In 1947, seven well-established growers in Champagne formed the most elite Champagne Co-operative in existence, and named it Palmer & Co. All of the grower-producers owned Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in the Montagne de Reims. Their idea was to share their vineyards to produce the finest Champagnes that they could make.
If you have not heard of Champagne Palmer, the reason is that it has been practically non-existent in the U.S. until this year. Palmer made its first appearance in the U.S. in 2015 when Gonzalez Byass, a great Sherry producer, imported it into the U.S. I like to think that I follow Champagne news carefully, but I was not even aware of Palmer being in the U.S. then.
That all changed this year. Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the U.S., acquired the exclusive to import and distribute Champagne Palmer. With Constellation’s vast network of distributors, Champagne Palmer will now be available throughout the country.
Champagne Palmer is a rather small company--especially for a co-operative. It produces 600,000 bottles (100,000 6-pack cases) annually, 75 percent of which is exported, mostly to other European countries, especially the UK. But the U.S. has now become an important market for Champagne Palmer.
Although I had never tasted Champagne Palmer until this year, I was well aware of its reputation. Tom Stevenson, a British writer who is well-respected for his palate and his knowledge of Champagne, has consistently listed Champagne Palmer in his list of the five greatest Champagne producers. High praise indeed. I was astounded that this little-known producer (at least in the U.S.) could be rated so highly.
Palmer & Co., although still fairly small for a Champagne producer, has grown rapidly since its founding. It started acquiring Champagne cellars in 1959. From 1970 on, Palmer began acquiring more vineyards in the Montagne de Reims and elsewhere in the Champagne region. Palmer now owns 415 hectares (about 1,000 acres) of vineyards from 40 different recognized vineyard areas, with about half of the crus Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards (all of the Grand and Premier Crus are in Montagne de Reims). This represents a very high number of top crus compared to other Champagne producers. Champagne Palmer now also has over 300 small growers providing its grapes.
The surprising fact about Palmer is that, even though its most renowned vineyards are in the Montagne de Reims, well-known as the premier location of Pinot Noir vineyards, Palmer’s greatest emphasis is on Chardonnay. 50 percent of its grapes are Chardonnay, with 40 percent Pinot Noir and 10 percent Pinot Meunier.
In fact, it is not a big surprise that a Champagne producer emphasizing quality seeks out Chardonnay vineyards. Many wine critics, including yours truly, believe that the best Chardonnay vineyards in the world are in the Champagne region. It’s a little-known fact that some truly great Chardonnay vineyards are in the Montagne de Reims--and not just in the renowned Côte des Blancs near Epernay. The Montagne de Reims Chardonnays seem to have a different character than those from the Côte des Blancs; Montagne de Reims Chardonnays tend to be firmer, more austere, and generally more full-bodied--as you will see in my notes below. Even the great Ruinart house near Epernay uses Chardonnay from Montagne de Reims for its Dom Ruinart. Palmer also owns Chardonnay vineyards in the southern part of the Champagne region, south of the Côte des Blancs. But for many of its eight different Champagnes, Palmer uses Chardonnay grapes from its Montagne de Reims vineyards.
Palmer believes in aging its Champagnes extensively before releasing them on the market. Its NV Brut Réserve remains in contact with its lees for up to four years, to add richness and complexity to the wines. Palmer’s Vintage Champagnes receive six to eight years of aging in the cellars, and magnums receive 10 years of aging.
Constellation Brands currently is importing four Palmer Champagnes into the U.S.: Brut Réserve, Blanc de Blancs, Rosé Réserve (all non-vintage), and its 2009 Vintage. I tasted these four Palmer Champagnes recently, plus a special treat, Palmer’s 1996 Vintage (in jeroboam!). My notes on the Champagnes follow:
Champagne Palmer & Co. Brut Réserve NV (4 years on its lees, $60): The Brut Réserve is the largest production Palmer, and a good one it is. The current Palmer Brut Réserve is based on the very good 2012 vintage, with an impressive 35 percent older reserve wines added. It’s made up of 55 percent Chardonnay (primarily from three Grand Cru Chardonnay villages in the Montagne de Reims: Mailly, Verzy, and Verzenay); 35 percent Pinot Noir, and10 percent Pinot Meunier. Just 8 grams per liter residual sugar is added. Palmer’s Brut Réserve is powerful and assertive, with excellent acidity. Although a NV Brut Réserve, it tastes very young, enjoyable now, and yet capable of aging for several years. Very impressive! 92
Champagne Palmer & Co. Blanc de Blancs NV (5 years on its lees, $85): Champagne Palmer’s Blanc de Blancs is a beauty, made from 85 to 90 percent Chardonnay, with 10 to 15 percent Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay comes from the Côte de Sezanne. Like the Brut Réserve, it tastes very young, even a bit austere, comparable to a Blanc de Blancs prestige cuvée. Its ample acidity will keep it fresh for many years. Too powerful to be used as a mere aperitif Champagne; save this baby for dinner, such as lobster. 94
Champagne Palmer & Co. Vintage Brut 2009 (8 years on its lees, $125). When I heard that Champagne Palmer was showing its 2009, I expected a softer Champagne, ready to drink, as 2009 was a warm vintage throughout France, including the Champagne region. But Champagne Palmer’s 2009 is unlike almost any other Champagnes from this vintage; it is youthful, very dry, and even a touch austere, with good acidity. Chalk it up to good vineyards, and earlier picking. This is an exceptional 2009, showing great aging potential. A tribute to the team at Champagne Palmer. 96
Champagne Palmer & Co. Vintage Brut 1996, Jeroboam (aged in Palmer’s cellars for more than 20 years; not available at retail). As a treat, because Champagne Palmer was being newly introduced to New York City by Constellation Brands, I tasted its 1996 from Jeroboam (double magnum). After tasting all of the other very young Palmer Champagnes, the 1996 was a hedonistic pleasure to drink. This 1996, a great vintage, has entered its mature phase, drinking very well after 22 years, but should stay on this plateau for another five to ten years. It has secondary aromas and flavors of honey and dried red and black berries. I had expected that the 1996, especially from a Jeroboam, might be too young, but it was virtually perfect. 97
Champagne Palmer & Co. Rosé Réserve NV (3 years on its lees; $80). I didn’t think that this NV Rosé could follow the 1996, but I was wrong. In fact, it was my favorite Palmer Champagne on this occasion. The test always is, “Which glass did you finish first?” For me, it was Palmer’s Rosé Réserve. The exuberance and liveliness of this delicious Rosé shines through. The blend in the Rosé Réserve is exactly that of Palmer’s NV Brut Réserve, but with Pinot Noir wine added for color, flavor, and body. Suggested retail price: $80. 98
Champagne Palmer believes that the keys to its excellent wines are its Chardonnay, plus the long aging it gives to its Champagnes. If you plan to visit, its headquarters are in the beautiful village of Chigny-les-Roses in the Montagne de Reims, near Reims, but its business office is in Reims. We are fortunate to have this excellent Champagne producer now in the United States.