The classical, ultra-reliable Château Palmer is now headed by two thirty-somethings. How can they improve such a status, asks Stephen Brook
Now there is scarcely a billionaire left who hasn’t acquired a major wine property it is not surprising there have been rumours that even the sedate Château Palmer has attracted the gaze of would-be purchasers. Aside from its third growth status, it comes complete with a renovated Second Empire château that offers enough space for lavish entertaining. So, when Luxembourgeois wine writer François Mauss started a rumour in late 2007 that Palmer might be for sale, it flew. Palmer’s director-general Thomas Duroux is adamant in his denials. ‘Our shareholders meet every 10 years to decide a business plan for the decade ahead. This has just been held, and new investments approved. There is absolutely no intention of allowing Palmer to be bought by outsiders. Palmer is not for sale.’ The estate’s English name gives an accurate indication of its origins. The property was bought in 1814 by an English general, who helped to establish its reputation, which was formidable by 1855. Just before the classification, the property was sold to a rich banking family from Paris, the Péreires, who were of Jewish-Portuguese origin. It was they who built the eye-catching, turreted château in a kind of bourgeois baronial style. The new owners were viewed with some suspicion in the wine industry, since they backed numerous construction projects, including the railway line linking Bordeaux to the Mediterranean. Those of a cynical disposition opined that the line would facilitate the transportation of dark, southern French wines that could give a dose of flesh and colour to some of the more pallid Bordeaux vintages. And those cynics were probably right. The next significant change in ownership took place in 1938, when the vineyards had dwindled to 35ha (hectares).
Four merchants teamed up to buy Palmer: Ginestet, Mähler-Besse, Sichel and the Miailles. The Ginestets and Miailles sold their holdings some time ago, but the others remain very much at the helm. From the 1960s until 2004 Palmer was run by Bertrand Bouteiller, whose mother was a Mähler-Besse. On his retirement he was replaced by the youthful but well-travelled Thomas Duroux, who had experience at Mondavi and Ornellaia. Last year the cellarmaster, Philippe Delfaut, left for Château Kirwan, and his job went to 30-year-old Sabrina Pernet. It’s clear then, that there have been notable recent changes at Palmer. So has its approach changed?The refreshingly straightforward Duroux believes his job is steadily to improve quality and consistency – not that Palmer lacks either. ‘The shareholders insist there must be no compromises when it comes to quality. For a century Palmer has been recognised as the best property in Margaux after Château Margaux and we must absolutely maintain that position.’ He has a dream of a property to work with. We walk through the gravelly ridge behind the château where 80% of Palmer’s 52ha of vines are planted. The immediate neighbours are Château Margaux and Château d’Issan. ‘This is the first ridge moving inland from the river,’ explains Duroux. ‘That is a parallel location to Léoville-Lascases and Latour. But the gravel here in Margaux is different from that further north, so I’m not making a direct comparison. The soil around the gravel is the main differenc. There’s less clay, which gives our wines their amazing finesse.’ feature at Palmer is the substantial proportion of Merlot in the vineyards – 46% – and this is not recent. Merlot varies in the final blend from 40% in 2000 to 52% in 1998, significantly higher than most other Médoc estates.
In the vineyard ‘Often Merlot is planted on heavier clay soils, but our Merlot is planted on the same gravelly soils as Cabernet Sauvignon,’ says Duroux. ‘When the wine is very young it doesn’t always seem very impressive, but, as we work on blending, we begin to see the real contribution of our Merlots to the typicity of Palmer.’ Duroux has made some changes in the vineyard. ‘In the Médoc it’s normal to pay pruners per vine. But this means they work as fast as possible and are tempted to cut corners. Now we pay by the hour.
It costs us 20% more, but we believe it makes a significant contribution to the quality of the wine. ‘Bertrand Bouteiller did a soil analysis some 10 years ago, but we are doing a more detailed one, allowing us to identify different soil types within each block. I want us to be able to vinify like with like, are far from homogeneous.’ Duroux has also installed three sorting tables and two reception lines, allowing the grapes to be processed efficiently at harvest and to enter the vats in perfect condition. Bouteiller had installed conical steel fermentation vats, which are still in use. Duroux has divided some into double-deckers, permitting even more detailed parcel selections to give the team more blending components. Vinification is straightforward, but maceration, and so forth, are taken on the basis of repeated tasting. ‘There are no recipes,’ says Duroux. There is occasional use of reverse-osmosis concentration, which he prefers to chaptalisation. ‘In 2007 we concentrated a handful of tanks to raise the alcohol level by half a degree to 12.5%. When we concentrate, we do so with a very light hand.’
In 2005 Duroux bought new hydraulic presses. ‘This has greatly improved the quality of our press wine, and having good press wine gives us a second chance to manage and balance the blend.’ The blend is usually completed in January, and then the grand vin is aged in up to 60% new oak for around 18 months before being egg white-fined and bottled. Since 1998 another wine has emerged from Palmer: Alter Ego. Duroux insists it is not a conventional ‘second wine’, a hodgepodge of wines from young vines and lots rejected for the grand vin. ‘It’s a different concept. I think of Palmer as a classical contemporary painting of the same subject. ‘We start making it at harvest when we find certain blocks that seem right for the style we are looking for. Although there is no difference in yields or selection, we do adapt the winemaking. So we’ll ferment at lower temperatures than we ferment Palmer, because we want a less tannic, more approachable style. We may add some barrels that we decide we aren’t up to standard for Palmer, but we also sell off quite a lot of our wine in bulk. Now that’s the real second wine.’ It works. Alter Ego has a more evident charm than Palmer, and seems fully ready to drink at five to seven years old. It’s a good deal cheaper, obviously, and a mediumterm, modern-style claret at a fair price. I ask Duroux whether that notorious railway line to southern France, financed by the Péreires, had actually been used to haul up blending wines to bolster Palmer.
‘There is nothing to suggest that in the château’s archives, though it was common practice, even among first growths, to blend in Rhône wines to beef up very light years in Bordeaux. ‘In fact, seeing a bottle of 19th century Lafite Hermitagé, as it is described on the label, gave me an idea, and from 2004 we produced a small quantity of what we call Historical 19th Century Wine. It’s Palmer plus 15% Syrah from the northern Rhône. It’s labelled as vin de table, so no one would ever mistake it for Palmer.’ It’s an intriguing wine, with a very spicy nose, an easy approachability and far more fruit sweetness on the finish than you would usually expect from a Bordeaux. The Palmer team evidently like to let their hair down from time to time.
Palmer has become a very expensive wine. There were blushes at Palmer when they admitted that in 2000 they raised the price by 70%. In 2005 the pricing became even more extreme. The ex-négociant price of the 2004 was €53. The 2005 was €150 – 300% higher. Nor was the 2006, at €125, ends up paying considerably more. Isn’t this old-fashioned greed? ‘The Bordeaux market is a raw capitalist model,’ says Duroux. ‘That means that if we set the price too high too often, the market, and the consumers, will punish us. You may think the 2005 price was way too high, but all I can say is that in the UK the wine is now worth twice what most en primeur customers paid for it.’ It will be fascinating to see how the ‘delicate’ 2007 will be priced in an era of financial instability. Meanwhile in vineyard and cellar, Palmer isn’t putting a foot wrong. The property was well run under Bertrand Bouteiller, and Duroux seems to be building on that, making steady if detailed improvements. He clearly thinks the 2005 is the greatest Palmer ever.
‘Yes, Palmer made great wines in 1929 and 1961. But they were made without temperature control, without selection. Today half of what we grow does not make it into the Palmer blend, although in 2005 the quality allowed us to use two-thirds of the crop for the grand vin. ‘We have the means to make far better wine than our ancestors, but it will take a few decades to be certain that our modern vintages will surpass the classic vintages of the past.’ Duroux and his team at Palmer, like many Bordelais, are opportunists in the short term but ambitious romantics over the long haul.