A date with the classic Bordeaux

A short (seven vintages) vertical tasting of Chateau Latour, Premier Cru Classe, Bordeaux, is serious stuff, especially when it includes the 1961 in magnum. This was the main item on the agenda of the monthly dinner meeting of our "Men Only" group last month. It is not every day one gets to taste (and drink) a vertical of one of the world's benchmark wines.

Chateau Latour Premier Cru Classe, Pauillac

Cepage 80 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 19+ per cent Merlot, very tiny, less than one per cent Petit Verdot. These are the vineyard planting ratios, actual blend each vintage vary according to vintage conditions.

Vintages tasted (and drunk): 1996, 1995, 1994, 1985, 1976, 1970 and 1961 (magnum).

1961

A very great year for Bordeaux and a classic and benchmark vintage

Medium-hued reddish brown, with a very classic Pauillac bouquet, very cedary, very ripe fruit, sweet liquorice, and distinctive "cigar-box" undertones. Very long finish, in very good condition, and now at peak, especially as it was from a magnum. Took an hour in the glass to open up although it had been decanted an hour before. Very impressive.

1970

An excellent vintage. Very dark red-brown, with very classic Pauillac bouquet, cedary cigar box and blackcurrants. A mature wine, classic "Latour" bouquet and palate, - liquorice, black currants, cedar - but seemed to lack just that extra punch, that extra degree of concentration and "bigness".

The provenance of this bottle - see below - well explains this.

Although purchased locally from a very reliable wine merchant, this bottle of Latour was US strip-labelled, meaning it had been exported to the United States on release, then shipped back to the UK from where it had been purchased by a local wine merchant. Thus it had traversed the Atlantic twice, the first time probably in the early '70s, at which time it may well not have been in a temperature-controlled container. Its storage history while in the US is also unknown, and may well have included non-temperature-controlled storage conditions as well as transhipment by rail to the West Coast from New York where it had first landed. This is the reason why US-strip labelled bottles always command a lower price from UK wine stores and at auctions.

1976

A two to three-star (out of five) vintage according to Michael Broadbent.

This had the lightest colour of the group, medium-hued brownish red. Lovely bouquet though but light and youthful, a fragrant edition of the Pauillac aroma. Very good Latour (Pauillac) character on the palate, cedar and blackcurrants, liquorice, medium intensity. Not a big wine but a very enchanting one. A nice middle-aged lady.

1985

A very good vintage, classic Bordeaux.

Medium intensity brownish red, a lovely very classic Latour (Pauillac) bouquet of blackcurrants, cedarwood and liquorice. Medium-intensity wine, but very attractive, with good ripe fruit, balance, complexity, and length. All the fundamentals in adequate amounts and proportion. Faultless. Not a big wine, just a very nice medium-sized Pauillac, at prime.

1994

Still a quite youthful dark-red with a tint of brown at the edges. Again that classic give-away Pauillac bouquet of cedar-wood and blackcurrants, medium-weight on the palate, but classic, very pure liquorice, black coffee, finishing smooth and long. A very attractive drinkable wine from a not-great average vintage, but a Latour nevertheless.

A very good example of how well the Latour character is maintained even in off-vintages. Always worth buying because such off-vintages are less expensive and mature faster.

1995

The best-performing and best drinking of this small series. At peak, a very classic Latour, very dark colour, classic Latour (Pauillac) bouquet of cedar and liquorice, medium-density palate of ripe blackcurrants, tasting of liquorice tinted with black coffee and cedar-wood. This is classic Latour at peak, and why it is such a great favourite. An aristocrat.

1996

A lighter, carbon-copy, of the 1995, lighter in colour and in all other aspects - bouquet, and palate. Michael Broadbent gave this wine two to three stars (out of five) although he wrote it may be under-rated. On the basis of this tasting, at19 years' age and in juxtaposition with the 1995, this is distinctly not as good as the 1995.

Summing up

A short vertical of Latour through four recent decades - '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s - but this did give a good overview and understanding of the character and the pedigree of the wine. It is reasonably easily recognisable once you get sufficiently familiar with it. (It was the wine from the improbable 1968 vintage, drunk at home in Kuala Lumpur in 1974 over dinner, after a busy day in the operating theatre with my visiting Professorial colleague from Hong Kong that converted me to wine - from water! - since when I have not looked back. Coincidentally Latour also was his favourite wine.)

The history of Latour is well known, so a brief summary will suffice here. As with virtually all the great estates of Bordeaux, it had passed through many hands since its early beginnings in the 1670s. When I knew it in the mid-1980s it belonged to London's Pearson group before finally being sold in 1993 to Francois Pinault where it has remained since.

One of the five First Growths (Premier Cru Classe) in the 1855 classification, its consistency has always been its hallmark and coupled with its power, intensity and longevity its signature characteristics. Its broad shoulders make it relatively easy to recognise. It, however, takes a long time to mature, top vintages needing more than a decade. Latour 2000 is at last count still not quite ready. (It needs a lot of discipline on one's part to restrain from pulling that cork on a still immature Latour, so inviting is the bottle and its label.)

The 1961 Latour, like the 1928, 1929 and 1945, was and continues to be legendary to this day, setting with its companion First Growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild the benchmark for Bordeaux. Very expensive unfortunately, and today, with the other Firsts and the top Burgundies, it is in that class of collectibles which includes Hermes' Birkin bag. (Except you do not have to queue a year for it if you can afford it.)

For a taste of Latour without the huge outlay, it is well worth looking at its second label, Les Forts de Latour. This wine comes from specific plots of vineyards, called Les Forts de Latour, Batailley and Comtesse de Lalande. The first vintages made were the 1966 and 1967 but they were only sold in 1972. The Latour style is recognisable in this second wine, but it is lighter in texture and matures earlier. Coupled with an easier purchase price this is one of the best wine values and is highly recommended.


This article was first published on July 31, 2015.
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