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The Bordeaux Diary: Thoughtful Winemaking

A rare glimpse at some yet-to-be blended parcels of Château Palmer with winemaker Thomas Duroux
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 21, 2012 11:30am ET

Thomas Duroux has become one of my favorite winemakers in Bordeaux. He likes jazz. He thinks. He experiments. Oh, he also happens to make some compelling wine. Perhaps that's because he takes his time and he doesn't seem to get ruffled by anything. At Château Palmer, the third-growth estate located in the Margaux appellation, he dealt with hail in 2011 that lowered his yields in that and the ensuing 2012 vintage as well, to 2 tons and 1.5 tons per acre, respectively.

"That wasn't a fun call, when I had to tell the shareholders what the yield was in '11 and then in '12," he said, in his usual moderated tone and cadence.

A new barrel room is being constructed—a minor renovation turned major when exploratory work revealed an entire new roof was needed. The cuverie and first-year cellar was recently redone,. and Duroux has all the toys he could need, including specially adapted pump nozzles that can be adjusted for spray patterns in the vats during remontage (pump-over).

"It depends on how full the vat is," he explained. If the cap is far away and the wine has to fall a ways into the vat first, we want the spray to be precise and gentle, not spraying up all over the inside walls of the vat. If it's close, we can manipulate the spray so that it covers all of the cap evenly. We can then do less actual pumping over to have the same effect as a normal remontage, so a more gentle and more precise extraction. It's all about working better, more efficiently, more precisely to make a better wine."

To that end, one of Duroux's pet projects in 2012 was to work with an optical sorter. The machine, which uses a laser to scan and sort fruit based on user-input specifications for berry size, color, shape, etc., has become a recent rage in Bordeaux. In vintages like 2009 and '10, when the fruit came in clean and ripe, there was little need for one. But in years like 2011 and '12, châteaus were suddenly scrambling to rent the machines. They can sort much faster than a sorting table staffed by people, and there's a sense that the machine doesn't fail, whereas humans can get tired or lose focus. But at what price does precision become too precise, a question I've asked winemakers in the region often. Does a reliance on technology always help, or can it hurt, removing character from a wine?

"Well, to be honest, it was interesting," said Duroux about the trial. "For every 6 kilos of grapes that went through the sorter, it took out only 10 grams of material, so it really wasn't that much. But still, I wondered, what effect does losing that 10 grams have in the wine? So, I vinified two lots, same fruit, one sorted and one not sorted."

And then it was blind tasting time, as Duroux drew samples from two barrels, side by side. He didn't tell me which had been sorted. One was pure, fruit-driven, with distilled cassis and violet essence and a very polished feel. The second sample was more energetic though, with brighter flavors, livelier texture and more vibrancy all around. I figured that was the sorted batch - it seemed to have more life, and I assumed it was a result of pulling out more modestly ripe fruit or the occasional jack stem. But, I was wrong. (See the video below of our tasting of the two experimental lots.)

"I was surprised a bit too," said Duroux. "The sorted lot is the one with the very polished feel. It's lovely fruit, but I agree, it lacks some of the energy of the non-sorted fruit. So, we have to see, what will these lots do over the course of the élevage? It's not a magic tool. We need to take our time and understand these things."

From there we tasted through several barrels of the nascent 2012 vintage—a Burgundian or Rhône-styled tasting that I love, but actually rarely get in Bordeaux, where most producers prefer to only show their wines when they are closer to being a final blend. (Bordeaux is sometimes the vinous equivalent of that guy who wears a tie everywhere and never dresses down, but you wish he would just lighten up a little bit, just once.)

A sample of 2012 Merlot, with its malolactic completed and a recent sulphur addition, shows some lush fruit up front, but then a slightly angular finish, likely from the recent sulphur. Another sample of '12 Merlot, from the heart of the vineyard, has nice tension and drive, with dark fruit.

"Its very different, from Merlot to Cabernet in '12," said Duroux. "The Merlot is more like '09, stylistically, not qualitatively, while the Cabernet is more like '08. The Merlot ripened early and we could bring it in before things got difficult in later September and October. The Cabernet we had to pick our spots."

Ultimately, that puts Palmer in a good spot for 2012, since the estate normally relies heavily on Merlot for its final blend.


As I noted the hard angle that sulphur gave to the wine shortly after it's added to the barrel (this is not a surprise, but a fact of winemaking, that sulphur, while necessary to stabilize a wine, isn't ultimately the best thing for us or the wine), Duroux recounted another experiment he'd been working on.

"In '11, we used some selected yeasts on some lots and found that the wine was much easier to stabilize with lower sulphur levels. So in '12, we've done that for all the wine—we used selected yeasts and then were able to use less sulphur. Now, sometimes people think selected yeasts are bad, but they are natural. They've just been propagated for use, rather than occurring naturally in the vineyard or winery. So, I don't have a problem with using selected yeasts, especially if it means I can use less sulphur."

Duroux is also working biodynamically on some parcels, and we tasted a sample of 2012 Merlot from one. It's broader in feel, with more overt tobacco and earth notes, though not as dense as some of the previous lots.

"That's like with the optical sorter lot," said Duroux. "I don't think it's better or worse than the others, but different. And we need to figure out why and if it's something we want to include."

A sample of 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, from a biodynamically farmed parcel, is nervy and crisp, with a briary finish, while a sample of 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from the heart of the vineyard shows good snap to its red currant fruit, with fine-grained tannins.

We also tasted a sample of 2012 Petit Verdot, which shows racy, ripe cassis bush notes, no easy feat considering the grape ripens very late and is very thin-skinned—not ideal for a vintage like 2012, when the weather broke down at the end and there was a lot of disease pressure.

"Yeah," said Duroux with an air of relief. "We really had to sort that."

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

Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  December 21, 2012 3:06pm ET
I've always wondered if you could sort too much. In my mind I equate it with removing too much fat from meat - or taken to the extreme, like removing all the marbling.

We've never experimented with sorting at varying levels, mostly due to the fact that it's really hard to isolate just that variable, especially when working with the small lots that we do. But it's nice to hear that this somewhat anecdotal experience at least doesn't completely contradict my preconceived world view ;)

Please share more stuff like this from your travels/tastings!!

-- Brian Loring
-- Loring Wine Company
Joseph Byrne
CA —  December 21, 2012 3:29pm ET


Nice profile picture. Looks like that running/working out has really paid off.

James Molesworth
New York —  December 21, 2012 5:07pm ET
Brian: Glad you found it interesting. I am sometimes concerned these little behind the scenes things may be too 'wine geeky' for some folks, so it's nice to hear it's well received.

Joseph: Thanks. It's been a long road this year, but I was able to shed nearly 40 lbs. I am quite happy with the new, 'lesser' me.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  December 21, 2012 8:49pm ET
This is great reporting. Well done, JM.

Couple questions:

1. In the sorted vs unsorted scenario profiled, one assumes the "unsorted" grapes weren't 100% unsorted in the sense that at least some selection had occurred previously in the vineyard if not in the winery?

2) I too notice that bio-dynamic, even organic wines tend toward "more overt tobacco and earth notes". Wonder why that is? The fruit profile is perhaps less effected by comparison.

Jim Mason
St. John's, Canada —  December 22, 2012 7:37am ET
You can never get too "wine geeky" in these reviews.
And how did you shed 40lbs on a diet of wine? I've cut out almost everything except wine and I still can't lose that last 10-15lbs?
James Molesworth
New York —  December 22, 2012 8:48am ET
Vince: Correct, the 'unsorted" fruit was a harvest that had been hand sorted normally. The fruit used for the trial was fruit that normally goes into the Alter Ego of Palmer, the château's second wine.

As for the sensation that biodynamically farmed grapes deliver more earthy character would probably make most biodynamic proponents smile. The idea that the method pulls up more terroir or delivers a purer expression of site is one of their major tenets. This of course, is impossible to prove. You may find my blogs from early September on this interesting as I visited with a few biodynamic producers in California: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/47274
James Molesworth
New York —  December 22, 2012 8:52am ET
Jim: Good to know - I'll try to let the geek flag fly more often.

As for the diet, wine consumption has remained the same. After reading some health articles on how people are genetically predisposed to difference forms of exercise, I altered my routine to feature more cardio than weights. I now run about 75 miles per month, and almost all of it is outside rather than on a treadmill, which makes an enormous difference.

I also eat more carrots and fish than steak and duck fat galettes. I did have to make sacrifices...

No secret - diet and exercise. You just have to find the combo that works for you..
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  December 22, 2012 11:20am ET
Agreed, not too geeky, this is the behind the scenes stuff I think a lot of us are looking for. Keep up the great reporting and let us worry about the geek level!

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