Visiting Château Latour

Our auction manager recalls his visit to a Bordeaux legend

Visiting Château Latour

Once apon a time, in the late 2000s I was invited to dine at Château Latour in Pauillac, undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and prestigious wineries on earth, and one of the five ‘First Growths’ in the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux Châteaux. It’s worth remembering that this classification, which remains eerily relevant today more than a century and a half after its creation, was created to rank producers in terms of market prices alone. There was no attempt to define quality above this, but perhaps as a testament to 19th century tastes, it’s gratifying to observe that both pricing and critical regard have remained roughly neck and neck for most of those featured in the categorisation across the intervening years.

Visiting Pauillac, or any other commune in the Médoc for that matter, is in many ways a slightly strange, if fascinating, experience: unlike in Burgundy or the Rhône, or indeed almost any other winemaking region you can think of, the majority of the owners of the most celebrated labels in the region do not actually live at the properties themselves. Instead the stunning visages of the properties are an embodiment of the brand, rather than residences. Many of the grandest-looking Châteaux are physically impressive from the front, but lacking in space and depth on the inside, and almost comically narrow when viewed side-on (Château Palmer is perhaps the most famous example of this). If you’re ever offered lunch or dinner in such hallowed surroundings, as at Latour, the chances are that any glorious Bordelais delicacies arriving on the table will be from a catering truck, as few have fully-functioning kitchens.

As for the state itself, Latour is 66 hectares, planted with 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 5% Merlot/Cabernet Franc, and has at its core fruit harvested from the 45 hectare L’Enclos vineyard situated around the winery and Château itself.

My memories of that visit include, of course, the sheer grandeur of the place, including the winery or ‘chais’ itself. Having spent over a year of my life working in a variety of wineries during vintage time, when such buildings are working full tilt, with fermentation aromas, noisy presses and destemmers all in play, and with a team of lively vineyard workers and cellar staff busy at work, it’s always a complete contrast to see a peaceful, gleaming, immaculate winery when the ferments have long-finished. Such is Latour’s cathedral-like stature and feel when it is in repose that you can almost imagine that each individual bunch is brought to the vat on a satin pillow.

What sticks in the mind, of course, though, are the wines: Latour is perhaps the most obvious candidate for longest lived red wine on earth, due to its dense, Cabernet Sauvignon core, with even ‘ordinary’ well-cellared vintages potentially lasting for multiple decades. Great vintages are suitable for cellaring for one’s grandchildren should you think them deserving. We were lucky enough not only to taste but to drink too, when I visited, wines including 1983 Chateau Latour from what is generally regarded as a ‘good’ year, and the genuinely legendary 1982 Chateau Latour, a Parker 100-point wine described by the great Robert Parker Jr himself as ‘a legend and a more modern-day version of the 1961’.

We have sold both vintages of this wine at Whisky.Auction over the years, with the hammer prices reflecting their respective point scores and reputations. The 1982s sell for almost four times the hammer price of the 1983s. What struck me when tasting them side by side, though, was the sheer quality and structure of the supposedly lesser wine. Granted, it lacked the almost other-worldly opulence of its more showy sibling, but in any other context this would be stupendous stuff, and one of any wine lover’s most memorable drinking experiences.

Our January 2022 wine auction features three bottles of the ‘Grand Vin’ from Chateau Latour one lot of 1985 Chateau Latour and two lots of 1986 Chateau Latour. There is also a pair of lots of the stunning second wine, 1988 Les Forts de Latour. It’s absolutely true to say that Chateau Latour’s second wine punches way above its deceptive status, this is barely a ‘secondary’ wine in any real sense, and generally gives all but the very top wines from other classed-growth Châteaux a run for their money.

The 1985 vintage in Bordeaux came after a blisteringly cold winter, which gave the vines time to rest, but also caused some frost damage, which was then followed up by a hot, near-perfect growing season. Although certainly not as ‘showy’ wines as those from vintages such as 1982 and 1990, the wines were considered truly great by many wine writers, notably from the UK. The late Michael Broadbent MW describes 1985 as ‘one of the most perfect vintages’, which he compares to the 1953, and (perhaps heresy to American ears) ‘certainly my favourite vintage of this splendid decade typifying claret at its best’.

On the other hand Bordeaux enjoyed the largest crop since the Second World War in 1986, and was the product of a hot, dry season and a hefty storm in September. Wines from 1986 have always had a reputation for power, austerity and grip – and what with Chateau Latour’s famous tannic prowess, this will undoubtedly be a ‘glass and a half’ wine to try to this day – and, of course, side by side with the 1985 would make for a fascinating comparison.