Drinking Well

Drinking Well

Château Palmer has changed hands over the years, says Anthony Barne, but its quality remains consistent

It’s not just the reassuringly English ring of the name Palmer that has drawn the British claret lover to one of Bordeaux’s foremost châteaux over the years. First and foremost, it has been the quality of the wine and its spectacular rendering of the rich and fragrant style of the commune of Margaux. Château Palmer’s story begins in the 15th century, with the proprietor who refused to sign the surrender of Bordeaux to the French forces. His name was de Foix and, having been rewarded by the English with the title of Kendal, the family became known as Foix de Candale. The same family also owned the extensive vineyards that adjoined the beautiful moated building of Château d’Issan.

It was a parcel of these vines that passed, by inheritance, to the du Gascq family in 1748. General Palmer, who had served under Wellington, bought Château du Gascq in 1814 and, in a fit of modesty, renamed it. He expanded the vineyard and laid the foundations for its ranking as a Third Growth in the 1855 classification. Unfortunately, he went bankrupt in the 1840s, before he could enjoy the plaudits. In 1853 the Château was bought by the Périeres, banking rivals to the Rothschilds, who had the ‘necessaries’ to re-plant the mildew-ravaged vineyard. In 1856 the Périeres built one of Bordeaux’s most elegant châteaux and the family continued to own Palmer until 1938, when a shrewd purchase was made by the Mähler-Besse and Sichel families.

the Château, their graffiti visible in the attic to this day, and times were tough until the property started to pay its way in 1953. The wine writer Edmund Penning-Rowsell knew Allan Sichel, the face of Palmer in Britain, and recalled that Sichel made no bones about it if the Château had produced a poor wine, and tried to dissuade his customers from buying it. (How different from Bordeaux’s modern system of ‘allocations’, whereby if you don’t buy the lesser vintages, you can hardly expect to be offered the great ones.)

Alongside the name Sichel is that of Chardon, managers at Palmer for over a century and, in recent generations, responsible for the fabulous wines that put the property on a par with the First Growths in 1961, 1966, 1970 and several other years. Even the 1967 was a notable wine. I remember it being served at the Château alongside Lafite, and there was no doubt as to which was better. Also on the table that night were the 1961, 1962, 1966 and 1970; in those days the cellar door stood ajar for British wine merchants, even of modest size (the businesses, I mean).

Many of the ‘Super Seconds’ – Cos d’Estournel, Pichon- Lalande and Léoville-Las-Cases, for example – are neighbours to a First Growth, but Palmer doesn’t enjoy that advantage. Palmer’s vineyards originate from fellow Third Growths d’Issan and Desmirail. Although it may just have been inspired wine-making that put it ahead of Margaux through the 1960s and 1970s, that it is still challenging the First Growths in the 21st century implies that some very good choices with the plots of land must have been made over the years, including those by the General himself. Today the vineyard is planted with 47 per cent Merlot, higher than any other classed growth in the Médoc. This is said to give the wine a Pomerol-like richness alongside which, in time, the fragrant intensity of a classic Margaux will take its place.

Château Palmer was sold at the Bonhams auction sales for £6,325 (including buyer’s premium) on February 14, 2013.


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