A Vintage Affair

Courtesy Château Palmer

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.

To Cork or Not Recork

As wines age, their corks can deteriorate to the point that they are no longer airtight. The wine then begins to evaporate, and oxygen entering the bottle can spoil the contents. It’s a universal problem, one that winemakers once prevented by removing the old cork, topping off the bottle, injecting protective inert gas, and inserting a new, airtight cork, a process that could extend a bottle’s life for decades. But these days most top houses have stopped providing the service. “We’ve found that for old bottles, it can do more harm than good,” explains Hervé Berland, Mouton Rothschild’s executive director. As Château Margaux’s winemaker, Paul Pontallier, notes, “even in the best possible conditions, exposure to air during the process can damage the wine.”

The issue of authenticity has also become a concern. If a château can be persuaded to recork a fake bottle, the wine is suddenly imbued with impeccable provenance—and a higher value. Château Latour’s cellar master Pierre-Henri Chabot says flatly, “If we don’t know the history of the wine, “we won’t recondition it.” But at the Australian winery Penfolds, one of the few places that continues the practice, head winemaker Peter Gago says, “We know the wines backward, so a suspect bottle will ‘poke out.’ If anything, it’s an excellent vehicle for detecting fakes.”

Magnificent Margaux

The wines of Pauillac may be more potent, those of St.-Estèphe meatier, and the St.-Juliens rounder. But for grace, silky texture, and ravishing perfume, Margaux at its best is supreme. In the 1855 classification of Bordeaux châteaux, Margaux’s 21 wines exceeded the number from any other commune. And while other top Bordeaux can be austere, mature Margaux is just plain sexy.

Château Palmer

Although classified as a third growth in 1855, Palmer has overtaken neighboring first-growth Château Margaux in certain years, including 1961, 1989, and 2004. Merlot—usually half of the blend—is key to Palmer’s performance. Though the 1961 vintage is rarely seen at retail, reputable dealers such as K&L Wine Merchants (kandl.com) and New York Wine Warehouse (nywines.com) have offered it. In addition Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Acker Merrall & Condit, and Hart Davis Hart Wine put bottles up for auction a few times a year. chateau-palmer.com

Château Margaux

Under the control of the Mentzelopoulos family and longtime general director and winemaker Paul Pontallier, the château produces wines that are firm, floral, and every ounce a first growth. Cabernet Sauvignon makes up three quarters or more of the blend here, and in vintages when that grape excels, Margaux reigns supreme, as it did in 1983, 1986, 1990, 1996, and 2000. chateau-margaux.com

Château Rauzan-Ségla

Honored in 1855 as the best second growth, by the 1960s and 1970s the château was no longer living up to its reputation. Then, starting in 1983, new manager Jacques Théo brought it back to form. Recent vintages are very strong, especially the 2002, 2005, and 2006. chateaurauzansegla.com

Château Malescot St.Exupéry

Just north of Château Palmer but deep in its shadow, this property has been making ever finer wines—blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot—in the appellation’s signature racy style. Keep an eye out for the superbly ripe and intense 2005 vintage, due to arrive this year. malescot.com