The vineyard called L'Enclos is the heart of Château Latour, the legendary wine estate of Bordeaux.
The dark brown earth is thick with granite stones the size of golf balls, already warm to the touch by midmorning after basking in the bright sun.
"This is part of the reason why Latour is so great," said Frédéric Engerer, the president of the estate. "It's a combination of the soil and the microclimate here. It is the geography and geology. We are right in front of the Gironde. We are four to seven days ahead of most of the other wine estates in the Médoc in harvesting. Plus, the location of the vineyards in proximity to the river protects us. For example, vineyards up on the plateau of the Médoc were up to 85 percent frozen in spring 1991; here, we only had 15 percent."
Terroir, as the French call it the combination of soil, exposure and microclimate that gives a vineyard site its unique complexion has been key to Latour's character and quality. One of five Bordeaux estates ranked as first-growth (the highest official designation for a wine property in the region), Latour is recognized for producing one of the greatest red wines in the world. And the estate has been doing it for centuries, during which time everything has changed owners, winemakers, winery techniques everything, that is, except the vineyards.
The 245-acre estate includes about 160 acres planted to vines. The plot called L'Enclos comprises a big chunk of the property's vineyards: 116 acres, to be precise. Planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon, with a bit of Merlot and touches of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, the vineyards are located around the winery and the small château on the property. The river is about 200 yards away.
Vineyards have been cultivated here since the Middle Ages, though the exact date when the first vines were planted is unknown. According to records held in the winery's archives, Latour was created in the early 17th century, making it one of the oldest wine estates in the world. To many wine collectors and connoisseurs, it remains the quintessential red wine producer, the source of some of the best wines ever, with a track record that spans three centuries. Some consider it the greatest wine estate on earth.
Latour produces wines with a unique style. They are powerful, sturdy and rich, no matter their age. Arguably, they are the best expression of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world (although 20 percent to 30 percent of the blend is usually made up of other varieties). Most experts speak of the firmness and raciness of Latour. The wine is more of a long-distance runner than a sprinter, though. Latour's wines usually need eight to 10 years of bottle age to lose their rough edges; they are usually best at 20 to 30 years old. You often find yourself drinking a glass of Latour and thinking it still needs more time even though it may be decades old.
The property made great wines under the direction of the Ségur family from the golden years of the 1800s, such as 1870 and 1865, to the super years of last century, including 1961, 1959, 1949, 1947, 1945, 1929, 1928 and 1921. The Ségurs persevered through global wars, revolutions and economic crashes as well as monumental vinous calamities such as the phylloxera and mildew epidemics of the late 1800s.
Latour remained in the hands of the Ségur family until 1963. That year, the Ségurs sold a majority interest in Latour to two British companies.
Latour returned to French ownership in 1993, when industrialist François Pinault bought the property for $126 million. The Breton-born businessman had been looking to buy a Bordeaux château for years; a mere eight days after learning Latour was for sale, he was the new owner.
The day-to-day responsibilities of Latour, however, fall to Frédéric Engerer and his team of winemakers and vineyard workers. They are all in their 30s, young, keen and dedicated to making great wines. "We are nothing compared to the history of an estate such as Château Latour," Engerer said. "But we hope to make even better wines."