Château Palmer is unusual in more ways than one. At least two. On September 23, they are launching their new 10-year-old vintage. Yes, you read that right. Every year they put aside about half of their production and let it rest in the cellar. When it has reached the – for a wine – respectable age of 10 years, they release it to the market. So, next year they will start selling the Château Palmer 2011.
Château Palmer is one of the fairy-tale-looking palaces along the route des châteaux in Bordeaux. Driving north into Margaux, you can see the beautiful building on the right-hand side. Right behind it, Château Margaux is hiding. In the (now fairly dusty) 1855 classification of the wines of Bordeaux, it was honoured as a third growth, a very respectable place. If anything, it has gained in prestige and quality since.
I tasted the new “launch”, the 2011, with the manager of the chateau, Thomas Duroux. “2011 was a very peculiar year. It was a warm spring and summer, so harvest was expected early”, he explained. “But at Palmer, the vintage was even more marked by what happened on June 4”, he continued. “A hailstorm struck the vineyards”. Hail can be devastating, but at Palmer, it came at a good time, or as good as can be. It was after the flowering but before the fruit had really started to develop. Had it been earlier or later, it could have been catastrophic.
Hail during flowering could mean that no flowers will develop into fruit, and if the grapes are already well-developed, they can be severely damaged and become useless. As it were, at Chateau Palmer in 2011, it was the young shoots that took the hit. Much of the young branches were destroyed, but the tiny buds survived. But that meant that the vine now had to focus on rebuilding itself and put most of its energy on creating new shoots and branches and less on developing the grapes. “This meant that we had an exceptionally small harvest in 2011, only around 20 hectolitres per hectare”, Thomas Duroux explained. That is less than half of a typical harvest yield.
The good side of this was that the quality of the grapes was excellent. With such a small yield, the juice was more concentrated than usual. This was even more pronounced due to the hot summer. In a typical year, Chateau Palmer uses three grape varieties. Approximately equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot plus a dash of Petit Verdot. Petit Verdot is used in small quantities by some estates, often from a few percentages up to 10 per cent. It can give some added fresh acidity and structure thanks to its tannins. However, in 2011, the Cabernet Sauvignon at Palmer was so solid and concentrated that they decided not to use any of it in their main wine, the Château Palmer. Hence, in 2011, it was simply a blend of Merlot and Cabernet.
So, what about the wine?
It was an absolute pleasure to taste the Château Palmer 2011; it was a delicious wine. The colour was deceptively dark; one might expect a very dense wine. But no, instead it was a very elegant, almost aromatic wine. There were masses of fruit on the nose, classic cassis and a little floral. A hint of oak, but not too much. On the palate, it did have quite a lot of power but retained its elegance with very refreshing fruit. The tannins are very present but also lovely and smooth. A long finish, held up by the excellent structure of the tannins—a lovely example of concentrated yet elegant Margaux wine.
Initially, I mentioned that Palmer is unusual in two ways (at least), one being keeping a big part of the production for release ten years later. The other unusual thing with Palmer is that it managed according to biodynamic principles. Not many estates in Bordeaux do so, although it has become more popular in recent years.
Thomas Duroux explained the background: “We had tasted some delicious biodynamic wines and became interested in how biodynamics worked. The agricultural practices seemed a bit strange, and most of the people who did it were also unusual, long hair and all.” But the quality of the wines had made them curious. So in 2009, they selected one of their Merlot plots and worked half of it with “conventional” methods and the other half with biodynamic practices.
“It wasn’t a catastrophe; we were happy to have a harvest the first year”, Thomas says jokingly. In fact, it worked so well that only four or five years later, they had converted all the vineyards to biodynamic. Some years, with challenging weather, it does carry a risk of getting more vine diseases in the vineyard. But the big advantage is that, according to Thomas, it brings out the character of the vineyard and of each plot much better in the wine.
All the more reason to try one of their soon-to-be-released 2011.