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The wines of Chateau Palmer, Margaux: a vertical tasting

Presented by Bernard de Laage (Marketing and Communication Director) and Thomas Duroux (Manager)

Margaux star Château Palmer needs little introduction. It’s ranked second in Margaux, just a notch behind Château Margaux itself, although in the 1855 classification it’s actually a third growth. Despite this, Palmer is one of the Château people talk about in discussions about which properties could be elevated to first growth status, along with the likes of Leoville Les Cases.

Palmer has 52 hectares of vines, with a larger proportion of Merlot than is usual for a left-bank estate. Typical make up of the grand vin is equal proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with 5% Petit Verdot, but this changes with each vintage. [For more information on Palmer, there’s an excellent website: www.chateau-palmer.com.]

We began this tasting with a look at Alter Ego de Palmer. ‘Alter Ego is an interesting and important concept for us’, says Bernard de Laage. ‘As with many growths we produced a second wine, but since 1998 we have made a second wine plus Alter Ego’. So it’s not a second wine as such, made from barrels that fail to make the cut. Rather, in the vineyards they make a decision about which grapes are growing where and then use different techniques, such as different extractions, specifically for this wine. As an example, Alter Ego is fermented at lower temperatures to preserve fruitiness. No specific blocks are dedicated to Alter Ego or Palmer: the selection is year by year. This means there is no difference in yield. In recent years the yield at Palmer has been 50 hl/hectare in 2004 (this is high), 32 hl/ha in 2005 (low) and 36 hl/ha in 2006. The target yield is 45 hl/ha.

There’s no winemaking recipe here. In general, they don’t do delestage. They try to do pump-overs early on when there’s less alcohol (more gentle extraction). They don’t macerate for a long time. Fermentation typically lasts two weeks for Alter Ego and three for Palmer.

The Alter Ego flight was poured sighted. All four wines are fruit driven with nice freshness. My impression was that this is a consistent wine across vintages, with fresh fruit and a bit of minerality, made in a savoury style.

Alter Ego de Palmer 2004
’A great year where we were able to select special blocks for Alter Ego’, says Bernard. Half Cabernet, half Merlot. Ripe, bright red fruit dominated nose with nice purity and some minerality. There’s a bit of chocolatey richness. Nice pure fruit on the palate with good acidity keeping things fresh. Smooth but firm tannins. 90/100

Alter Ego de Palmer 2003
A hot year, and during the growing season the heat made everything stop. pH and acidity is normal: what is unusual is the aromas, claims Bernard. ‘When you smell the wine you don’t know where you are, but the taste is Bordeaux’. Bright fruity nose with a slightly leathery edge. Quite fresh and forward with a bit of minerality. There’s some approachable, ripe, open fruit here, which leads to a grippy, savoury tannic finish. A nice open wine that’s drinking well. 89/100

Alter Ego de Palmer 2002
A low yielding year because of coulure. The fruit was very concentrated and they couldn’t make the Alter Ego like they wanted. Deep coloured. Firm nose of bright dark, blackcurranty fruits with some classic minerality. Lovely concentration of forward fruit on the palate backed by smooth tannins and good acidity, together with a bit of earthiness. Savoury and minerally, with some potential. 89/100

Alter Ego de Palmer 2001
Two-thirds Merlot in this vintage. Nice open blackcurranty nose with some minerality. The palate shows good concentration of savoury, minerally fruit with good acidity. Quite fruity. With its savoury, mineral character it’s a bit on the lean side, but there’s promise for the future. 88/100

Next up, the Palmer vertical. While Alter Ego underwhelms a little, Palmer is the real deal. These are stunning wines. The first four vintages, 2004–2001, were served sighted. Bernard commented that, ‘a lot of us in Bordeaux considered 2004 as a great vintage: in the coming years it will be rediscovered.’

Then the final batch of wines were served blind in pairs, which we soon realized consisted of adjacent vintages. 2004 and 2003; 2000 and 1999; 1983 and 1982; and 1971 and 1970.

Château Palmer 2004 Margaux
47% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot: a classic Palmer blend, harvested 27 September–12 October. Quite smooth with some chocolatey richness on the nose, and some sweet red fruits. The palate is bold, rich and concentrated with the ripe, sweet fruit well supported by firm, smooth, spicy tannic structure. Brilliant acidity, resulting in a powerful, intense, ripe, yet well balanced wine with a long future ahead of it. Mineralic, spicy and quite exciting. 95/100

Château Palmer 2003 Margaux
The blend is a bit different: 20% Merlot, 68% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Petit Verdot. Harvested 8–20 September. Forward, exotic, sweet red and black fruits nose with a gravelly, minerally edge. Sweet and focused. The palate is open and approachable with nice sweet fruits, but it clamps down firmlt on the finish with a bit of plummy bitterness and firm tannins. Not perfect, but still pretty impressive. 93/100

Château Palmer 2002 Margaux
40% Merlot, 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, harvested 26 September–7 October. Smooth, sweet blackcurranty nose with nice purity and some chocolatey richness. Very expressive and intense. The palate shows good concentration of pure, supple dark fruits with good acid, tannins and a minerally finish. A very satisfying, pure wine that is quite dense and has real appeal. Lots of potential for development here. 93/100

Château Palmer 2001 Margaux
44% Merlot, 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, harvested from 26 September–11 October. Deep coloured. Classic nose with some blackcurrant fruit, a bit of earthiness, and subtle minerality. Still quite primary. The palate is supple and fruity with a nice, spicy tannic structure under the smooth black fruits. Finishes fairly savoury and tannic. Good acid and freshness. More time is called for here, because this is slightly austere at the moment. 91/100

The blind wines

Château Palmer 2000 Margaux
Deep coloured. Smooth, quite pure nose shows intense red/black fruits. Perfumed, appealing and quite open. The palate is broad and concentrated with great intensity of pure, sweet fruit. Great tannic structure. Youthful but a near-complete wine of great power and good balance. Thrilling, even. Reckon this is 2000, but my neighbour, a Bordeaux expert, thinks 1997. 96/100 (the blend this year was 47% Merlot, 53% Cabernet Sauvignon)

Château Palmer 1999 Margaux
Sweet, tarry, almost fudge-like edge to the fruit on the nose, which is showing some evolution. Ripe and full with lovely richness. Opening out beautifully. The palate shows wonderfully pure fruit that’s developing some earthy, spicy complexity. Intense with impeccable balance. Lovely stuff. 95/100 (Blend: 46% Merlot, 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot)

Château Palmer 1990 Margaux
Sweet, open nose with some evolution and a subtle herbiness. Perfumed and very soft. Classic, sweet, seamless and earthy. The palate is open, smooth, complex and evolved with a lovely sweet earthiness. This is just drinking perfectly now, with weight and subtlety. Thrilling wine of great precision and poise. 96/100 (Blend: 37% Merlot, 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot)

Château Palmer 1989 Margaux
Delicious sweet, tarry, fudgey nose is quite open, with a smooth intoxicating perfume and a bit of meatiness. Alluring palate has a complex blend of fruit with spice, tar, some minerality and a bit of earthiness. Still quite some tannic structure. A beefy wine, showing evolution, that is quite savoury in character. 94/100 (Blend: 41% Merlot, 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot)

Château Palmer 1983 Margaux
Dark, spicy palate is quite earthy and full with some tight red fruits, lots of earthiness and firm tannic structure. A firm, substantial wine that is a bit closed at the moment, but which shows potential for further development, even though it is already clearly quite old. 93/100 (Blend: 41% Merlot, 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot)

Château Palmer 1982 Margaux

Château Palmer 1971 Margaux
Sweet open nose is evolved but still quite pure, showing fruit. Beautifully perfumed. The palate is exciting and expressive with high acid and a lovely freshness, along with earthy, spicy complexity. Fresh, pure and vibrant despite the evident age. Earthy and spicy, too. A really expressive, delicious wine that’s drinking well now, with good acidity the dominant feature. 95/100

Château Palmer 1970 Margaux
Sweet fudgey edge to the deliciously evolved earthy nose. Very full, complex and earthy—thought provoking. The palate is bright and fresh, with good acid and a savoury, quite tannic structure. Bold. A bit square and angular, but otherwise delicious and fresh. 93/100

see also: Bordeaux wines

Wines tasted 10/06
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