Eight years ago, Macao-based businessman Louis Ng purchased 50 cases of a legendary wine: Château Palmer 1961. The provenance of the wine was excellent, and Ng assumed that, properly stored, it would give pleasure for the rest of his lifetime. But a threat to the longevity of the wine soon became apparent, leading to a highly unusual rescue mission.
The classic 1961 vintage has a pulse-quickening reputation among Bordeaux lovers. Palmer, a third-growth property in the Margaux appellation, outdid itself that year, producing an intense, balanced, long-lived wine that contains an unusually high 60 percent Merlot. The estate produced only 2,900 cases in 1961, less than one-third the production of a typical vintage. At auction, Palmer 1961 recently has been selling for around $1,000 a bottle, according to Wine Spectator's Auction Index, and it often fetches higher prices than the 1961s from first-growths such as Lafite and Margaux. Palmer 1961 hit a recent high at a Zachy's auction in April in New York, when a case sold for a heady $23,500, or $1,958 a bottle.
Ng bought his wine from London merchant Farr Vintners, which in 1997 offered select customers a substantial quantity of Palmer 1961 directly from the cellars of Mahler-Besse, a Bordeaux négociant that co-owns Palmer with the Sichel family. By then, the château's own stock of the wine was long gone. Because of its impeccable provenance, Farr Vintners put a premium of one-third over the normal price on this lot, Ng said.
In Macao, the wine was stored at an ideal 54° F in a wine vault deep within Hotel Lisboa, the island's premier casino. Ng, a wine buff since 1988, is COO of the conglomerate that controls the casino, as well as many other local businesses, including the world's largest fleet of turbojet ferries.
Soon, it became apparent that all was not well with Ng's collection. Each year, he had been marking the fill level on the neck of each bottle with a white line. "What alarmed me," he said, "was that the level of many of the bottles was dropping pretty quickly." Other wines bought from Farr Vintners at the same time, including Château Margaux 1961, were stable. "I called Farr and asked them what happened with the Palmer," Ng said. "They said I could ship it back, but I said no."
In May 2004, Ng met Bernard de Laage, Palmer's development director, at a wine dinner in Shanghai. "I told Bernard about my concerns, and he offered to come to Macao and check out my wine," Ng said.
When de Laage arrived a month later, he was stunned at the size of Ng's cache. "Here was two percent of the entire 1961 production in one place," de Laage said. "It was unbelievable."
Over dinner, Ng opened three bottles of the wine. De Laage brought the corks back to the château for tests, which showed that they had deteriorated. "Bernard said he would send his boys over," Ng said.
|Palmer general manager Thomas Duroux with the same machine originally used to cork the 1961s.|
Standard waiter's corkscrews were used to pull the old corks, but the job proved to be messy, since the necks of the bottles were slightly conical and the base of the corks had expanded. They were too wide to pull through the tops of the bottles without breaking off. Bit by bit, the corks had to be removed and the remnants strained out. Each bottle then received a "transfusion" through a tube from donor bottles of Ng's Palmer 1961 that had been lightly sulfured and sealed under a carbon dioxide layer. Sixteen donor bottles were used to fill the others.
Remarkably, only four bottles were judged not to be up to standard. "We'd expected around five percent, or 25 bottles, to be rejected," de Laage said. The rejected bottles were resealed with unmarked corks.
At age 44, the rest of the 1961 was as potent as ever. "Five minutes after I tasted a bottle," Duroux said, "I took a sip of water, and even after that, the taste of the wine was still in my mouth. And yet, the wine is barely 12 percent alcohol. It proves that a wine doesn't have to be high in alcohol or very darkly colored to be filled with flavor and to last long."
An ancient hand-corking machine—the same one that was used to bottle the 1961 vintage in 1963—had been air-shipped from the château to Macao. Along with its worn wooden bench and long pull-lever, the machine now has an attached system to infuse inert gas into the neck of each bottle just before the cork is driven in, leaving an oxygen-free void under the cork. "You could say that this equipment is typical of Bordeaux," Delfaut said. "It's something old onto which we've grafted something new."
In all, 508 bottles were resealed with new corks (marked on each end "Rebouché [recorked] en 2005") and got new foil capsules. A few dozen damaged labels were also replaced. De Laage suggested that the recorked wine be allowed to rest for at least six months to recover.
"Several times a year, we recork our old wines at the request of owners," de Laage said. "At most, there might be a few bottles of the 1961 vintage. In honor of what has been done here in Macao, we will recork no other Palmer this year."
With the recorking completed, Ng held a dinner to celebrate at Robuchon a Galera, Hotel Lisboa's flagship restaurant. The aperitif was Dom Pérignon Rosé 1990 in magnum, followed by Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet 1997, then Château Palmer 1970 and 1961, and finally, Château La Tour Blanche 1996. Despite the glorious competition, the Palmer 1961 stood apart. It was an inspired wine.
"That's why I bought so much of it," said Ng, smiling broadly. "I wanted it to be my house wine. For a time, I was concerned about its future. Now, after the recorking, this wine is like a baby reborn, and I can relax. I hope it will be inherited by my children and grandchildren. I'd love to pass on to them this great wine."