Survive Us All: Latour 1858-2018 


Apologies for the Delay In Service

One-thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven days passed between the day I tasted many of these wines and the day I began embroidering them with words. What caused the delay? Not forgetfulness, lassitude, laziness or the flimsy excuse once mumbled upon failing to hand in my long-overdue geography homework…

“Sorry, Sir,” I pleaded. “The dog ate my exercise book.”

The teacher looked me up and down disdainfully and simply uttered: “Detention, Martin.” 

Let me explain this unforgivable delay in service.

On 16 December 2019, I disembarked my flight from London to Hong Kong, which had been delayed even longer than the aforementioned homework. Shuffling down the aisle, a text advised me to dump my bags at the hotel, hail a taxi and go directly to that evening’s soirée since corks were already flying. Sixty minutes later, I entered the private room at Arbor restaurant, and before even bidding hello, I was handed a glass.

“That’s the 1858 Latour.”

Welcome to Hong Kong.

On this remarkable night, no less than six vintages of Latour born in the 19th century were poured, plus one 1865 Gruaud Larose that completely slipped my mind until I found a photo on my iPhone.

This was only part one.

The plan was to broach more recent vintages in early 2020. The following month, as dates bounced around, disquieting news began leaking out with regard to a virus circulating around Wuhan. I started feeling uneasy flying towards the outbreak, and eventually, part two was postponed. No worries. The outbreak would be done and dusted in a couple of months when normal service would resume.

We know how that worked out. Hong Kong imposed some of the strictest travel restrictions until early 2023. Consequently, it was not until September of that year that I was able to return. During those intervening months, I wrote and published The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide whose pages contain those very 19th century bottles. During those tumultuous intervening months when we were incarcerated in different parts of the world, my Far East friends built up an enormous amount of pent-up generosity, which meant that my return to Hong Kong witnessed a deluge of claret to celebrate my book, with inevitable digressions to Burgundy that remains the lodestar for many wine-lovers.

At least on this occasion, there was time to shower and shave before the first dinner at Epure in Kowloon that included a brace of Latour from the 1920s. These ‘walked down the catwalk’ with bottles of Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc and Yquem from the same decade. However, I will keep the spotlight fixed upon Latour and intend to broach those wines in a separate article, along with others from my trip, including a Lafite vertical and a 1961 Pomerol horizontal inter alia.  

Where did these ancient bottles come from? The last time that I looked, my local supermarket had sold out of 19th-century First Growths. I cannot divulge the exact details; suffice it to say, they all came from a single European cellar. Provenance does not preclude variability and cork taint, the bane of oenophiles’ lives. We were not spared either, even though my suspicions would have been aroused had all shown perfectly.

Irrespective of quality, bottles this rare are a privilege to taste, and they oblige reflection and research, not just pithy words and a couple of emojis on social media. They need to be tasted objectively, not necessarily by a professional critic, and put into context in a formal article. How was the growing season? When was this wine harvested? Who actually made the wine? What was the condition of the estate at that precise moment? How did writers, merchants and consumers receive it upon release? How does the wine compare to its peers?

This article strives to answer such questions as best I can, for at the very least, they are recorded for posterity.

The Wines

For a history background, Vinous readers may want to look at my previous article on Latour. This article’s timeline commences at the dawn of a golden age. In 1841, Comte Léon de Beaumont had successfully bid 1,511,000 Francs for the estate and presciently converted ownership to one of the region’s first société civile. He also purchased conjoining vineyard parcels, installed a drainage system and overhauled its outdated vat-room. These innovations put Latour on a solid footing and foregrounded its inclusion as one of four First Growths in 1855. These investments were vital since oïdium was first discovered in the vines in 1852; the scourge was only treated with sulfur some nine years later.

The 1858 Latour is the oldest vintage that I have ever tasted. The year that Charles Darwin presented the Theory of Evolution to the Linnean Society, and Jacques Offenbach wrote the Infernal Gallop, better known as The Can-Can. André Simon, writing in his indispensable Vintagewise guide, describes it as a “very fine vintage”, one where the scourge of oïdium was “mastered”. Like 1811, this was a “comet” year, and according to Professor Saintsbury, Bordeaux wines were quite expensive on release. Plus ça change. Allow me to quote Simon again apropos the 1858 Latour, which he tasted blind in the late 1930s. “It was just a perfect bottle of a perfect wine imaginable; so great and so simple withal, so gentle and sweet, on the brink of the grave, of course, but unafraid and with the quiet majesty of the sun that has all but left a cloudless sky and will have disappeared into the seas in another second or two.”

There’s poetry for you.

I suspect Simon would be amazed that 80 years later, the 1858 continues to give pleasure. I would not describe it on the “brink of the grave” but perhaps eyeing its eventual resting place and thinking to itself…pas encore.

In 1860, Henri Duphot, architect de choix in the Médoc, having designed the elegant château of Pichon Comtesse de Lalande in 1841, among others, began constructing the mansion that stands today. The final furnishings were completed four years later. Alas, our following bottle, the 1861 Latour, showed signs of TCA, and frustratingly, one could discern a very decent wine underneath that veil of damp cardboard. Sorrow vanished with the 1865 Latour, born the same year that Schubert’s (not Massive Attack’s) Unfinished Symphony was premiered in Vienna, and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington D.C. André Simon was lukewarm about this vintage, though it was a favourite of Michael Broadbent who gave it five stars, describing it as “the most dependable vintage of this period”, Lafite-Rothschild and Latour selling for the highest prices that century. Château records state that they produced 126 tonneaux that fetched 5,600 Francs per tonneau. This bottle, reconditioned at the estate in 1993, is magnificent and attests to the magical properties of pre-phylloxera claret. More vivacious than the 1858, admittedly a comparison not often made, this was surfeit with panache, resplendent with a bewitching, crystalline bouquet that expresses a warm growing season. The palate was replete with a Burgundy-like texture and continues to exert a gentle grip. This is one of the best examples of Bordeaux I have tasted from this era.

Although phylloxera reared its pernicious head in 1878 in Bordeaux, one must remember that châteaux were reluctant to suddenly uproot their sacred vines, especially those at the top of the hierarchy with the most to lose. The louse was discovered in the vines of Latour in the summer of 1880, and, as I wrote in my previous article on the estate, employees were granted a day’s leave to join a religious procession to encourage some kind of Divine intervention and rid vineyards of phylloxera. It didn’t work.

The 1881 Latour came from 30-dozen in Sir George Meyrick’s cellar in North Wales that Michael Broadbent auctioned in the Sixties. It’s a one-star vintage from an almost catastrophic decade. It was a hot summer, yet the fruit was green, indicative of stressed vines that had shut down and that were perhaps picked prematurely. It was apparently hard and tannic at birth. I found this rather static with odd, incongruous peeled onion notes. The palate has an ersatz sweetness that prompts me to speculate whether they added sugar to compensate for the greenness.

Thus far in this article, the bottles described would have come from vines planted on their own roots, as they predate the importation of phylloxera-resistant American rootstock. The appointment of agricultural engineer Daniel Jouet as régisseur in April 1883 intensified the fight against the bug. However, instead of replanting, Jouet continued to apply sulfur-carbonate of potassium, which only a relatively wealthy estate could use since it required a lot of water and manpower. Even here, this meant that only one-third of the vines were treated. Yet change was afoot, acceptance of the inevitable. In October 1888, Jouet mentions the establishment of a nursery to propagate cuttings of American rootstock, although it would be the beginning of a project that would last over a quarter of a century, doubtless hoping against hope that an alternative and less radical solution would be found. Instead of clearing parcels to replant American rootstock en masse, they were interpolated with French rootstock in order to retain the balance of cépagement.

The 1892 Latour comes from a perilous season afflicted by two severe spring frosts and then a sirocco wind in summer that amplified the heat to 43°C. On July 27, a violent storm pummelled the northern sector of Pauillac. Estates like Lafite-Rothschild took the brunt and produced 67 tonneaux, while Latour, in the south of the appellation, produced 117 tonneaux. Nevertheless, merchants and foreign markets alike poorly received the wine, which did not sell until May 1895, presaging a period when even First Growth prices struggled. Broadbent was upbeat about this wine, though not effusive, and shared his sentiment that it was a fine-boned, unpretentious Latour, nothing spectacular, but whose mortal coil is extended by its extant core of fruit. Better was the 1897 Latour, despite it being a woeful season beset by a scorching maritime wind that burned bunches, resulting in an extremely small crop. Though not in the same class as the 1865 or 1900, this was an impressive bottle that somehow gained intensity instead of fading in the glass.

The 1900 Latour was born in a legendary vintage that, like 2000, is varnished with an extra layer of prestige, marking a new century, what you might call a “triple-zero gleam.” The season duly played ball and bestowed winemakers with tannic, structured wines in the lineage of 1928 and 2005, wines built for longevity. Ironically, merchants’ warehouses were full of the well-received 1899s and coupled with a voluminous quantity, the 1900s proved difficult to sell. It was only after around a year or so that its caliber began to be recognized, and eventually, bottles did find homes. Nowadays, this illustrious vintage is rarely seen. As mentioned earlier, the incremental, reluctant replanting of American rootstock means that a majority of this fin de siècle Latour originates from vines planted on their own roots. Is this an underlying factor that made this the highlight of the dinner? What I found profound is that this wine continues to transmit its origins with utmost clarity, not just Bordeaux or Pauillac, but incontrovertibly, this exact First Growth. Unlike the other bottles, this was unequivocally undiminished by antiquity and delivered a dazzling, complex, fresh finish. In an era when I sometimes conclude that wines just need to contain a bit of alcohol to merit a perfect score, this is the real deal.

Now, we switch to bottles that were poured on my first night back in Hong Kong after the pandemic. Planting of American vines accelerated post-1900 under proprietor Comte Charles de Beaumont, who understood that it was the ineluctable solution to phylloxera, one that could be carried out without risking Latour’s reputation. His contemporaries did not share this viewpoint. In 1907, he signed a contract with three Bordeaux merchants for sales of vintages between 1906 and 1910, wherein a clause stipulated that fruit from vines planted on American rootstock must be excluded except those already in the ground. It would be fascinating to compare those bottlings with others on regrafted vines. Electricity had been installed at Latour in 1913, though it was not until 1931 that it was connected to the mains.

The 1921 Latour was not only ex-château but came with an original cork. This vintage is not often seen and is more renowned for its sweet wines. (Indeed, a 1921 Yquem concluded this evening’s vinous entertainment.) The season saw heat spikes and balmy conditions that held out until harvest, so the challenges were stressed vines and uncontrolled temperatures during fermentation. This bottle showed well, a little confit in style that betrayed what must have been very ripe fruit, though just a bit stolid on the palate and lacking a bit of charm. The 1923 Latour was a turn-up for the books, again, a rarely-seen vintage afflicted by coulure, spun-out véraison and a late harvest that did not begin until October. Yet this bottle was vibrant and complex on the nose, displaying so much energy and precision on the palate that you had to doff your cap to this centurion. Magnificent. The 1926 Latour was from the top drawer. This is a vintage that I have wanted to taste for many years, and it duly delivered. It was another hot summer that once again must have inflicted vine stress, plus there were violent storms in September. The harvest was late and coincided with rain, so this small-volume vintage was eclipsed by 1928 and 1929. Yet Latour has always been renowned, and this bottle was fabulous, almost crystalline in purity, with astounding focus and profundity on the finish.

How good was that 1926? Well, it actually had its nose in front of the legendary 1928 Latour, which had been re-corked at the estate in 2002. There is an effortlessness about this wine that almost catches you off guard, though I notice just a little more VA than previous bottles. However, there is one vintage that rises above all the others in the 1920s, and that is the flawless 1929 Latour. This is the second bottle I have tasted, and it is bottled perfection, blessed with balletic poise and tannins so finely chiseled that you wonder whether Michelangelo had a hand in the blending. Remarkable.

The 1945 Latour was poured at the dinner in 2019, a vintage I have encountered half a dozen times. It is an outstanding wine, even if it does not hold a candle to the elite Left Banks of that vintage, such as Mouton-Rothschild or Haut-Brion, or even that otherworldly bottle of 1945 Pichon Baron that Christian Seely opened a couple of years ago. It is fascinating how it displays a touch of wild mint on the nose, just like Mouton-Rothschild with immense precocity.

I will touch on three vintages that Frédéric Engerer opened at the château. Incidentally, all served blind. The 1951 Latour was cracked open so I could compare it with the one Lord Bruce opened at one of the Grouse Club lunches. It defies the terrible growing season, perhaps a little more backward than the previous example and tertiary towards the finish. How on earth did that attain that fruit concentration in such a sodden growing season? Engerer also opened the 1967 Latour, a vintage that I had never encountered. This was a real surprise and constitutes the best Left Bank that I have tasted from the ‘Summer of Love’: a gorgeous mint-tinged bouquet with pencil shavings, silky in texture with outstanding balance. I wonder why this vintage does not boast a higher reputation. The third was another off-vintage that I have not come across, the 1987 Latour. Unlike the 1967, I feel this did not transcend the limitations of the season, the First Growth suffering perhaps its only poor run of form in the latter half of that decade.

The most recent vintages of Latour in this report come from a vertical tasting of magnums held at the château in December 2019, just a few days after the 19th-century dinner in Hong Kong. I never published the notes, and since most have subsequently been tasted and reviewed, there is no point in adding an older note. Therefore, I limited this selection to those that update incumbent notes on the database.

Final Thoughts

It might have taken 1,467 days to complete this tasting. Nevertheless, I have no regret in withholding my tasting notes. During the darkest days of COVID-19, stuck at home as fatalities rose ever higher, there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel, and so to hell with it - perhaps I should just publish the first incomplete set of notes, after all, humankind is doomed. Setting foot in “Honkers” again felt satisfying, one of the last affirmations that we were not doomed and that life had returned to normality. That includes the hedonism and vinous passion of my friends who organized this memorable night. Hong Kong is a city that might have changed politically, yet the generosity and joie-de-vivre patently remain unchanged.

As I mentioned in my introduction, I feel dutybound to diligently document bottles like these, not as some hagiography, but with a mixture of sober objectivity and acuity while conveying the emotion of imbibing history. For readers, I hope it provides vicarious enjoyment and that the background offers interesting reading. As I said, you can draw lines to the modern age, for example, how winemakers such as Daniel Jouet faced the challenges of tempestuously hot summers, albeit without the technology that assists current winemaker Hélène Génin. While writing this article, I reflected upon the fact that Jouet and Gérin make the same wine ‘attired’ in a virtually identical label. No doubt Jouet would be dumbstruck by the state-of-the-art winery compared to the rudimentary conditions in which he worked while noticing commonalities, the grape varieties, even horses plowing between rows, for example. The most shocking aspect to him might be that Latour’s technical director is a woman.

You could argue: What was the point of their martyrdom? Should these last remaining relics be preserved? I had a deep discussion on this very topic with a friend a few weeks ago. I argued that it is chimerical to think that even the noblest wines last forever. Oxygen has other ideas, silently and inexorably dismantling wine so that it ultimately turns to vinegar. In which case, a surely fitting coup de grâce is that these bottles are shared, appreciated, discussed and imbibed with joie-de-vivre instead of solemnity or undue reverence. Additionally, to the best of my limited ability, they have been documented and recorded for longer than the wines could survive themselves, potentially forever.

I’m privileged by the enviable share of ancient claret. Even so, this tasting was unprecedented, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The flotilla of 19th-century bottles is a sight no one present that evening will forget. They attest to the profound longevity of fine wine and its innate ability to transcend time; in that respect, Latour is nonpareil. So many of these ancient wines dispense sensory pleasure while communicating where they come from, like soldiers continuing their duty long after the battle has been won. During their lifetimes, the world has witnessed an industrial and technological revolution, two World Wars, and now, two pandemics.

This fermented grape juice had survived them all.

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