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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%
100 points Robert Parker's Wine Advocate
Tasted at the Château Palmer vertical in London, two bottles of 1961 Château Palmer were opened and compared. The first was a great bottle of wine, beautifully balanced and complex, and yet not quite living up to its status as one of the legendary bottles of the 20th century. That said, I still scored it around the 96 or 97 point mark. The second lived up to the billing. Coming from the late great John Avery's cellar, that is to say, purchased on release and never moved, the first difference is the slightly deeper color compared to the first bottle. The bouquet is difficult to capture in words. Heavenly, ethereal, moving and profound - they are all applicable here. It is still a wine in its prime, with dark berry fruit, hints of graphite and mineral, a touch of wilted violet petals. Its ineffable purity knocks you sideways. The palate is defined by its filigree framework of tannin - precise and lace-like, lending it the texture of a mature Richebourg. Yet it is unmistakably Margaux because there is stunning structure on the finish, astounding precision and a never-ending aftertaste that is borderline supernatural. This bottle reminds me of the first time I tasted the 1961 Palmer several years ago when I gave a perfect score without hesitation. This is exactly the same: a perfect wine and a bona fide legend.
1961 - the greatest Bordeaux vintage ever?
I’m writing this during the en primeur campaign and notice that the Bordelais château-owners and négociants have been unusually quiet this year. I have followed this part of the market from a distance for close to 30 years now and have been told about a large number of “vintages of the century”. After the wines have been bottled and sold or the other way round, as the case is in Bordeaux, these claims tend to be modified.
Who are the serious contenders for the title “The Greatest Vintage Ever”?
During the 19th century there were a number of vintages with a great reputation made from pre-phylloxera vines. These include the legendary “Comet vintage” 1811, 1864, 1865, 1870, 1893, 1895 and 1899. Most are too old for anyone now alive to have tasted them at their peak.
During the 20th century claims have been raised for the vintages 1900, 1921, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 (by me), 1959, 1961, 1982, 1989 and 1990.In the present century already three out the eight vintages produced – 2000, 2003 and 2005 – have been mentioned by an overly excited wine press as candidates for the title, as well as the superb duo - 2009 and 2010.
In the book “The 1,000 Finest Wines Ever Made” 1961 is the Bordeaux vintage mentioned most often, with 22 châteaux. 1945 is mentioned 19 times, 1947 16 times, 1982 14 times and 1959 13 times.
What is the definition of a great wine?
It is a wine that has an extra dimension giving you an unforgettable drinking experience – in other words, a “Wow!” effect. It is a wine that has a long drinking span. It has to be good to drink young, but it must also be able to age for a long time without losing its attractiveness.A good vintage produces wines fulfilling these requirements.
A great vintage, however, is equally good in all major regions of Bordeaux, both on the left and right bank. It is also a vintage where something special was produced in all the different appellations, from the lowest Cru Bourgeois to the mightiest Premier Cru.
1961 fulfils these requirements better than any other vintage.
It was the vintage where the most incompetent winemaker just couldn’t make a poor wine and the wines drank very well at an early stage; in most cases they still do so to this very day.
Some extremely impressive wines were produced in 1945, but these were mainly from the left bank and a large number of the wines had excessively high tannin levels, which made them increasingly dry as they aged.
1947 produced the most stunning wines on the right bank but many wines on the left bank had problems with volatile acidity.
1959 produced a number of wines that are at the same level and sometimes even a bit higher than the corresponding '61s, and some experienced wine critics like Michel Bettane prefer 1959 to 1961. But 1959 doesn't have the same consistent quality at all levels.
1982 undoubtedly produced many very impressive wines but I feel that the wines from the right bank lack structure and have not aged very well and only very few wines from Margaux and Médoc were a great success.The twin vintages of 1989 and 1990, or 2009 and 2010 may come closest in overall quality, but it is too early to judge their ageing abilities yet.
What made 1961 so special?
It was a very small crop, the smallest since the Second World War. This was partly due to coulure (cold weather at the time of flowering) and in some parts because of frost on the night between 30th and 31st of May, together reducing the yield per vine to about a third of the usual size at that time (which, compared to today’s harvests, seems miniscule). This concentrated the minerals and potency of the vine amongst the few remaining grapes and was the reason for the success of minor châteaux, which would normally produce much higher yields than would be good for their wines.
August and September were both hot and extremely dry. This drought caused the ripening to take longer than the usually mandated 100 days. The harvest was delayed until 22 September, but enjoyed perfect conditions. Because of better cellaring techniques the wine-makers avoided the hard tannins of 1945 and the volatility of the 1947s. The wines have a very deep colour, a seductive nose and full-bodied, concentrated mature fruitiness, with enough tannins and acidity to give the wines structure and freshness.
I arranged a major tasting of more than sixty 1961s in 1989 and all the wines were very good, even from minor châteaux or from more famous properties that had not produced anything worthwhile for a very long time and some that have not done it to this day.
I also arranged a tasting, together with Dr. Peter Baumann, of fifty wines in November 2001. I had expected a large number of these to now be over their zenith but was amazed to see that many had not seemed to age at all during these intervening 12 years. With very few exceptions they were still very much alive.
Margaux and Médoc
This is usually the most variable and disappointing group at any horizontal tasting with a large number of underperforming châteaux.
The star of this group and a serious candidate for the wine of the vintage is Château Palmer.
It first reached fame in 1978 as it won the famous Dr. Taam tasting in Holland. It is a precocious wine that was drinkable before most premier crus had softened and many tasters have underestimated its longevity. I remember arranging a tasting for Château Palmer in 1995 where I decanted the wine just before the tasting, believing it to be past its best. It did not show very well so Peter Sichel, the co-owner of Château Palmer, suggested that we decant the bottles planned for dinner five hours before serving them. It had then fully opened up showing all its softness and warmth coupled with power and strength for a long life. One of the best wines after Palmer and Château Margaux, which will be covered in the group of the premier crus, is Malescot St. Exupéry. Brane Cantenac, Giscours, Cantemerle and La Lagune are all still good but need to be drank soon.
La Mission Haut Brion is a fantastic wine, more powerful and concentrated than the soft and charming Haut Brion. Other very good ones include La Tour Haut Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut Bailly and Pape Clément.
Cos d'Estournel is very good, Montrose is now shedding its tannins, whereas Calon Ségur needs drinking, having given much joy over the years.
1961 is one vintage where I prefer Figeac to Cheval Blanc; both are very good but Figeac shows more complexity and elegance. I prefer Cheval Blanc's '64 to its '61. Ausone and Canon are both lovely elegant wines but they do not have the concentration of a top '61. Two very underrated wines are L'Arrosée and La Gaffelière – both are very impressive and still bargains if you are lucky enough to find them.
The two rarest and most expensive wines from '61 both come from Pomerol. Pétrus and Latour-á-Pomerol. Both are tremendously impressive – Latour-á-Pomerol with great sweetness, richness and concentration. Pétrus with similar richness but with even more power and structure. I have never had the pleasure of drinking these two giants next to one another but expect Pétrus to have the longer life expectancy. Vieux Château Certan is a wonderful mature wine, as is Lafleur. A wine I have also found very good over the years is Château Gazin. It did then include grapes from a parcel of the best part of Pomerol, now belonging to Château Pétrus. I don't have any tasting notes on Trotanoy or L'Evangile, but both have a great reputation.
My personal favourite here is Ducru Beaucaillou, possibly the most elegant of all wines. I have drunk it twice this year, and it was not showing any signs of ageing at all. It is closely followed by Gruaud Larose and Léoville Las Cases, both very impressive. Léoville and Langoa Barton did not have a very good period then and are, like Léoville Poyferré, disappointing for the vintage. Talbot and Branair Ducru are good but need drinking soon.
Both Pichons are good but I prefer Pichon Baron as it has more structure and concentration than the slightly overripe Pichon Lalande. Lynch Bages is still very good just like Pontet Canet. Pontet Canet was bottled by several négociants, and the one to drink is the Cruse-bottling which was the unofficial château bottling at the time.
The Premier Crus
The star here is Château Latour. It is the most majestic of wines and the wine that will become the new collectors’ item for millionaires as Mouton '45 and Cheval Blanc '47 start to fade away.
It has great concentration of cabernet fruit with a firm tannic structure. Truly an iron fist in a silk glove, only now opening up to reveal its true greatness. It is also the wine that was ranked in first place in “The 1,000 Finest Wines Ever Made”.
Château Margaux made its finest wine since the legendary 1900 and it is still wonderful to drink. Mouton is a luscious wine on a par with its wonderful '59.
Haut Brion is soft and lovely but not as great as its '59. Lafite shows big bottle variation as it was still bottled from cask to cask at the time and over a long period. At its best it is very fine and delicate with little power but great elegance, at its worst it is a tired wine with no body or fruit left.
Unfortunately great quality coupled with small quantity always leads to high prices, and this is particularly the case with the 1961 Bordeaux. However, all true winelovers should have at least once in their lifetime have drunk a good '61 to know what a perfect claret can taste like.
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€|