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Delhi Wine Club
Bernard de Laage of Chateau Palmer

Posted: Saturday, 14 September 2013 13:25

Passing By : Bernard de Laage of Chateau Palmer

Sep 14: Bernard de Laage, the global Brand Ambassador of Chateau Palmer, the legendary Third Growth of Bordeaux from Margaux, was in India on the annual business pilgrimage when Subhash Arora had the privilege of an exclusive chat with him on various issues surrounding the Chateau and Bordeaux Classified Growths

Click For Large ViewOne of the glaring oddities of the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux has been Chateau Palmer, classified as the Third Growth that sells its wines consistently between the First and Second Growths prices depending on the Vintage. Not only is it one of the few non French sounding names (so one does not need to give the silly French twist to its name) but also because the Classification does not truly reflect the current quality or the market standing of the Margaux producer that was once rated at the same level as the First Growth Chateau Margaux.

1855 Classification doesn’t justify the present quality

Getting into the historical background of the Chateau, Bernard explains, perhaps for the 1999th time since he started working for Chateau Palmer in 1999, that the anomaly in the Classification system was due to the bad patch the chateau  was going through at that time and has nothing to do with the quality standing today. The 200-year company named after the British General Charles Palmer was in financial difficulties and had to be sold to the creditors in 1840. it was being managed by the caretaker management when the quality came down tremendously. What he does not say is that the problem was caused in part due to oidium leaf disease in Bordeaux in 1844. Péreire brothers, bankers and rivals of the Rothschilds bought it in 1853 but did not have enough time to turn the estate around in 2 years when the Classification was formed. Formed at the instructions of Napoléon to define the taxation structure, it was based only on the prices fetched by the wine at the time to help form the taxation structure.

‘There was a quality turn around and we fetch the prices between First and Second Growths today’, he said. ‘Look at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. Though they are Fifth Growths, they command better prices than some of the Second Growths!’ Without willing to be drawn into the validity of the Classification system, he said the system seems to be working well and does not restrict the prices of quality producers like Palmer. He did elaborate that the system in the Right Bank of Bordeaux in particular, especially St. Emilion where the Grand Crus are classified periodically (after roughly 10 years but recently the system has come under fire due to disgruntled estates taking the System to court and another subject- editor) keeps the Classification under constant surveillance.

Alter Ego of Chateau Palmer

Bernard takes pains to explain that the ‘second’ wine, Alter Ego which the chateau started producing in 1998 and the 2008 vintage of which was showcased at a dinner at the Dum Pukht restaurant where I had an exclusive chat with him, is the second label (another expression of the Terroir of Palmer) and not second wine as most Top Growth Chateaux (and indeed some even the third wine). La Réserve de Général used to be the second wine till then and was discontinued at the same time. ‘It is made from the same grapes but in slightly different proportions and using different techniques to make it more easily approachable and drinkable early, keeping in mind the younger clients who prefer to drink their wines young,’ he says. About 40% of the estate wines are now Alter Ego de Chateau Palmer. ‘They are more open and enjoyable younger with more intense perfume and with velvety texture.’

Chateau palmer grows only Merlot, Cabernet and about 6% Petit Verdot. Whereas Petit Verdot is used in the Chateau Wines that uses the grapes from the best blocks, Alter Ego uses an equal proportion of Merlot and Cabernet only, he says.

Markets for Chateau Palmer

‘After rise in demand in Hong Kong and China, market has slowed down,' he says, adding ‘I don’t believe people have stopped drinking. But people are much more sensitive today. And due to the slowdown, the sellers have lots of stock. There was a big slow down in America but there is a slow and steady recovery,’ he says, adding ‘we have reached a plateau in prices and don’t expect the prices to go down.’

Click For Large View'There has been a slow development in South America but Central Europe has been a new market which is very important even though it is in small portions in different countries,’ he says when I ask him about the emerging markets. ‘Asia is a big part of the market-even if it has slowed down. Korea is also developing slowly, Taiwan is  a good market too. Japan is of course more comparable to the Europe market. It developed well in the late 70s.'

India not Shining

His face has a distinctive look of disappointment when I ask him about the growth in the sales of Chateau Palmer wines in India. ‘I am sorry but we are quite disappointed with the Indian market. Despite the efforts by Brindco and Sonarys and my 6-8 visits - I come so regularly that I have lost count - the sales have not picked up in India. Your duties are so high that the price at which it is sold is too exorbitant.’ I correct him that while it was true for the retail market, hotels and restaurants where it is usually sold do not attract any customs duties and yet the price is so high that it is impossible for most wine connoisseurs to order the wine and hence it stays as a showpiece in the cellar and on the Menu. I was told that in Oberoi, the Chateau Palmer sells for Rs.70,000! How many  people can afford that kind of price, one wonders.

The 2005 vs. 2009

When I asked him about the quality comparisons of the two most talked about vintages of this millennium, he said, ‘the question is not about the comparison of 2005 and 2009 but about 2009 vs. 2010, the most exciting vintages that are comparable to the great vintages of 1928 and 1929. The 2005 vintage was of course a big wine, it was a drier vintage with very little rain-more like 2000. But both 2009 and 2010 are excellent vintages with potential, but both with different profiles. While 2009 is very soft and generous, 2010 is more Classic. 2009 is very seductive but for me 2010 is the better vintage.’

Sales through Négociants

Like most Top Growths, Chateau Palmer distributes wines only through négociants. ‘Even Brindco imports them through the négociants. We may help in locating the négociant and even keep a track of the shipments but sales are never directly by us,’ he says. Of course, he makes regular visits to his territory for promotion of the two labels.

En Primeur

Chateau Palmer sells of most of its wines at En Primeur. ‘We keep only some bottles for our wine library but depend upon the En Primeur system which has its good points and bad points. We need to make sure that for the on-trade there are enough wines available when they are drinkable.’

To get an idea of the En Primeur prices of their wines, I asked him the price of the 2005 vintage. Sold at €40 to the négociants, the Alter Ego is sold by them at around €60 with the trade price of around €80-90 today. 'The Chateau wine fetched about €180 and sells for over €300 today.’


The wines in Dum Pukht had been decanted for a couple of hours and Bernard was supverivising the pour-back into the bottles when I met him earlier in the evening. But he recommends 2 hours or so of decanting their wines, possibly less for those who like to see the wine evolve in the glass. ‘I’d like to see the wine evolve in the glass. One can enjoy the the different nuances a lot more in the glass.’  The wines were well cooled to the recommend temperature of 18°C by the competent staff at the Indian Cuisine Specialty Restaurant that has many loyal customers.

Matching Palmer with Indian food

Click For Large View‘I hope the food tonight is fusion food because if the Indian food is too hot and spicy, it is not easy to match with fine wines.’ I agreed with him totally as he countered me with the question ‘what do you think of today’s Menu?’ Diplomatically avoiding the direct answer, I did nix the Jhinga Dum Nisha-jumbo prawns marinated in cheese and hung yogurt, an excellent specially of the star Chef Qureshi that was outstanding on its own but the wine made it taste rather metallic in the mouth.

The wines tasted were Alter Ego 2008, Chateau Palmer 2007, 2005, 2004 and 1999. It was not easy to tell that 2005 was the most enjoyable of all with plenty of fruit and a fabulous balance. But it is a moot point as to how many people in India had a discernible enough taste to differentiate between the Chateau Palmer wine and the Alter Ego costing a third or less. Bernard did concede with a momentary reluctance that for the Indian market, Alter Ego might be a better bet not only because of price but also easier approachability. I would have loved to taste their 2009 and 2010 Alter Ego.

To think that the Chateau Palmer that costs around €400 today used to sell for merely £3 in 1961! Read about it in an earlier article by John Salvi MW in delWine

Subhash Arora

Tags: Bernard de Laage, Chateau Palmer, Bordeaux, Margaux, Alter Ego


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