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The wines of Louis Latour

by Tom Cannavan, 03/02

Back in summer 2001 I wrote some pretty scathing comments about a couple of white Burgundy wines being sold as part of Majestic's range. These were two wines from the highly-respected firm of Louis Latour, one of Burgundy's best-known and much-loved houses. I wrote: "Sorry Majestic, but the two wines are a disgrace at the price. Latour should be ashamed of that Auxey-Duresses, and surely you could find better southern Burgundy whites at the money? Latour can hit fantastic heights with their top wines, but these are just dreadful".

Both of these wines - an Auxey-Duresses 1999 and a Saint-Véran 1999 - are "négociant" wines, made from parcels of wines purchased from contracted suppliers; a common practice in larger Burgundy houses. At around £8 and £12 each these wines are towards the bottom end of Latour's Burgundy portfolio, but I took neither their price nor position in Latour's range as an excuse: £10 is still £10, and surely the care and attention that goes into one of these more basic wines should be no less than their Grand Cru bottlings?

Within a day I heard a whisper that some top people at Majestic were not happy with my report, and a day later I was contacted by Louis Latour, UK. They wanted to meet me. With visions of snuggling-up beside a horse's head in my bed one night if I refused, I hired some Sicillian minders and accepted their offer. They insisted that all they wanted to do was let me taste their wines and learn a little more about Louis Latour.

the meet

London, the winter of 2001. I travel nervously in the elevator up to the Tenth Floor Restaurant of the Kensington Royal Garden hotel. The big guy on my left reaches for his inside pocket, and I breathe a sigh of relief when he pulls out only a mobile phone. I'm prepared to hit the deck if I'm faced with a bunch of scar-faced wise guys when the lift doors open. Thankfully, it turned out this was to be nowhere near so scary as I'd feared.

Louis Latour's Managing Director in the UK, Alexander Nall, is alone, apart from an array of those elegant, yellow- capsuled Latour bottles. He is a passionate believer in the quality of Latour's range. He professed disbelief and disappointment over my reviews of the two whites, but I noticed they weren't in the line-up of bottles at the top of the table. I told him that I found the wines - particularly that Auxey - dirty and rather fruitless. To me they epitomised old-fashioned, under-fruited Burgundy. They sit uneasily amongst the much better wines I'd tasted from the company in the past.
  
Alexander Nall

Founded in 1797, Latour remains in family ownership. The company is a very traditional "négociant-éléveur", buying grapes and wines from suppliers to be aged, blended and bottled in their Beaune cellars. But these are not restricted to generic wines and simpler village appelations (see the regional guide to Burgundy), but also to Premiers Crus like the excellent Puligny-Montrachet La Garenne we tasted here.

Few négociants are also such substantial vineyard owners as Domaine Louis Latour, especially of Grands Crus appelations, of which Latour boasts 28.63 hectares (71.58 acres). These estate-bottled wines are vinified at the Château Corton Grancey in Aloxe-Corton, and the vineyards encompass dozens of Grands Crus, from Chevalier Montrachet to Romanée-St-Vivant.

Latour has also recently been accepted into the Forum de l'Agriculture Raisonnée Respectueuse de l'Environnement, or FARRE, an organisation employing and advocating environmental farming techniques. Latour is developing alternative methods for disease and virus control that do away with insecticides, and is introducing natural predator control to combat pests. Latour also make their own oak barrels (each one requiring eight man-hours).

The company has probably become well known to a new generation of wine consumers through their less expensive Chardonnay wines made in the Ardèche, about half way between Burgundy and the Cote d'Azur. The Chardonnay d'Ardèche and Grand Ardèche, are Vins de Pays, the latter barrel-fermented and aged in barrels made in their Beaune HQ.

the tasting

white

Montagny 1er Cru La Grande Roche 2000 - £12
Clean, crisp nose with gentle vanillin undertones over lemon and pear fruit; very crunchy and fresh. The palate is crisp too, with just a nutty edge and good mouthfeel. There is real richness here, yet it is clean and fresh, and well delineated by citrus acidity. That richness is compounded by just a suggestion of honey coming through on the finish. Very good indeed.

Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru La Garenne 1999 - £27.99
Fine, nutty nose with ground almond and tight, mineral nuances to delicately floral, juicy peach and orchard fruit. The palate is tight and focused, with apple and lemon, and again a rich nuttiness. Very pure, this is long and delicious now, but should gain a little weight. Very good indeed/excellent.

Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru La Garenne 1998 - £27.99
Considerably more depth on the nose here, with a delicately vegetal quality, some orange and a nutty quality. Again there is a core of minerality. Good mouthfeel, with lots of dry, elegant fruit which is really quite ripe, married to mouthwatering acidity. Good weight and good length. Very good indeed.

Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 1992
We also drank this with lunch, and I have to say it was an absolutely gorgeous wine (it was my wine of the month in the "sky's the limit" category). A superb example of a top white Burgundy hitting its glorious stride. Beautiful, deepening golden colour, still a hint of emerald. Terrifically opulent nose of sweet vanillin and butterscotch, a hint of honey. Opulent on the palate too with a luscious mouthfeel of honeyed, sweet fruit: peaches and nectarine, but a buttery undercurrent and very fine citrus acidity that lifts and extends the finish. Hints of minerality also add complexity, but this is a ripe, fruit-driven, hedonistic style of white Burgundy at its best. Around £50 from Nickolls and Perks, Farr Vintners.

red

Marsannay 1999 - £10.90
Lovely cherry-fruited nose. Fine red fruit quality, a little softer strawberry note. Softly elegant, sweet Pinot fruit on the palate, quite fresh, though some earthy, gamy, notes add interest. Good fruit quality, some style and decent length. An attractive wine and very good/very good indeed.

Marsannay 1998 - £10.90
This has a maturing depth of fruit on the nose, with a more black fruit character than the 1999; slightly deeper. It is still quite fresh, but on the palate it is more modest, with raspberry fruit and a good mouthfeel. Drinks well, with decent length. Very good.

Beaune 1er Cru Vignes Franches 1999 - £17.99
Quite subdued on the nose at first. A smoky, slightly gamy quality develops, then cherry fruit that is sweet and ripe. There is some charry spice in the background. On the palate this is really silky-textured, with a hint of chocolate and plummy depth. The acidity is good, and has a sharpening effect on the finish, along with ripe, elegant tannins. Very good indeed. Drinking well, but will improve.

Château Corton Grancey Grand Cru 1995
This has an attractive spicy berry nose. It is quite full, with soft raspberry fruit, and a deep, creamy background of sweet oak. There are fine earthy nuances, and sophisticated gamy qualities, but mostly just elegant fruit. On the palate it has a lovely texture and floods the palate with lightly chewy fruit and fine tannins. Elegant and ripe, this is a light but very attractive wine that is palate-filling and drinks really well with food. Very good indeed.

the verdict

All in all, a really impressive tasting of quality, balanced and sophisticated wines; the whites in particular offering superb drinking. The £12 Montagny 1er Cru is streets ahead of that similarly priced Auxey-Durreses 1999 tasted last summer. The two vintages of Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru, though another négociant wine, were each utterly convincing. The mature Corton-Charlemagne was simply sublime.

So was I wrong about those two wines in the Majestic tasting? Did the five minutes I could devote to them in a tasting of over 100 wines perhaps do them an injustice? Well, I recently got hold of the same two wines, though the St-Véran was the 2000 vintage, not the 1999. I had these at home, with suitable food. My verdict? The St-Véran 2000 (£7.99) has a pleasant nose of orchard fruits and a little hint of honeysuckle and oatmeal. Yet on the palate it again does not convince, being a little short, and a rather lacking flesh; a citric experience soon clamped down by acidity. My second tasting of the Auxey-Durreses 1999 (£11.99) did little to dispel my earlier findings. Whilst having the wine at the ideal temperature and with suitable food improved it, I still found that slightly dirty, musty, rather dull character.

So, a totally fascinating experience that suggests that at the upper reaches Latour are masters of their craft, and with the mid-priced Montagny and red Marsannay, proves they can cut it in this bracket too. I can only conclude that the Auxey-Duress is either a style I simply do not like, or the winemaking for this wine is not up to scratch. I would like to thank Louis Latour and Alexander Nall for this opportunity which renewed my confidence in this historic house. There's a wealth of information available on Latour's website: www.louislatour.com. By sheer coincidence, a notice arrived in the post today from Majestic, announcing an exclusive offer on Louis Latour Burgundies from older vintages, matured in Latour's cellars and just released to Majestic, with substantial price reductions. A chance to try them for yourself?