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Fireworks in Soho: Château Palmer 1961-2005

Château palmer

I love fireworks. That pyrotechnic eye-candy ensuring November is a sleepless affair, at least for the denizens of West Norwood where they commence at around one in the morning.

I was once invited to a private "display" in the suburbs of Loughborough by my friend Jude, one November 5th. Impoverished students pooled together their pennies and somewhat foolishly handed a fat wad of notes to their nihilist, fire-eating, lunatic "friend" to procure a selection of fireworks. Instead of an assortment box he spent the entire sum on one, almighty rocket that necessitated the construction of a NASA-style launch pad and attaining sufficient altitude to prevent decimating half of Loughborough. The instructions were given a perfunctory glance; instructions that read: "DANGER: Stand at least 50 metres from launch."

The garden was 10-metres long.

There was only one thing to do: consume a vast amount of alcohol so that if the rocket did explode at ground level, we could blame any Armageddon upon compromised decision-making faculties rather than plain idiocy.

With vegetable patch uprooted, lift-off was scheduled for 8.00p.m but ten minutes before schedule, our demented, now hallucinating anarchist friend of lamentable time keeping, suddenly ran down the garden yelling that he had lit the bomb/firework and we should "take cover". Without time to finish my undercooked chicken leg I crouched down and peeked through my fingers at impending doom.

Miraculously, the rocket took off towards the troposphere, but stopped short about three metres above the roof-tiles and exploded across the entire skyline, no doubt instigating an emergency meeting of COBRA for the Cabinet to discuss a counterattack. That was it: the firework display that lasted two seconds. The only casualty was the vegetable patch that developed a faint nocturnal glow and several hearing impediments.

Organizing a wine tasting is not dissimilar to organizing a firework display. You have a budget, a limited period of time in which to entrance your audience and build up to a crescendo. It is unwise to blitz your audience with your eye-popping rockets or your legendary vintages, you need to contrast your Catherine wheels with your Roman Candles, your tannic wines with more approachable, fleshier with more conservative fare, you want the olfactory senses to be toyed and seduced, particularly if your tasting is chocker-block with scribes from the "Circle of Wine Writers."

At some point commercial director Bernand de Laage and head winemaker Thomas Duroux must have sat down in their offices at Château Palmer and discussed which wines should be served to their forty-strong audience. Unfortunately, with journos' salaries skating the Ethiopian poverty line, the fee for members attending such a tasting was capped at a paltry ten quid, so I hazard a guess that at some point Bernard must have said to Thomas (or vice versa): "Sod it. Let's give them a tasting that they will never forget."

The vertical Palmer event tutored by Bernard and Thomas at Kettners in November will probably be the best value for money tasting I will ever attend. Ten quid not only bought you four vintages of Alter Ego and Chateau Palmer from 2004 to 2001, but five pairs served blind: 2000 and 1999; 1990 and 1989; 1983 and 1982; 1971 and 1970; last but by no means least 1962 and the fabled Palmer 1961.

Not a bad display of fermented pyrotechnics, certainly one guaranteed to leave an impression on even the most experienced writers in attendance (unless you happen to be Malcolm Gluck who had publicly expressed his disinterest upon the event a few days previously.)

Thomas Duroux and Bernard de Laage are quite different in personality: Bernard older and experienced, a little more taciturn and coming over as quite a shrewd man. You might call him the "brains" behind the operation?æ Thomas is younger,æ more extrovert and gregarious with fluent English and a refreshingly forward, open-minded outlook upon Bordeaux and wine, enriched by his experienced from his tenure at Ornellaia. He is the kind of guy that could sell ice to Eskimos, sand to Arab sheiks, white stilettos to an Essex girl; though at time of writing I believe he would prefer to continue at Palmer. Since he took up his position a couple of years ago, he has certainly instilled a sense of dynamism into the estate, someone who looks towards future glories rather than relying on the past.

They orated a brief history, which I will not dwell upon since I have written about that before. But one point that Duroux did stress was the important role that Merlot plays within the wines, introduced by Louis Miailhe who harboured a passion for the grape variety. He also mentioned that the average age of vine at Château Palmer is currently 38 years and that approximately one-hectare of vines reaching the end of their lifecycle are grubbed up per annum. The vineyard included a small parcel of Cabernet Franc until 2004, but the vines were grubbed up in 2004, as they believed that "it did not add anything to the wine."

So we commenced with the "Second Wine" of Château Palmer, although they are loathe to describe it as such, preferring the term "alternative". Duroux confessed that they are still "fine tuning" the Alter Egoæ since its debut with the 1998 vintage. The wine is fermented at a relatively low temperature in wide tanks in order to enhance a more natural extraction, limiting pumping-over to the initial stages of the alcoholic fermentation and allowing two weeks of skin maceration rather than four weeks for the Grand Vin. Alter Ego is then matured in 25% new oak.

The first quartet of wines focused of Alter Ego. Certainly I preferred the more recent vintages, the Alter Ego 2003 and 2004, to the 2001 and 2002 that did not seem to capture the plush mouthfeel, the cashmere texture of the Merlot nearly as well. The 2004 was the pick of the bunch, an equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that was enhanced by Duroux and his team being able to make a severe selection. Although it still needs another 12 months to smooth out some unresolved tannin, this is the first wine to realize their ambitions for Alter Ego. The Alter Ego 2003, which is 53% Merlot (M) and 47% Cabernet Sauvignon (CS) was typical of that vintage: full-bodied, super-ripe with a firm, toasty grip on the palate although just lacking the sophistication of the Alter Ego 2004. A little hedonistic in style, my preference would be with the ensuing vintage.

The Alter Ego 2002 was affected by coulure that reduced the crop by over 30%. A blend of 53% M and 47% CS, the nose has a slight vegetal element entwined within those lush black fruits, but was harmonious and focused on the palate with an angular finish. The Alter Ego 2001 has a significantly higher percentage of Merlot at 66% and for me was redolent of a Saint Julien. A fairly complex nose of blackberry, cassis and burnt match, it was fresh but conservative, the palate a little too austere with noticeable dry extract on the finish. I would tend to drink this now rather than later.

After a short break we commenced our journey back through time with the Grand Vins. The Château Palmer 2004 comes from a vintage that is destined to be overshadowed by the 2005, unfairly so, particularly when you have splendid Margaux such as this. I rated it highly at en primeur and on this showing I have no reason to change my opinion. A blend of 47% (M) and (CS), augmented by 6% Petit Verdot (PV), the nose had closed down since last year but after ten minutes revealed scents of black cherries, cedar and mint, plus a faint aroma of kirsch and iodine later on. Full-bodied on the palate with a silky smooth entry, it has a sensuality and grace about it, beautifully interwoven tannins that appear to have been hand-stitched into the fabric of the wine. Very dense on the finish that is perhaps a little abrupt, there is a tang of dried blood that might dupe you into believing a little Cabernet Franc was in the blend. This is simply a great Palmer sandwiched by two vintages destined to receive more than their fair share of attention.

The Château Palmer 2003 (20% M, 68% CS and 12% PV) is a truly great wine of this "bipolar" vintage, that is to say that propitious terroir seems to be influencing those wines that made a success of this controversial vintage and those falling flat on their arse.

What ensures that Palmer falls into the successful category?

It is the definition on the nose and the acidity on the palate: qualities it showed out of barrel and continuing here. Although unashamedly decadent and modern, it is imbued with the harmony, balance and poise to counter-balance all that opulence. It is a question of not tipping the scales towards excessive hedonism, just like they ought not to be tipped towards excessive austerity.

The Château Palmer 2002 (40% M, 52% CS and 8% PV) somewhat pales by comparison although it is by no means a poor wine and found many admirers at this tasting. Duroux also furnished us with the picking dates, which finished on 7th October in 2002 and 20th September 2003. A rather angular, herbaceous nose with a touch of sous bois and black truffle, the palate had a little hardness and was more conservative and linear in style. It is a very fine, more classically styled Palmer, though it lacks the persistency on the finish to merit a higher score, though whilst is may never soar to the heights of the 2003 or 2005, something tells me its balance could see it lasting 20 or 30-years.

The final wine in the second quartet was the Château Palmer 2001 (44% M, 51% CS and 5% PV). A seductive, perfumed, quite floral nose; medium-bodied on the palate that eschews flamboyance for precision, balance and harmony. Notes of black cherry, pencil-lead and raspberry with a grainy texture and firm tannins, this is a long-term wine that has closed down since bottling. The score reflects how it performed on the day, but that plus sign will exert its influence over the next 10 years. A Palmer for those with a modicum of patience.

The second half of the Palmer firework display was served in pairs, blind. The first was Château Palmer 1999 and 2000. The Palmer 1999 (46% M, 48% CS and 6% PV) won praise from quarters with its engaging nose of blackberry, raspberry leaf, tobacco smoke and minerals, developing wonderfully since I last tasted it in October 2004. Full-bodied with surprisingly good depth and concentration, there is core of succulent redcurrant and cassis-flavoured fruit that satiated the palate. A medium-term rather than long-term proposition, it remains one the best 99's on the market and great value for money.

The Château Palmer 2000 (47% M, 53% CS) has been monumental on previous occasions: but not this one. Very classic on the nose with cigar box and cedar, the palate was very closed and rather austere; so much so that I guessed it might be the Palmer 1996. Tasted blind I awarded a parsimonious 90/100, but once its identity was revealed then I realize that it is entering a sulky adolescent period, slamming bedroom doors and complaining that its parents do not understand it. It left a few attendees nonplussed, understandably so, but it just needs another 10 or 15 years.

What is it about 1990 that tripped up so many consistent châteaux? Pichon-Lalande 1990? Rubbish. Mouton Rothschild? Pants.

Château Palmer 1990 (37% M, 54% CS, 7%CF and 2% PV) has never performed well and remains the poor cousin of the majestic Palmer 1989. Showing some signs of age, the nose obviously lacked concentration with scents of decayed autumn leaves, tobacco and cedar, the medium-bodied palate simple with notes of black tea, cigar box and just a touch of spice. The problem is that it is all rather loose knit, unwilling to make any effort, bereft of vigour. I shot my credibility down in flames by turning to Jamie Goode of Wineanorak.com sitting next to me, assuring him that it was the Palmer 1997. What a fool: the 1997 is better than this.

Fortunately we were compensated by the magnificent Château Palmer 1989 (41% M, 52% CS, 1% CF and 6% PV).

How good is it?

Well in my humble opinion it is better than the Palmer 1983. Aesthetically more youthful than the Palmer 1990, the nose is a heady cocktail of cedar, blackberry leaf, tobacco and a touch of cloves, whilst the palate is medium rather than full-bodied with brilliant delineation, a master-class in "controlled power", and a wine that simply oozes confidence. The dryness on the finish leaves the palate fresh and yearning for the next sip: a stunning Palmer that deserves a home in any cellar.

Allow me to veer off-course because for completeness, I tasted two other vintages of Palmer that hitherto I have not been acquainted with. The first of these is Château Palmer 1985, a bottle proffered at an off-line in December 2006, a wine with an intense, delectable nose of cooked meats, hot bricks and herbs. The bouquet is so entrancing that unfortunately the palate fails to follow suit, medium-bodied with a soft mouth-feel, mature tannins, notes of roasted herbs, mulberry and damson. Paradigmatically fleshy, it is a lovely Palmer to uncork now, but would be dwarfed by either the Palmer 1989 or 1983.

Indeed, the lionized Château Palmer 1983 (41% M, 53% CS, 4% CF and 2% PV) constituted half of the second pair served blind back at the Palmer vertical and attested to the eulogies that have garlanded it over the years. A great Margaux vintage, this had a distinctive anis-scented nose (something I did not notice when last tasted at the chäteau during en primeur 2006) that remains incredibly fresh and quite feminine, the palate with unerring balance and sophistication. Medium rather than full-bodied, natural, elegant and unassuming, it has beautifully knit tannins with a dry (perhaps too dry for some) blackberry, cigar box and damson-tinged finish that lingers long after the wine has been swallowed. In my opinion this is a classic Palmer, but I would suggest not as great as the 1989 or more recent vintages and may not have the longevity of venerable vintages.

Unfortunately the Château Palmer 1982 was corked, but a bottle was served at one of my farewell soires at the end of November 2006 (amongst a smorgasbord of wines that I will detail in the near future.) Derided by some, whilst not in the same league as the ensuing vintage, this is still a commendable wine with a pretty, rather than intense nose that has lost much of its fruit intensity, dominated by leather, cedar and a touch of mint. The medium-bodied palate lacks the concentration of other 1982's, but is balanced, comparatively light and crisp with a cherry-infused finish. It needs drinking now and whilst not an intellectual wine, remains undeniably enjoyable.

Four wines left back at the CWW Palmer vertical and it was anyone's guess what they might be?

The penultimate pair provided the revelation of the vertical, the wine that evinced Michael BroadbentÍs four-star evaluation. The Château Palmer 1971 was imbued with a sublime, light, feminine nose with the vigour and freshness that belied its age. Cherry, redcurrants and like the Palmer 1983, a touch of anis; the medium-bodied palate exhibited exquisite balance and admirable delineation. Cherry, wild strawberry, smoke and a touch of dried orange peel, this ranks alongside the best wines I have tasted from this underrated vintage (no, I am not saying that just because it is my birth year and it was rated one of the wines of the tasting by many attendees.) You could probably pick up a bottle for pittance in auction - you might be in for a pleasant surprise.

I have tasted the Château Palmer 1970 on several occasions, where it has been most impressive, but it seemed to have its nose put out of joint by the excelling Palmer 1971. Very muted and sulky on the nose, the palate had much more structure and yet lacked the joie-de-vivre that I have found on previous bottles, a lovely, smoky finish could not redeem this particular out-of-sorts bottle.

We arrived at the final pair and wondered what fireworks Thomas and Bernard would end the show with? It could not be the 1968 because Bernard mentioned that the entire crop was sold to negociants. Given the previous wines it had to be something special and we were not disappointed. Jamie Goode had had to return back to his office after the previous pair, so it was with great regret that had to text him walking back through Soho to inform him that he had stood up not just a Château Palmer 1961, but a Château Palmer 1961 pilfered directly from the their cellars, which makes all the difference.

The wine served alongside had my sympathies and the Château Palmer 1962 was rather decrepit and past its best (unlike a lot of other 1962's I might add.) But the 1961...wow! All those subtle hints dropped in front of Thomas paid off: how it was one of the few 61's I had never tasted, that when I eventually did I suffered a corked bottle and that I was currently selling my daughter's toys on eBay so that I could procure a bottle myself.

Of all the 1961's I have encountered, only the Latour was more impressive but, and it is a big ñbutî, the Pauillac was less pleasurable in that it was still a tannic titan of a wine. But the Château Palmer 1961 is a wine you could drink for the rest of your life and never tire of. When I drank the Latour 1961 I proffered a glass to a complete stranger at the adjacent table and as I expected, they thought it was agreeable but nothing special. I am pretty sure that if I offered the Palmer 1961 to the same person he would have been smitten.

The nose wafted from the glass: mulberry, raspberry, violets, leather, all with otherworldly freshness and vigour, quite "Merlot" in style rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. The full-bodied, sweet, perfectly balanced palate was incredibly complex with raspberry, mulberry and tobacco with a supple, fleshy texture. The wine exuded elegance and power, a natural quality that was utterly bewitching. I rarely offer out perfect scores (there are about fifteen) but in my opinion critics are churlish to deprive elixirs such as this, anything less than perfect marks.

It was a final explosion worthy of an awesome display of fireworks on the nose, palate and emotions. Of course, we were blessed with perfect bottles direct from PalmerÍs cellars, so seeking vintages from the secondary market may be prone to more inconsistency (although even we were not spared with the 1982.)

If Bernard and Thomas set out to persuade their audience that not only is Palmer one of the greatest Bordeaux wines, but one of the greatest in the world, then they achieved their goal. Like any chäteaux there were ups and downs, but unlike many others Palmer has been consistent through every decade from the 1960Ís to the present (alas, I have not encountered ancient vintages.) The highlight was undoubtedly the imperious 1961, but the 1989 lies not far behind and the 1983, 2000 (eventually), 2003 and 2005 all have the potential to become legendary wines. But what really makes Palmer special is how it excels in mediocre years: the wonderful 2004, 2001, 1999 and of course 1971 are all sublime clarets and consequently it is difficult to pin-point any period when the estate ñtook its foot off the pedalî that even châteaux such as Latour and Ptrus did in the mid-1980's.

So does that make Palmer the most consistent Bordeaux, challenged only by La Mission Haut-Brion? Given my positive experiences with oddities such as the Palmer 1967, 1981, 1991 and even God forbid, 1973, I would say "yes".

The attributes of Palmer are clear: this can be a tannic, impenetrable Margaux in its youth, but over 10, 20 and 30-years it blossoms into one of the true greats. The significant percentage of Merlot lends it a supple quality, much as the variety does at Pichon-Lalande, but as Duroux explained when I visited in April, the Merlot has a different quality to vines on the Right Bank, gaining a more structured, almost Cabernet-like dimension on the Left where it grows on gravel rather than clayey soil. Contrast this with Chäteau Margaux three or four years ago, where I recall Paul Pontallier dismissing Merlot and expressing his intention to minimize its percentage in the final blend.

I never knew what became of our nihilist friend, who came within three metres of wiping out a small part of the Midlands. He is probably working the fine wine desk of a London wine merchant or a convicted arsonist.

I wonderƒwhat kind of Palmer tasting he would have organized, had he become the general manager of the Margaux estate?

Of course: one enormous Methuselah of Palmer 1961.

Tasting Notes can be found on eRP.

© Neal Martin 2007