Visiting a Bordeaux "Outsider" at Château Palmer

The Margaux third-growth's Thomas Duroux may be just what the appellation needs
Dec 20, 2010

Along with my colleague Thomas Matthews, I have been in Bordeaux this month. To evaluate the 2008 vintage in bottle, we've blind tasted nearly 450 reds, dry whites and Sauternes. You can read the first batch of reviews in the Dec. 15 edition of our weekly Insider newsletter, available only to subscribers. Now I am visiting different châteaus to check out the evolution of the 2009 wines. Read about my first stops with Jean-Philippe Delmas at Château Haut-Brion and Christian Moueix at Château Pétrus in my previous posts.

Château Palmer

Thomas Duroux is a bit of an outsider. Though born in Bordeaux, he’s half-Italian. And he worked in the Languedoc and then spent three years as technical director at Tuscany’s Ornellaia (where he made the ’01 through ’03 vintages). When a headhunter approached him about an opening in Bordeaux, he initially shrugged it off.

“They said they were looking for a technical director for a major property, and at the time I was in my early 30s. I went to the interview in jeans figuring, what the heck. And then it progressed from there,” said Duroux, as we walked through the vineyard at Château Palmer, the third-growth Margaux property owned by the Sichel Family as well as numerous other shareholders.

Duroux took over in the 2004 vintage and since then he’s helped both maintain Palmer’s signature style while helping to improve quality, not an easy task when you’re bound by tradition.

“Here there is a style that has been built over the ages that I have to respect and guard,” said Duroux. “At Ornellaia, they planted that vineyard in the '80s, so in many ways, while I was there they were still looking for their style and I was able to do more, take more risks. The downside to tradition is, ‘How do you improve?’, because it takes time and you have to go slowly. You can’t be revolutionary,” said Duroux.

The signature style at Château Palmer—silky texture, lush plum and black currant fruit with noticeable tobacco and black tea notes—is derived in large part from the property’s large percentage of Merlot, an anomaly in Margaux.

“My predecessor had the idea to plant Merlot in the spots that seemed ideally suited for Cabernet, the gravelly soils here on the highest part of the plateau that the vineyard is on,” said Duroux. “Normally of course you’d plant Merlot in the clay which usually sits at the bottom of a property here—it’s cooler and has more moisture for the early-ripening Merlot. The warm, gravel spots that drain well are typical for the late-ripening Cabernet. So it was definitely different to have done it this way. And it seems to have worked,” he added with a smile.

The Margaux appellation in general has a reputation for heterogeneous quality—it’s a large appellation. “Margaux is spread out," said Duroux. "There are five communes and 1,500 hectares of vines. But I don’t think it’s any more of a mix than what you find in St.-Estèphe or Pauillac.”

With 55 hectares of vines, Château Palmer is planted 47 percent to Merlot and 47 percent to Cabernet Sauvignon, with the rest Petit Verdot. The vines sit just across from Château Margaux, the appellation’s lone first-growth estate. Standing in the midst of Palmer’s vineyards, you can see the gentle slope of the terrace on which the property sits, but discerning the different terroir in the vineyards is a bit harder.

This is another estate where the selection for the second wine, the Alter Ego de Palmer, has gotten increasingly refined in recent years. What used to be made from simply the second-tier crop, but vinified the same way as the grand vin, is now made more by parcel selection and using different vinification methods to produce a wine that's meant for earlier drinking, but still shows the house style.

“In the ’80 and ’90s, the second wines were the poor crop, the young vines, the press wines. Now there is more selection, different winemaking and a different approach. If you vinify lots that should be in a second wine as if they were the grand vin, it will not be an interesting wine,” said Duroux. “We try to pick the vineyards for the Alter Ego first and then do less extraction and shorter maceration in the winery.”

A sample of young-vine Merlot from the 2010 harvest aimed at the Alter Ego blend shows a pure, fresh, bright beam of cherry fruit.

“In ’10, the alcohols are high, but the tannins are big and there’s more acidity too. Nothing was overripe, so there is great balance,” said Duroux. “The tannins will be bigger than ’09. I still don’t have a clear understanding of the vintage yet, because it’s so young, but I have a good feeling.”

As we move through more samples of the ’10, we taste Cabernet Sauvignon from the gravelly plateau, which shows dense violet and anise notes with serious grip on the finish. It’s showing its oak today (it was drawn from a new Taransaud barrel) but the length is compelling. Another Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Croix de Fer lieu-dit across the road is drawn from a used barrel, and it shows the iron-laden grip that probably gave the lieu-dit its name, along with sappy black currant and anise notes. The 2010 sample of Petit Verdot we tasted will certainly play a part in the final blend, lending incredible cassis and pepper notes.

“We did almost no rémontage on the Petit Verdot,” said Duroux. “It’s easily the most concentrated Petit Verdot we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

While clearly blessed with fine raw materials in 2010, Duroux isn’t simply letting the wine make itself, a tired cliché one often hears in the wine world. Duroux places an emphasis on press wine that puts him in the minority of châteaus these days, whose search for precision has them using more and more free-run juice to avoid any exacerbated or astringent tannins. But Duroux believes that press wine can add density and structure, without being harsh, if you handle it carefully.

To that end, Duroux vinifies the press wine from all of the different parcels separately, then codes them into letter grades, "A" down through "D."

“As long as wine comes out of the press, we fill barrels. And we fill each barrel with juice that came from a different pressure (the higher the pressure, the more is pulled out of the must, including potentially more astringent components). When we’re done, we wind up with 100 to 150 barrels of press wine,” said Duroux as he looked at a schematic of the long barrel room to locate the next sample to taste. “There are two ways to extract. One is to do it all at once when the skins and juice are together. Or extract what I need early on, by being gentler, and then use the press wine afterward to build the wine from there.”

We sampled a barrel of press wine graded "A" by Duroux, and it’s chewy but also fleshy and pure. We then stepped down to a "B+" barrel of press wine, which now takes on a distinctly briary edge, showing density but less balance. Samples of "C" and "D" lots are commensurate steps down, the final offering some raw power, but no midpalate complexity or finesse at all. “That’s just sent out in bulk,” said Duroux. In the end, Duroux will use up to 15 percent press wine in the grand vin.

From the chai, we head to the tasting room for a small vertical that Duroux has laid out. Starting with the second wine, we taste from young to older, with the Château Palmer Margaux Alter Ego 2009, which is fresh and driven, with a nice tarry edge that stays supple, with lingering smoke, dark olive and mulled black currant notes that are clearly outstanding. The Château Palmer Margaux Alter Ego 2007 is more open, with a hint of game and Maduro tobacco along with mulled spice and lingering black currant fruit. It has nice length and depth for the vintage, and is just on the edge of outstanding in quality. The Château Palmer Margaux Alter Ego 2006 is lighter, with a lacy feel to the floral, sanguine and cedar notes backed by red currant fruit and a lightly firm finish. The Château Palmer Margaux Alter Ego 2005 picks the quality back up though, rivaling the young ’09 with its nicely matured fig, currant, briar, tobacco and mineral notes backed by plenty of fine-grained tannins that hold the finish together. While the ’06 and ’07 are ready to drink, this should age a bit more.

From there we move to the grand vin, with the Château Palmer Margaux 2009 made from a blend of 52 percent Merlot, 41 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 7 percent Petit Verdot. This budding classic is dense and sappy, with lots of pepper, briar, sweet tobacco and fruitcake all laced with fine red currant paste and fig sauce. The finish, though loaded with grip, is long and alluring with great underlying minerality, as the wine seems to be settling into itself already.

“We try to do the blend early,” said Duroux of the grand vin. “By the end of January after the harvest we know what it will be and then it actually happens with the first racking in March.”

The Château Palmer Margaux 2007 is fresh and open, with a nice sanguine edge and a light, pebbly feel through the finish, with juicy red and black currant fruit. It’s just a step behind the ’08 (which I rated 91 points in the Dec. 15 issue of the Wine Spectator Insider); a super effort for the vintage. The Château Palmer Margaux 2006 is tighter grained, with sanguine and roasted cedar hints running on top of the red currant and floral notes. The fresh and lingering finish is nicely persistent. As with the second wine, the Château Palmer Margaux 2005 rivals the ’09, with a broad range of lightly roasted espresso bean, bittersweet cocoa, plum sauce, fig, black currant and Maduro tobacco notes, all layered with fine-grained tannins that sail through the finish. It’s tight now for sure, despite its expressiveness, with another five years to go before it starts to unwind; it’s drinkability plateau should easily be another decade beyond that.

Though he has just a handful of vintages at Château Palmer under his belt, Duroux has already seen a range of vintages, qualitatively and stylistically. And he seems to have a firm grasp on the estate’s terroir and style, while using a gentle hand to enact his own signature on the wine. You can see it in Duroux as he compares the ’09 and ’05, a vigneron-styled approach to terroir.

“For me, ’05 is a more sun-influenced vintage. You can taste it in the fruit. But the ‘09 is a more soil-influenced vintage, you can taste it in the wine,” he said.

In a region with a reputation for being more business than terroir-driven, such an approach might make Duroux even more of an outsider, as well as just the kind of winemaker the region needs.

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France Bordeaux 2009

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