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The 2013 Bordeaux Barrels Diary: Bringing Biodynamics to Palmer, Cautiously

Thomas Duroux puts quality ahead of his romantic vision for Château Palmer
Photo by: James Molesworth
At Château Palmer, the move to biodynamic farming methods means a new kind of insect control in the vineyards.

Posted: Mar 26, 2014 12:30pm ET

After my 2013 Bordeaux barrel tasting visit to Domaine Clarence Dillon, where I tasted the newest lineups from Châteaus Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and Quintus, I visited Châteaus Palmer and Beau-Séjour-Bécot.

Château Palmer

Thomas Duroux continues to have this well-situated Margaux estate operating among the elite of Bordeaux. For more background on Château Palmer and Duroux's efforts, you can start by referencing my 2012 en primeur blog notes.

Duroux's thoughtful approach to winemaking is driven by a frank scientific approach combined with a romantic vision and desire to return Palmer to a pure agricultural state.

"The idea is to be as close as possible to being a farm that is wholly part of its place, and where everything is recycled and of the place," said Duroux, before adding that his trials with biodynamics since 2008 have spurred him to turn the estate to 100 percent biodynamically farmed in 2014 (it's currently at 60 percent).

"But this is not something we're going to communicate outward that much, because it's not marketing. It's not religion or philosophy. It's simply that chemical use is just not acceptable anymore. Plus, we can go much deeper into the details of making the wine with this approach. If you see a bug in one parcel you don't spray the whole vineyard. Instead, you find a healthy answer for just that parcel. Or, for example, we now have sheep mowing our cover crop for us. And then they fertilize naturally along the way, rather than bringing in fertilizer from some place else."

For a 135-acre estate, biodynamics would be a serious undertaking. For a classified third-growth estate in the Médoc, this is a rather groundbreaking undertaking (yes, Pontet-Canet has made the change formally and Latour has also shifted progressively to biodynamic farming, but few if any in Bordeaux have followed suit). Between the pressures of farming vines in a humid maritime climate and having shareholders to please, conventional farming would be entirely accepted and, frankly, encouraged by some, to eliminate any risk. This is a paradigm shift for the Médoc, folks, so pay attention …

But of course, rather than dive in, Duroux is taking a measured approach, born after six straight years of slowly experimenting with biodynamic farming in the vineyard. He's bringing it along piecemeal rather than in a drastic, sweeping change. He's being smart and measured. It's an approach that is mirrored in Duroux's previous experiments with optical-sorted fruit and now his work in reducing sulphur additions in the wine. Sulphur, or the refusal to use it, is a hot-button topic for the natural-wine movement. But while they like to rail against sulphur, they often do so without any honesty as to the perils of bacterial issues in wines without it. Duroux is not about to become reckless.

"Yes, we would like to reduce the sulphur in our wines, and perhaps one day get to zero," said Duroux. "But we're not going to go by dogma or religion here. Let's be honest, most natural wine is undrinkable. You take the cork out and you're lucky if the bottle doesn't spray all over and repaint your walls. No. Instead we're going to figure this out through science. If there is a way to get a stable wine into bottle without added sulphur, we will figure it out, rather than just going with no sulphur while throwing caution to the wind."

To demonstrate, Duroux poured three samples of pure Cabernet Sauvignon, all sourced from the same parcel, fermented in three small separate vats with different sulphur additions. The fruit, from 50-year-old vines, would normally be earmarked for the second wine of the estate. The wine was aged in second-fill barrels from the same cooper to keep the trial as controlled as possible.

Sample No. 1 Duroux called the "classic" method, with 4 grams per hectoliter of sulphur added just after crushing to avoid bacterial spoilage and allow the yeast to work easily, and then another 4 grams added again at the end of the malolactic fermentation, to stabilize and avoid lactic bacterial development. It's ripe and dense, with violet, iron and cassis notes. There's a hint of bread dough over it all though too, with a slightly attenuated finish, as the oak seems not yet fully absorbed. The wine seems pinched both aromatically and texturally, and Duroux agreed.

"What we see here is that sulphur has not only an impact on aromas, but on texture and structure as well," said Duroux. "Everyone knew it affected aromas, but as we started the trial we saw its affect on texture too, and that surprised us."

Sample No. 2 had no sulphur added after crushing, and then only 2 grams per hectoliter after malolactic, so half the normal dose at that point. For this part of the experiment, why choose to add sulphur after malolactic, further down the road, rather than early, after crushing?

"Good question, because of course there is more risk the longer you wait to add sulphur," said Duroux. "But we figured after crush if the yeast gets to working right away, it's less of a risk to reduce sulphur then." The sample is slightly darker in aromatic profile, showing blackberry and black cherry, with a crunchier feel on the palate as the acidity seems livelier. The wood is integrated and there is  a nice briary feel and better energy through the finish than the first sample.

Sample No. 3 had zero sulphur added after crush and zero after malolactic. It's bright, brisk and very floral, with no signs of oxidation. The texture is silky and refined, with a nice piercing iron note showing at the very end. It's very unadorned in feel, but I prefer the energy of the second sample. Yes, the tannin structure of No. 3 is very precise, but it's like a gorgeous long silk dress on a mannequin in a shop window—it's beautiful to look at, but there's no motion or energy. It's a lovely note, but only one note, whereas for me, the second sample has more dynamic range and energy.

"If you go in this direction," said Duroux referring to the third sample, "you still need to make sure the wine is stable in bottle, and we're not there yet. But we want to go to as little sulphur as possible. So for the third sample, we want to see how long we can go without adding sulphur while keeping the wine stable. Right now the only way to ensure stability without sulphur is through sterile filtration or flash pasteurization, and no one wants to do that to a wine. So there is still some work to be done here."

As for the 2013 vintage in general, Duroux echoed the comments I've been hearing around the region.

"It was difficult as for everyone. A late start, lots of mildew pressure. July was beautiful though, which had a really big impact on the phenolic ripeness in the end and the reduction of the vegetal character that you would normally have in Cabernet Sauvignon in a year like 2013," said Duroux. "When September rolled around, it was humid and then rainy and we had to anticipate harvest rather than wait for it. We had phenolic ripeness first, but not the perfect acidity and sugar balance, which is the opposite of how it usually happens."

The Château Palmer Margaux Alter Ego 2013 shows nice macerated black currant and blackberry notes, with dark charcoal and bay lining the finish. It has nice flesh and drive, but is just a bit short on depth overall.

"The general character of 2013 is ripe tannins, but not dense tannins because of the rain. Alcohols are only about 12 or 12.5 and it has much higher acidity than the last few vintages," said Duroux. "So, the challenge was to build a balanced wine without the power. Low alcohol and high acidity meant we had to chaptalize. And then we had to extract the right amount and right quality of tannins to make sure the structure wouldn't be too hard. So, light pumping over, lower fermentation temperatures and shorter macerations. It's really more Burgundy-like, with higher acidity and less power, rather than Bordeaux-like, but that's what you had to do in 2013."

Production is ridiculously small here in 2013, with a yield of just 1.8 tons per acre on the estate but an even stricter selection, as just one-third of production made it to grand vin level (normally about 50 percent makes the cut). The end result: 3,800 cases of Palmer in 2013, versus 8,000 cases in 2012.

The Château Palmer Margaux 2013 has a nice mouthfilling feel, with dark plum and blackberry fruit layered with charcoal, roasted cedar and dark tobacco leaf notes. The structure is there, but it's nicely folded in on the finish, with a smoldering iron note and excellent length. It may not have the power of a classic Bordeaux vintage, but its profile remains textbook Palmer.

"2013 is not a great vintage, period. But what I like is it is a different style of vintage, and in Bordeaux I think we get those different-styled vintages more than most other regions," said Duroux. "And I like that."

A thoughtful coda to a difficult vintage.

Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot

Juliette Bécot, 36, is charming, engaging and (rightfully) proud. She is the third generation of her family to run this St.-Emilion estate, and along with her husband, Julien, 37, they are off to a good start at both maintaining tradition and moving forward.

Situated on the plateau just outside of town, Beau-Séjour-Bécot's vineyards are based on a layer of clay atop limestone. With the absorption of the family's La Gomerie estate, Beau-Séjour-Bécot now totals 49 acres of vines along with 17 acres of hand-carved limestone caves underneath. This is your typically sized boutique St.-Emilion estate, producing just about 5,000 cases per year.

Bécot has been adding her own subtle touches to things here, starting in 2010 by vinifying 30 percent of the production in demi-muid (a 600-liter barrel), rather than stainless steel vats. As for the stainless steel, she's shifted increasingly to inverse conical vats, in which she does délestage (devatting) and pigéage (punching down of the cap) once a day, a relatively violent extraction method, though interestingly Bécot said she aims for a more graceful wine.

"Yes, délestage is a bit aggressive," said Bécot. "But we replace the juice over the cap by gravity, and because the vats are small, only 70 hectoliters, it winds up being a more gentle process than you think. The cap doesn't fall as far and doesn't break as severely because of the shape of the vat."

Bécot bucked the trend in 2013, harvesting both late and using a rather long 30-day maceration.

"We made a bet in '13," explained Bécot. "On Sept. 9, we did some leaf pulling in the vineyards and also thinned parts of each bunch. It was a bet because the grapes were so fragile. But we got better aeration and that kept the botrytis away. By the end of September, we had other winemakers from the region stopping by asking why we hadn't picked yet. They thought we were crazy, but I said, 'Come look at the fruit—no botrytis.' And we wound up picking Oct. 9 through the 20, after most people were long done. In the cellars, our lowest alcohol in the vats was 13.5 percent."

The Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot 2013 contains 75 percent Merlot, higher than usual, as the Merlot from La Gomerie is now in the blend since 2012, along with 21 percent Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite the late harvest, it comes off as pure and bright, as opposed to overripe or pruny. It's open-knit overall, but with a nice briary feel and good energy to the bitter plum, black cherry and pomegranate fruit flavors. It looks to be one of the successes of the vintage.

In addition, Bécot produces a terrific value wine. The Château Joanin Bécot Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2013 is 75 percent Merlot, the rest Cabernet Franc. Made in a bright, accessible style, it offers tasty floral, pomegranate and Bing cherry notes backed by a lightly chalky edge through the finish. It's not dense, but captures purity nicely. Don't overlook this wine (but be forewarned, while production is usually 4,500 cases, there are only 2,200 cases in 2013). The 2011 is the current release and it retails for about $20 per bottle.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Brian Adams
Glenview, IL —  March 26, 2014 4:37pm ET
I had the pleasure of breaking bread with Mr. Duroux here in Chicago last month. The dinner included a tasting of six vintages, only two of which were produced under his watch. Based on how wonderful these wines are, I'm eagerly awaiting the 2013, difficult as it was. More interesting, though, is how progressive his ideas are concerning vineyard management - and the unbridled enthusiasm with which he speaks. If biodynamic viticulture is the future of Palmer, I can think of no one better suited for the job.

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