One sunny afternoon twenty-two years ago I pulled into the pebbled drive of Chateau Palmer in a silver VW Golf. I remember the mouth watering excitement of passing famous chateaux on the way up from Bordeaux on the D2 before arriving in the sleepy little hamlet of Issan. I headed off to fine Yves Chardon, then Palmer’s cellar master, having arrived to work the vendange, the harvest due to start in the next few days. It was late September 1988.
Last month I visited Palmer pretty much for the first time since, though I’ve tasted the wine many times in the intervening years, including that 1988 which I had an extremely small hand in. Entering the renovated Chateau it was strange to think that together with a half dozen other kids – not one of us was much older than 20 – we stayed on the ground floor at the front of the Chateau beneath the left turret. For three weeks we lived there in a make shift bedroom on camp beds, sharing a truculent, and decidedly meagre, electric shower. Today that room has vanished, being absorbed, amusingly, by a rather swish board room, an experience which I took as a kind of metaphor for the bigger changes that have occurred here. Bordeaux is a much richer place than it was in 1988 and you get the sense that Palmer is a much richer also. It’s a different place too. I certainly can’t imagine the vendangeurs staying in the chateau any more, thumping into the boardroom with their muddy boots on.
In 1988 Chateau Palmer was effectively run by the late Peter Sichel and the cellar managed by the Chardon family. Sichel was a charming man who I met on several occasions subsequently as a freelance journalist and who I remember being a very present character in the vineyard and the chateau that harvest. Today the Sichel family remain one of the principal shareholders of the property, along with the Mahler-Besse family and their relatives. Since 2004 Palmer has also been run by Thomas Duroux, widely held as a prodigiously talented man, who has worked around the world, perhaps most noticeably as winemaker at the Italian estate Ornellaia. Sadly, I didn’t get the opportunity to meet Duroux on my visit, though courtesy of Celine Carrion and Claire Casimir, the head of PR at Palmer, I had an extremely enjoyable tour round the new cellars [new to me at least] and the Chateau and had a great tasting of both 2008 and 2009 Alter Ego and Palmer itself, more of which later.
In the meantime back to Thomas Duroux. Now I have to be a bit careful what I say here given that I didn’t meet him, but that somehow made him more intriguing. I came away wondering whether there isn’t almost a whiff of Charles Saatchi about Thomas Duroux. Saatchi, legendary art dealer and advertising creative genius is a recluse par excellence, famous even for not turning up to even his ownparties. Now Duroux most likely was simply busy when I visited. Certainly I was told that he was, though at one point it looked like I was about to meet him. Nevertheless I had the distinct impression that as I was tasting Duroux was sat in the neighbouring room just a few metres away. That at least told me something about him – he’s an extremely focused man with a clear sense of his priorities. Good news for followers of Palmer then, maybe not so for me that morning. Maybe it says something more obvious about his verdict on my relative importance that day. From what I’ve read and heard, it is exactly this steely evaluation and focused approach that Duroux has applied to Palmer since he started here.
Nothing has been taken for granted since Duroux’s arrival, everything has been re-examined, re-evaluated and stress tested in the pursuit of making Palmer into the greatest possible wine each year. Clearly he’s a demanding man. And the results? Well under his reign here as chief executive it is widely held that there has been a significant leap in the overall consistency that Palmer achieves. The heights it can soar to are well known. Palmer’s ability to rival the first growths, as in 1961, 1983 and 1989 has never been in question here, it is a fact. Now, however, Palmer is knocking on the door of the first growths year in, year out, rather than maybe once or twice a decade.
The other development here during Duroux’s tenure is that there has also been a significant, shall we say, ‘adjustment’ of the price at which Palmer hits the market. I remember the UK’s Wine Society selling 1999 Palmer at around £450 a case as recently as five years ago. Then Palmer pitched its 2005 en primeurat well over £1000 a case, to the astonishment of some UK wine merchants. I remember one reporting it declined to purchase any at that ‘exaggerated’ price. Nevertheless the price swiftly rose on release. This year the 2009 arrived at well over £2000 a case and you won’t get much change from £3000 if you try and pick it up now. This surely puts it on par with Chateau Cos d’Estournel and Chateau Léoville-Las-Cases as the most expensive wine on the left bank outside the premier crus?It still means you can get three and a bit cases of Palmer for one case of Chateau Margaux 2009, which surely has to be your point of comparison here. Better ‘value’ can of course be found in the Margaux appellation, most notably at Chateau Malescot St Exupéry if you’re looking for something similar in 2009. Nevertheless there is something wonderfully lush about Chateau Palmer that must make it one of the most seductive wines in 2009. Partly it’s that healthy dollop of Merlot here in the blend, amongst the highest in the appellation. I’m sure it is also partly the terrior too. Then there is also what Jancis Robinson describes as the new Italian elan, clearly a reference to Duroux himself, his heritage as well as his experience.
One final thought. Whilst I was toiling away in Palmer’s vineyards picking the grapes in 1988, Duroux had only just finished school. I do hope to meet him next time. I’m sure he’s fascinating. Second thoughts, maybe better he remains an elusive Charles Saatchi. Far more intriguing surely?
The following wines were tasted at Chateau Palmer on 9th November 2010:
Alter Ego 2008
Deepish; earthy red at edge; legs; very soft, perfumed nose; some tobacco, quite forward soft red fruits; round; quite meaty palate with some grip, some chew and extract. Still needs to settle, structure and grip; lacks a bit of length. 88+/100
Chateau Palmer 2008
Deep red purple at edge; denser than the Alter Ego. Very fresh and very precise nose; lovely perfume, violets, roses and red fruits; quite delineated and intense; very fine nose indeed; layered wine on the palate, quite plush with structure and later tannin and acid; quite layered and length is good; acid, fresh and quite grippy. Still manages to be silky and has good length 92-94/100
Alter Ego 2009
Intense and more saturated colour; up to edge; lots of fruit on the nose; almost summer fruit compote; redcurrants, raspberries and blackcurrants; almost fat; great richness to the nose; lots of sweet ripe red fruits on the palate too; very intense and really caresses the palate; wonderful wine on the palate; power here and fruit driven; lots of material and extract; velvety quality here with good length. Quite pure in style. Good length. 92+/100
Chateau Palmer 2009
Opaque at centre; deep to rim; legs and tears; very deep nose, quite luscious, lots of layers, wonderful ripeness here; very ripe palate, lush and jam packed with fruit but extraction in check here, not a hint of dryness; lovely wine on the palate; just layers and layers of wonderfully ripe velvety fruit; very intense but also surprisingly supple with terrific length. Very fine tannins. You can almost drink this now. One of the wines of the vintage surely? Hot on the heels of Chateau Margaux’s 2009 elixir. 96-98+/100