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Chateau Palmer 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001 & 1985 Chateau Lafite Rothschild

April 9, 2011

I discover with sudden realisation that my wine-and-dine events have reached a whole new level of experience: small but distinguished group averaging one bottle per head, private room (of course), lofty themes without the need to think twice, food that’s never less than excellent, first-name basis with the entire restaurant staff, dining with the restaurant co-owner and, best of all, everything for just a song. And so it was on 23 March 2011 when I found myself dining with a co-director of the Les Amis group at one of their restaurants, La Strada, over a theme of Ch Palmer vertical that Kieron had come up with. It’s high-class snob, but it feels damn good. Like the Mouton dinner (see Feb 2011), we already knew which vintages of Palmer we’d be drinking, but we left the sommelier to blind and arrange the wines in an order deemed appropriate. For sure, there would be a 1996 (courtesy of YS), 1999, 2000 (Kieron) and 2001 (KG). And guess what? There will be a fifth mystery red as well (courtesy of David). Interesting!

As usual, we popped a champagne to start things rolling. Most rose champagnes are over-rated, but I must say the Jacques Lassaigne Rose NV (courtesy of KG) is a wonderful wine from start to finish, light orangey-pinkish tint with deep notes of malt, peat, and smoky citrus, apricot, pineapples and grapefruit. It was full of lively acidity without going over-the-top, gaining incredible complexity over time, flooring me with its amazing depth each time I poked my nose into my flute. Simply superb.

We got down to serious business right after that, tasting all the 5 reds simultaneously. Red #1 showed a deep dark purple with plenty of ripe dark berries, cedar and black fruits, producing great body and tone, rather firm and masculine, classically structured with excellent depth, framed by supple tannins, just a bit short at the finish, yet to develop further although its potential is enormous. There was an obvious note of vanilla that hinted at its youth. Everyone was unanimous that this was most likely to be the 2001.

Red #2 also contained a deep purple core with some lightening towards the rim, but this wine was much deeper and darker in tone, dense with an almost soy-like quality but well balanced, developing a high aquiline tone over time. The fruit was remarkably ripe, concentrated and fairly intense, saturating the palate with layers of sweet dark berries without any hint of over-extraction, opulent and multi-dimensional, growing in complexity right till the end of dinner. But overall, this is still a youthful wine that’s largely undifferentiated at this stage, just beginning to reveal some secondary nuances, packed with plenty of power and understated charm. Given the line-up, I thought this was most likely to be the 2000, which Kieron concurred.

 Red #3, although deep in color was evidently more evolved than the preceding two wines, much more open on the nose with lifted aromas of red fruits, sweet cherries and strawberries. Medium-bodied, rounded, superbly integrated and totally seamless, this wine was quintessentially Margaux in its charm, most befitting of the stereotypical feminine character one expects of wines from this commune, although I wouldn’t go as far to say that it’s voluptuous. Neither does it combine power and elegance, a hallmark of Ch Palmer from the best vintages. In fact, its finish was somewhat short. Must be the 1999, surely, a watered-down year.

Red #4, with a dark purple core, was appreciably heavier and more intense on the nose, rich in  ripe sweet fruit with extended depth and concentration, almost opulent, caressing the palate softly with velvety tannins, leading to a lasting luxuriant glow at the finish. Superb in definition from start to finish, perhaps even backward.  The closest comparison was with the second red, but I felt that Red #4 didn’t quite integrate as beautifully, almost as if each individual component was just a tad too over-sized. The 1996?

I had the privilege of knowing which mystery wine David had brought; the fun was trying to spot it amongst the line-up. But it stood out immediately, for the classic color and nose of an aged Bordeaux (that made the previous 4 reds appear distinctly youthful) was unmistakable, replete with the glow of cedar, cassis and cinnamon, slightly sweet, amidst the classic Pauillac signature of dried leaves, tobacco and cigar box. It still displayed a dark dusty red at its core but there is no mistaking the evolved bricking at the rim, fully mature on the palate, harmonious and homogenous, seamless yet complex, still retaining its structure with  superb definition all the way to its lasting finish. Supremely confident and elegant. A complete wine, caught at its peak and will hold on for years to come. This was, of course, a 1985 Ch Lafite Rothschild (thanks Dave!!!). A quintessential Lafite. I was surprised the thought hadn’t cross the minds of my fellow diners, but it was irrelevant.

So, back to Palmer. Had we been served from youngest to the oldest, in simple order? That was what Kieron and I concurred. But when the answer seems too easily derived, just like in school exams, you get this nagging feeling that you must have screwed up big time along the way. It turned out we were served: 2001, 1999, 1996 and 2000. Only one hit out of four and, to be honest, the 2001 was a dead giveaway. Terrible. What surprised me most was how the 1999 had outperformed all expectations. My previous experience of this wine had been in Aug 2009 (see posting) where its exceptional power, depth and finesse were already noted, but its mid-body seems to developed further over the intervening period with greater fullness, layering and dimension. However, it is clearly far from ready, as evidenced by the way the wine kept increasing in complexity throughout dinner. The winemaker was right when he had said that the 1999 had the edge over the 2000. This is a classic in evolution. I have high hopes that it’ll be the latter-day equivalent of the 1983 in time to come.

My thanks to all for their kind generosity.

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