Premier Crew: The young supremo at the helm of Château Latour outlines his vision to Andrew Jefford
Château Latour is exuding vitality. Andrew Jefford meets its president Frédéric Engerer, who has surrounded himself with a young, talented team.
There’s a fresh-air feel about Latour in 2006. It’s not just the £10 million new winery, on whose obsidian-black floor one could eat a sushi dinner. Nor is it the immaculate tasting room, with its scentless orchids, altar-like tasting table and plate-glass view towards St-Julien. It’s not merely the beguiling semiotics of the be-ribboned vineyards; nor that in each of the past six vintages, Latour has commanded the highest price of the first growths. It’s mainly the fact that everyone is so young. The Médoc has traditionally been the home of hair-silvered-by-50-harvests, of jobs not just for life but through generations. Latour, by contrast, more closely resembles a Silicon Valley start-up.
Whatever it is, it’s working. Over the past decade, and particularly since the masterful 2000 vintage, Latour has given us a flush of wines in which its legendary depth and solidity – the gift of sub-gravel clays – has been joined by an aromatic freshness, sweetness and charm that seems almost wafted from Margaux. The tannins have been refined rather than accentuated (that beautiful French verb peaufiner comes to mind), while the wine’s overall intensity has a new energy and vivacity. The effect is akin to the sensitive cleaning of a shadowy Rembrandt: suddenly you see things in the resonant gloom you didn’t know were there.
The old page turned on Latour when François Pinault bought it from Allied Lyons in 1993. Pinault is an entrepreneur whose journey from timber to Printemps, Gucci and Christie’s has brought him one of the two largest of France’s grandes fortunes (LVMH’s Bernard Arnault has the other). And, in 1994, he hired a 30-year-old Parisian management consultant called Frédéric Engerer to cast a fresh eye on Latour. You can imagine what the locals must have thought. But Engerer wasn’t exactly the metropolitan technocrat his CV suggested. This intelligent and energetic, wide-horizoned yet focused young man was, in fact, a wine freak with demotic Languedoc antecedents.
‘My father died when I was five. So every summer my mother used to send me to her family – my grandfather, Jean Pons, was a Narbonne négociant. The business had been started by his father, Marius. I loved being in the cellars. One day when I was seven, the foreman asked me to fill up 60 bottles. I did it very conscientiously. He pointed out that there was one problem – I hadn’t left any room for the corks. He told me to tip a little out, but I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting my grandfather’s wine, so I drank the excess. Sixty times. Obviously by the end I was dead drunk, and when I went to my grandmother she slapped me. But my grandfather said, “No, don’t slap him. If he’s drunk wine, that’s not a bad thing.” That was my first hangover.’
Engerer remains proud of his roots: since 1997, he has been working on a Cabernet Sauvignon vin de pays d’Oc in Roussillon (the vines were massally selected at Latour). The first vintage is 2004; its name is Marius.
As a Parisian wine freak attending the tasting school run by the critics Michel Bettane and Bernard Burtschy, though, his passion was Burgundy. ‘If you live in Paris, Burgundy is three hours away. Bordeaux is five. In Burgundy, it’s easy to make appointments and meet people; in Bordeaux, it’s hard. In Burgundy, you can buy wine and come back with a bootful; in Bordeaux, you return empty-handed.’ The fact that François Pinault has acquired the old René Engel estate in Vosne-Romanée is a source of great excitement to him. He and Latour winemaker Frédéric Ardouin made their first vintage there this year.
The initial meeting with Pinault, Engerer says, was ‘one of the chances of life’. He had been at college with Pinault’s son François-Henri who mentioned that his father was ‘looking for someone for Latour – someone independent, who loves wine and has a modern vision of wine’. The fit was perfect; Engerer evidently reveres his distant boss. ‘He’s always said that trust is like a match – you can only use it once. But when he does put his trust in you, he does it completely. He’s tough but always fair. And he pushes you to be as good as you can possibly be. “What are you afraid of?” is a favourite question. “Why don’t you do that? What’s stopping you doing that?” He liberates a lot of energy.’
Just as well. When I asked about Engerer’s other passions, he pointed out that ‘I live Latour seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It’s not a job you can walk away from.’ Engerer is wary of defining the changes that have taken place since his arrival because they are taken to imply criticism of former practices. He rejects this, pointing out that the whole of Bordeaux has changed over the past decade, much like Latour has done. Pinault’s brief to him was simple: ‘Faire du très grand vin’. Attention to detail and teamwork have been the keys to achieving this. The youth of his co-workers brings energy and focus and avoids ‘battles between the old and the new – all that is a waste of time’, he says, spitting out the words. The Latour management team (save Engerer, a venerable 42) are all in their 30s. Working closely with Engerer and winemaker Ardouin is consultant Jacques Boissenot. ‘He’s very discreet, which goes perfectly with our philosophy. He works for wine, not for himself. And he is an incredible blender, spotting exactly which elements don’t work.’
What does attention to detail mean in the vineyards? ‘If you can’t separate, you can’t measure,’ is Engerer’s mantra. Young vines in the older parcels and Merlots among the Cabernet are ribbon-flagged; many larger blocks were split up and picked separately, especially where there was a big difference in height. Huge attention goes into picking the Merlot and Cabernet at perfect ripeness – which means that the harvest is slower and more fastidious, with sorting done in the vineyards rather than at tables in the winery. ‘We broke the golden rule that L’Enclos always goes into the grand vin. Almost all of it does, but there are parts that don’t.’ Tasting – of grapes, pips, vats – is everything. ‘We’re obsessed,’ says Engerer, ‘by purity, by precision.’
Négociant Bill Blatch once asked him how long the maceration lasted. ‘It’s simple,’ Blatch was told. ‘We taste every vat every night and every morning. The moment we notice a hint of bitterness, we run it off.’ The successes of 2003 and 2005 have not been created by pumping up the bass notes from extract and tannin; indeed, the 2006 has a higher tannin index than either. The cut for the grand vin, of course, is severer than ever. ‘We have declassified some brilliant things into Forts de Latour – things which were only one-twentieth off the grand vin and at least a tenth better than the core vats for Les Forts.’
But in one area Engerer remains unsatisfied: ‘distribution. That’s my challenge. The problem is that many people handle our wines and we don’t necessarily know who they are. We don’t want to know who they are to impose our views or to boss them around, we just want to communicate with them. That’s the ABC of business. We will still sell through négociants; I’m not talking about cutting them out. But we must have a follow-up. That’s a little revolution – don’t be afraid – that’s the next step.’ What Engerer says, Engerer tends to do. So if you’re a merchant selling Latour, expect a call before long – probably from someone very committed and very young.
Engerer At A Glance
Education: Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Paris
Career: L’Air Liquide, San Francisco; Lintas, Paris (advertising); Mars and Co (management consultants), London and Paris. Joined Latour in 1994 as commercial director; made president in 1998
Second love: Family (wife Barbara and three daughters); contemporary art; sport (swimming, cycling, skiing, windsurfing)
He says: ‘All that matters is that people like the wine. Here we care about wine above all. Wine, wine, wine.’
They say: ‘Frédéric Engerer’s ruthless pursuit of quality has taken Latour to a new level of excellence. Latour is on fire at the moment, making Bordeaux’s wine of the vintage, year after year. The other first growths are going to have to work incredibly hard to keep up.’ Stephen Browett, Farr Vintners
Written by Andrew Jefford