A Vintage Affair
Courtesy Château Palmer By Peter Hellman
Peter Hellman’s initial encounter with Château Palmer’s mythic 1961 vintage was love at first sip. A quarter century later he finally meets his elusive suitor again.
Suppose, on a night of your youth—long ago but not forgotten—you were seduced: unexpectedly, beguilingly, deliciously. And then the night was gone. Decades pass, but the memory lingers. Past is past, you say, now is now, and never the twain shall meet.
But suppose you suddenly had the chance to touch your lips once more to the long-ago seducer. And to do so in an exotic hideaway far from home. Would the embers have gone cold after so long? Or might they lie banked, ready to be fanned once more into flame?
Those were my questions one May evening as I boarded a nonstop flight from New York to Hong Kong. Seventeen hours later a hydrofoil ferry sped me across the Pearl River Estuary toward my destination, Macao. Sitting in the almost empty cabin, I let memories take over....
My thoughts drifted back to that balmy evening in the late seventies: I was at a lively dinner party at a grand old New York City home. The hosts, wine buffs both, had served many good whites and reds during dinner, and with the cheese course, the final bottle was brought out. Yet one more well-bred vintage, I assumed. But I was quite wrong.
The cork was pulled at the far end of the table and suddenly a rich, sweet, spicy scent wafted over to my nostrils. I’d never known a wine to send its essence from such a distance.
Though the other wines had flowed liberally that evening, this bottle was trickled out parsimoniously. Each of us was allotted a bare quarter of a glass. It was not especially dark, more cherry-tinted than purple. And while classic Bordeaux can be puckery, this wine gave an impression of sweetness, not from sugar but from its perfect ripeness and silkiness. It evoked the essence of ripest purple and red fruits—mulberry, plum, currant, cherry—and seemed to be moving in the mouth, an agile dancer’s motion.
And that was my seducer, dressed in an alluring midnight-blue and gold label: the legendary 1961 vintage of Château Palmer, a red Bordeaux from Margaux. According to Bordeaux’s classification system, Château Palmer is a mere third growth; in theory its wines should always be of lesser quality than those of its neighbor, the famed first-growth Château Margaux. But not in 1961.
In the spring of that year, two late frosts had caught Bordeaux’s vines in their flowering, damaging a substantial portion of the crop. Then came a hot, dry summer. At harvest the surviving grapes were smaller and less juicy than normal and their skins, rich in tannins and flavor compounds, abnormally thick. The result at Château Palmer was that its production of 3,000 cases was only a quarter of its normal yield. But less was more, much more. That year Palmer was beyond superb: It was a wine of special powers.
For years after that evening, I searched wine shops for bottles of Palmer 1961 and never found a single one for sale. They sometimes turned up at fine-wine auctions, where a bottle could fetch as much as $3,000, often more than the first growths of 1961.
A few years ago Palmer hired a hot young winemaker named Thomas Duroux, who fine-tuned its viticulture and invested in new technology. Curious about these changes, I visited the winery on a chilly February day. With its four turreted towers and its banners flying, the château is an imposing sight. Behind it the vines, gnarly and leafless in the cold, stretched in orderly rows down toward the Gironde estuary. As I strolled along the vineyards’ edge with Bernard de Laage, Palmer’s development director, we discussed the 1961 vintage. When had he last tasted the wine, I asked. “Oh, a few weeks ago,” he said. “Three bottles at dinner.”
“Here at the château?”
“No,” he said, “in Macao.”
De Laage had been in Macao at the request of Louis Ng, a wealthy Chinese businessman who owned about 50 cases of Palmer 1961. Ng had bought them from London wine merchant Farr Vintners in the late nineties. He paid a premium on the already high price because the bottles had just arrived from the cellars of Palmer co-owner Mähler-Besse, where they had been stored since leaving the château. Good provenance makes wine, like art, more valuable.
But after a few years, Ng was distressed to notice that the level of wine in many of the bottles was dropping. It seemed to be evaporating, and despite careful storage the aging corks were most likely to blame. Farr Vintners offered to take the wine back, but Ng turned them down. He was determined to save his trove from spoilage. In any event no comparable quantity of this wine was available for money or love.
Ng asked De Laage to visit the Hotel Lisboa in Macao, where the wine was stored in a specially cooled vault. “I was stunned,” De Laage told me. “Here was two percent of the entire 1961 production, all in one place almost a half century later. At the château we have very few bottles left.” Ng hosted a dinner for De Laage at which they opened three bottles. De Laage then returned to Bordeaux, where tests proved that the corks were failing.
As at other Bordeaux châteaux, Palmer sometimes agreed to recork old bottles if they were delivered to the property (see “To Cork or Not to Recork”). But “house calls” were never made. De Laage decided to make an exception to that rule: He and his team would fly to Macao, where they would open and taste all of Ng’s 1961s. The bottles that met the quality standard of the vintage would be topped off and recorked. Any bad bottles would be discarded.
Recorking old wine is normally a process, not an adventure. But this was an extraordinary event, and I vowed to be there when it happened. That’s how I ended up on the hydrofoil, heading to Macao. Call it a date with an old flame.
On that day in May 2005, a padlock was removed from the door of a specially cooled private dining room at the Lisboa. In walked Team Palmer—De Laage, Duroux, and former technical director Philippe Delfault. In the center two banquet tables were laden with columns of wine bottles.
As I stood aside and watched, Delfault inserted a standard waiter’s corkscrew into the first bottle. The cork crumbled as he pulled it out. He started fishing out the bits using a long-handled ladle. But I hardly noticed. What stole my attention was the familiar and bewitching aroma: sweet and rich without being candied, gentle yet potent. Twenty-five years after our first meeting, the wine still knew how to turn my head.
“Want to check this bottle for us?” asked Duroux, as he pulled a cork.
“Anything to help you guys out,” I said.
He poured me a mouthful of newly opened wine. Sweet, round, and plush, yet somehow firm at the core, the taste, as with the smell, was as I remembered. So long in the bottle, yet so fresh.
The process of reconditioning the bottles was long, repetitive, and mechanical. An ancient long-levered corking machine had been air-shipped to the Lisboa, the same one used to seal the vintage originally. Each bottle was tasted “to be sure that it respected the quality of 1961,” as Duroux put it, and those that did were refilled from another sound bottle. Then carbon dioxide gas was injected into the bottle to expel the oxygen just as the cork was driven in. Each cork was stamped rebouché en 2005, new red foil was wrapped around the neck, and—voilà!—a 45-year-old wine could look forward to many more decades of brilliance. In the end only four bottles fell short of the lofty standards, even though they were fine to drink. These were resealed with unmarked corks. In total, 16 bottles were used to top off the remaining 500.
The recorking marathon was celebrated the next evening with a dinner at Robuchon a Galera, the Hotel Lisboa’s superb French restaurant. And to the guests’ delight, the waiters poured freely—20 bottles of Palmer ’61 in all. As the dinner ended I noticed, amid empties on a waiter’s tray, one bottle with a bit of wine remaining. I poured it into a fresh glass and drank. It delivered a final warm afterglow from those old embers. And, just for a few seconds, it made the back of my neck tingle.
Peter Hellman writes the Urban Vintage column in the New York Sun.
Vintage after vintage, the wines of Château Palmer express our vision of an exceptional wine. We believe that it is born of the mysterious trilogy – terroir, history, memory – and all of our efforts are concentrated on bringing it into the world. Distinction, high standards and commitment are the values that guide every choice we make from the vineyard to the table where the wine is served.
Knowing your terroir, your grapes, and your wines – this is a threefold enterprise of patient observation. What seems to be a given is in fact a matter of exacting standards at every moment. To know the terroir you have to become intimately familiar with it. We strive to know the grape variety, subsoil, and exposure of each and every plot but also of each and every row within the plot, as we regard every vine as a unique individual. To know our grapes well, we closely monitor their development until maturity. To know our wines, we taste the batches, the vats, the barrels, and the bottles again and again.
Progress in œnology has provided us with insight into the development of wines. Progress in agronomy has given us a better understanding of the life of our vineyards. This makes for more precision in our interventions as much in the winery as in the vineyards. Applying the best technical innovations in a spirit of reconciliation between science and craftsmanship, we use all relevant means to reveal the unique character of the Palmer terroir with each new vintage.
With the grapes that nature offers us, our job is to create the best possible wine. Is this craftsmanship or artistry? No doubt both. Like skilled craftspeople that love their trade, we select and blend the batches with meticulous care. And like artists, we let ourselves be swept away by the work that is born, as it imposes itself upon our will, surprises, amazes and transcends us.
Ultimately our goal is to make Château Palmer wines as desirable as can be. To achieve this, everything we do, whether we work in the vineyard, the winery, or in the offices, is informed by high standards and a sense of detail Nothing is left to chance, not the choice of paper for a label, or that of an etching for the wood crates, or of a theme for a reception.
Characteristics of the vintage 1961
Considered to be one of the greatest vintages of the post-war period, 1961 nevertheless got off to a difficult start with two harsh frosts in quick succession on April 21st and 29th.
After this, the vines flowered early but cold weather in May resulted in widespread coulure. The vines suffered further from the very hot, dry summer and by September, the grapes were beginning to dry out and the near drought conditions were leading to serious vine stress.
Heavy rain at the end of September thankfully allowed the grapes to achieve near perfect ripeness.
Small volumes and high concentration combined to produce wines of truly exceptional quality in 1961. From the moment fermentation began, the colour and rich concentration of sugar and tannins were outstanding. The wines are silky, creamy and consistent.
Harvest dates: from 09/19/1961 to 09/27/1961
Cabernet Sauvignon: 30%
Petit Verdot: 13%
Cabernet Franc: 5%
Recommended glass shape
Average Bottle Price
|2 016€ -24.1%||2 655€ +11.1%||2 389€ -6.1%||2 543€ -33.9%||3 845€ +198.3%||1 289€ +46.6%||879€|