Chateau Palmer


A unique style magnified by time

Profile by Jac Veeger
Photography by Mart Engelen

During a dinner at the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux that Mart Engelen, the founder and director of #59 Magazine, and I had with Claire Casimir, the hotel’s PR manager, the question came up of which châteaux to visit in the Margaux region. Claire suggested Palmer and Mart and I glanced at each
other with smiles of recognition. The bottles of Palmer we drank in Deauville on New Year’s Eve 2007, one of the best wine experiences we ever had, leapt instantly to mind. So Palmer it would be. Claire, who had worked at Château Palmer for years, made the arrangements and the next morning we took the Route des Châteaux (the D2) towards Margaux. Entering the Margaux region, the road makes a sharp bend and the Château Palmer suddenly looms into view. You can’t miss it with its slender turrets, its tall windows with blue shutters, its slate roof, its sculpted lintles and its impressive entrance gate.

Palmer, the legend The Palmer story starts with a legendary, romantic tale. In 1814, Colonel Charles Palmer arrived in France with Wellington’s troops. On board a coach on the road from Bordeaux to Paris he met an attractive lady, Marie de Gascq. The recently widowed Madame de Gascq
was looking to sell her estate in the Médoc, “It’s as good as Château Lafite”, she boasted. The Colonel let her win him over and by the time they arrived in Paris, the estate was his! Palmer (1777–1851) was an enterprising and passionate man who understood the value of his purchase and set out to expand it. Between 1816 and 1831, the estate acquired more land and buildings throughout Cantenac, Issan and Margaux. Charles Palmer thought big but, unfortunately his ambition was greater than his resources and in 1843 he was forced to sell the property to the Caisse Hypothécaire. However, in the 30 years that he had devoted himself to it, he had succeeded in giving his Château Palmer its name, style, elegance, finesse and unrivalled and captivating charm. Excellence amounts to nothing if no one knows about it, is one of the credo’s of the Chateau Palmer. This is why the activity of Chateau Palmer is very much turned outwards and we experienced this when we were very warmly welcomed and got a tour around the Chateau with all possible égards. So different from some of the other Chateau’s we sometime visit that seem much less inclusive and have quite different standards of hospitality. Palmer, the history In 1853, the Château Palmer was acquired by Émile and Isaac Pereire, two brothers from the Bordeaux region, well respected and highly regarded businessmen who had made their fortune in railways, infrastructure, real estate, project development and banking. It was the Pereire brothers who built the exquisite, legendary château, so characteristically depicted in the vigorous and authentic midnight blue (not black!) and gold of the Château Palmer label. The château offers a rich display of baroque, classical and renaissance elements. It was designed by the famous architect Charles Buguet, who also designed the Château Pichon-Longueville (better known as the Pigon Baron). The Pereire family and the Château Palmer later ran into trouble when the vineyards were struck by the cursed mildew and phylloxera and the Great Depression hit the family fortune in the 1930s.

After the Pereire family were finally compelled to dispose of the Château Palmer in 1938, it was ultimately acquired by four families: the French Ginestet and Miailhe families, the Mähler-Besses, Dutch by origin, and the Sichels from Britain. Today, as you drive up to the Château Palmer you see Dutch, French and British flags flying in the wind from its roof in tribute to the countries of origin of the proprietors and on some occasions the flag of the country of a distinguished visitor to the Château. All four families had their roots in the wine trade and jointly – as friends – decided in 1938 to step into the adventure of taking over Château Palmer, transforming it once again to its original status as one of the greatest Bordeaux wines. The harmony and common values of the shareholding families: authenticity, high standards and a sense of commerce coupled with a clan mentality still apply in running the Château Palmer today. In fact, good governance and share- and stakeholder alignment are determinants of success in French grand cru wine making. There are many examples of châteaux that have run into trouble because of conflicts between shareholders. Such conflicts can have an adverse and sometimes long-term paralysing effect on decision-making and management of a château. The inertia created by a stalemate in governance can be detrimental to the wine a château produces because the investment required by the winery stalls and shareholders, management and other stakeholders lack a common vision and passion for the wine. Throughout its recent history, the Château Palmer and its owners have attracted and retained the right talent that it takes to play in the highest leagues of wine making. During our visit Thomas Duroux, the current CEO of Château Palmer, told us that the shareholders have regular meetings and that there is a strong feeling of commitment and interest in the business from the family side. But, as Thomas put it, “they will always make it clear that you are never a part of the family”. And that’s the way it should be, of course, in a sound governance relationship. Apart from the shareholder meetings there are regular boardmeetings between management and the Supervisory Board, chaired by Arnaud R. Lodeizen, a man with a strong reputation in the Wine & Spirits industries, who combines this role with senior positions at Jägermeister (mitglied aufsichtsrat) and William Grant (strategy and business development director).

The team Edouard Miailhe, the son-in-law of Frederik Mähler-Besse, one of the major shareholders, guided the Château through the difficult days of the Second World War. On our tour of Château Palmer we saw the German graffiti on a wall that still serves as a silent reminder of those tragic times. After the war, Jean Bouteiller took over and he was succeeded by his son Bertrand under whose leadership the 1961 vintage was produced. This was undisputedly a legendary year and confirmed the status of Palmer as one of the greatest Bordeaux wines. Thomas Duroux succeeded Jean Bouteiller in 2004. At the relatively young age of 34, Thomas had a tough act to follow, but with his vast experience of wine making around the world, he has certainly risen to the challenge. With Thomas Duroux at the helm, Château Palmerhas already delivered some outstanding vintages in the new century, 2005 of course, but the more recent 2009 and 2010 vintages are also very promising. Don’t get me wrong, it would be a crying shame to dismiss the other vintages. The Palmer vintage library contains many hidden gems, 1983, 1989, 2000, and very pleasant vintages such as 1991, 1994, 1997 and 2002. Try them all, each has the unique Palmer magic! Annabelle Grellier, Communication Manager of Château Palmer, showed us the hallowed room, the cellar of the Château Palmer that serves as a vinotheque, where all the vintages slumber, including the two oldest bottles that date to 1875. A team member who should not go unmentioned is Bernard de Laage, global head of marketing, Palmer’s ambassador who has the noble task of making Château Palmer known around the world. He travels widely, participating in wine festivals, dinners, galas and many other occasions when Palmer wine is tasted. In Asia, a booming, emerging market in the wine business, he once organised the recorking of no less than fifty cases of the 1961 vintage that were slumbering in the cellars of the Macao Casino.

The wine, the tasting and the Palmer experience Together with Château Margaux, Château Palmer produces the best and most consistent stellar-quality Margaux wines, and Bordeaux wines for that matter. What makes the Palmer wine a great wine? A lot has been said and written about this subject. It certainly has to do with the terroir, the thinnest soil of the Médoc with a high proportion of rough gravel, which the vine has to fight through to reach water and nourishment. And the unique micro-climate with hot summer days alternating with cool nights. What also makes Palmer stand out is the unique blend of grapes. The dominant note in the grands crus of the Médoc is cabernet sauvignon, which gives the wine its power and structure. But, Palmer is different, its vineyard is divided equally between cabernet sauvignon and merlot and completed with a dash of petit verdot. It was Miailhe’s decision to put a large proportion of merlot into the blend, it gives the Palmer wine its special soft, velvety, less serious touch. Other determinants are the éducation (the process of upbringing or ageing, the secret of the vat room), the history of a wine and permanence or consistency in its unique taste and character. And, above all, the people who produce the wine and the passion and pride they put into it.

How to describe the taste, the experience of drinking Palmer? Not an easy task and best done while drinking a bottle of Palmer. There is a delicacy about good Margaux, a sweet haunting nose, that can make it the most exquisite of wines, and Palmer ranks among the highest of them. I am not going to bore you with the usual stuff about elegance, depth, softness, refinement of silk, the warmth of velvet and the nobility of leather. All true. But to me, what makes drinking Palmer a unique experience is what happens inside your head. It lifts you up, it inspires, it makes you happy, it energises, it can give a hedonistic hallucinatory effect and relaxes at the same time. Reading this, maybe you wonder, what drugs is this man taking? And maybe that’s what it is, a perfect drug, giving the perfect experience, without the nasty side effects; it can be pretty addictive though. Do try Alter Ego. A variation of the Palmer terroir, or as they say at the Château Palmer, not a second wine but a different wine: Alter Ego, the work of craftsmanship, and Château Palmer, the great work, the magnum opus. At the Château Palmer they say, Alter Ego is like a jazz improvisation. And that is not the only connection that Palmer has with jazz, Annabelle told us that each new vintage is introduced at a concert during which a famous jazz musician improvises around the new vintage. The 2009 vintage was introduced by Jacky Terrasson, the famous American/French jazz pianist.