Maison Louis Latour's Corton-Charlemagne is the benchmark wine for that grand cru vineyard. Always tightly wound when young, its remarkable character opens and expands with years-even decades-of age.
The conventional wisdom holds that white wines don't benefit from aging and often loses something, but this does not apply to most grand cru white Burgundies and certainly not to Latour's Corton-Charlemagne.
What is most remarkable about Latour's Corton-Charlemagne is not how it develops over the years, but how wine from the great vintages reaches and stays at a plateau much like great red wines.
I have come to this conclusion from having the extraordinary opportunity to taste the most recent 25 vintages every year for the last 10 years at a Labor Day tasting and dinner hosted by Samuel Seidman, whose former company, Grapevine Imports, was once Latour's importer and distributor for New England. This year's tasting included wines from 1978 through 2002.
Wine labeled Corton-Charlemagne come from two dozen separate but contiguous vineyard plots spread over three villages, Ladoix-Serrigy, Aloxe-Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses, on the Corton hill.
The major vineyard is Le Charlemagne, with 84 acres evenly split between Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton, must be planted with Chardonnay. Three vineyards in Aloxe-Corton (Corton, Les Languettes and Pougets) can be planted with either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
In total, about 125 of the 400 grand cru acres on the Corton hill is devoted to Chardonnay, making it the largest, by far, of the grand cru for white wine in the Côte d'Or. Indeed, it is larger than the other five grands crus combined, those being Le Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet.
The vineyard's expansive size means that Corton-Charlemagne's wines are easier to find and are the least expensive of the white grand cru wines. Even from excellent producers, such as Latour or Jadot, they often retail for under $125 per bottle, often half the price of the other grand crus.
The surface area of Corton-Charlemagne is fragmented into many parcels. Rather like the famous Clos de Vougeot. More than 50 different producers bottle Corton-Charlemagne, and, again like Clos de Vougeot, the quality of the wines is highly variable. Hence, as with all of Burgundy, picking a top producer is paramount.
To my mind, Latour is consistently one of the best producers (and perhaps the single best producer) of Corton-Charlemagne. With about 25 acres, Latour is the largest owner just ahead of Bonneau du Martray, according to Bernard Retournaz, Executive Vice-President of Louis Latour, Inc., the US importer.
Latour already owned some red wine vineyards in Corton, but then took advantage of the plummeting market after phylloxera devastated the area at the end of the 19th century. At that time, they purchased the Grancey domaine from the Comte de Grancey and with it, their 25-acre parcel of Corton-Charlemagne with its perfect exposure facing southeast.
This southeast exposure means that Latour's vines receive maximum sun and heat for ideal ripeness, which helps explain the greatness of Latour's Corton-Charlemagne. The marvelous vineyard consists of one contiguous parcel perfectly situated just below the summit, which protects the vines from cold winds blowing from the north.
From this decade of Labor Day and other tastings hosted by Mr. Seidman, five key points about Latour's Corton Charlemagne emerge.
1) Wines from the greatest vintages, such as 1971, 1973, 1978, 1979 are extraordinary rich and complex at 20 or 25 years of age, retaining penetrating acidity that keeps them lively for many years. The 1978, for example, always has a mixture of creaminess, minerality and vibrancy that remains relatively constant over the years. These top wines have the Krug-like character of maturity buttressed by youthful acidity.
2) Even in the weak vintages, such as 1980, 1981, 1984, 1987, the wines were remarkably good, consistently scoring in the high 80s on a 100-point scale. Retournaz attributes the quality in these years to Latour's exacting selection. Latour's normal production of Corton Charlemagne runs about 3,400 cases annually, but in weaker years, they cut it to as little as 2,400 cases (opting to declassify some batches and even sell off others in bulk). Even in some very good years, like 2001, they limit production to maintain the highest quality.
3) Tasting 25 consecutive vintages of a wine allows you to determine your preference for when to drink the wine. For me, Latour's Corton-Charlemagnes start to show their full complexity and allure at about 10-12 years of age. For example, at this year's Labor Day tasting, I found the 1996, while superb, to be still youthful, tight and not yet showing the development that I'm sure it will. Latour's 1996 Corton-Charlemagne, like most of the 1996 Burgundies, has a riveting acidity that will keep it fresh and lively for years. The 1993, while lacking the finesse of the 1996, was perfectly ready to drink now and showed the complexity of nicely aged white Burgundy.
4) This wine, like most age-worthy wines, goes through stages during its evolution. For example, the 1999 was an absolutely superlative wine at Seidman's Labor Day tasting the prior two or three years. This year, for the first time, it was closed, even more than when first released, as though it had retreated into a cocoon. Based on my past experience with other vintages, I would predict that it will blossom beautifully over the next five or six years.
5) While some vintages stood out-1978, 1989, 1996, 2002, 1986, and 1983-the overall quality of the wines was exceptional. They deliver a rich creaminess coupled with an earthy minerality unique to Burgundy.
Maison Louis Latour, Corton-Charlemagne (Burgundy, France) 2004 ($100, Louis Latour, Inc): The 2004 vintage for white Burgundy runs the risk of being lost in the shadow of the much heralded 2005. I think it is an excellent vintage for white wines, as reflected by Latour's Corton-Charlemagne. Still tightly wound, it shows richness even at this stage, and an impressive focus and finesse in the finish. 93
Maison Louis Latour, Corton-Charlemagne (Burgundy, France) 2001 ($100, Louis Latour, Inc): Severe selection (Latour made only about 2,400 cases instead of their usual 3,400 cases) paid off with this wine. Tight and youthful, the 2001 has surprising ripeness and length. It should unwind over the next decade and provide great pleasure. 92
Maison Louis Latour, Corton-Charlemagne (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($100, Louis Latour, Inc): An outstanding wine, I would buy as much of this as you can afford and cellar it for at least a decade. Luxuriously rich and more intense than the 2001, the 2002 has great balance, acidity and finesse. I suspect it will be one of Latour's best. 97
If you run across older vintages (such as the fabulous 1999 or 1996) that have been well stored, I wouldn't hesitate to snap them up
I thank Sam Seidman for generously sharing these wines with me over the years and educating me about Burgundy in general and Corton-Charlemagne in particular.
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