On Wednesday morning I met with Bernard de Laage de Meux, Commercial Director of Château Palmer, a Third Growth 1855 Classification, located in Margaux.
Here’s a quick overview of the château …
Vineyard: 55 hectares
Terroir: stones, gravel, and sand
Grape Varietals: 47% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot
Average Age Of Vines: 40 years old
Average Yields: 40 to 45 hectoliters per hectare
Vinification: 6- to 8-day fermentation in conical stainless steel vats, followed by a 18- to 21-day maceration; pumping over is employed for extraction; for the larger lots the malolactic fermentation is completed in the vats, and for the smaller lots, the malolactic fermentation takes place in the oak barrel; the first label wine is aged for 20 months in 50 to 60% new oak barrels.
Annual Production: (first label) 84,000 to 140,000 bottles, (second label, Alter Ego de Palmer) 60,000 to 120,000 bottles
Here’s a snap shot of the Château’s history …
Charles Palmer, a major general in the British army purchased this estate in 1814. Throughout the next 40 years, Mr. Palmer continued to grow his holdings, acquiring nearby vineyards. In 1853 the estate was sold to Péreire, the same group of bankers who were in charge of the reconstruction of Paris under Napoleon III. According to Bernard de Laage it was the bankers who really made the estate what it is today. They made numerous changes, including replanting the vineyards at their current location. As with everyone else, the Depression in the 1930s left the estate in economic shambles and the bankers had no choice but to sell. The new ownership comprised a group of Bordeaux négociant families, including Sichel from Britain, Mähler from Holland, and Ginestet-Miahle from Bordeaux. The new owners were very successful in turning the business around and by the 1970s Château Palmer’s reputation was restored and intact. Mr. de Laage attributes part of the estate’s success and consistency to its limited change in ownership. Over the past 200 years Château Palmer has seen only three different owners preside over the estate. Today the estate is owned by Sichel and Mähler, the two remaining Bordeaux négociant families that emerged from the post-Depression period. Thomas Doroux in the current General Director.
Here’s a bit of what Bernard and I discussed during the visit …
Bernard de Laage has been working in the wine industry for almost 35 years. He started in Bordeaux on the production end, heading up the organization of co-ops throughout the Southwest of France. Following this period, Mr. de Laage moved to Cognac where he was in charge of a Cognac house for 10 years. In 1999, he began working for Château Palmer, as PR Manager, and today Mr. de Laage directs all commercial operations.
Our first stop was to the vineyards. Mr. de Laage described some of the challenges in what has otherwise proven to be a next to perfect year. (So far!) He explained that the vineyards suffered minor hail damage earlier on in the year, knocking down a few of the shoots. This damage resulted in new shoot development and fruit clusters that naturally fall a few stages behind the ripening of the original clusters. It is crucial to remove these secondary clusters while they’re still green and detectable. Otherwise, they will be picked along with the fully ripened grapes during harvest, despite their still overly green and underdeveloped tannins. Additionally, also as a result of the hail and the dry heat, a few clusters are not fully maturing. The result is a grape cluster mixed with properly ripening grapes and other grapes suffering from coulure and millerandange or shot berries. Coulure is a condition where after flowering the bud remains undeveloped. Millerandage is the condition when a berry ripens only partially, never reaching full maturity. In both cases, these berries will need to be sorted out during the harvest. The net effect of the above viticulture 101 will be a very low yield, projected to fall between 30 and 35 hectoliters per hectare.
Mr. de Laage touched on a few interesting topics regarding the estates winemaking philosophy. Regarding the higher than average proportion of Merlot, as with Pichon-Lalande, it appears that this can very simply be attributed to the personal tastes of a prior owner. In this case the Miahle family was very fond of Merlot and chose to plant more Merlot vines than what was considered typical. Regarding what many consider to be a long maceration, Bernard noted that he did not judge the 18- to 21-day macerations to be anything out of the ordinary. He emphasized that the structure, richness and concentration is not a product of the maceration, but rather is a direct product of the soil. Maceration is more critical for achieving the desired balance, harmony and delicacy. Furthermore, with respect to the malolactic fermentation being split up between vat and barrel, Bernard explained that although the malolactic fermentation in barrel produces a wine that is more approachable early on, after 3 to 4 months, no real difference can be detected. In terms of oak aging and the percentage of new oak, Bernard noted that new oak does not make the wine. Certainly the 1947, 1958 and 1961 are all considered vintages of the century and none of these wines saw a day in new oak. It was simply too expensive. The length of the aging is much more important than the percentage of new oak, Bernard remarked. Aging imparts the desired volume and fleshiness that is characteristic, especially in high Merlot-concentrated wines.
I asked Mr. de Laage to compare Château Palmer to its close rival and First Growth estate, Château Margaux. He noted that he is very fond of Margaux and characterizes it as an 18th Century-style wine with austerity but also showing precision, finesse, delicacy and purity. Palmer on the other hand is more similar to a 19th Century wine of Baroque style. Palmer is very refined, deep and complex, yet also charming, subtle, approachable and soft.
Regarding 2008, Bernard describes the vintage as having a fantastic balance, tremendous density and complexity, and a marked elegance. Overall he considers the 2008 a delicious wine. According to Bernard, the high level of quality is a slight mystery; however, he believes that the quality of the grapes may have developed early between July and the first week of August. And certainly the last 2 to 3 weeks before the mid-September harvest was a life saver.
Behold our tasting …
2004 Alter Ego de Palmer
Tasting Notes: 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. 13% ABV. An elegant and sweet nose with aromas of red fruits, crème de cassis, plums, violets and subtle oak. A bright acidity and good balance in the mouth with supple tannins and a silky smooth texture. Notes of plum jump out on the attack, followed by espresso in the mid palate, on through to the finish.
Rating: 15/20 (WS 88)
Price: $36 USD @ Wine Spectator, release price
2001 Château Palmer
Tasting Notes: 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot. 12.5% ABV. A great richness, intensity, elegance and complexity in the nose, showing notes of black fruits, cassis, cedar, and flowers. There are tight tannins with a full body and well-balanced acidity. Fruit forward up front with flavors of plums and sour cherries, followed by notes of espresso, smoke, spice, and oak. The finish is sour and bitter, although not unpleasant.
Rating: 16/20 (WS 94)
Price: $78 USD @ Wine Spectator, auction price
2007 Experimental White (Non Release)
Tasting Notes: 60% Muscadelle, 25% Sauvignon Gris, 10% Merlot Blanc, and 5% Lauzet. Vines planted in 2004. Very tropical, fleshy and complex on the nose with beautiful aromas of peach, apricot, pear, and minerals. Reminiscent of a Summer meadow in the Loire Valley. Medium to full-bodied in the mouth, expressing a silky, round, richness, balanced by a refreshing acidity. There are flavors of grapefruit, lemon, and apple. I hope Château Palmer decides to bottle this wine in the coming years.