Last night I was fortunate enough to attend a vertical tasting of Chateau Palmer with managing winemaker Thomas Duroux. The event was put together by boardmember and wine journalist Panos Kakaviatos. The exquisite setting was The Plume Restaurant in the Hotel Jefferson. Our meal was orchestrated by their talented chef Damon Gordon and masterfully guided by their top notch server Frank. They did an excellent job coming up with a challenging menu and excelled at attention to detail and service. A lovely setting for such an event!
We drank through 14 vintages of Palmer, 2 vintages of Alter Ego and one special Palmer cuvee (the anniversaire special cuvee). Wines were accompanied by five courses. All wines were double decanted approximately 2 hours before the flights. We mostly worked back chronologically but left a few surprises for the end. First a few thoughts about Palmer:
From a strategic standpoint, I find that Palmer is in a difficult position alongside wine such as Cos, Pape Clement, LLC, Angelus and to a lesser extent La Mission Haut Brion: nipping at the heels of first growths but distanced from other classifieds. This position comes with lofty expectations vintage in and out, especially given the tremendous success the estate has had in the past (e.g. the 60s). Accordingly, there is immense pressure on the estate to hit home runs in the seminal vintages while also producing high caliber wines when the weather is less amenable. I think what I gathered from this tasting is that Palmer has a typicity and terroir that lends itself the type of flexibility to create wonderful and true wines in less than heralded vintages, but can produce seminal wines in the best vintages. I didn’t have a single vintage where extraction or meddling was apparent, with the exception of 03 which felt like a challenging disappointment. The wines for the most part retained their Margaux typicity with feminine and perfumed expression while still staying classic to the vintage characteristics. In its best iterations, Palmer exhibited a wonderful depth and brightness of fruit, while producing layers of complexity, perfumed boquet and balance amongst a richness that was quite regal.
We started in the Hotel’s Library with a 1999 Delamotte Blanc de Blanc. A very tight and well knit champagne, with toasty notes of brioche and yeasty dough. The palate has nice tight bubbles and a pleasant acidic backbone. While still young, this wine is very approachable and quite the nice vessel for opening one’s palate.
Ravioli of Lentils du Puy with Foie Gras and Squabb.
Our first two wines were Alter Egos. Thomas gave a quick introduction about the approach of the winemaking at Palmer with regards to Alter Ego. While many second wines are often lambasted as being disregarded selections bottled, Thomas stated that Alter Ego lots are interspersed with the Grand Vin parcels and are chosen not strictly by vine age, but for rather with the planned purpose of drawing grapes that require less extraction and have a lighter style, pushing for easier phenolic ripeness and early brightness and approachability. The result should be a fresh and approachable wine that doesn’t necessarily need the support structure for aging and complexity. Upon tasting the Alter Egos, I agreed with Thomas’ assessment as both of these wines showed rather well at such young junctures, offering a unique primer to the Grand Vin.
2006 Alter Ego – Wonderful density with an expansive deep nose of dark kirsch. A youthful exuberant expression that is crafted well. It has a bit of zeal in its fruit, perhaps less Bordeaux than a classic expression. Will it tame with more age? Perhaps, but it is imminently approachable now.
2004 Alter Ego – A bit more interesting, albeit less structured and substantial. The wine shows more advancement but also less purity. The nose is a bit more diffuse, hinting some signs of wet tobacco and damp earth. It is more of a food wine and reaching a peak plateau of maturity.
Noisette of Berkshire Pork with Boudin Noir
2004 Chateau Palmer – A wonderful comparison having just had the 04 Alter Ego. They sit next to each other like brothers of different stature. The Palmer has better breed and focus, with clearer pitch on the fruit and more perfume on the nose. It is more expansive and brooding, but still has the same tobaccoy quality as the Alter Ego. Hallmark tones of kirsch and violets with excellent balance. The wine is soft with a supple round mouth feel but with enough integrity to age gracefully. A wine that has a bright future.
2003 Chateau Palmer – A relative disappointment, highlighting the difficulties of the vintage. Those that picked early on the left bank and those located farther south generally struggled. Interestingly enough, the 03 Ch Margaux is a WA blockbuster while its peer the Palmer is hardly that. Vintage notes of stewed plum waft from the nose but this wine seems to be lacking in concentration and depth. Somewhat subdued red fruit on the palate. It is well crafted with balance but simply lacks the stuffing to be anything substantial. The weakest wine of the night for me.
2001 Chateau Palmer – A precocious sleeper. This wine has subdued charisma with a wonderful perfumed nose of violets, graphite and soft lavender. A wine to look out for in 5+ years. Could it compete with the 2000?
1999 Chateau Palmer – The nose is closed offering little in terms of aroma. The wine has a great mouthfeel of supple berries and kirsch driven richness. It has a depth and precision that feels unique. Perhaps it is in a tight spot at the moment but when it blossoms it should be quite wonderful.
1998 Chateau Palmer – The most accessible of this flight and showing probably the best. The heavy merlot percentage really shines in this right bank vintage and as Kevin presciently points out, it shows like a St Emillion with wonderful truffled matured notes. Straddling a wonderful balance of primary fruit and secondary aromas, this wine is in a sheerly brilliant spot. While the palate does not have the hallmark depth of seminal vintages, it is one of the better values in Palmer to my palate.
Medallion of Prime Dry Aged Beef with Onion Soubise
1995 Chateau Palmer – A spectacular nose of perfumed violets and liqeur, creosote and kirsch. Shocking that it is showing so much on the nose from a very reticent vintage. The palate is fare more strict, with a structure of tannins still prevalent. Nevertheless, it still contains a nice density of berry driven fruit. An excellent wine which should age gracefully for quite some time.
1991 Chateau Palmer – Not a hallmark vintage by most of our standards, but Thomas notes that while there were frosts that devastated many estates in April, the rest of the summer was quite nice in Bordeaux and that 91s are better than credited with. I must say that he was quite right. While the nose lacks the density of big vintages, almost showing a touch too diffuse and unripe, there is a well rounded and delicate mouthfeel of kirsch and berries. A real surprise.
1990 Chateau Palmer – A sign of what the Chateau is capable of in big vintages. The nose is expansive, just wafting out of the glass with classic perfumed notes of violets and lavender with touches of cedar. The wine has such breed and regal mouthfeel, it simply demands attention. It is a complete wine with a very bright future. Excellent.
1981 Chateau Palmer – Mature claret on the nose, perhaps past mature for many peoples palates. Damp Sous bois, tobacco and vegetal notes as well as wet saddle. As advanced as the wine smells, the mouthfeel is very delicate. A wine that draws one in, almost pulling your comfort away from typical Bordeaux. Perhaps the most intriguing wine of the flight.
1978 Chateau Palmer – Defying its age from the gate, the wine is far less advanced than the 81, with feral cherry notes and light sous bois and tobacco. The mouthfeel is still quite wonderful showing great depth and touch but no hint of fading. A lovely mature claret with unique character.
Black Truffle Studded Loin of Lamb with Seasonal Oyster Mushrooms and Pommes Rosti
1989 Chateau Palmer – A duo of all-stars, the 1989 first feels upon pouring a bit discombobulated but quickly settles down, showing its youthful vigor. The wine has wonderful depth of plum, kirsch and violet, with hints of tabac and leather. The wine is still primal on the palate with depth and concentration of cherry and kirsch. A wine that isn’t even ready to begin talking about maturity. Approachable but give it another 5 years.
1983 Chateau Palmer – The star of the show, a blockbuster wine with elegance and touch, hardly showing its age. The wine explodes out of the glass with layers of kirsch, berry and cassis. It has the brightest pitch of any of the wines we have had yet! Simply incredible. This wine should hold up wonderfully for another 10+ years. Wonderful.
Trio of cheeses
2006 Palmer Anniversaire - A special 200 cs cuvee from Palmer that is 90% 06 Palmer blended with 10% Syrah from the Northern Rhone (Thomas refused to pinpoint its typicity but it is anywhere from Cornas to Cote Rotie!). A thick, brambly nose dominates this foreboding wine. Hints of that 06 Alter Ego we drank several flights ago pokes through with some Palmer typicity, but it is something of an enigmatic hybrid. Pleasant to drink and converse about its origins, but hardly profound.
2005 Chateau Palmer – A duo of all-stars in the making, the 2005 is a wonder that I regarded quite highly. Just a primordial stage right now, but still somewhat accessible for evaluation. A wall of tannins and acidity is immediately perceivable on the nose with red berry, kirsch and lavender. Violets jump out of the glass with swirling. The wine has such a liqeur driven concentration, a quality I love if it is capable of aging gracefully and this wine seems to have all the stuffing to do so for decades. The depth and almost endless finish to this wine seems to be the qualities for a legend in the making. While I am a huge fan of 2005 Razuan Segla, this wine seems to be cut from a greater breed, with more upside for complexity and balance. A banner year in Margaux, indeed!
2000 Chateau Palmer – Surprisingly far more accessible than I thought it would be, having been stymied by several massive 2000s recently. The wine lacks the foreboding presence and acidity driven brightness of the 2005, but it is imminently more pleasurable. Kirsch, berries and dark cherries explode out of the glass in a wonderfully balanced expression of Margaux. Simply a pleasure to drink, this wine is just starting to shake some of its austerity and should only continue to improve. I see it like a more advanced 2005 with less brightness and less upside. Others found it to be splendid- a “rockstar”. Hard to split hairs at this point.
Randy brought a second bottle of 1999 Chateau Palmer which we had drank alongside the 2000 and 2005. This bottle was decanted for an extensive period of time and showed less tight than the original bottle in flight #2. A good sign for the wine.
To finish, Kevin generously brought a 1971 Brundalmyer that was slightly maderized on the nose, but still had a pleasant touch of creamed sherried apples.
Special thanks again to Panos for organizing. He took extensive videos and pictures throughout the evening so look forward to more media content (on decanter perhaps?). Thanks to Thomas as well for offering absolutely wonderful insights in Bordeaux (with some interesting dialogue on 2008 and 2009) and the Jefferson for an exquisite setting.