On the Trail

The Cellars of Mähler-Besse

David Driscoll

I remember years ago looking at the back of a Château Palmer bottle one day in the store and seeing the name Mähler-Besse on the strip label. "Who or what is Mähler-Besse?" I asked my colleague Jeff at the time. "They're one of the oldest and most-storied negociants in Bordeaux," Jeff told me. "They have a huge cellar full of old wines, a vast library of great vintages stretching as far as the eye can see." Mähler-Besse dates back to 1892 when a young man named Fréderik Mähler moved to Bordeaux from the Netherlands to get into the wine and spirits business. He married a woman named Marguerite Besse in 1905 and the two had a son named Henry soon after. In 1928, Henry went to work with his father and, having grown up drinking the finest French claret, he shared his father's passion. The duo expanded the enterprise based on their personal love of Margaux, acquiring partial ownership of Château Palmer in 1938—one of their favorite estates. Today the company is still family-run, its reputation still stellar over a hundred years later. When Clyde mentioned we might be stopping by Mähler-Besse on our recent trip to Bordeaux to look at a few library wine purchases, I was quite excited. Their aged stocks are the stuff of legend. The mountain of 1991 Palmer we walked past on the way into the vault was quite impressive.

As if finding an original case of 1939 Cheval Blanc weren't exciting enough, we were also stunned to learn that cases back then were packed in lots of twenty-one with straw and hay to help protect the bottles from rattling around. They were huge wooden crates, almost as tall as they were wide. "They must have had much stronger people back in those days," Clyde said, wondering how anyone would move a case of twenty-one around a cellar. Alex and I were kicking ourselves for not pooling our resources on a bottle a few days later when we ended up having lunch at Cheval Blanc. "We could have rolled in with a bottle of 1939!" Alex said with regret. "We would have looked like superstars!"

Ralph found a wine from his birth year: a case of 1955 Château Mouton-Rothschild, one of the great first growth properties. We were all spelunking at that point, wandering through racks of forgotten crates, wondering what might lie around each and every corner.

"I just found a case of 1900 Brane-Cantenac," I said to Phil. "This is getting ridiculous." 

Tall stacks of 1962 and 1937 Latour sat next to cases of 1999 Mouton. Oceans of Haut-Brion took up entire wall spaces. It was like walking through a wine lover's dream come true. The next time you buy a nice bottle of Bordeaux and you see the name Mähler-Besse on the strip label, think back to these photos and know that you're not only getting a great bottle of wine, you're getting a bottle from one of the most pristine and historic cellars in the entire world. 

-David Driscoll