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Latour & Léoville-Las Cases

by Neal Martin, 2004

Part II features tasting notes on 75 vintages of wines from these great estates, by Neal Martin and Tom Cannavan.


Bordeaux is usually a serene and tranquil place; just the restful sounds of the Atlantic breeze, the birds, and the distant chugging of vineyard machinery broken occasionally by a car hurtling up the road late for a Château appointment. On a dewy autumnal morning, we stood on the lawn with Gildas d`Ollone at Château Pichon-Lalande, looking down the escarpment towards the Gironde. Our silence was broken by the distant sound of cranes, diggers and pneumatic drills at neighbouring Château Latour. One has become accustomed to the renovation of Châteaux, but demolition and reconstruction on this scale? Our host described it as "Hotel Latour" and conjectured upon the number of floors they were planning to build. As the project nears completion, the landscape is not blighted by a 15-storey tower block overlooking the Gironde. In fact, they were constructing new underground cellars and rebuilding the administrative quarters virtually brick by brick.

French industrialist Francois Pinault purchased the Château in 1993 and over the last two years he has striven to build his "Kubla Khan", a potent celebration of Latour's historical significance and unique terroir, with unlimited financial backing. To administer such a change he installed Frederick Engerer, a somewhat obdurate perfectionist who has just about completed the project with ruthless vigour.

We were some of the first visitors to witness the impressive results, even though the courtyard was still strewn with rubble and building detritus. The usual entrance via the trademark Tour de St. Lambert was closed due to the re-cobbling of the courtyard. As we traipsed through the mud to enter the chai, I could not help but notice its location some 100 metres from the Gironde (due to its origin as a real castle built to protect the Médoc from pirates.) But in 1991 its proximity to the river protected the vines against the devastating late Spring frost; its micro-climate a vital 1-2 degrees warmer than surrounding vineyards.

We were immediately escorted to the newly excavated first-year cellar which lies directly above the second-year cellar; a stainless steel lift connects the two levels to ensure smooth transition of barrels from one to the other. The ceiling is illuminated by a quite stellar grid of single suspended bulbs akin to Santa`s Grotto. The enlarged space allows the barrels to be stacked on just two levels unlike Cos d`Estournel, for example, where the confines of the building necessitate barrels stacked five to six high and consequently more disturbance of the wines during racking. The cuverie is startling array of differing sized stainless steel vats that were inaugurated for the 2001 vintage.  

The matching of various sized plots to suitably sized vessels should enable greater monitoring and control of separate parcels. Finally to the bottling line which now encompasses a state-of-the-art laser mark to foil any forgeries (which is probably going to be a problem with the fabled 2000 vintage.) At the end of the line a dozen women meticulously wrap each bottle so that the tower of St. Lambert is visible through the paper, and pack them into wooden cases to be shipped around the world.

Léoville-Las Cases

Just across the tiny "Juillac" tributary which divides the communes of Pauillac and St. Julien, lies Château Leoville-Las Cases: the pretender to that elusive/non-existent vacancy as the sixth Bordeaux First Growth. Indeed the accompanying literature boldly asserts the wine "has a personality, a power and longevity equal to the premier cru". Certainly it is the Château most vociferous in its claim to ascendancy, fuelled by what some describe as "the most fearsome owner in Bordeaux", Monsieur Jean-Hubert Delon. The motto for Las Cases - "I am the lion that does not bite, unless the enemy attacks first" - certainly encapsulates some of M. Delon`s personality, though personally I find him charming and typically aloof in equal measures. My colleague informed me of his reputation for disarming négociants with long boozy lunches that saw them depart much the worse for wear.

Las Cases is surprisingly traditional with the exception of the tasting room in the centre that resembles a space-pod. It looks out of place amongst the 11 wooden & 14 concrete vats. Just after the harvest there was an intriguing air of bustle and chaos, the odours of countless vintages fermented in the chai as if the building is living and breathing wine. Latour is totally different: clinically spotless with designer lighting, run with a sense of precision and efficiency.

This year saw Las Cases strop out of the en primeur party, refusing to release their opening price of the 2001 vintage. The wine remains unreleased and its market value unquantified, though the Château would argue it is simply comparable to that of the First Growths. They will sit it out until they believe the price can realise this value, approximately £2,000 per case, rather than accept that of another "super-Second": a risky strategy. As the owner of Château Pavie has found to his cost, a generous Parker score does not entitle a carte blanche policy to pricing. There are a few major-league wine merchants who could count on one hand the number of cases of Pavie 2001 sold. Though one can argue that Las Cases has a longer history and higher pedigree, there is still an intangible gap that exists between the First Growths and "the rest". The irony is that the Las Cases 2001 is a magnificent wine, perhaps even greater than the 2000. Why manipulate the market when at the end of the day, the quality of the product will always win through?

two truly great estates

For myself, these two historic Châteaux represent the apex of the two most important communes in Bordeaux: Pauillac and St. Julien. They have certain things in common: an unrivalled consistency that can overcome the maritime vagaries of Bordeaux; wines that take a generation to reach a mature plateau and both have superlative Second wines (Les Forts de Latour and Clos du Marquis). Both managers have been described as arrogant, hard-headed and occasionally difficult to deal with. But perhaps that is simply because they are the most ambitious and uncompromising in Bordeaux. When your wines are as profound as the Latour 2000 or Las Cases 2001, one can afford to be arrogant.

As I stood watching the inexorable line of Châteaux Latour 2000 being bottled and wrapped, the phrase "license to print money" came to mind. Many of these bottles would be stored away in some non-descript bond, speculated upon by anonymous millionaires and used as an investment vehicle rather the wine to accompany food and share with friends. A sign of the times in Bordeaux. But certainly if one can ignore the price for a moment, both Châteaux have produced a steady stream of great wines, a trend which looks set to continue long into the future.

part II: 75 vintages of Latour and Las Cases tasted