In the commune of Pauillac, home to three of the five Bordeaux first growths, lies Château Latour, an estate famed not for its imposing château, but for the phenomenal and consistent quality of the wine that it has been producing for centuries
The long history of Château Latour
The history of Château Latour can be traced back to 1378, the year in which court historian Jean Froissart wrote of a two-story tower called ‘La Tor de Sent-Maubert’ being captured by English soldiers during the Hundred Years War.
The history of winemaking at Latour, however, stretches much farther back, possibly all the way to the 12th century when tax exemptions for English markets meant a flourishing trade in wine between France and England.
Records suggest that in the 14th and 15th centuries up to two thirds of the famed L’ Enclos vineyard was already planted with vines — an unusually high percentage during a time when most estates had a mixture of vines and other crops.
A report in 1755 — 100 years before its 1855 Classification — showed Latour was already recognised as a producer of some of the best wine in the region, listing it as one of only four properties whose wines fetched more than 900 livres for a tonneau (the others being Haut-Brion, Lafite and Cantenac).
The wine at Latour was made entirely from un-grafted vines until phylloxera took a hold. Grafting of vines began from 1900, until by 1920 all the vines had been grafted onto American phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. The pre-1920 offerings in our upcoming sale are therefore extraordinarily rare examples of the product of un-grafted vines.
Ownership of Château Latour
While other estates have endured upheaval at the hands of new owners, the ownership of Château Latour has been remarkably consistent through the years. Marguerite Coutant inherited Latour in 1693 from her uncle François Chanevas, and it passed on to only three families until 1962, when the estate was bought by the Pearson group from Britain.
The sale marked a period of great change at the estate. Huge investments were made in the planting of new vines, the replacement of old machinery and the introduction of new stainless-steel vats — changes which many Bordeaux estates have now adopted, but which were pioneering at the time.
A second wine, Les Forts de Latour, was introduced in 1966, followed by a third, the Pauillac de Latour, in 1973. Minuscule amounts of rosé were also produced purely for private consumption.
Purchased by François Pinault in 1993, Château Latour has gone from strength to strength under Frédéric Engerer, who has been President since 1998. A no-expense-spared refurbishment has seen major reconstruction in the cellars and the construction of a brand new vat room and tasting room. Considerable energy has also been invested into converting to organic and biodynamic viticulture and improving the winemaking process.
Latour’s unbeatable terroir
Latour possesses some of the best soils in Bordeaux. Gently sloping, the gravelly surface provides exceptional drainage and consists of both large stones and small pebbles. Beneath this is a moist subsoil composed of marl, chalk and clay, which provides nourishment to the roots and encourages them to dig deeper, an important factor when considering that it is the oldest vines with the deepest roots that are often considered to produce the finest fruit. This is crucial in hot years, such as 2003.
Of the 92 hectares of vines which comprise the vineyards of Château Latour, the 47 hectares around the Château are known as the ‘Enclos’. The best and oldest vines of the estate are to be found here, in what is considered to be one of the best vineyards in the whole of Bordeaux.
Consistency — vintage after vintage
The wines produced at this estate possess extraordinary longevity. When Harry Waugh, a long time director of the estate, tasted the 1865 vintage more than a century later, he found that it possessed ‘an astonishingly deep colour and such a bouquet! A great big fellow, full of fruit and absolutely fabulous for a centenarian’.
This longevity is due to the length of time it can take for wines from this estate to mature, especially in the strongest vintages. As a result, these wines will more often than not benefit hugely from decanting — their initial demeanour upon opening may be rather austere, and decanting allows them to show the true breadth of their potential.
It is the estate’s consistent ability to turn out exceptional wines in vintages which are deemed to have been off-years that marks it out from its peers
Although Latour makes legendary wines in the best vintages, it is this estate’s consistent ability to turn out exceptional wines in vintages that are deemed to have been off-years that marks it out from its peers. Vintages such as 1963 and 1977 are excellent illustrations of this, the latter being an example of a cold vintage during which few producers were able to make good wine.
This is thanks to the vineyard’s extraordinary terroir and climate, with the proximity of the vines to the nearby estuary meaning that they benefit from its temperature-moderating effects, which in extremely cold (1991) and extremely hot (2003) years has proved to be a lifeline for the vines.
The 1991 vintage is another example of the sheer brilliance of the wine produced at this estate, with Robert Parker describing it as a wine of ‘concentration and class’ in a vintage in which few were able to produce good wine. Some of the finest vintages produced at Latour include 1949, 1961, 1982, 1995, 2009 and 2010.
The Malbec family, was responsible for the winemaking at Latour for three generations. During their tenure, the Malbecs collected an impressive range of Latour with vintages dating back into the 19th century.
Denis Malbec, the wine-maker throughout the 1990s, ensured that all the older bottles in his cellar were reconditioned where appropriate, being re-corked, re-capsuled and re-labelled under the controlled conditions of the Latour cellars where the bottles had started their long journey to maturity.
Tragically, Denis was killed in a road accident in Yountville, Napa, in 2016; the wine world mourned the loss of such a talented and versatile figure.
In November 2018, a selection of the wines from the collection were sold at Christie’s in London, allowing new owners to enjoy some of the famous and fabled vintages from the illustrious history of Pauillac's most legendary vineyard.
All the bottles in the sale — lots 636 to 713 — were collected for inspection from the family cellar, which is a stone’s throw from the boundary of the Latour vineyard, and then transported in controlled conditions to Christie’s cellars in the UK.
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For the entirety of their history prior to this shipment, the bottles moved no more than half a mile, resting either at the château or in the family cellar. Most are packed in new wooden cases, the majority supplied at the château, either at the time of purchase or reconditioning.