Decanter Wine Legends

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Chateau Latour 1961

Château Latour 1961 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France

A legend because…

Poor fruit-set and a late frost in May 1961 in Bordeaux meant that the 1961s were very concentrated, with the vines channelling all their energy into a small number of surviving and thick-skinned bunches. The wines’ scarcity – every château experienced major losses – also added to the renown of the vintage. The Bordeaux expert, the late Edmund Penning-Rowsell, believed Latour to be the wine of the vintage, though as has time has passed, other claimants have joined the field. Nonetheless, Latour remains one of the most sensational wines from a remarkable year.

Looking back

This was the last year when Latour was still in hands of the descendants of the original owning family, the Ségurs. Most of them were passive shareholders, although one of them, the Comte de Beaumont, took a keen interest in the running of the estate. By 1962 the famous property was in the hands of Lord Cowdray, Harvey’s of Bristol, and a handful of Ségur descendants in the form of the Beaumont family. Under the new owners, badly needed investments – which had slowed under the previous ownership – were initiated.

The vintage

A rainy winter ended with a mild February. Flowering was unusually early, beginning on 12 May, but cold weather, including frost on 29 May, led to coulure (a failure of the infant berries to set normally). This resulted in the loss of 75% of the crop. July was wet and cool, though drier weather returned in August. The vintage was saved by perfect weather from 24 August until the harvest, which began on 19 September and finished on 28 September. The Latour team took pride in having picked – unlike some other properties – before excessive ripeness set in, allowing a perfectly balanced and appetising wine to be produced.

The disastrous conditions in May meant that the crop was very small, and from the outset the château reported that the wines were dark, rich, ripe and incredibly concentrated but perfectly balanced. This, together with the wine’s profound tannic structure, explains why the 1961 is still drinking well today. Indeed, in 2000 Michael Broadbent esteemed that the wine had another half-century of life in it.

The terroir

Latour is a large and expanding property, with vineyards in various parts of Pauillac. But those inland parcels supply the fruit for the excellent second wine, Les Forts de Latour, while Latour itself always comes from L’Enclos, the vineyard around the château and winery. Its excellence and consistency derive from the great depth, and hence impeccable drainage, of the stony gravel soils, and from the proximity to the Gironde estuary, giving a microclimate that protects the vines from periodic hazards such as severe frost (though not in 1961).

The wine

The frost did more damage to Merlot vines than to Cabernet Sauvignon, so the proportion of the latter in most 1961 clarets is unusually high. Fortunately, at Latour the vineyards deliver an apotheosis of Cabernet typicity, and the high proportion of that variety in the blend also contributes to the wine’s extraordinary longevity. Hot weather continued after the completion of harvest, which led to some difficulties during the fermentation, although this did not affect the final quality of the wine. This was one of the last vintages at Latour to be fermented in the ageing wooden vats, which would be replaced, on the wishes of the new owners, by stainless steel vats in 1964.

The reaction

For US critic Robert Parker, this is a 100-point wine, and it was one of Michael Broadbent’s rare six-star wines – ‘immense, impressive and beautifully balanced’ when first tasted in 1968, while through the 1970s he noted its ‘great depth of colour, concentrated magnificence, richness and length’; and more recently, ‘a mammoth wine, all the component parts excessively represented’. Clive Coates MW, author of The Wines of Bordeaux, gave the wine a perfect score in 2003, proclaiming: ‘Splendid depth and concentration of fruit… A big but velvety wine…. Really aristocratic. Still amazingly youthful. Brilliant. Great.’ Drinking the wine in the late 1980s, Hugh Johnson noted: ‘Its bouquet was room-stopping; its flavours awe-inspiring.’ US critic Jeff Leve, after tasting the wine in 2010, wrote that it ‘typified the term “iron fist in a velvet glove”.’  

The facts

  • Number of bottles produced 65,232
  • Composition N/A
  • Yield (hl/ha) N/A
  • Alcohol content 12.3%
  • Release price 139 Francs a bottle (£206 today)
  • Auction price today £2,608–£5,778 a bottle

Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1974
Krug 1928
Chateau Latour 1961
Domaine de la Romanee Conti La Tache 1978
Henschke Hill of Grace 1998