Contrary to its image, Bordeaux is not necessarily an old-fashioned, humorless place. Yes, the chateaus that adorn the Médoc landscape connote a sense of stately permanence, just as the corporate marketers in their Hermès ties and Gucci loafers exude single-minded commerce.
Yet Bordeaux is not without whimsy. Look closer at those chateaus and you can occasionally spot moats and flags, playful bits of gingerbread and curlicue. And here in Margaux — one of the leading communes of the Médoc along with St.-Julien, Pauillac and St.-Estèphe — you can meet the occasional chief executive like Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer, who, while not uncomfortable in the requisite boardrooms and suits, would just as soon walk the vines in jeans, baseball cap and muddy Pumas.
Palmer is a leading estate that, under Duroux, has moved decisively into the 21st century even as it still dabbles in the 19th. A visit to Palmer and Duroux on a sunny day in June was a rare opportunity to examine a top-flight chateau out of its formal attire. It was Pentecost Monday, a national holiday in France, and the vineyard, the winery, the corporate offices were otherwise empty.
The estate, occupying roughly 135 acres, was named for Charles Palmer, a British general who owned the property from 1814 to 1843. Out of deference to the general’s ethnicity it has kept the English pronunciation, but the name now has a French accent (pahl-MAIR).
While Château Margaux epitomizes the commune’s reputation for producing wines of beautiful perfume and graceful delicacy, Palmer is often regarded as the best of the rest, differing from Château Margaux in terms of its more opulent style rather than its quality. The excellent 2009 vintage sells in the United States for $300 to $400 a bottle, which sadly puts it out of reach of most everybody, though older vintages can be found for $150 to $250.
Palmer could easily coast on its success, but Duroux is relentlessly experimental. Since taking over at Palmer in 2004 at the age of 34, he pushed the estate first to become organic, and then toward biodynamic viticulture. Because of its humid Atlantic coastal climate, Bordeaux has been reluctant to adopt either approach to combat the vineyard plagues of mold, mildew and fungus. Palmer is now one of only a handful of Bordeaux properties to be 100 percent biodynamic.
“I am really convinced that Bordeaux classified growths have no choice,” he said. “To preserve their land and satisfy their customers, they will have to go organic. Biodynamic is another step. You really have to feel it.”
Yet Duroux insists he is prompted strictly by what makes the best wine.
“We’re not motivated by religion or philosophy,” he said. “We’re not gardeners, we’re viticulteurs,” a French word for winegrowers.
As we walked through the sloping, gravelly vineyard, weeds and sparse grass looked unkempt compared with a neighbor’s neat, sculptured rows of vines. Yet the vineyard radiated health and life. Across a narrow lane, the beige gravel and stones gave way to a denser, darker soil, with more clay and limestone.
In all, Duroux says, Palmer has 16 types of soil combinations. It takes a different approach with each one, depending on the age of the vines, the rootstocks they’re planted on and the various grapes: merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot.
“My job is like an orchestrator,” Duroux said. “You have so many instruments to play with when you compose the final symphony.”
What makes Palmer’s symphony different from, say, Margaux’s is the relatively high proportion of merlot in the final blend, roughly 40 percent, along with 50-55 percent cabernet and a small amount of petit verdot. Unlike many Médoc properties, which in the last 25 years have used more merlot to make fruitier, more accessible wines, Palmer has always had a high proportion of merlot, planted on gravelly soils normally reserved for cabernet. The added merlot contributes to the wine’s richness, yet not at the expense of finesse or freshness.
Duroux’s forward thinking extends to the winemaking. He has been trying to reduce the level of sulfur dioxide, a common preservative, and in 2013, he experimented with adding yeast to the grapes on the sorting table immediately after they were brought in from harvest, rather than waiting for the grapes to go into tanks.
“The yeast take up all the space, leaving no room for bacteria,” Duroux said. The experiment was such a success, he plans to do it with all wines in 2014.
In addition to the main wine, Palmer also makes Alter Ego, which Duroux says is not a second wine but a different expression of the vineyard.
“Alter Ego is defined by the freshness of the fruit,” he said. “Palmer is defined by the depth of the structure.”
Practically speaking, Alter Ego is a different, easier-going style that can be consumed while waiting for Palmer to age sufficiently.
In 2013 barrel samples, Alter Ego was bright and exuberant compared with the more reticent, brooding Palmer. The 2011 Alter Ego was full of rich, dark fruit flavors, while the 2011 Palmer was structured and precise with ripe red fruits underneath the tannins. The 2010 Alter Ego seemed tannic and closed, but the length of the wine and its finesse were clear. The 2010 Palmer was powerful and structured with underlying mineral flavors and an almost exotic floral scent.
“To me, the 2010 vintage is the highest level we have ever achieved,” Duroux said.
Perhaps, but the 2010 Palmer can only aspire to be as beautiful, complex and pure as a 1957 Palmer I had the privilege of drinking, a vintage rarely accorded much respect.
Once, while in California, Duroux was served a very old wine by a collector. What felt to him like “a piece of a cloud” turned out to be an 1869 Palmer that had been labeled “Hermitagé,” referring overtly to the now prohibited practice of blending in wine from the northern Rhone for color and power. It inspired Duroux to experiment himself, making a special cuvée with a small percentage of syrah added to merlot and cabernet.
The officially unsanctioned result is called Historical XIXth Century Wine, which Duroux has made in 200- to 400-case lots several times since 2004, depending on the vintage. I tried his 2010 version, which tasted as if the olive and smoked-meat aromas of the Rhone had been fused awkwardly onto an austere Bordeaux. A 2006 version was far more integrated, round and easy to drink, a fascinating curiosity.
“It’s just for fun,” Duroux said. Bordeaux can use more of that.
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