The drive from Bordeaux to the Médoc is a bit drab initially. Rows of warehouses line the road and nothing is particularly appealing until you reach the villages of Cantenac and Margaux. There at last, are the grand castles. Château d’Issan is like something from the pages of Ivanhoe. Further on in Pauillac, Pichon-Baron resembles the quintessential fairytale castle. Back in Margaux, Château Palmer thrones majestically, its towers framed against the sky, easily one of the most impressive properties in the Médoc.
During Bordeaux En Primeurs, when the châteaux present their new vintages, Palmer is always one of the estates we visit. And, since it’s a favorite of ours, we’re especially eager for that first taste. Thomas Duroux, CEO of Château Palmer, often presents the wines himself, so we’ve met him on several occasions. This interview, however, is the first extensive conversation we’ve had with him and it was a privilege to learn more about the inner workings of Palmer and the philosophy behind these beautiful wines.
An undisputed star of the prestigious Margaux appellation, Château Palmer has a pedigree that stretches back to the 17th century. A classified Third Growth of the 1855 designation, Palmer’s 66 hectares (163 acres) are a treasured Médoc property. Its wines are prized for their power, complexity, elegance and delicacy — words not often coupled to describe wine.
But then much about the estate is unique. Both the French flag and British Union Jack fly over the château, since the vineyards were acquired by Charles Palmer, a General in the army of the Duke of Wellington in 1814. Known as a Super Second by professionals and collectors alike, the wines are as legendary and sought-after as any First Growth. The estate’s other wine, named Alter Ego, seems to sum up the duality and almost enigmatic personality of the property.
The choice of Thomas Duroux to head up Château Palmer in 2004 was uniquely apropos. Born in Bordeaux to a French father and Italian mother, he embodies the dual nature of the property. At 34, he was the youngest CEO to ever manage a Bordeaux estate, but his work experience was wide-ranging and involved a number of different climates, terroirs and cultures.
After graduating with degrees in agronomy and oenology, Duroux worked in Hungary at several Tokaji properties, including famed Château Pajzos. From there he spent time in South Africa and then moved to California, where he worked with Napa legend, Robert Mondavi. Duroux developed a close relationship with Mondavi and continued to work for him in Languedoc, then on to Tenuta Ornellaia, where Mondavi was part-owner.
Energetic and perpetually innovative, Duroux began making improvements at Palmer immediately. The vat rooms and barrel cellar were completely modernized, as were the sorting facilities and bottling. Duroux also catalogued 18 different gravel, clay and sand soil types to identify 106 separate parcels within the estate. Each parcel is now vinified separately and ultimately used to provide more choices and precision in the final vintage blend.
But Duroux’s most significant change has been the implementation of biodynamic techniques and elimination of pesticides. Château Palmer is fully organic and received biodynamic certification in 2017. Currently only 2% of vineyards across France are certified biodynamic. Given the financial risks involved, most properties are unwilling to jeopardize profits and harvest yields with biodynamic approaches.
Duroux however, has no problem with a lower than average yield at Palmer and is confident that the investment will pay off. So far, the results under his management support his philosophy. 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016 are some of the finest wines ever produced at Palmer, with the 100-pt 2015 possibly the best vintage ever. Things are going well!
Surprisingly, however, when we spoke by phone with Duroux a few weeks ago, the stress in his voice was apparent. When asked about the 2018 season, he didn’t mince words:
This has been the most difficult season I’ve experienced in my entire career. We’ve had a very tough time battling mildew this year. (Bordeaux received 126 millimeters of rain in March, setting a new record. April was also very wet.)
It’s much more problematic to treat mildew with biodynamic methods and as a result, we’ve lost part of the crop for sure. It’s a very challenging situation. Hard for everybody. What is particularly complicated is that we can’t as yet fully identify the issues. Obviously, there is something that we don’t understand that we need to do better. Meantime, we’ll continue to work hard to find the balance. Eventually the vines will be stronger and more resilient. But for now, this is a very long term project, however, we’re fully committed.
You’re alwys on the cutting-edge. What other kinds of experiments are you working on to support your biodynamic philosophy?
The implementation of our biodynamic techniques requires enormous amounts of time. As part of that overall implementation, we’re introducing more diversity into the vineyards by planting fruit trees. The idea is to create a “Bug House” if you will. The trees will draw all kinds of insects and microbiotic life to the vineyard. They also serve as water regulators, in that when there is a large amount of rain, their root systems will help soak up the excess water. During dry periods they act to aerate the soil.
So, soon we’ll have apple, cherry, peach and plum trees growing among the vines. Interestingly, this is not a new technique. In fact, my Grandfather’s favorite peaches were what he called the “peches de vin” — vineyard peaches, so it is a very old practice that was abandoned over the last decades. We’re simply reintroducing it.
Critics of biodynamic techniques claim that the wines are often unstable. Could you comment on that?
We should not talk about biodynamics in winemaking, but in vine growing. The reason why some wines are not stable has nothing to do with the fruit and the way it was produced. It’s all about the way the wine was made. To put it another way, the biodynamic philosophy is an agricultural process, not a transformational process. Sometimes winemakers think that to be as biodynamic as possible, they have to let Mother Nature do the job with no intervention at all — that is when you can see unstable wines. Imagine, if you just put grapes in a bucket, crush them, and then let Mother Nature do all the work, you’ll have vinegar, not wine.
I would also add that my goal as a winemaker is to put a place and time in a glass. My job is not to reproduce a recipe like Coca-Cola. If one vintage is different from another, then that means that the link between the place and the wine is good. It’s the personality of the vintage on this terroir we want to capture.
How is climate change affecting the vineyards?
Climate change is a given. There’s no doubt that temperatures here in Bordeaux, for example, are much higher than in previous decades. But it’s difficult to know exactly how it will affect us. If the Gulf Stream disappears, we might have much cooler winters and even hotter summers. For now, we don’t really know what will happen.
Here at Palmer, we’re doing all we can to anticipate any changes. We believe that our biodynamic systems will create a strong link between the vines and the microbiotic elements to make the plants stronger and more resilient — able to thrive in tough conditions.
You’ve described the 2015 Palmer as one of the vintages of the century. What do you think makes it so great?
A combination of several things. First at Palmer, we have a great and unique terroir. Secondly, for almost 10 years now, we have been changing our cultivation and techniques, going away from chemicals and following biodynamic philosophies. 2015 was the first big step. That year particularly, we could clearly see results from all the changes. And, of course finally, 2015 was especially good in Margaux. Great conditions throughout the appellation.
Your ratings in 2016 – also considered an extraordinary vintage – were quite good as well. Could you discuss the differences in the two vintages?
Both years are two entirely different expressions, just like 2009 and 2010. Discussion could go on all our lives about these four vintages. In the case of 2015 and 2016, both will have their time to be enjoyed. 2015 offers more pleasure just now. In ten years the same. But in 30, who knows — perhaps by then the 2016 will be the better wine.
Where will Palmer be in 20 years?
What I’d like to see in 20 years is a farm in harmony, almost autonomous — less and less vulnerable to disease and unbalanced situations. I also want a wine with a strong identity — so much so that it could not possibly be mistaken for another wine.
Why is it that Palmer, more so than many other wines, has such a faithful following?
Palmer is a strange beast. It doesn’t know if it’s a Third Growth or Super Second. But it does have a very unique identity and style that over a number of years has attracted dedicated aficionados.
One thing for sure is that when we put our label on a bottle of wine, the wine must deserve the label. 2013, for example, was a very difficult vintage. In the end, we produced only 3,500 cases. Very small, because we felt that was the only way to have a product we’d be proud of.
For me, it’s been an enormous pleasure to continue the work and effort of the many people who came centuries before us and to also have a relationship with these devoted collectors.
When did you decide that winemaking would be your life’s work?
When I was 11, I was very interested in biology and in possibly becoming a surgeon. At 18, I enrolled in courses to become an engineer with a focus on agronomy. During this time I and several of my classmates began raiding the cellar of a family friend.
Eventually the cellar owner noticed bottles disappearing and summoned us to discuss the missing inventory. We expected him to be furious with us, but no. “The problem,” he said, “is not so much that you are taking the bottles, it’s that you don’t know what you’re drinking.” He then began meeting regularly with us to taste and discuss wine. I enjoyed these conversations tremendously and realized at some point, that my future might lie in wine.
You’re a great fan of jazz. Has your love of music at all impacted your work with wine?
I love to have a glass of wine while listening to jazz. It’s something I do every day. Music is inspiring. In French I would say “La musique ouvre le champ des possibles.” In English, I guess you would say “Music opens the avenue of possibilities.”
I just bought John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album — a collection of his music recorded in the early 60s that was just recently released. Listening to this is unbelievable. Absolutely extraordinary and profound. Listening to this I know everything is possible.
After conversing and listening to Thomas Duroux, we’re sure anything involving him and wine is possible!
The following collection of Bordeaux is available in small quantities. Order while stock lasts. Write email@example.com or call 850-687-1370.
2017 Château Palmer. JS 97-98. $264.40. Available Spring 2020.
2016 Château Palmer. JS 99-100,WE-100. $299.99. 14 bottles available Spring 2019.
2015 Château Palmer. JS-100. $289.99. 18 bottles in stock now.
2014 Château Palmer. WE-97. $239.99. 6 bottles in stock now.
2009 Château Palmer. JS-98. $325.99. 12 bottles in stock now.
2006 Château Palmer. NM-94. $244.99. 6 bottles in stock now.
2005 Château Palmer. RP-98. $349.99. 12 bottles in stock now.
Alter Ego de Palmer
2016 Alter Ego de Palmer. JS 95-96. $65.99. 6 bottles available Spring 2019.
2015 Alter Ego de Palmer. JS-96. $74.99. 12 bottles in stock now.
2014 Alter Ego de Palmer. JS-93. $64.99. 12 bottles in stock now.
Other selections from the Margaux Appellation
2016 Château Brane-Cantenac. RP 96-98. $69.99. 30 bottles available Spring 2019.
2015 Château Brane-Cantenac. AG-96. $64.99. 12 bottles in stock now.
2012 Château Cantenac-Brown. DEC 95. $48.99. 12 bottles in stock now.
2015 Château Lascombes. WE-96. $74.99. 12 bottles in stock now.
2009 Château Lascombes. RP-94. $89.99. 20 bottles in stock now.
2017 Château d’Issan. Dec-94. $58.49. 36 bottles available Spring 2020.
2016 Château d’Issan. JS 96-97. $64.99. 36 bottles available Spring 2019.
2015 Château d’Issan. JS-96. $59.99. 8 bottles in stock now.
2015 Blason d’Issan. JS 93. $28.99. 6 bottles in stock now.
2015 Château Labégorce. WE 94-96. $32.99. 21 bottles in stock now.
2017 Château Rauzan-Ségla. RP 94-96. $72.49. 18 bottles available Spring 2020.
2016 Château Rauzan-Ségla. WE 96-99. $77.99. 6 bottles available Spring 2019.
1998 Château Margaux W&S 96. $379.99. 12 bottles in stock now, OWC.