I really admire the idea of handmade, holistic wines that focus on the goodness that earth gave them and much less on science and agro-industrial technology and methodology. The less man intervenes and the more nature gives us her true essence in the bottle, the better—or at least when it is possible—it seems to me. Most great wines of the world are made in this way to some degree.
Granted, a lot of the green, organic brigade of winemakers around the world make some pretty miserable wines under their banner of purity and non-interventionist principles in the vineyard and winery. Some of the best organic or green wine producers don’t make a big deal over it. Most don’t even mention it on their labels. Over and over again, I find many of the top wineries I visit in Europe and America are already organic and sensitive to handmade winemaking principles (God willing), but they just don’t talk about it, or better, preach about it.
A recent example was a morning stroll through the vineyards of famous first-growth Château Latour during VinExpo in Bordeaux a few weeks ago. A horse was tilling about 6 acres of the best parcel of the property’s vineyard. The lead agronomist of Latour said that they had found that the horse’s cultivation of the soil was softer and more precise than the traditional tractor. The latter often damaged the vines as it turned the soil, shortening the life of the plants. She was also exploring the application of biodynamic techniques in the small parcel of Latour, and was very happy with the results so far. There was talk of expanding it to cover the entire vineyard.
Maybe I am a romantic? Maybe it’s not worth the hassle? Or it’s just to show gullible wine critics and wine freaks like myself? But history suggests otherwise. Most of the greatest wines I have consumed in my life have been made in the simplest manner. Most great wines that I have had from the 19th century and 20th century came from horse-plowed vineyards and simple, handmade winemaking techniques. The wines almost made themselves.
Horse-plowed vineyards at Château Latour are less stressful to vines than those tilled by machine.
A case in point was the night before I took my morning stroll in the vineyard of Latour. I was lucky enough that night to consume some amazing, legendary wines of the estate during a dinner with a small group of wine lovers including the winemaker of Australia’s Grange Hermitage and owner of Bryant Family Vineyards in Napa Valley. The wines included 2001, 2000, 1982, 1964, 1961, 1959, 1950, 1945, 1929, 1928, 1926 and 1878. Yes, 1878! (When he found out about the 1878, Don Bryant shouted, “I don’t even have a 1978 Bryant Family Vineyards!")
The oldest wine blew me away. All the wines were served blind, and I actually correctly guessed that the wine was pre-phylloxera (made with ungrafted vines before the dreaded root louse destroyed Europe’s vineyards). I have consumed a few dozen bottles of these rare wines in my life, and the real ones have an exotic, wild character of tropical fruits and Chinese spices that you can’t forget. They are not dark-colored, but still rich and exuberant on the nose and the palate. I felt like a rock star saying the Latour 1878 was 1888. I was only off 10 years. Others were off 50 to 70 years. (Sometimes I get lucky!)
For the record, here are my tasting notes of the wines at the dinner. I want to publish them for the record because they are so rare and legendary, at least the Latours from the 1960s back.
2001: This is better to drink now than the 2000 but obviously in the long run it will not be on the same level. It shows beautiful velvety tannins and focused ripe fruit character of berries, currant and licorice. The tannins are seamless. Full-bodied yet refined and racy. It will be better in five years, but it’s a joy to taste now. 95 points, unofficially.
2000: At first, I honestly preferred the 2001. The 2000 was so tight and shy that it gave you very little. But then it began to come out of the glass and showed a fabulously dense and powerful palate with wonderful black fruits and powerful, polished tannins. It is such a baby still with a density and structure that makes you dream of past great vintages at this estate such as 1961. 100 points, unofficially.
1982: I know this wine very, very well, and I have to admit that there seems to be a lot of bottle variation. This bottle came from the château’s cellar, so it was in perfect condition. The aromas are amazing, with Indian spices, currant and berries with hints of perfume. It’s full-bodied with a fabulous balance and a long, long finish that caresses every inch of your palate. 99 points, unofficially.
1964: This was from magnum as I remember. I used to drink this very often in London when I lived there in the late 1980s. Hasn’t changed. Shows sweet berries and sweet tobacco with plum and raspberry undertones. It’s full-bodied, with ultravelvety tannins and a long finish. Even a little Porty. Needs drinking but it doesn’t seem to be declining in quality at the moment. 92 points, unofficially.
1961: A legend and rightfully so. It’s normally a 100-point wine. I have seldom been disappointed, and this certainly was right on! The depth of fruit in the wine is spellbinding, with ripe strawberry, currant and plum and a seductive wet earth undertone. It’s full and juicy with racy tannins that coat your palate yet titillate you to drink even more. A true icon of winemaking. 100 points, unofficially.
1959: I have found that the 1959 often rivals the 1961, but the bottle we drank at the dinner was just not completely right. It had a mushroom and earth character on the nose and palate that I don’t normally find, yet it still had the normally intense nose and palate of sweet raspberry with currant and licorice. The palate was full, powerful and chewy. 93 points, unofficially.
1950: Frédéric Engerer, the president of Latour, didn’t want to serve this at first because he thought that it wasn’t up to scratch, but in the end it showed some attractive, friendly plum, currant and Indian spice character on the nose and palate. It’s full, round and clean, with sweet fruit and a lovely purity. 92 points, unofficially.
1945: This is the best bottle of the legendary victory year bottle I have drunk in my life. There is so much prune and blackberry character underlining how incredibly hot the growing season was the last year of the Second World War. The palate is full and velvety with raisin, tar and spices. It's so fresh and youthful yet shows the complexity of age. 100 points, unofficially.
1929: There is always a debate on which is better, the 1929 or the 1928. I couldn’t make up my mind. This shows a ripe plum and berry aroma underneath the citrusy acidity and mushroom character. It’s full and slightly tart, but the sweet and dried dark fruits come through on the finish. Fascinating wine. 95 points, unofficially.
1928: This was the hotter of the two vintages preceding 1930 and, thus, still showed a slightly more cooked fruit character with fresh herb undertones. It was slightly volatile but the dense and rich dark fruits on the palate made up for any funky, off nuances in the wine. 95 points, unofficially.
1926: Just holding on, the 1926 shows a lot of acetone and citrusy acidity on the nose and palate with an orange peel character as well. Still, it’s full-bodied and rich with a tart, strong finish. 85 points, unofficially.
1878: This was the most memorable wine of the evening due to its unique pre-phylloxera character of exotic fruits such as litchi and kumquat with hints of Chinese spices. It’s so very, very aromatic and distinctive. It's not dark-colored or thick and youthful, yet there is a density and richness on the palate that sticks with you. I can almost taste the wine now as I think about it. 96 points, unofficially