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This French Vinter's Reds Are Unlike Any Other : Ability to Produce Fine Wine in Poor Year Gives Latour Its Greatest Distinction

March 06, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Revered in France as a national monument, Bordeaux's Chateau Latour is often described as the finest red wine in the world. While the title may be challenged by other claret's first growths and even by a few California Cabernet upstarts, there is one accolade that is irrefutable--the chateau does make the finest off-vintage wines.

No other winery seems to be as successful producing reds of richness, elegance, power and harmony when the climate is poor, cold and rainy. Even with undistinguished vintages like '67, '71, '73 and '76, Latour produced the best in the Medoc, the Bordeaux region of the other classified first growths, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild. The ability to produce fine wine in a poor year gives Latour its greatest distinction.

Always Expensive

Because of its reputation and name, Latour is always expensive. Bottles from the great vintages of '59, '61, '70, '75 and '82 are likely to be beyond the means of the average wine lover at prices in excess of $100 a bottle. What is comforting, however, for those unwilling and unable to afford a fine Latour vintage is that an off-vintage bottle may give almost as much if not more pleasure at an affordable price, sometimes as low as $25. The bottom line is quality and taste.

Recently at a tasting and dinner at the Biltmore Hotel, Alan Hare, president of Latour, and Harry Waugh, wine author and a Latour director, presented the off-vintage Latours as well as top-rated years, 1970 and 1982. Included were the winery's second wine, Les Forts de Latour, 1970, 1975 and 1978. Waugh does not like the term off-vintage , preferring the description moderate vintage , which he considers one of the wine's best bargains. Consumers should be aware that there are few, if any, legitimate wine bargains, so it is gratifying for them to know that if they put out a few more dollars and acquire Latours from '67, '71, '73 and '76, they are not likely to get ripped off.

All wine drinkers on occasion like to have a famous name on the table. Whether it be for a special dinner, birthday, wedding or anniversary, the name Latour always strikes a responsive cord, but at the same time it generally delivers a full-bodied, big, bold taste with power and charm. What consumers, usually mesmerized by favored year vintage charts, forget is that off-vintage Latours are likely to be better drinking than the others.

This was the case of the heralded 1970, which did not offer as much charm and overall gentle, mature flavor, as did the '71, '73, '76 and '67. Fine vintage Latours, unlike many of its sister chateaux, require decades of maturity before the mature development of a full robe of svelte, silky, subtle flavors. Lesser vintages mature faster and offer such delightful early flavors that I wonder whether the decades wait for the "biggies" is worth it. The celebrated 1945 is still maturing and would easily dominate these younger, not-so-respected vintages as well as decimate the budget at $1,000 a bottle.

Four Factors

What makes Latour consistently good in off years? There is no quick, accurate answer. Jean Paul Gardere, Latour's wine maker since 1963, likes to think it is a question of location, soil, vine and grape selection. The soil, although essentially unfertile, is principally gravel, lies close to the Gironde River and near enough to the Atlantic to enjoy an oceanic climate of a mild, humid winter with occasional cold spells, a cool spring and a warm, frequently sunny summer.

Perhaps more important is the wine's reliance on Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Latour is one of the few Bordeaux wineries to qualify as a Cabernet by American varietal regulations since it contains 75% of the variety. Cabernet provides power and durability, whereas elegance and finesse are captured by blending with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The vineyard is slightly more than 47 hectares with a high density of planting--10,000 vines per hectare--causing each vine to produce fewer grape bunches and, thus, concentrate quality.

The old vines attain 60 to 70 years of age, the essential ingredient in the lovely intense concentration that has been a hallmark of Latour's style since the 18th Century.

About a kilometer from the winery, another vineyard, about 13 hectares, is responsible for Les Forts, which takes its name from the days when the original building was a fortress. Latour's harvest generally takes place in two stages, with the youngest vines picked first and directed to Les Forts, whereas in the second stage, older vines are placed into Latour, an expensive process.

Robust Latour Style

Les Forts frequently can be found at one half to one third the cost of Latour. The 1970, an unmistakable robust Latour style of intense, fine flavor and concentration, made an excellent buy. It is now drinking better than its senior wine, Latour '70, which costs two to three times as much and needs many more years of cellaring.

That's the way it is with Latour. The lesser-known vintages and its "junior" wine are fine table candidates earlier at less expense. Consumers should take a long look and taste at years like 1977, 1980 and 1984, which have less aggressive tannins and lower prices than the big vintages. The '84 may be found in the $30 to $35 range, but the price could tumble if buyers bypass the vintage in favor of the already acclaimed '85. Notwithstanding the discovery of the taste pleasure of gentler Latours, it may well be the rare instance of paying less, but getting more.

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