages and techniques. This article dwells on how Latour came to be. Readers are free to skip this section if they wish however, many events and techniques from the past relate to the present day. Moreover, the article explains the background to some of the wines in this report, placing them within context of what was happening at the property at the time. It also answers the question: “Was there any Syrah planted at Latour?”
Chateau Latour enters the annals of history with Froissart's account of a three-day siege in 1378 during the Hundred Years’ War when the English soldiers of pro-Plantagenet Sir John Neville managed to capture a two-story quadrangular tower, part of a line of defence to protect the Gironde Estuary from sea-faring pirates. It was named after the parish La Tor de Sent-Maubert. The proximity of an ancient well indicates that the site of the tower was probably located where the chai stands today. The original fort was destroyed, possibly during a second siege in 1453 at the Battle of Castillon, when it served as a refuge for the retreating troops of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. It may come as some surprise that viticulture existed so long ago in the pages of history. But trade flourished in wine between the English and French, fostered by favourable tax exemptions for English and northern European markets, implemented as far back as Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1188. Records suggest that at that time, perhaps one-fifth of the land at Saint-Maubert was under vine, planted in strips of cereal and pasture as described in contractual documents between one of the owners, seigneur Amanieu de la Motte and a Bordeaux merchant. Payments were to be made in “ vinclar” i.e. free run wine from Saint-Maubert and La Motte, sourced from numerous tenant farmers rather than a single vineyard. The document also mentions “new barrels”, indicating that the merchant may have intended to ship the wine to England.
During the 15th century, the motives of feudal leasehold system changed from subsistence to profitability, ergo many estates were amalgamated under a single ownership. In the case of Saint Maubert, it was affluent merchant Arnaud de Mullet and his son Denis who became the dominant proprietors. Records show that Denis expanded the estate with forty land deals, usurping cereal with vine. After Denis de Mullet died in 1660, the estate eventually passed into the hands of Jean-Denis Daulède, proprietor of Château Margaux, and there followed itinerant owners during the 17th century. Ultimately the marriage of Marie-Thérèse Coutant to Alexandre de Ségur in 1695 led to a stable proprietorship whereupon it formed a substantial part of his fiefdom. When Alexandre de Ségur died in 1716, the estate passed to his son Nicolas Alexandre de Ségur, the so-called “The Prince of Vines”. He acquired yet more auspicious tracts of vineyard, including what is now Calon-Ségur and Mouton-Rothschild. The estate was valued at two million livres when he died in 1755: Lafite-Rothschild at 700,000 and Latour 500,000. In terms of vine plantings, annual production and number of employees, Latour lagged behind Margaux and Lafite. Nevertheless, a report in 1755 listed Latour as one of only four properties whose wines secured over 900 livres à tonneau – the others were Lafite, Haut Brion and Cantenac. In this period, the Bordeaux merchants governed the trade and influenced estates’ reputation, many of whom had neither the means nor desire to age the wines themselves, notwithstanding the desire for a quick return on their latest harvest. Therefore, most of the production was sold across the Channel to England and Ireland.
Latour passed into the hands of Nicolas Alexandre de Ségur's four daughters. The eldest daughter, Marie-Thérèse was already married and her share passed to her son. The other three: Angélique-Louise, Marie-Antoinette-Victoire and Charlotte-Emilie were all betrothed to counts, absentee landlords who preferred to spend their time in Paris, ergo during this period the estate was not looked after. Thankfully in 1775, the first of the great régisseurs was appointed. Marc-Antoine Domenger put Latour’s affairs back in order. During this early period within Bordeaux’s history, the estate produced a deuxième vin that comprised around one-fifth of the crop and a white wine, phased out during the end of the century. Another point to note is that records show the highest prices were paid for early-harvested vintages between 1774 and 1824 and less for those cropped in October. Fortuitously, Latour was not confiscated during the Revolution and made a bien nationale, unlike Margaux and Lafite, although one share owned by Comte de Ségur-Cabanac was sold off. However, the loss of trade with the vital English market and embargo against Bordeaux wine merchants impacted Latour. In fact, none of the 1789 vintage was sold to the English and by 1794 the estate’s coffers were empty. Matters improved when Latour began circumventing the embargo by selling wine to the English via neutral countries, whilst the appointment of tenacious régisseur Poitevin ensured the vineyard was cared for. At this time, fermentation was relatively short, often only lasting one week, whole bunches and partial chaptalization were employed in 1816, though the régisseur concluded that: “only mediocre results will ever be obtained”. The estate also used new oak, employing two coopers to make the barrels on site and supplemented by acquisitions from Bordeaux. The common view was that wine required extended oak ageing. In 1805, Poitevin recommended as much as six years. Bottling at the châteaux was rare: just a barrel of the 1796 with a butter-fingered cooper breaking a dozen bottles on the way to Bordeaux!
During the first half of the 19th century, Latour consolidated its position as one of the greatest Bordeaux wines, despite their régisseur Lamothe becoming embroiled in the lengthy lawsuit concerning a serious misappropriation of wine and embezzlement. The litigation did not come to a close until a guilty verdict was found in 1849, fourteen years after Lamothe’s death, though in a footnote, Penning Rowsell defends Lamothe as a conscientious, hard-working régisseur who was perhaps tempted to “take a bit on the side” to compensate for his poor remuneration and unappreciative absentee landlords. The 1820s and 1830s witnessed a string of mediocre vintages and, coupled with the post-Restoration protectionist policy, profits fell in relative terms. In 1830, a severe winter meant that a paltry 12 tonneaux were produced. Ensuing economic malaise left Latour with a severe liquidity problem.
Cue the merchants to step in and solve Latour’s problems. Barton, Guestier and Johnston wrested 29 of 144 shares from the Paris-based proprietors, descendants of the de Ségur family. In the end, the estate was put up for auction on 4th August 1841, with a reserve at 1.2 million francs and a closing price of 1,511,000 francs, successfully bid by Comte Léon de Beaumont. Burdened with huge repayments to the merchants, the sale resulted in Latour becoming one of the first limited companies or société civiles in France. In order to guarantee income, Latour agreed to a ten year abonnement, whereby Barton & Guestier agreed to purchase the entire crop for 1,750 francs per tonneau from 1844 to 1853 irrespective of quality, a deal that in hindsight favoured merchants not proprietors. Forcing the vines to struggle to produce quality fruit was a tenet even at this stage since the contract stipulated that only 1/20th of the vineyard could be fertilized with manure.
In 1838, the Comte de Beaumont wrote a report that stated: “I hope that Latour will soon resume the rank that severe negligence lost, in only a few years.” After the Lamothe affair, the co-proprietors became more personally involved in the running of the estate, appointed administrators to preside over affairs and spent several weeks at Latour during the harvest. They visited neighbouring vineyards, modernized the vat-room and installed a vineyard drainage system in 1848 and 1850. Most importantly, between 1838 and 1850 they set about purchasing adjacent vineyards whose fruit sold for a fraction of Latour’s. During this period, 271 rows of vines were absorbed into the estate, including 10.5-hectare lieu-dit of “Petit Batailley”, “Les Trillots” and “le Plantey Blanc”. Perversely, to prove that potentially inferior vines would not be blended into the Grand Vin, those vines were planted with white grape varieties. For example, “Les Trillots” was not planted with Cabernet or Merlot, but Syrah and Aramon, though admittedly their tenure was brief! During the 1840s Latour had no option but to invest in the vineyard and increase annual production. Yet, given with the negative financial impact of abonnement, Latour’s proprietors faced more financial travails: rising wages for workers, materials for equipment and so forth. In July 1852, the régisseur “Boutet” discovered oïdium amongst some of the young vines at Latour, a year after being first reported in the Gironde and after initial reservations they began to use sulphur on the vines from 1861.
The contract with Barton & Guestier ended in 1853. Until phylloxera, Latour enjoyed a golden age of high prices and production. For example, the reputed 1865 vintage produced 126 tonneaux that fetched 5,600 francs per tonneau. The flush of income allowed the estate to finally build a château. Hitherto there was a modest accommodation for the régisseurs that Lamothe rather pithily described as “the abode of a simple peasant”. In 1860, the architect Duphot drew up three drafts for a house worthy of a First Growth with the modest mansion of eight principal rooms completed in 1864. Unfortunately, the cellar was flooded with three feet of water! Château-bottling began in the 1860s contemporaneous with a realization that they needed to authenticate their bottles and therefore the wax capsules were printed with a seal and the label we recognize today was introduced in the mid-1870s.
The spectre of phylloxera lay just around the corner. First recorded in France in 1863, phylloxera knocked on Latour’s door in the summer of 1880. Science had not really penetrated viticulture in those days, for in the same year Latour’s employees were permitted a day’s leave to join a religious procession to ward off pernicious pests. The estate managers tried to remedy the vineyard with carbon-biosulphide and sulphocarbonate of potassium, any measures to obviate grubbing up sacred vines and replacing them with American rootstock. The merchants, faced with a vanishing trade, coerced the Great Growths to replant their vineyards and went so far as to stipulate that they would not accept wine from un-grafted vines. Replanting began on a small scale at Latour in autumn 1888, but progressed painfully slow and it was not until the turn of the century that they had consigned themselves to replanting the entire estate. Until 1900, the Grand Vin consisted entirely of fruit from original French vines and it was not until 1920 that the Grand Vin was made from re-grafted vines.
One must not forget the mildew epidemic, which, combined with the First World War, led to the complete loss of the 1915 vintage. If that was not enough, there were anthracnose, flea beetles and cochylis to contend with, so one must view this period as not just a fight against phylloxera, but a miasma of pernicious diseases. Yet production did not decrease at Latour during phylloxera and its ensuing replanting program. Thanks to new techniques and manuring the vineyard, production increased by approximately 20% between the 1850s and 1920s. Modernization included a drainage system installed between 1886 and 1890, when nearly 12 miles of piping was laid, wiring the vineyard to replace wooden stakes, the reconstruction of the buildings (obliged by a fire in 1892), a modernized cuvier where wooden presses were substituted by cement tanks, and the installation of electric lights and improved access from the river and roads.
Under the régisseur Jouet, Latour adopted a more analytical approach to their wines. One record from 1907 reports that the analysis had 10.7% alcohol, contradicting those who claim ancient clarets had similar alcohol levels to today. The 1908 vintage was the first to be completely chaptalized, though Latour refrained from pasteurization like many Classed Growths. During World War I, Latour found no problem in hiring pickers for the harvest since many of the factories in Bordeaux had closed. Records show that during the war, Latour were able to carry out about three-quarters of procedures in the vineyard, though it became difficult to obtain sulphur, their line of defence against mildew. One of the difficulties Latour faced was the popularity of vins ordinaires. After all, who would fret about the quality of Grand Vin when your nation was at war? Ordinary wine was in great demand by the troops at the front line, its alcoholic virtues more important than its nuances.
Looking up towards the winery from the Juillac. The gravel croupe and the coarse gravel deposits that distinguish the vineyard are easily visible
The 1920s is regarded as one of the greatest decades of the century. The running of the estate became more business-orientated, the paternalistic nature of the family proprietors towards their often loyal and long-serving workforce ebbed away and philanthropic gestures such as the funding of a local school in Pauillac were rescinded. The decade also witnessed the first obligatory château-bottling in the 1924/25 vintage, initiated by Baron Philippe de Rothschild and mutually agreed with the other First Growths and Yquem. Financially the estate’s situation improved, buoyed by healthy sales of the 1928 and 1929 vintages at 20,000 francs per tonneaux. Yet the 1930s lay on the horizon. The Great Depression took two or three years to impact Latour, stagnating sales compounded by stringent trade restrictions and the loss of entire markets such as Russia. Latour was spared more than most thanks to prudent financial management in the previous decade, yet funds began to dwindle, though not enough to resort to borrowing money from the banks
The German occupation during the Second World War placed many serious challenges in front of every Bordeaux estate, albeit to varying degrees. Latour was fortunate since its senior staff remained at the estate instead of being drafted, although there was a shortage of men, and some staff was brought out of retirement. This shortfall in manpower meant that instead of being able to spend time in the vineyard, the estate rectified wines with more sulphating in the winery. The Germans imposed restrictions on sulphur, which meant that little could be used in the vineyard to protect vines from oïdium and mildew. In terms of German occupation and vandalism, it can be said that Latour escaped the worst. As you would expect, German forces focused their pillaging and wanton destruction on Jewish-owned estates such as the Rothschilds. After the war there was no sudden uptake in demand that could have potentially snapped up the tiny production of 1945 – just 54 tonneaux. Trade restrictions remained in situ, the currency was devalued and despite great vintages such as 1947 and 1949, fine wine trade was effectively paralyzed by post-war austerity. It was not until the end of the decade that trade began to meliorate.
During the first half of the 1950s, renewed interest in fine wine meant that by 1955 Latour was making a healthy profit. The devastating spring frosts in February 1956 saw three weeks during which temperatures dived to -16° Celsius. Because of its advantageous geographical position Latour’s vines were mostly spared, even though productivity was curtailed for the next two years. During the decade of the1950s the estate was cautious in terms of investment, and only installed two new presses and an electric pump, choosing to replace equipment only when necessary. Latour was unacquainted with progress, something to bear in mind as Jean-Bernard Delmas was over at Haut-Brion installing futuristic-looking stainless steel vats in 1961.
On 3rd April 1962, the President of the estate, Comte Hubert de Beaumont announced to his six administrators that a financial group had approached him apropos purchasing Latour: Harveys of Bristol. o the chagrin of one of its directors, the great Harry Waugh, the Harveys group deemed the asking price of Fr 65,000 per share, as too high. The approach came to the attention of Pearsons, who owned the Financial Times and were seeking to diversify their interests. The deal was finalized despite initial protests from the French Minister of Finance. A seething President de Gaulle is said to have quipped: “Pearsons could hardly remove the soil.” The formal transfer meeting took place on 22nd January 1963, when the administrators resigned from the board, although 25 of the 155 shares remained in the family’s hands. They appointed new managers, including a new régisseur, Henri Martin who had built Château Gloria, and Jean-Paul Gardère. A survey was commissioned and the area under vine was reconstituted throughout the decade. “La Pindad” and “Petit Batailley”, which had hitherto been scrubland, were planted with vines to be the source for a second label. Moreover, outmoded machinery and equipment was replaced, including the wooden vats. Just one day before the 1964 harvest, twelve inert stainless-steel vats came into production. Even then, they were rather forced into use. Three were found to be defective during the 1963 vintage, one collapsing with the loss of 4 to 5 tonneaux of wine. At least it was not the 1961.
In 1966, Château Latour introduced a second label: Les Forts de Latour. Unlike Lafite-Rothschild, Latour opted not to release the wine until it was ready for drinking, which meant not until 1972. Initially Les Forts was sourced from vineyards outside ‘L'Enclos,’ but eventually it came to incorporate the youngest vines within the Enclos as well. Improvements continued in the vineyard and in the cuverie however, the estate suffered like others during the early 1970s with the fallout from the oil crisis. During the 1980s the estate rebounded with lauded wines such as the 1982 and consolidated its position at the apex of Bordeaux. In March 1987, Hugh Johnson joined the Board of Directors, along with David Orr, who had been director at Cockburn’s, Jean-Michel Cazes of Lynch-Bages and John Kolassa, who later managed Rauzan-Ségla and Canon. In 1989, the estate was sold to “Allied-Lyons” who already owned one-quarter of shares through Harveys, paying £58 million for a further 53%, then a further 14.5% so that they owned a total of 93.2% of the estate. The new owners enjoyed back-to-back successes with the 1989 and 1990 vintages, the latter the first to witness a third label entitled “Pauillac de Latour”. In addition, a small amount of rosé wine was produced for private consumption, around 400 cases. (I spied a few cases on my aforementioned inaugural visit and I was told not to mention its existence.)
Then of course came the pernicious spring frosts on April 20th and 21st 1991. At Château Latour it persisted for 10 hours and damaged between 5% and 80% of the budding shoots, but proximity to the Gironde meant that only 27% was lost in L’Enclos. Compare this to Pichon-Lalande, which lost 80% of its crop, and you can see exactly why terroir makes such a difference in a poor growing season. In May 1992, Comte Philippe de Beaumont passed away, severing the final link with the families that inherited the estate after the death of Marquis de Ségur in 1755. In June 1993, the present owner, French industrialist François Pinault bought Château Latour for £86 million. I have heard from several sources that with other bidders circling, he made the offer late on Friday evening on condition that any agreement would be signed on the dotted line the following Monday, out-maneuvering others who were slow off the mark and intent on drawn-out negotiations. With deep financial pockets, Pinault instigated a major rebuilding of the château building with no expense spared. Frédéric Engerer, who attended business school with Pinault’s son François-Henri, joined the estate in 1995 and took over its entire running three years later. Major reconstruction work commenced in November 1999 in the cellars and vat-room, excavating deep into the Gironde landscape to construct a state-of-the-art vat-room, subterranean storage facilities and a brand, new tasting room. In retrospect it can be seen as the first of the Grand Cru Classé restructuring their estates in preparation for the modern-age of Bordeaux, a trend that continues to this day. The rebuilding was completed in September 2003.
Since then, under Engerer, there have been considerable developments in terms of vineyard husbandry, the conversion to organic and biodynamic viticulture, the winemaking, their withdrawal from en primeur inter alia, but I will detail that at a later time.
Château Latour is the most southerly vineyard in the most blue-blooded commune: Pauillac. There is no imperious façade looming over the road. The winery is tucked away out of sight, while the iconic dome Tour of Saint Lambert dome peeks bashfully over the horizon as the land dips down towards the Gironde. The long straight driveway leads gently down to the main château-building housing the chai, the offices and tasting room, the vineyard dipping downward towards the Juillac tributary, rising up again as Léoville Las Cases on the other side.
Since considerable expansion in the early sixties, the estate has grown so that there are presently 92 hectares under vine, 47 of which surround the château and are known as ‘L’Enclos”, or the heart of Latour. This gravel croupe rises to around 16 metres above sea level, lower than either Lafite-Rothschild or Mouton-Rothschild, which ascend up to 27 metres above sea level, as there was a second tectonic plate movement during the Günzian period that tilted the terrace of Latour downwards. Erosion by streams during the Quaternary period simultaneously exposed more gravel beds at Latour and improved drainage. More important than piffling metres in altitude is the proximity of the vines to the estuary, 300 metres at its closest, advantaging Latour in terms of moderating temperatures, either too hot (2003) or too cold (1991).
Anyone walking through the vines will notice the detritus of comparatively larger stones than other properties, geologically referred to as coarse gravel, approximately 10-12cm long and 6-7cm wide. The only estates with similarly sized pebbles are Montrose and, as its name suggests, Ducru Beaucaillou. These gravel stones are embedded in a soil composite with poor siliceous matter, but with a relatively high ferrous content. Beneath the gravel soils is a marl/clay strata between 0.6 metres and 4.0-metres deep, underneath which there is limestone bedrock. Many of the vines penetrate four to six metres down to the more moisture-retentive marl/clay strata, a crucial factor in hot summers such as 2003. I vividly remember examining the vine leaves at Latour in 40°C heat in mid-July during a torridly hot afternoon that year. Whilst some of the younger vines showed some browning, the older vines were green and healthy. The vineyard comprises 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Merlot (mainly planted on the lower vineyards where the gravel beds are less deep) and 2% Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Frédéric Engerer has often expressed disdain towards Cabernet Franc so it has been virtually phased out in recent years.
Of course, the following pertains to modern-day vinification, as I have already outlined the historical modus operandi. Once grapes arrive in the vat room they are rigorously sorted using two sorting tables, de-stalked and lightly crushed. There are 68 brand new vats that range from 11 to 166 hectolitres with a total volume of around 5,700 hectolitres, with appropriately sized vessels per geographic origin, vine age and grape variety. Alcoholic fermentation usually lasts for one week followed by a three-week maceration period, after which the wine is separated from the marc and returned to clean vats for the malolactic fermentation. Each vat is analysed and tasted in order to make a selection for First, Second and Third wines; anything remaining is sold off in bulk. After blending, the wine is transferred into barrel for a total of 18 months. The first six months is completed in the first year cellar, barrels sealed using glass bungs, followed by 12 months in the slightly more humid second year cellar with barrels sealed with a rubber bung, providing a hermetic seal as the wood expands. The chai is designed to minimize disturbance to the wine and obviate pumping and so the vat-room, first and second year cellar lie directly atop each other. Gravity and an elevator are used to transfer the wines from one cellar to another. Twelve coopers are used, all from the Charente region in France, and racking is done every three months.
Yes, I could have shown a picture of the barrel cellar, but I am sure you would rather have this picture taken at the reception dinner at Latour with all the pretty lights and Salma Hayek gazing into the distance.
I have visited the library cellar once or twice. It is surprising how some vintages have dwindled down to the last few bottles. There are a few bins occupied by 19th century bottles with glass stoppers with no designated vintage.
How the Tastings Were Done
The notes originate from two tremendous verticals of Château Latour. The first was conducted in Hong Kong with a group of friends/collectors where many bottles came from ex-château auctions or renowned private cellars. The quality of the bottles was obvious and, as such, this constitutes perhaps the greatest Latour tasting that I have participated in. A second exemplary vertical was hosted by Omar Khan at Ten Trinity as part of his International Wine & Business series of events and was attended by Frédéric Engerer. This included many older vintages poured in Hong Kong as well as more recent vintages from the 1990s and 2000s. These are supplemented by notes taken at the journalists’ reception dinner at the château during Vinexpo and bottles recently poured at private dinners in London and Bordeaux, including one from my own cellar.
Before describing the wines, a word on decanting. “To decant, or not to decant. That is the question,” wrote Shakespeare, or words to that effect. It is mandatory for Château Latour and attested by the Hong Kong vertical. The wines were double decanted a couple of hours before the tasting commenced, and in the peace and quiet I penned my notes...then I threw them away. I threw them away because a majority of these bottles miraculously blossomed throughout the evening and consequently I rewrote every single note on my way home. This happened to be the return flight to London, so I had plenty of time. Pull the cork on Latour and you’ll meet a grouchy aristocrat disgruntled at your impatience. Get those decanters out and do not be afraid to afford the wines four, five or even six hours to breathe. You will find that the aristocrat will loosen his tie, shed his haughty veneer and his personality will begin to shine as he reveals his nuances and secrets.
I will approach the wines in chronological order from the oldest, namely the 1887 Latour, born when the estate was waging a futile war against phylloxera before electing to start replanting with American rootstock. To be honest, it is creaking at the seams, more interesting than pleasurable and instinct tells me that there might be better examples out there. The 1908 Latour is the oldest vintage poured in Hong Kong and of impeccable provenance, bought from an ex-cellar auction. It was the first vintage to undergo complete chaptalization and it certainly benefitted what would have otherwise been a poor wine born in a supposedly poor vintage. “Our chaptalisation has succeeded marvellously,” enthused the régisseur Jouet to the Comte de Beaumont at the time. “This is a lesson for the future”. Too right! And after more than a century this is a big and very pleasant surprise.
We move on to the great decade of the 1920s. The 1924 Latour is a wine that I have venerated for more than a decade since an awe-inspiring bottle at an epic two-day Latour vertical back in December 2004. Since that time, I have regaled this vintage to anyone who would listen, so there is trepidation as we meet again. Thankfully, I am not the only person in Hong Kong rendered speechless by this wine, unfairly over-shadowed by the 1928 and 1929. It must surely represent the apex of that vintage. The 1928 Latour is a legendary wine that Michael Broadbent famously claimed took 50 years to come round and this actually comes from magnum, implying it would take twice as long to mature. It is exactly how Broadbent describes: quite estuarine on the nose, rigid and a little obdurate on the palate, masculine and unapologetically aristocratic. It is a fabulous Latour no doubt, although personally I find the 1929 Latour to have more brightness and vivacity without compromising the structure and nobility of the wine. The 1929 is certainly more enjoyable than the 1928 that remained aloof despite rigorous aeration and plenty of decanting. Still, as lunch wines go, I am indebted to my generous friend for life! The 1937 Latour is poured at the International Wine & Business vertical in London, here two bottles served and one with an unmistakable curry-like scent, verisimilar to Balti since there is a terracotta element. It is a pleasurable if rustic wine, probably without the breeding of the best wines from the previous decade.
The 1941 Latour is a very rare wartime wine, more a curiosity than one of sensory pleasure, yet better than you would expect given the circumstances. Moving into the post-war period, the 1945 Latour. The growing season is defined by two factors: the late spring frost and the intense summer heat. “The vinification was extremely difficult and delicate,” wrote the Comte de Beaumont. “It called for the closest and most assiduous care. Fortunately, the result responded to the efforts expended and the vintage promises to be of high quality.” The 1945 shares a potent mint-like scent with Mouton-Rothschild but it does not sit quite as comfortably. It obscures some of the terroir expression whereas with Mouton-Rothschild, this trait is part of its character. Nevertheless, it is a fabulous victory Latour after all these years. Although the vintage has a good reputation, albeit more on the Right Bank than Left, the 1947 Latour remained unsold at the château because of the depressed market until late 1948/1949, by which time prices had risen. It is a good but not great Latour, certainly not of the same pedigree as that “Second Growth”, the 1947 Mouton-Rothschild. The Latour shows a little volatile acidity, prevalent in this vintage due to lack of temperature control. The 1949 Latour is far superior and always my pick of the post-war triumvirate. The result of drought-like conditions in summer, it has always been a wonderful, refined, elegant Latour and the bottle in Hong Kong, dare I say, was even better than one I have drunk at the château. It might be the only vintage where I can see a common thread with Lafite-Rothschild, a sense of transparency and breeding that does not derive from power, but enthralling nuance and refinement.
Moving into the 1950s, a magnum of 1950 Latour is poured at the vertical in Hong Kong from impeccable provenance. The vintage has a greater reputation on the Right Bank, a high yielding vintage picked from around 20 September. It is mightily impressive: foursquare and conservative yet harmonious and statesmanlike. I doubt you will find better on the Left Bank. I have always thought the 1952 Latour a little dowdy and austere. Much better is the wonderful 1955 Latour, this example direct from the Mähler-Besse cellar. It took time to settle down, but it ended up beautifully refined and showed greater substance than the 1953 Latour, which is very fine but rather attenuated on the finish, as if cowed by the 1955. Even Engerer himself concedes that in 1953 the honours go to Lafite-Rothschild. The 1959 Latour is a brilliant wine, the most lascivious and sensual Latour ever made, you could argue more pleasurable than the 1961.
However, the 1961 Latour is poured both in Hong Kong and at the London tasting, a legend that towers over the decade, the benchmark Pauillac, majestic even after 57 years. Grapes were picked from 19 to 28 September during an Indian summer that was problematic during vinification, especially since it predated the installation of stainless steel. Though it has lost some of its density in recent years, the 1961 still conveys astonishing balance and structure. The precision of the finish is extraordinary. Well-kept bottles will last years, perhaps decades. The 1961 Latour unfairly dominates a hidden gem – the 1962 Latour. Here grapes were picked from 1 to 20 October after a late growing season. It is a stunning wine that ranks alongside the best ever made. The bottle in Hong Kong was the best of four I have tasted, the apex of an unheralded vintage. If you find a bottle with sound provenance then you will relish a thoroughbred Latour that might last as long as the 1961. Though 1964 is renowned on the Right Bank, my experience shows there are exceptions in Saint-Estèphe, and to a lesser extent, Pauillac. I have encountered some startling bottles of 1964 Latour and though the last one, served blind at a dinner in Bordeaux, did not match those, it is still far better than you would imagine and delivers the precocity you find on the Right Bank sutured with the structure of the Left. It is a variable wine from one bottle to another so keep your fingers and toes crossed. The 1966 Latour is served at Ten Trinity: a conservative, masculine, rather austere “gentleman” no different from several encountered previously. It is the kind of Claret that expects you to put “Esquire” after its name. If you like “classic” or “traditional” Pauillac then great bottles of 1966 will suit you down to a tea. Maybe it is beginning to approach the end of its drinking plateau but it remains a compelling and redoubtable wine, the younger sibling of the 1961 perhaps. The 1968 Latour comes from a challenging season and suffered poor sugar levels, high acidity and weak colours. You know, it is not terrible, but it is for completists and 50-year-olds only.
Of course, the following decade was difficult for Bordeaux and Latour is no exception. The 1970 Latour has been notoriously irregular. I have encountered brilliance and bewilderment in equal measures over the years. The bottle in London did not show well but I did chance upon another at a private dinner. This is similar to one tasted at Domaine de Chevalier in 2010: plenty of tobacco and truffle on the nose, yet missing the precision and detail of the best Latours from the sixties. There is something masculine, feral and yet captivating, a sense of unpredictability that keeps you on edge while its inconsistency is vexing. The 1971 Latour is a vintage I have encountered several times and is probably the best Left Bank in a difficult growing season for that part of Bordeaux, when the weather was more benevolent to the Right Bank and Sauternes. The 1971 is not dissimilar to the 1966: quite austere and dense, perhaps a little tough but there is more persistence and charm on the finish than many of its peers. It shows what the vintage might have been on the Left Bank. The 1973 Latour, even from an ex-cellar double magnum, is just satisfactory whilst the magnum of 1975 Latour poured at the Vinexpo dinner does not show its best. One expects Left Bank 1975s to be tannic and austere, but this feels hard and mean. I’ve had better bottles in the past, hence the question mark next to my score. The 1978 Latour, a wine I have drunk many times, is served from double magnum at the Académie du Vin dinner in April. It is a good solid Claret, but now a little austere and maybe lacking charm. “Old school” through and through, the 1978 might be just past its prime compared to bottles a decade ago that showed better.
The 1980s is a decade of real ups and downs for Latour. After a rather ordinary 1981 Latour that is disappointing even within the context of a challenging growing season, they rebound with the sensational 1982 Latour. Picked from 16 to 30 September, Latour encountered the highest potential alcohol levels since 1959, though that said we are only talking about 13% for the Merlot and 12-12.5% for the Cabernet Sauvignon! It was apparently a huge harvest that scotches the notion of high yields equalling lower quality. The 1982 Latour has always been the most consistently impressive of the First Growths, more so than Mouton-Rothschild. The Mouton is flamboyant whilst Latour is “chiselled down to the finest detail”. Both bottles in Hong Kong and London attest the 1982 Latour to be at the peak of its powers. It will doubtless give immense pleasure for decades to come. Funnily enough, in Hong Kong I also tasted the 1982 Les Forts de Latour that was so good that I initially mistake it for the Grand Vin! Then there follows a lean period. I have always found the 1985 Latour and 1986 Latour disappointing, especially the latter in context of a great Left Bank vintage. Compare it directly with its neighbour Léoville Las Cases if you want proof. I am not sure why the estate seems to lose its way during this period. Latour reported a “difficult vinification” for the 1986, so it might be just a case of indecision or wrong choices in the winery. Whatever, it proves that no estate is infallible. Fortunately, the 1989 Latour and 1990 Latour put the estate back onto the right track and the two examples shown at the London tasting prove that these both continue to drink beautifully. Personally, I prefer the1990, a modern-day 1959 insofar that it is a Latour that just wants to give pleasure. I feel the 1990 is not quite as harmonious as they were a decade ago, but it remains a thoroughly enjoyable wine.
We skip the early nineties, which is a shame because the estate produced some commendable wines, particularly the 1991, since it escaped the spring frosts. Fast forward to the 1996 Latour. I know that other critics have hailed this vintage of Latour, however I never find it stands up given the context of a great year for Cabernet. It is a very good wine, but I remember Frédéric Engerer remarking that they could have made a much better wine with techniques used nowadays. I agree. It just lacks the same breeding as, say, the 2000 Latour, which puts the 1996 in its place. The 2000 is one of the standouts at the London tasting: majestic, pure and silky in texture, with incredible precision and backbone on the finish. Best millennial of the Left Bank? It is certainly in contention. The 2002 Latour has long been one of the finest wines in a vintage that is not my personal favourite and is drinking well now. It probably represents one of the best values. The 2003 Latour continues to defy that intense summer heat that produced so many flabby and VA-tinged wines in the southern reaches of the Médoc. I remember walking through the vines of Latour that July and marvelling how little stress could be seen vis-à-vis its neighbours. In 2003, Latour is a triumph against that merciless summer. I will skip the 2005 as it's part of a forthcoming horizontal (it’s brilliant by the way) and finish with the 2010 Latour. I have fêeted this wine since I first tasted it from barrel and it continues to evolve at glacial pace in the mould of the 1961, 1982 and 2000: structured, blue-blooded, aloof and utterly compelling. I would not touch it for another decade.
Château Latour always makes an impression. You always remember a great Latour – the vintage, where you were and who you were with. Even my friends in Hong Kong, all seasoned palates and obsessed with Burgundy, concede that the vertical is one of the best they could remember. The 20th century is clearly studded with monumental wines such as the 1929, 1961 and 1982, and yet there are others that must rank as the apotheoses of their respective vintages: 1924, 1962 and 2002, for example. Then there are vintages that defeated all but a handful of estates, such as 1991. The estate’s propitious terroir ensures that Latour is the most consistent of the Médoc growths with just that blip in the mid-eighties. I think of Latour as a linchpin of Bordeaux insofar that if it suddenly disappeared, then the region would lose its cohesion, bereft of a wine that encapsulates Bordeaux more than any other.
As I wrote in my introduction, Latour is the first in many ways. Perhaps if you flipped the question around and asked what would be my last wine, then I might well reply...well, do I need to tell you?
(My sincere thanks to Omar Khan at the International Business & Wine for organising the dinner at Ten Trinity, not to mention the outstanding food courtesy of Anne-Sophie Pic herself. And special thanks to Mr. V in Hong Kong, and the “crazy gang” who shared their bottles of Latour to create one of the most memorable dinners I have attended.)
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