10 Things Every Wine Lover Should Know About... Chateau Latour

First published Wine Searcher, October 24 2013

​Link to original article here

No. 1. Causing a stir:

It might be one of Bordeaux’s oldest estates, but Château Latour is certainly not afraid of breaking with tradition. Two years ago the 1855 Pauillac first growth announced it was withdrawing from the region’s en primeur system. The last vintage to be sold en primeur was 2011, with the 2012 being held back until some future date when it will be deemed "ready to drink."


Observers got an idea of the new system's shape when Latour released three ready-to-drink wines from past vintages earlier this year (1995 Château Latour, 2005 Les Forts de Latour, and 2009 Pauillac de Latour). The releases confirmed director Frédéric Engerer's plans to store wine at the château for 10 to 15 years on average for the first wine, and 7 to 8 years for Forts de Latour, the second wine.


Whatever the merits or drawbacks of Latour's new strategy, it certainly means the estate will be storing a lot of wine. The cranes hovering over the property are testament to this: Latour is currently building a new underground cellar, due to be finished by mid-2014 at the latest.


No. 2. An international affair:

François Pinault, billionaire owner of Gucci, Christie’s, Yves Saint Laurent and Palazzo Grassi, bought Latour in 1993. Today, it is run by his son François-Henri Pinault (married to actress Selma Hayek), with his daughter Florence Rogers-Pinault as director of public relations.


Latour is one of four estates owned by Pinault under the collective name Artemis Domaines. The others are Domaine d’Eugenie (Vosne-Romanée, Burgundy), Château-Grillet (northern Rhône), and Araujo Estate (Napa). Pinault also owns vines in Le Montrachet and Bâtard-Montrachet, two white Burgundy grands crus. There are rumors that the group is looking to expand further, into Champagne and perhaps Tuscany or Piedmont, but don’t expect any confirmation on this until the ink has dried on the contracts.


"The really interesting thing about Artemis is that this is a company that has chosen to invest in four of the world’s greatest wine regions," says Paris-based American consultant Jaime Araujo, whose company, Terravina, is currently providing advice on Artemis Domaines' marketing strategy.


"I don’t know of any other wine company that has kept its investments limited to only exceptional estates of this quality," she adds. "It makes sense that they would want to keep going, but equally they may feel that what they have now is already plenty."


No. 3. Going green:

Most of Latour’s vines stand on gravelly hilltops, 12 to 16 meters above the Gironde estuary, with a layer of sticky clay ("argile gonflante") underneath. Recent years have seen the estate intensifying its moves into environmentally conscious farming. Latour currently has 24 hectares of biodynamic and 7 hectares of organic vines. Plowing with horses was reintroduced in 2008, and there are now seven horses working within the 47-hectare walled L’Enclos.


If any plots are uprooted, the soil is left for a minimum of five years to regenerate before new planting, and no herbicides are used. Natural methods of crop protection have also been introduced, from insect hotels to sexual confusion. Even the vineyard workers use mountain bikes to get around the 85 hectares of vines, because this is the most environmentally friendly form of transport.


No. 4. The full service:

As well as having Prooftag security seals to ensure full traceability, and a certificate of provenance, each bottle that leaves Latour is individually wrapped by hand in silk paper.


No. 5. The art of wine:

Pinault is one of France’s most significant art collectors, owning more than 2,000 works as well as an eponymous art foundation. In 2005, he bought Palazzo Grassi in Venice, where temporary exhibitions, including artworks from his personal collection, are displayed. Two years later, Pinault was selected by the city to restore Punta della Dogana, a former customs house, and turn it into a center of contemporary art.

Visitors to Château Latour can get a taste of the works on show at the Venice galleries; on display in the main tasting room is Swiss photographer Balthasar Burkhard’s "Zebre" (1996).


No. 6. Vineyard royalty:

The first mention of Latour dates from 1331, with an authorization for a fortified tower to be built in the parish of Saint Maubert. But it wasn't until the "Prince of Vines," Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur," arrived here that the estate's fame really took off. For much of the 18th century, the de Ségur family owned both Lafite and Latour (and for two years, from 1718 to 1720, also Mouton).


Nicolas-Alexandre was a firm favorite with Louis XV, and ensured that Latour was served regularly at the royal court of Versailles. As with all the first growths, acceptance in the English market – and its own royal court – played an important part in the wine’s growing reputation. In 1714, a barrel of Latour was worth four to five times that of a barrel of basic Bordeaux in London. By 1767, that ratio had risen to 20 times more, setting it on the road to first-growth adulation in 1855.


Today, an average bottle of Latour is around 300 times more expensive than a bottle of basic Bordeaux.


No. 7. Cabernet fever:

Of all the first growths, Latour is the estate with the most cabernet sauvignon vines. They represent over 80 percent of its vineyard, planted at 10,000 plants per hectare. The remainder is made up of 18 percent merlot, plus a small amount of cabernet franc and petit verdot. Once the grapes have been brought in to the cellar and selected for bottle, the first wine is invariably more than 90 percent cabernet sauvignon.


No. 8. Shanghai auction:

Christie’s held its inaugural auction in mainland China last month, in the newly created Shanghai Free Trade Zone. As you might expect from an auction house owned by François Pinault, it featured several bottles of Latour. Bidding at the auction (which was relatively small, just 42 lots in total), opened with 12 bottles and six magnums of Latour 2000 selling for $59,512 – well ahead of the high estimate of $50,000.


Perhaps a little gallingly for Pinault, the same auction saw just three bottles of 1986, 1990 and 2009 Château Margaux go for $75,382 – although to be fair, they were displayed in a wine box shaped as a replica of the château and designed by the Queen's nephew, Lord Linley.


No. 9. Money in the bank?

Earlier this year, Latour launched what will be the château's first annual ex-cellar release. It intends to sell wines that are ready to drink direct from the estate's cellars. The first trio offered was 1995 Château Latour, 2005 Les Forts de Latour, and 2009 Pauillac de Latour.


The 1995 Latour was released at 4,950 pounds ($8,001) by Farr Vintners in the U.K. market in March, 450 pounds ($808) more than the same case stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse in the U.K.  


Wine collectors haven't rushed to buy the ex-cellar stock, explains Farr Vintners director Stephen Browett: "Because of the top-quality storage offered by Octavian Bond in the U.K., not so many customers were prepared to pay the premium for ex-château stock as might be the case in other countries where stock already shipped might not have been so well stored," he says.


To prove the point, Browett provided the sales of Latour from different sources in 2013. It has sold 42 cases of "regular" stock that left Bordeaux after bottling and was then stored in bond in the U.K.; 18 cases of "ex-château" stock that was late-released in the last few years; and 23 cases of the 2013 ex-château release.


There is a warning contained in Latour's own history about the value of gambling on prices. Way back in the 18th century, Nicolas-Alexandre de Ségur refused an offer of 1,800 silver livres per tonneau (four barrels) for his 1736 Latour vintage. This was double the average for top wines and in line with best prices at the time. A few years later, he had to dump that same vintage on the market for 260 livres, as buyers had dried up. 


No. 10. What should wine lovers drink now?

For Latour director Engerer, the answer is simple. "The 1995 Latour is slowly reaching a drinking phase, but has a serious reserve of tannic energy and should continue to improve in the next five years at least, and then last another 20 years, easily."


Most tasters who sampled the three "ready-to-drink" wines when they were on display in April, agreed. That said, Australian critic James Halliday is still enjoying the 1995 Les Forts de Latour, calling it "positively velvety, the flavors of forest fruits, cedar, plum and spice, all woven together."