Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Two Tastings with the Masters of Wine

April 2001

 

1998 BURGUNDY & CHATEAU LATOUR

Until recently Burgundy had the reputation of having a good vintage only once every three to five years. But over the last decade or two things have improved immensely: since 1988 Burgundy can boast no fewer than eleven good to excellent vintages, with only 1994 being below par. But even in that rather scrawny year some top estates came up with delicious bottles, though few will last very long.

 

Despite Parker’s negative judgment, 1998 must be included among the good years, especially as regards the reds of the Côte de Nuits. This was confirmed by a big tasting of red and white 1998s hosted by the Institute of Masters of Wine at the Ironmongers’ Hall, London, in March.

 

Those represented at the tasting were members of Domaines Familiaux de Tradition, a grouping of serious domaines and negoçiants. They include many, though by no means all, of the region’s most illustrious names.

 

The white wines confirmed an impression formed on earlier visits to the region, namely that, in the main, they are medium-bodied and not extremely concentrated, but with utterly pure, flowery aromas, delightfully fresh, honeyed fruit, and a clean, very mineral flavour of medium length. In short: delectable, very elegant whites for short and medium-term drinking. Leading growers, including Gérard Boudot of Etienne Sauzet (who was not represented at the tasting) stress, with typical frankness, that 1998 white Burgundies should not be kept too long.

 

Two whites from the M.W. tasting:

 

1998 MEURSAULT “CLOS DE LA BARRE” (Lafon)

Nuanced, oaky green-gold. Broad, complex, brooding nose, acacia honey, white peach, white truffle, with a suggestion of hazelnuts (from the oak) and marzipan (older vines). Tight, nuanced flavour, well structured and balanced, about 80% concentrated. Walnut, peach, yellow plums. Very good appley acidity gives length and accentuates the minerality. Starting to peak in 2-3 years, it should be at its best around 04-06.

 

Label of Puligny-Montrachet, Clavoillon, Leflaive.

 

1998 PULIGNY MONTRACHET P.C. “CLAVOILLON”

(Domaine Leflaive)

Nuanced green-gold colour with that faint, almost emerald tinge of Puligny. Compared with the excellent Puligny Village, which preceded it (also from Leflaive), it was – as expected – fuller, more vinous, and more complex on the nose, with typical Puligny – and specifically Leflaive – aromas of lemon balm, white truffle, dried orange peel, and orange blossom. Quite rich on the palate, with suggestions of apricot, orange, and honeycomb. About 85% concentrated, fat and round and with adequate, fresh acidity for this degree of body. 3-4 years to peak, with about 4 years’ agreeable drinking thereafter.

 

I missed the first hour of the three-hour tasting and concentrated, therefore, on the weightier growths of the Côte de Beaune – the more northerly ones – and as many of the Côte de Nuits reds as possible.

 

Two Cortons were impressive. That from Bonneau du Martray may be their best since the vinification was vastly improved a few years ago. Dark and solid on the nose, with an almost Côte de Nuits bigness, its ripe, berrylike aroma also gave off a faint whiff of clay. Vigorous and full on the palate, with true Corton forcefulness and sinew, it had liquorice on the firm, structured aftertaste. The ample tannins were of the ripe kind. It should develop well up to 2020 and perhaps beyond.

 

Chandon de Briailles’ Corton-Maréchaudes was lighter in colour and intensely flowery on the nose (carnation, peony, violet) but with plenty of raspberry fruit. A shade less weighty on the palate, but with masses of delicious cherry, blackcurrant, and sloe fruit. Likely to be accessible in only 7-8 years (which is young for a Corton), it probably won’t improve much after ’14.

 

Christophe Roumier, one of the most committed and skilled of Côte de Nuits producers, made some very pertinent comments on the ’98 reds, though they were perhaps more applicable to the Côte de Nuits wines than those of the Côte de Beaune. “1998 is a classic vintage, with the tannins and acidity needed for ageing. Yields were low, about 25 hectolitres per hectare, and this small crop produced very good fruit. The thick skins gave good colour and in general there was very good ripeness, good balance, and freshness.”

 

These traits were well in evidence in two superb Nuits Premiers Crus from Domaine Gouges. Both had lots of matière, were well-structured, had masses of personality, and would evolve for at least two decades. Inevitably, the Les Saint Georges was the more complete wine, with just that shade more depth and length. This growth should be a Grand Cru.

 

The first unmistakeably great red was:

 

1998 VOSNE ROMANEE “BEAUMONTS” (Jean Grivot)

Exceptionally deep in colour for Pinot Noir, it had a full brooding nose of ripe blackberry, black cherry jam, and raspberry, with the sweet ripeness of perfectly mature grapes. It had great roundness but also solidity and structure. The flavour was full and chewy – great extract without over-extraction – with an almost meaty as well as a fruity side. I also found prunes and morel mushrooms on the long, dense aftertaste, to which plummy acidity gave crackle.

A wine to enjoy with milder game dishes, such as fillet of venison with truffle sauce, around 2010-2020.

 

Grivot’s Clos de Vougeot was also a splendid wine. He certainly fashions wines of great intricacy: dark, concentrated, and powerful yet also exhibiting subtlety and finesse. The version from Château de la Tour, too, was very impressive, with great weight and complexity.


The lushly concentrated fruit was supported by ample tannins that gave a long, structured aftertaste. Nothing would have been lost if this wine showed a little less oak, yet it is so densely fruity that it ought to shed nearly all the woodiness within 10-12 years. I’m sure it will make superb drinking between around 2012-2025.


Christophe Roumier’s Bonnes Mares was a marvel. One of the darkest wines in the whole tasting, it had a noble, superripe Pinot Noir aroma of great roundness and depth and full of complexity. Though brooding and powerful it also had a great deal of implicit finesse. Really rich, dense, and chewy in the mouth, with the volume and sweetness of utterly ripe grapes. It had a long, intense aftertaste of autumn berries, truffle, and smoke. This was one of the most massive ’98s of all.

 

Also impressive were Clos Saint Jacques from Jadot (sinewy, structured, and built to last); Faiveley’s dynamic and profound Clos de Bèze; Bruno Clair’s version of the same growth, with its exquisitely balanced, many facetted aroma and flavour and a persistent aftertaste with all the Clos de Bèze finesse one could wish for; and J.P. Mugnier’s perfumed, opulent Musigny, which had one of the most concentrated, best-balanced, and most thrillingly intense finishes in the entire tasting.

 

Looking back at the ’97 vintage, it is possible to say that it was more consistent than 1998 and it certainly gave a huge number of most delicious wines. But I’m not sure that it gave many, or even any, really great ones. If 1998 was much more uneven it did surely give some wines of genuine greatness. I look forward to plumbing their depths in the years to come.

 

 

In January of this year the Institute of M.W.s held another fascinating tasting, this time focusing on Château Latour, by common consent one of the world’s greatest wines.

 

The aptly named estate is truly a tour de force, showing, at its best, that rare combination of power and finesse found only in truly complete, which is to say, genuinely great wines. Few would challenge Latour’s reputation as the most consistent of clarets over the past 150 years. Like the other Premier Crus clarets and their counterparts elsewhere in Bordeaux (Pétrus, Cheval-Blanc, Ausone, etc) it also has its own unique, inimitable personality.

 

Just as a professional musician only needs to hear a few bars of Beethoven or Brahms to name the composer, so does an experienced taster simply need to get a sniff of Latour to guess it blind – most of the time anyway!

 

The nine vintages on show were, of course, very varied in character, in accordance with the vegetative cycle and climatic pattern of each year. But all nine showed the usual Latour traits of amplitude and power, warmth and profundity, harmony and subtlety, length on the palate and longevity.

 

Wine making styles change, oenologists come and go, even the grape-mix can be modified over the decades, yet still the very special Latour style endures.This was brought home to me once when, at the end of a long sequence of old wines, I was handed a glass of dark, browning liquid and asked to make a stab at the wine’s identity. “It’s very old,” I said, “and I’ve no idea what the vintage is. But one thing is sure: this is Latour.” It was Latour 1900.

 

The lesson was repeated at a unique tasting in Stockholm some 14 years ago, when we sampled no fewer than 20 vintages of all five of the Bordeaux First Growths. The youngest vintage was 1982, the oldest 1926. As each wave of wines arrived, we were told what the vintage was but the order of service was changed each time.


While Latour and Mouton were not always dramatically different in style, it was nearly always possible to pick out Latour without hesitation. This was the case with the ’61, ’59,’37, ’34, ’28, and ’26.

 

I was recently re-reading an article I’d written in 1983 on the ’82 clarets, and published in February 1984 in the American magazine “Connoisseur”. In it I quoted the then director of Latour, M. Mandreau, as saying that they were working to eliminate both the Petit-Verdot and Cabernet-Franc from the estate, with the aim of arriving at an encépagement of 80% Cabernet-Sauvignon and 20% Merlot.

 

Speaking at this year’s Latour tasting, M. Mandreau’s successor, M. Engerer, declared that they still (19 years later!) want to get rid of the Cabernet-Franc but revealed that their feelings towards the Petit-Verdot had changed completely. Now, they want to increase the acreage of this variety. (they have had a similar change of heart at Château Margaux, Paul Pontallier told me some years ago).

 

It has always seemed to me that the Petit-Verdot is seriously underestimated in the Médoc. Of course, the grape is a late ripener and doesn’t always reach full maturity. But when it is ripe it gives something unique to claret.

 

Some 10 years ago the late Michel Delon gave me a remarkable tasting at Château Leoville Las Cases of all four varieties in pure form plus the grand vin, fashioned from all four, for each vintage in question. The tasting covered, I think, six vintages over a full decade, or 30 samples.

 

What this tasting showed was that, in years when it is ripe enough for inclusion, the Petit-Verdot alway gives the darkest and densest wine of all, surpassing even Cabernet-Sauvignon in blackness of colour, solidity of structure, and intensity and concentration of fruit. Though closest in character to the Cabernet-Sauvignon, it has unique traits of its own, especially as regards aroma, and can give a powerful whiff of truffle and liquorice.

 

The claret of the Médoc, which is usually a very decorous wine, is often given a new dimension by even as little as 3-6% of Petit-Verdot. The aroma can take on a faintly decadent, gamey quality, and both flavour and aftertaste show greater intricacy and individuality. No wonder Latour and Margaux are giving it increasing attention.

 

For reasons of space, I shall describe only six of the nine Latour vintages. It should be stressed, however, that all nine wines were excellent in their different ways, and the results achieved in the difficult ’94 and ’91 vintages were impressive indeed.

 

1998 CHATEAU LATOUR ***

Solid black-purple with blueish tinge, with superb, very precise, focused nose with a meld of cedary, flowery (peony and violet), and fruity (ripe autumn berries) aromas. Despite its youthful power, it has the kind of innate, delicate sweetness found in top Pauillacs from the ’40s, especially ’49, though without that degree of concentration (yields were much smaller then). From wood of the very highest quality comes the scent of cinnamon and smoke. That the nose is only about 85% concentrated, however, suggests that this is an excellent rather than great Latour.

 

On the palate, a tightly-clenched flavour of blackberries, cassis, chocolate, and prunes. Lots of understated power but not to the ultimate degree. Very Cabernet- Sauvignon, in a sinewy, tannic way, but the Merlot confers ample, round fruit too. Long complex aftertaste without harshness, with fine ripe tannins (the result of rigorous selection) giving very good structure. A superbly crafted wine with a long seamless finish, reaching an initial maturity in about 15-16 years and with 20 or more of development to follow

 

1996 CHATEAU LATOUR ****

Very deep, nearly black, colour with full, dense, roasted nose with both Merlot and Petit-Verdot making their presence felt: prunes, dried fig, molasses (Merlot); and truffle and liquorice (Petit-Verdot). Super-ripe fruit combined with the finest oak gave a subsidiary scent of cocoa rather than chocolate.

 

Big, dense, structured yet fleshy flavour of prunes, blackberry jam, molasses, and dried fig. Superb rich concentrated flavour, very weighty in classic Latour way, with both Merlot and Cabernet-Franc discernable behind the Cabernet- Sauvignon density on the very long, nuanced aftertaste. Splendidly focused Latour with striking freshness and with more obvious weight and density than the ’98 (which is slightly leaner, more cerebral). Hint of truffle and crushed cloves on the dense finish.


12-14 years to reach an initial, false maturity, with another 15 or so to arrive at a ripeness that ought to persist another 20 or more.

 

1995 CHATEAU LATOUR ****

Slightly bluer and even darker than the ’96. Splendid, dense, weighty, very Pauillac/Latour nose with ripe sweetness and noble, oaky spice. Black cherry and ripe blackberry fruit. The suggestion of carnation and peony surely comes from the Merlot, which must have been utterly ripe. Bracing and dynamic.

 

Superb, extremely concentrated flavour, muscular yet with refinement, with even more dynamism and sweep than the ’96. The massive flavour is a meld of damson jam, prunes, chocolate, and underbrush. More closed than the ’96. On the very finish a very slight, agreeable bitterness – the barest suggestion of sage. A wine to forget for at least 12-13 years (and that’s only the impatient!), a kind of interim maturity for a further 16+, then something like real maturity over the next 15-20.

 

1990 CHATEAU LATOUR *****

Great almost black barely-evolved colour (about one-tenth browning) and huge, glorious, very complex superripe Latour nose, with that sweet-yet- scorched profundity of Latours from the ’40s: lushly ripe black cherries, blackberry jam, truffle, dried fig, sweet chocolate. Has a generous, sweet, voluptuous quality reminiscent of a top Pomerol (in Pauillac, it is usually Mouton which shows this vinous mimicry!).

 

Rich, fat, weighty flavour, extremely full and concentrated, with archtetypical Latour style. Really huge, expansive flavour in the vertiginously deep ’40s style – hints of prunes, chocolate, truffle, even molasses. Enormous depth and ripe-grape sweetness to this wine, with firm but ripe tannins giving structure and, in the years to come, still more complexity. A really great Latour, with an extra dimension compared with the other vintages from ’98-’88, even the superb ’96 and ’95. This bottle is drinkable now, with food (it had been decanted three hours in advance), but it really needs another 12-15 years to show what it’s really made of, with another 20 or so on a “plateau of perfection”. (If anybody feels I am overestimating Latour’ s capacity to age a long time, let them remember that the ’66 is still not fully open at almost 35 years!)

 

1986 CHATEAU LATOUR ****

Profound black-purple colour of almost maximum depth. Darker, richer, than the ’82 which follows and sure to live longer. Superb, slightly exotic (probably due to overripe Cabernet-Sauvignon) nose of raspberry, black cherry compote, violets. Exceptional finesse and precision to these aromas. After a while, the Petit-Verdot (always the last to make its presence felt) adds a truffly element to the glossy scent, with oak contributing cedary spice.

 

On the palate, very concentrated and sinewy, with excellent poise, and more classic in style than the voluptuous ’82. A lot more closed, too. The lush cherrylike fruit turns both sterner and wilder in the glass, growing more tannic and suggesting fruits such as damson and even elderberry.

At nearly 15 years (which is, of course, nothing in the development of a top Latour), still vital, even aggressive, with plenty of snap. Very long, modulated aftertaste with a hint of roasted chestnuts on the very long finish.

 

The most backward wine of the whole series, it needs another 15 years to round out fully, and with at least 15-20 more of additional development. It makes me think of the ’66, which over the past 10 years has first grown older and then become much younger again without any warning.

 

1982 CHATEAU LATOUR****

Very typical Latour look: nearly black, with oxblood rim, and winking vermilion highlights at the centre. Dense but fresh aroma (typical of Latour, of all great wines), somewhat roasted, with great Latour mellowness and power. Ripe blackberry aromas mingle with those of prunes, morels, and cloves.

 

On the palate, very weighty and fat, but very fresh, with richly fruity, viscous flavour suggesting liquorice and truffle (Petit-Verdot) and damson jam, chocolate, and cloves. Grows in the glass, after 30 minutes showing Cabernet-Sauvignon rigour combined with Merlot opulence and sapidity and Petit-Verdot density and thrust. Lovely elegant smooth flavour, very high viscosity, with chocolate, damson, and truffle on the very long, savoury finish. Still just a bit young for maximum enjoyment, but a magnificent Latour with a hedonistic side, to drink with mounting pleasure, over the next 20 or so years.

 

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY... The dark, viscous liquid in the glass is a cask sample of 1982 Château Latour at the instant it was being sampled by Frank Ward in the spring of 1983, exactly 18 years ago. The picture was taken by Roland Möllerfors, Swedish photographer.

 

© Frank Ward 2001

 

Next Issue of Oeno File in June 2001…

A tasting of the 1999 and 2000 vintages of the Premier Grand Cru Classé wines of Saint-Emilion, a visit to Château Latour, and various other vinous adventures.

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