All: Latour 1858-2018
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 07, 2024
for the Delay In Service
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…
Sir,” I pleaded. “The dog ate my exercise book.”
teacher looked me up and down disdainfully and simply uttered: “Detention,
explain this unforgivable delay in service.
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.
the 1858 Latour.”
to Hong Kong.
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.
was only part one.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
article strives to answer such questions as best I can, for at the very least,
they are recorded for posterity.
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
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
poetry for you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
This fermented grape juice had survived them all.
© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
You Might Also Enjoy
The Quiet One: 1962 Burgundy & Bordeaux, Neal Martin, December 2023
Written in the Stars: Bordeaux 1865-2020, Neal Martin, December 2023
Vinous Table: Grouse Club at Hunan, London, UK, February 2022
In Excelsis: Château Latour 1887–2010, Neal Martin, July 2018