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All Our Yesterdays
The romance of being a wine writer! Days where you wander around vineyards that are gently baking in the sort of sunshine you dream about in England. The sort of days that feel as though they're drifting slowly past as you taste a glass of something fine while discussing the impending harvest with the winemaker.
Well forget all that! I'm trapped in the sort of miserable English January day that seems determined to upset you as you stare at rain that seems to be travelling in a vertical direction!
I'm sat in my little Mini (a car and not a sixties dress I might add. That would be weird, even for an English wine writer!) with the volume of my Dictaphone turned up so loud that I can only just hear it above the bluster of a strong wind. It makes it more difficult to hear every word from Thomas (not Tom) Duroux, the CEO of Château Palmer.
Dead on the appointed time I ring through to the Château in Bordeaux. I've got admit that I am excited by this interview, very excited. Château Palmer are a château you discover and then never want to let go because their wines are so damn wonderful. I still think that the boys and girls on the banks of the Gironde should reassess things and give them First Growth status!
While I wait, the phone plays the sort of music Marines listen to when they need motivating for combat, and I realise that this sense of thrusting determination is at the heart of what makes Château Palmer such an attention-grabbing, and award-winning, wine producer.
Suddenly, I'm chatting with the man who has helped lift this Château to such winemaking heights that 'Palmer' was considered one of the big finds during the 2019 En Primeur campaign.
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is that Thomas?'
THOMAS DUROUX: 'Yes, but I cannot hear you very well. Let's try to do our best.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What was the 2019 harvest like?'
THOMAS: 'It was a good harvest for two reasons. First of all we had a very nice crop at Palmer after all the difficulties we had in '18.
'So after ten years of biodynamic investment we seem to be on the mark with the '19, and at the same time not only was the crop a good quality, but we also had a very classic quality.'
'We just heard this morning, in the tasting room, after tasting the blends about an hour ago, I can tell you that Alter Ego (Château Palmer's second wine) and Palmer actually exist!'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is there any aspect of the biodynamic movement that you don't buy into?'
THOMAS: 'You know, I'm not sure I would call biodynamics a movement. The way we look at it here is more an inspriation than anything else. When you read 'Steiner' there are things you understand and things you don't. When you see what other growers around the globe are doing when they follow the rules you can be inspired or not.
'Through the study of the biodynamic approach in a general sense we slowly found our way towards our conception of what viticulture should be in the future.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'In the 2019 En Primeur campaign, Château Palmer scored extremely well and was a major recommendation. How would you explain this level of success?'
THOMAS: 'There are three aspects. The first one is that Château Palmer 2018 was really a wine that will be a milestone in our history. This is one of the most incredible vintages we have ever produced because of the combination of a low crop (because of mildew pressure) and the wonderful weather situation we had in the summer that helped to ripen this small crop.
'Secondly, because of the small crop, we had a small production and were fortunate that it was popular and everybody wanted it, but it was limited. 'The last point is that it was a very stressful time for us with a lot of blood, sweat and tears.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'There have been complaints about the En Primeur system. Do you think these are warranted?'
THOMAS: 'I think it's quite a unique system. It is incredibly efficient when the demand is higher than the offer. It is not a very good performing system when the demand is lower. We had an example with our '19 campaign. Demand was fairly high and so it went crazy! I think in the end, the En Primeur system has to be kept, but it has to be adapted and a way to do this is to measure in advance or to know the demand in advance.
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you think the classification should be regularly reviewed like it is in Saint-Émilion?'
THOMAS: 'Saint-Émilion is a different world. They have the system where every ten years it is redesignated.
'Our classification, in the Médoc region, is a very old one and it doesn't really mean anything. We were Third Growth in 1855 and today all the wine lovers and wine critics see us as First or Second Growth.
'In the end, what does matter is how your wine is recognised and how high is the demand.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'You've been at Château Palmer since 2004. Has your vision for the business been fully realised yet?'
THOMAS DUROUX: 'No. We still have a lot of things to do, a lot of things to understand. We still have to delve deeper and deeper and deeper into the terroir. The idea that we try to put a place in a glass so it has a very strong link with our territory.
'We still have to work hard to understand the different markets. With all the tools we have nowdays like the web it is much easier to talk directly to consumers and to find consumers, but we have to work hard to retain and keep those consumers.
'There are a lot of things that have been achieved, so it's not the end for me, and if the owners give me another chance I still have a lot of ideas.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Imagine that I'm taking you out for a drink tonight at a local bar. What are you drinking?"
THOMAS: 'Ah. In a local bar?'
WINEFULLNESS: 'A local bar.'
THOMAS: 'It depends what time it is (laughs)?'
WINEFULLNESS: (searching for a suitable time) 'Seven o'clock.'
THOMAS DUROUX: 'I would start with a beer and then it depends. Sometimes with simple restaurants and simple bars there are little treasures that can be found on a wine list. Not just famous wines, but small local producers.
'A good beer is always a good start, especially if you're in England.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What was the biggest surprise you found moving from the Italian to the French winemaking scene?'
THOMAS: 'I was in Tuscany in a very singular estate. It was a new estate where the first vineyards were planted in 1981, and I was in a situation where I had the freedom to be in a mix of the new and old world. There were a lot of freedoms in the making of that wine. I was contributing to the build of the style and the history to the winery. Coming back to Bordeaux, to a place like Palmer with four hundred years of history was obviously a big change. There is an established tradition. Here there is an established style and there is no way you can do a revolution in a couple of years.
'Here, you have to be very humble in trying to understand the style and the history before you can even think about changing anything slowly. This is not the same timeline or the same scale because here at Château Palmer pace moves slower.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'You're a man who likes a challenge. Is it possible for you to relax?'
THOMAS DUROUX: 'To relax (laughs)! In my life I have different ways to relax. Working at Palmer it is difficult to relax. What makes this job so incredible is that there is always another challenge to be imagined and to be faced. Basically that's my job.
'I have a fantastic team working with me every day. I'm just here to help them to find ideas and imagine the future,'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Music seems to be a big part of the identity of Château Palmer. How did this come about, and what is your favourite kind of music?'
THOMAS: 'Personally, my favourite kind of music is firstly jazz, and then secondly Baroque.
'At Palmer it has been more than ten years since we first made the link with jazz music. Once a year we invite musicians to join us for several days to discover the estate, the new vintage and to give us a concert with their interpretation of the vintage.
'The reason why we have created this event is not just because I like jazz. It is because what we like in jazz is that it is a music inspired by the past and the traditions. It is also a music that is about improvising all the time. I think at Palmer that is what we do. We are inspired by the past, but at the same time every year there is a new challenge and this is when we have to imagine potential.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is there a battle between this artistic view of wine and the commerical value of what is in the bottle?'
THOMAS DUROUX: 'It depends on what you call commerical value. Wine is not just a liquid where you measure alcohol, tannic concentration, acidic levels etc. There are a lot of things behind it. The label, the history of the place, a philosophy, personality etc. That's why sometimes you can have such an incredible emotion when you're drinking wine that might come from nowhere important, but that you've met the guy who made it and you know what the place is like.
'Other times, you will be just amazed by a very famous bottle of wine because it has been your dream for years to taste this wine once. It is an incredible product because it has to do with the reality of the product and also the imaginary things behind it.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is the thing that you value the most?'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is your favourite restaurant to visit in Bordeaux?'
THOMAS: 'I will give you two. My favourite place to go with my kids for Saturday lunch, after the market, is a little place near the Marché des Capucins called Au Bistrot. Simple food, very nice wine list and very friendly. That's where I like to go with my kids.
'The other restaurant I would mention is named Tentazioni. The chef is from Sardinia and his wife is from Brittany. It's a very small restaurant and yet it has one of the most spectacular cuisines in the city. Not just Italian. This chef is so talented and they also have the most interesting Italian wine list in Bordeaux.
WINEFULLNESS: 'Can you sum up Château Palmer's uniqueness in just five words?'
THOMAS DUROUX: (ponders for a while) 'I would say that Château Palmer is a bit off the road, unclassified and with a unique combination of traditions. It is a Château that likes to take risks. Something like that.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'With the growth of Alter Ego is there extra pressure on vine usage, particularly during an excellent harvest?'
THOMAS: No. It's not really a selection of quality. It's more a selection of terroir. I would say that it's 40% for Alter Ego, 40% for Palmer and there's this 20% in the middle that can go into one programme or the other, depending upon the style of the vintage rather than the quality of the wine. 'That's why we don't like to call Alter Ego a second wine anymore.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'When you became the CEO at Palmer what was the thing you least expected to find?'
THOMAS: 'Honestly, it was something very new to me. When I was in Italy, or before that, my job was 95% technical. What I've discovered, being the CEO, is that you have to think global and you have to understand the whole subject.
'I had to learn a lot when I arrived. I was also a bit concerned about losing contact with techniques because, as the CEO, I cannot be involved in the way I used to be on the production side.
'But now, with years of experience, I must say that it is absolutely fascinating to see, to touch a property like Palmer in all of its aspects. I have the chance to touch a lot of subjects, things like the Chinese market...'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is China the biggest market for Palmer?'
THOMAS DUROUX: 'Just to give you an idea. On an average basis 45% of our sales are in Europe, Asia is about 35% and of that perhaps about 20 to 25% is China and Hong Kong. It is a strong market and it is a growing market, but Palmer is such a strong brand in all markets.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is there a myth about Château Palmer that you would like to put to bed?'
THOMAS: 'Sometimes it's not easy for us to explain in detail what we're trying to achieve, especially in the vineyard because we ourselves are discovering a lot of things. I hope that with a little time we might find ways to explain these details with simple words to make things more real for the consumer.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Apart from Bordeaux, of course, what are your favourite wines?
THOMAS: 'I have plenty. As well as being a wine producer I am a wine geek and I like to taste from all over the place. Coming from France one is spoiled. I love Burgundy and I love the Rhône a lot. If I had to mention a wine region at the moment that interests me a lot then it would have to be the classic part of Tuscany where Chianti Classico is made. Those wines are very interesting. They're not recognised as much as they should be, as much as Barolo or the Super Tuscans, but I really hope that in future they will be appreciated at a higher level because those wines are incredible.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What has been the biggest innovation in the wine industry since you started?'
THOMAS: 'I think the biggest innovation has been a move back to basics. When I started in the 90's it was a time where more was better, more concentration, more extraction and more new oak. As a result, a lot of terrior was messed up. In my opinion, in the last ten years I've seen a lot of regions where people are going back to basic techniques. There's more trying to put the uniqueness of a place up front.'
Grand Vin de Château Palmer.
I'm always puzzled when asked why some wines cost so much. Often, I blandly reply that it's down to the many hands making fine work, but if you're serious about your fine wines, then you more than know what you're getting into with wines such as this little beauty.
There is more going on in a glass of this than you can imagine, and just when you think that you've got this wine nailed along comes something else to tickle your tastebuds!
Here, you'll find blackberries, cassis, bell peppers, notes of cigar box, chocolate and a creamy flavour all telling you that you just can't take a wine of this level for granted. I love it!
7 out of 7
Alter Ego de Château Palmer.
Still not convinced that spending big will bring big rewards? Perhaps this is the wine for you, and I think this second label (although they don't call it that) more than punches above its weigh at under a third of the price of its big brother.
There's a medium amount of body to this wine and the acidity doesn't overwhelm and rob your tastebuds.
I found it to be well-balanced and gently bathed in oak, vanilla and black berries as though my mouth was being nursed by silk.
6 out of 7