A little under nine years since its purchase by François Pinault from Allied Lyons, returning the château to French ownership after a hiatus of 31 years, Château Latour has emerged from a period of quiet renovation. This was highlighted by a magnificently successful sale at Christie's London in May, to be followed by similar sales in the US later in the year.

A little under nine years since its purchase by François Pinault from Allied Lyons, returning the château to French ownership after a hiatus of 31 years, Château Latour has emerged from a period of quiet renovation. This was highlighted by a magnificently successful sale at Christie’s London in May, to be followed by similar sales in the US later in the year.

At a pre-sale dinner that featured old wines served only in magnums from each decade from 1961 back to 1881, Frédéric Engerer, commercial director of Latour, said that old vintages were the best ambassador of a great estate. By making available small quantities of ‘library stocks’, a total of 64 vintages from 1863 to 1996, Latour was producing its own book, a period of history during which almost everything changed except the soil in which the vines were planted. In 1863, the year Latour began to château-bottle part of the production, rather than sell everything in barrel to the merchants, there were 35ha (hectares) under vine, rising to 40 after total replanting after phylloxera by 1920, to 65ha today. The ‘grand vin’, however, comes only from the 45ha that surround the château, known as the Clos. Situated on the right-hand side of the D2 road from St-Julien to Pauillac, Latour is the nearest of Pauillac’s first growths to the Gironde Estuary and benefits from a unique depth of gravel on a base of clay. At Lafite- and Mouton-Rothschild, further north and several metres higher in altitude, the subsoil is sand. Perhaps it is from the soil that the wine derives its robustness, which Frédéric Engerer describes as ‘energy’, the hallmark of Latour.

This characteristic of concentrated power was certainly present in the very successful 2002, a fitting tribute to the new cellars and the cohesive team that Engerer has put together. The team’s first vintage was the fragrant, floral, slightly figgy 1999, described by Engerer as ‘a beautiful, smiley baby’. At a pre-sale tasting this was followed by the 1989 (£3,630/case), a really big wine, leathery and rich with a firm backbone – this vintage will probably outlast the 1990 which, in its Forts de Latour version, was so ripe I would have taken it for a Pomerol. Next came a firm, more lean-structured 1988 (£1,870/case) that is just beginning to open up, a fragrantly rich 1985 (£3,740/case) – Michael Broadbent’s favourite vintage in the 1980s – and a sumptuously young 1982 (£5,500/case) that shows all the power and concentration of this heralded vintage with no loss of balance.

The nine older wines served at the dinner had all been re-corked at the château between 1990 and 1992. The 1909 (£484/bottle), described by Michael Broadbent as ‘light wines well past their best’ and served first, showed a solid red-brown colour with slight volatility and pleasant aromatic persistence. Next was 1890 (£2,200/bottle) – mediocre crop of full-bodied wines – full of life, flavour and grip, quite stunning for a 113-year-old wine. Even better was the 1881 (£2,860/bottle) – small crop of mediocre, green, tannic wines – with a bright colour and fragrant, truffly, rather ‘porty’ fruit and still quite youthful. We then jumped 71 years to 1952 (£374/bottle) – a very solid wine showing violets, richness and weight, perfect now. Back to 1937 (£358/bottle), which started chocolately and sweet, almost Burgundian, and finished with strong, rather medicinal tannins. The revelation of the evening for me was the 1924 (£748/bottle) – an abundant crop of attractive wines – with its superb colour, slightly singed nose, huge warmth and depth of flavour with persistent sweetness and balance. After this the 1917 (£550/bottle) – charming wines, now fatigued and risky – combined eucalyptus and caramel flavours with a little sweetness, but failed to shine.

Two blockbusters ended the evening: 1961 (£34,098/case, a world record for this vintage) – a great vintage, often compared with 1945 – whose intense, even black colour showed the pure concentration of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignon; and 1945 (£2,860/bottle) – arguably one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century and in my opinion eclipsing the 1961 – which had sturdy ripe fruit, but lacked the ‘energy’ and power of its predecessor.

No doubt the other first growths could produce a similar line-up of great vintages – Lafite could even offer a few wines from the 18th century – and perhaps, seeing the success of this sale, they will. Comparisons between such great estates are not the point, the point being the greatness of the estates. When the Pearson-Harvey consortium bought 79% of Latour from the de Beaumont and Contrivon families in 1962, General de Gaulle, President of France, merely commented: ‘They can hardly take the soil with them’. Whoever owns it, Château Latour belongs to the Médoc. (Christie’s prices include buyers’ premium.)

Steven Spurrier is Decanter’s consultant editor and a renowned taster.

Spurrier’s choice

BEST OLD WORLD WHITE

domaine latour-giraud, meursault-genevrieres, france 2000

The finest wines in Meursault come from adjacent premiers crus Les Genevrières and Les Perrières, the former more robust from the red soil, the latter more mineral. Fine pale gold, pure hazelnuts on the nose, ripe fruit backed by discreet oak on the palate, fine structure with balancing acidity, this is a benchmark wine, from a top domaine, for drinking after 2005.
£35; ThH

BEST OLD WORLD RED

tenuta di argiano, suolo, igt toscana,
italy 2000

Noemi Marrone Cinzano’s commitment to Argiano, which she took over in 1993, and the winemaking talents of Hans Vinding-Diers are producing truly great wines from this ancient estate. Suolo is 100% Sangiovese from 30-year-old vines, and is a deep-coloured wine with elegance, sophistication, energy and length.
£72.95; Lib

BEST NEW WORLD WHITE

Ata Rangi, craighall, chardonnay, new zealand 2001
Famous for its Pinot Noir, generally the best and most expensive version of this grape from New Zealand,
Ata Rangi single-vineyard Chardonnay can lay a similar claim. Fine lemony yellow, cool climate fruit showing intensity and purity, whose 14? ripeness brings complexity and length, this is a balanced wine to drink within 5 years.
£19.95; Lib

BEST NEW WORLD RED

Bodega noemia,
malbec, argentina 2001
The Noemi Marrone Cinzano-Hans Vinding-Diers team produced this wine from 72-year-old vines in Patagonia’s Rio Negro Valley. Fabulously intense colour, a floral nose with wild violets and spice, smooth and rich on the palate, packed with fruit
with a Tuscan firmness on the finish, this is an exciting wine that should put Patagonia into collectors’ cellars.
(available September); Lib

BEST sweet wine

weingut dr heger, ihringer winkleberg spatburgunder weissherbst beerenauslese,
germany 1998
From Pinot Noir planted on volcanic soil across the Rhine from Colmar, harvested with super-ripe ‘edelsuss’ sugars in November, this has a white peach and apricot nose, rich on the palate but with a balancing rosehip acidity which gives a superb mouthfeel that encapsulates late-summer fruit. Delicious.
£29 (half); WBa

BEST sparkling wine

gosset, celebris rose, France 1998
From seven grands crus, 61% Chardonnay from Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Oger, 32% Pinot Noir from Ambonnay, Ay and Bouzy, with the addition of 7% Pinot Noir for colour. Soft, orangey-rose in colour with ever-present tiny bubbles, with aromas of wild strawberries lifted by the Chardonnay finesse, pure yet with aromatic richness on the palate, it is a wine of great class.
£80; McK

Torbreck shiraz

Torbreck was founded in the Barossa Valley in 1994 by David Powell and named after a forest in Scotland where he worked as a lumberjack. A passion for the wines of the Rhône Valley dominates the Torbreck philosophy, based on old dry-farmed vines, hand-harvested in single vineyards, fermented in open-top fermenters, basket-pressed, and careful racking to avoid the need for filtration at bottling.

The results are astounding. Juveniles 2002 – named after Rhône Ranger Tim Johnston’s wine bar in Paris – is a 60% Grenache, 20% Shiraz, 20% Mataro blend from an exceptional vintage in the Barossa, whose succulent unoaked fruit is very much in the style of Marcel Richaud’s Cairanne. Next up is The Steading 2001, the same blend with 18 months’ oak that has more grip and length. Shiraz takes over with The Descendant 2001, blended with 8% Viognier to make a superbly youthful wine with the seduction of a top Côte-Rôtie. The Struie 2001 comes from 50-year-old Shiraz from the Eden and Barossa Valleys with 30% new wood that shows the sturdy power of a Cornas, for drinking in three years’ time. Also 100% Shiraz from 50–90-year-old vines is The Factor 2000, which shows big Barossa fruit and a slightly tarry spice, and has enough concentration for 10 years at least. Finally Run Rig 1999, 97% Shiraz, 3% Viognier from pre-phylloxera vines averaging over 100 years, aged for 30 months in 70% new French oak, is smooth and velvety, with more elegance than expected and beautiful length of flavour.

These are brilliant vineyard wines with a personal touch. The 2002s will be collectors’ items.
DBy, F&M, Har, HNi, P&S, Rae, Tan, Wmb, WSo, You

Written by Steven Spurrier