Perhaps the most consistent of the Bordeaux First Growths has been Chateau Latour. While the other four Chateaus have had periods of underperformance, Chateau Latour has been remarkably consistent over the years in making some of the best wine to be found.
Chateau Latour can trace its history back to 1331 when a tower, called Tor à St-Lambert, was built on the site. This tower was used for defense in a battle between the Plantagenets and the French during the Hundred Years Wars. Sometime around 1378, the land, now referred to as “the tower” or Le Tour, was a seigneurie, a sharecropping system of land ownership. In 1453, when the English were finally defeated, the owner of the estate, Sieur de Larsan fled. The property returned to the control of the French and the tower on the site was destroyed. Nothing from it, other than the name, exists today. Sometime in the early 17th century, the the building on the label of the bottle called a dovecot was built on the site of the original tower.
It is not certain when the first vines were planted but certainly by the early 1600s there were grapes growing. By the end of the century Latour had developed a top notch reputation for quality wines. In 1670, the estate was purchased by the de Chavannes family which passed in marriage seven years later to the de Clauzel family. Alexandre de Ségur then acquired the property by virtue of his marriage to Marie-Thérèse de Clauzel. Latour remained in his family for almost three centuries although for much of that time, it was managed in absentia.
The 1800s saw a steady expansion in the estate and the quality of wines. In 1855, Chateau Latour was one of only four red wines granted premier cru status. See Bordeaux First Growths: A True Trophy Wine For Wine Collectors. Unfortunately, Phyloxera attacked the vines at Latour starting in 1880. The entire vineyard was replanted from 1901 thru 1920.
In 1963, the descendants in the Ségur family sold off a controlling interest in Latour to a British group. This group invested in the estate adding vineyards and making improvements to the winery. Latour was the first of the Premier Crus to modernize. Stainless steel fermenting vats replaced the oak. In addition, a second wine called Le Forts de Latour was produced.
Allied Lyons bought control of Latour in 1989 for £110 million. Francois Pinault, a French billionaire who also controlled Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci thru his Group Artemis holdings, bought the estate in 1993 for £86 million. The day to day management of the estate is in the capable hands of Frederic Engerer.
Today, Chateau Latour consists of 78 hectares located 2.5 km south of the city of the Pauillac commune of Bordeaux. All of the grapes used in the Grand Vin come from this vineyard. The soil is gravel on top of clay and marl. A bedrock of limestone lies under that. The vineyards contain 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, and 1% each of Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. The Merlot is planted where the gravel is less deep and the clay soil is more prominent.
The vineyard surrounding the chateau is called L’Enclos and dates back to the mid-1700’s. The Grand Vin, labeled Chateau Latour is made entirely from L’Enclos, usually a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot with the rest Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Approximately 18,000 cases are produced. The second wine, Les Forts de Latour is usually 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 30% Merlot. Les Forts is produced from the younger vines in the L’Enclos vineyard and three other plots on the Estate. Approximately 11,000 cases are produced each year. Since almost all of the grapes originate outside the vineyard L’Enclos, this is technically not what is usually referred to as a second wine. Typically, second wines are made from the leftover barrels deemed not of sufficient quality for the top wine. On occasion, however, some barrels of the Grand Vin will be included in Les Forts. A third wine is made called Pauillac de Latour with the remaining grapes.
The grapes are destemmed and then fermented in separate tanks according to the plot where the grapes were grown, the age of the vines and the varietal. Although alcohol fermentation only takes about a week, the juice is allowed to macerate on the skins for three weeks. After determining which level of wine the juice will be used in, the juice is blended and then put in barrels. The Grand Vin gets all new French oak while Les Forts gets half new oak and half one year old barrels. The wine is racked every three months during the eighteen months they are aged. Before bottling, the wine is fined to separate the particles from the liquid and then combined in a large vat. The bottles reach the marketplace approximately two and one half years after harvest.
Chateau Latour is often considered the most age worthy of all of the first growths. Indeed, in a great vintage, this wine takes twenty to thirty years just to become approachable and may live fifty to even one hundred years. Great vintages such as 1899, 1900 and 1928 are still supposed to be drinking wonderfully. Alas, I have not had the opportunity or pleasure to try for myself. A bottle of the 1966 I recently tried was still drinking quite well and mature. However, a bottle of the 1990 consumed recently seemed to be still young and not quite mature.
The wines of Chateau Latour are not inexpensive. Even in the so called weaker vintages, the Grand Vin will cost over $300 a bottle. In the better vintages such as 2005, you may expect to pay closer to $1,000 a bottle or more. Perhaps the best “value” now is the 2001 or 2002 vintage which costs at least $300 per bottle. Both of these vintages need a good bit more cellar time and should find their prime drinking toward the end of this decade. The price on the Les Forts has gotten silly as well. Vintages now regularly cross the $100 threshold. While the wine is very good, for my money, there are quite a few bottlings out there that are better for the money. For some, however, the name on the bottle is important and for those people, Les Forts does offer a less expensive price of admission. Even the third label can be costly. The 2005 Pauillac de Latour is available for over $60 a bottle.
For a review of specific vintages, please see the Bordeaux Left Bank Vintage Chart. While the wines of Chateau Latour are expensive, if your budget allows, they are wines that should not be missed. With hundreds of years of being one of the top wines in the world, these wines are synonymous with history and tradition. If you are lucky enough to taste a glass, I would love to hear what you thought.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.