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, Chateau-Latour has emerged from a period of quiet renovation. This was highlighted by a magnificently successful sale at Christie's London in May (2003), 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, Chateau-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 Chateau-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, Chateau-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, Chateau-Latour belongs to the Médoc. (Christie’s prices include buyers’ premium.)