Last December, I visited Château Latour, one of the three first-growths in Pauillac, and spoke with its intensely focused president, Frédéric Engerer. On this visit, he picked up where he left off—all Latour, all the time, despite the recent acquisition (pending final paperwork) of Château-Grillet in the Rhône.
Engerer wanted to talk about selection. It seems that every top château in Bordeaux is being more stringent in their selection of the lots for their grand vin. But Engerer insists that the process begins in the vineyards. Simply selecting quality levels of wine after the fact is limited.
“The goal is to make the best wine possible, but there is a limit to selection. There is a line that can be crossed in selection, and it can get too severe. If I make a great wine, but not enough of it, then I’ve failed to manage the vineyards,” he said, turning his laser focus on himself.
Driven by the desire to turn all the vineyard plots into potential sources for the grand vin, Engerer admits to successes and failures. He takes me outside and two bicycles are waiting. It’s not an option—I get on and head out into the vineyards with him.
We stopped at one point to watch his latest addition—horses—plowing a parcel. “It’s been a dry winter, and the soil is a little fragile right now. We are going very carefully,” he said, as a worker beckoned the horse to pull the plow, kicking up noticeable dust as it churned the soil down a row.
Nearby, a long-forgotten drainage ditch has been excavated in preparation for a new row of vines. The ditch is being renovated to move water out of the area, rather than let it sit below the vines, potentially allowing for lazy growth and high yields. I asked Engerer if adding drainage to a site isn’t an over-manipulation of terroir. At what point does human influence violate the inherent quality of a site?
“That’s a good question,” he said, pausing for a split second. “Let’s ask the people who get to irrigate.”
While the Bordelais are forbidden to irrigate their vineyards, it’s common practice in many wine regions around the world. “In ’10, because of the hydric stress, the parcels were pushed, and we had to really manage the vinification carefully,” Engerer said. “The parcels on the clay soils handled it better and perhaps you could go for more there, while those on sandy or gravelly soils, you had to be careful. I would have loved to have been able to irrigate in ’10.”
Pedaling down the hill, we stopped at the northern end of the property. Engerer stood astride his bicycle, between two parcels, divided only by a narrow gravel path.
“This on the left was young vines when I started, and now it goes to the grand vin. And I never thought it would make it,” he said, with a measure of pride. “But here, on the other side, this Merlot, we’ve done everything we can. We cut it down from yields that were up here,” gesturing with a hand and rolling his eyes. “It’s now over 20 years old. But it’s never made it. It’s a sort of defeat, really,” he added with an air of solemn introspection.
Currently, Engerer said, 84 of the estate’s 116 acres are in the quality zone that goes to Latour’s grand vin. Engerer has used increasingly smaller parcel selections, based on soil analysis, as well as infrared analysis of canopies that show ripening levels or water stress. Experimentation doesn’t stop there: Leaf-pulling tests, a range of anti-mildew treatments (chemical versus biodynamic) and more have been tried.
“You don’t learn more or less in good years versus bad—you learn something every year, if you want. Some people don’t want to learn,” he said, almost dismissively.
Despite all the viticultural micromanaging, Engerer does not quite have Latour where he wants the estate to be. “Hypothetically, in a perfect world, if there were no geological factors, I’d be able to make all the wine [from all the parcels] for the grand vin,” he said. “So, trying to figure out why a parcel is downgraded is critical.”
For the tasting of the 2010s, Engerer was adamant that the final blends have been made and that what we tasted is the wine to be sold en primeur, with the exception of the Pauillac (the third wine).
“That is only 99 percent done, because maybe there are some fine lees after the next racking of the Latour that are too good to just do away with, so we might add those to the Pauillac,” he said.
“But the wines are always blended from the top. You lock in Latour first, then what didn’t make that wine, you work for Forts, then the Pauillac.”
(All the wines described below were tasted non-blind. As these are unfinished wines, they are scored in four-point ranges—eg. 89–92 points—to indicate that the ratings are still preliminary.)
The third wine, the Château Latour Pauillac Pauillac 2010, represents a hefty 24 percent of the crop, up from 15 percent in ’09. The blend is 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 44.5 percent Merlot and one-half percent Cabernet Franc. Made for more immediate consumption, it’s sappy and open, with delightful kirsch and anise notes laced with violets and a hint of pastis. Almost breezy on the finish, with bright acidity and an open but focused feel, it’s a pure, unadorned Cabernet Sauvignon (90–93 points).
“It’s lots of young vines, which we stuff with maybe 20 percent press wine. We don’t want it to get too tannic of course,” said Engerer of the Pauillac. “It’s the happy-go-lucky wine.”
The second wine is the Les Forts de Latour 2010, which comes off as almost sweet, thanks to gentle ripeness and friendly plum sauce, raspberry and cherry compote notes, all backed by an energy that’s in reserve. This blend is 72.5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25.5 percent Merlot and 2 percent Petit Verdot. There’s latent acidity rippling through the finish, where briar, pastis and graphite lurk too. Really pure, it’s a noticeable step up from the Pauillac (93–96).
“The quest for quality has always been there, but considering the prices the wines get now, we have an obligation to make the wines perfect. I want to have a first-growth and a second-growth quality wine in the same house,” said Engerer, with full conviction. “What I like in this wine is its lines, the energy of the juice. It’s a big brother to the Pauillac and a little brother to the grand vin. The idea is to see the steps up, while maintaining the Latour character.”
That character is on full display in the grand vin. The Château Latour Pauillac 2010 is reticent at first, but with time and air in the glass, it becomes lush and layered, with nearly endless fig sauce, currant compote and blackberry cobbler notes, wound with cocoa, espresso and charcoal. It’s seamless, despite its power and range, with hints of violet, blood orange and spicebox flittering in as it airs in the glass. 90.5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 8.5 percent Merlot and one-half percent each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (96–99).
“There’s already a precision showing in the wines. They’re not completely balanced yet, they need the élevage of course. But they are very expressive now,” said Engerer proudly.
“This is a real, modern Latour,” he then said, empathically dropping his hands on the table. ”It’s not the open, sexy ’09. It’s going to be very interesting to watch them for the next 20 years. ’09 is all pleasure, and the ’10 is quite serious. But I think they will merge closer together over time, after the ’10 has time to age.”
Jean-Charles Cazes is the head of Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, whose Château Lynch-Bages property is the flagship of a Bordeaux operation that totals nearly 500 acres of vines in Pauillac, St.-Estèphe and Graves. Here are his thoughts on the current 2010 vintage, and how it stacks up against the other high-quality vintages of this past decade.
It’s early, but how do you think ’10 measures up to ’09 in terms of quality and style?
They are comparable in terms of maturity, but the style is quite different. There’s higher acidity in ’10. Both vintages are a touch high in alcohol, but since we’re Cabernet-dominated rather than Merlot, we’re not as high as some other properties in ’10. So the slightly higher alcohol adds fatness and texture but it’s well-balanced by the acidity. ’10 is dense and tannic, more so than ’09, but still creamy and balanced. But this is going to be a great subject for the next 20 years.
Do you look for finesse more than power in a wine, and if so, how do you handle a vintage like ’10?
The style here at Lynch-Bages has always been hedonistic. Ripe and flattering, but still very Pauillac Cabernet, with longevity. ’10 is the archetype Lynch-Bages. It’s not as fragrant or flamboyant. It’s reserved, but serious. We do adapt the extraction of each vat to the year, but we do try to be consistent as well—there’s a balance. The risk in ’10 was to go too far in extraction. An extra racking maybe, perhaps, we’ll see. We play by ear. But we are pretty happy with the ‘10 the way it is.
Suddenly, ’05 seems to have become a forgotten vintage. Does it measure up to ’09 and ’10?
People will be reminded when they start to look back. 2000, ’05, ’09 and ’10 will be the ones that are remembered. The market likes to have competition between great vintages. ’05 was really homogenous, Right Bank, Left Bank, everywhere. And ’05 was great in Burgundy and the Rhône too. So for that, it will be remembered. But ’09 and ’10 are different, because the best wines in Bordeaux can be better than the best of ’05, and there are some regional differences as well.
Yields were naturally low in ’10, due to the drought. But Lynch-Bages has never worked with drastically reduced yields, and you’re at the upper end of the norm again in ’10. Why?
The particularity of a great terroir is you don’t have to overdo it—too severe pruning, etc. We are very comfortable at [3.5 to 4 tons per acre]. If you have to force a parcel down to [2.5 tons per acre] to get a grand vin, it’s not a great terroir. You know, we were at [5 tons per acre] in ’82 and around [4.5] in ’89 and ’90 before the AOC regulations changed [reducing the maximum permissible yield]. Those wines are still drinking pretty well (smiling) …