In­ter­view: Thomas Duroux

He takes a no-fuss ap­proach and re­mains fully com­mit­ted to bio­dy­nam­ics. Jane An­son meets the CEO of Bordeaux’s Château Palmer

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LOOK­ING A LITTLE ex­hausted when we meet, Thomas Duroux is in the mid­dle of the 2018 har­vest – but i don’t think it’s the phys­i­cal work that’s tir­ing him out. Rather it’s the psy­cho­log­i­cal hit of suf­fer­ing an ex­tremely low yield when much of Bordeaux is cel­e­brat­ing its good for­tune, and as a re­sult be­ing called on to jus­tify his de­ci­sion to take this most il­lus­tri­ous of Mar­gaux wines into bio­dy­namic farm­ing.

Un­ques­tion­ably, in my book at least, Palmer is mak­ing its great­est stretch of wines in liv­ing mem­ory right now, eas­ily go­ing toe-to-toe with its neigh­bour Château Mar­gaux. But avoid­ing spray­ing phy­to­chem­i­cals on the vines means there are no easy solutions to prob­lems such as the mildew that struck in 2018, while yields are less than a third of a usual year, right down to 12hl/ha. it’s some­thing that, as the es­tate’s CEO, he is no doubt hav­ing to ex­plain to the board, which in Palmer’s case com­prises sev­eral dozen mem­bers of the Sichel and Mäh­ler-Besse fam­i­lies.

‘Even with the 2018 is­sues, i am still con­vinced that this way of farm­ing is right for the wine,’ Duroux as­serts. ‘The whole team has felt the change in Palmer, in the way that it seems to be get­ting closer to be­ing a true ex­pres­sion of this par­tic­u­lar place. Un­til i have the con­vic­tion that it doesn’t work, i will keep on try­ing.’ Then he pauses, with the first real smile of the af­ter­noon. ‘And let’s not for­get that 1961 had yields of only 12hl/ha here at Palmer. it was seen as a dis­as­ter at the time, but turned out to be a vin­tage that was of huge im­por­tance in the his­tory of the es­tate.’

Ital­ian in­flu­ence

Duroux has long been one of the most ar­tic­u­late and pas­sion­ate wine­mak­ers in Bordeaux. He’s some­one that al­ways gives a straight an­swer to a ques­tion in a re­gion where ob­fus­ca­tion can be a smart ca­reer move, and is clearly not sat­is­fied with sim­ply fol­low­ing the sta­tus quo.

‘His­tory is very im­por­tant of course, es­pe­cially here in Bordeaux, but it can be a hin­drance as well. it can make you feel like there is no point in chang­ing any­thing, be­cause if things worked so well in the past, then what dif­fer­ence can you pos­si­bly make?’

This is an at­ti­tude that has served him well throughout his ca­reer, most cru­cially be­cause it means he is open to the sim­ple plea­sure of cu­rios­ity. Long be­fore it led him to try out bio­dy­nam­ics in the ven­er­ated fields of an 1855 third growth, it led him to one of the most im­por­tant jobs of his ca­reer at or­nel­laia.

That hap­pened, in a round­about fashion, be­cause the fa­ther of his best friend at school was an ar­dent wine lover.

‘When we were teenagers, maybe 17, we broke into his wine cel­lar and opened sev­eral bot­tles over a num­ber of weeks. At one point he re­alised what was go­ing on and asked to see us but said, “The prob­lem is not that you are drink­ing all of my wines, but that you have no idea what it is that you are open­ing.” one of the very first wines that he opened for us af­ter that was a Château Palmer 1983.’

Duroux’s re­ac­tion to this wine clearly im­pressed, be­cause a few years later, the

same friend’s fa­ther in­vited him to an Ital­ian wine din­ner at Clarette restau­rant in Bordeaux (no longer open). There, wine mer­chant Jeffrey Davies ca­su­ally poured a wine that made the ta­ble fall si­lent.

‘It was Sas­si­caia 1985,’ says Duroux, ‘and it blew me away. My mother is Ital­ian, and I grew up spend­ing a lot of time there, and yet I had no idea that they could make wines like that. And it was Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon, a grape that we knew in Bordeaux, but trans­formed.’

As­tute ob­server

Ten years later, af­ter agron­omy and oenol­ogy stud­ies, fol­lowed by prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence at Opus One among oth­ers, he was mak­ing wine in Tus­cany him­self, as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor at Tenuta dell’Or­nel­laia. It’s hard not to see a di­rect line be­tween one ex­pe­ri­ence and the next.

‘It def­i­nitely awak­ened some­thing in me,’ he agrees. ‘And my two years in Italy were in­cred­i­ble. I was then head­hunted from Or­nel­laia to Château Palmer. When I ar­rived [in 2004], I as­sumed I knew plenty about Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon and Mer­lot. But I quickly un­der­stood that it was not the same game. At Or­nel­laia we were cre­at­ing some­thing new, and so had great free­dom, whereas at Palmer I was ar­riv­ing at an es­tate with hun­dreds of years of his­tory – and I still had a lot to learn.’

This state­ment tells you all you need to know about Duroux. He is not afraid to ad­mit when he’s wrong – a qual­ity that’s usu­ally a pretty good in­di­ca­tion of integrity. ‘I re­mem­ber that the 2004 vin­tage was a big crop, and I was watch­ing as the cel­lar team filled two large vats with Mer­lot, and pumped it over twice a day, in the same way they al­ways did,’ he re­calls. ‘I sug­gested that they go fur­ther, push the ex­trac­tion deeper, which was some­thing that we were used to do­ing in Italy. But when I tasted the vats a few days later, I re­alised that I was wrong. In the end I sim­ply ob­served for the rest of that vin­tage.’

It’s this in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing of what’s needed by a wine to re­flect its own sense of place that makes Duroux such a bril­liant winemaker – and such an ar­dent de­fender of bio­dy­nam­ics. For the wines rec­om­mended here (see p48), I sim­ply asked him to pick four vin­tages that said some­thing ei­ther about the de­vel­op­ment of Château Palmer, or his own re­la­tion­ship to it. Of all of them, it was

‘It was Sas­si­caia 1985 and it blew me away’

maybe the 2010 that said the most about who he is as a winemaker.

‘This was the first time that I re­ally sat in front of a glass of Palmer, since I had been in­volved in the wine­mak­ing, and said, “Wow, this is mag­i­cal ter­roir”. It is just an en­chanted place. There was ex­u­ber­ance and charm in 2009 and 2005 of course, but in 2010 I could re­ally feel the iden­tity and per­son­al­ity of Palmer, and it was a cru­cial step in my un­der­stand­ing of this place. It made me ded­i­cated to the place it­self, not just to what I as a winemaker could do with it.’

Sim­ple truth

By the time the 2015 rolled around, all of the work that Duroux had pre­vi­ously put into place was start­ing to bear real div­i­dends, and his de­tailed, metic­u­lous ap­proach, be­gun a decade ear­lier, was pay­ing off.

‘There were cer­tain les­sons from Or­nel­laia that did ap­ply,’ he says, ‘par­tic­u­larly tast­ing ev­ery vat of fer­ment­ing juice ev­ery day, of­ten twice a day, and ad­just­ing our wine­mak­ing ac­cord­ing to what was needed.

‘This also meant that from 2006 we were start­ing to make Al­ter Ego, Palmer’s sec­ond wine, from a pos­i­tive rather than a neg­a­tive blend,’ he ex­plains. ‘So we would look for parts of the vine­yard that truly ex­pressed the phi­los­o­phy be­hind it, rather than just en­sur­ing that all of the best parts went to Palmer, and the rest to Al­ter Ego.

‘From 2007, when we hired Sab­rina Per­net as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, we moved that fo­cus into the vine­yard. She ques­tioned why, if we were be­ing so metic­u­lous in the cel­lar, we weren’t also treat­ing in­di­vid­ual vine­yard plots in dif­fer­ent ways. We car­ried out a full study of ev­ery­thing from soil type to wa­ter re­ten­tion to ni­tro­gen lev­els, and be­gan treat­ing the vines ac­cord­ingly. It was the start of our move to­wards bio­dy­nam­ics, and although at first it wasn’t clear ex­actly what was hap­pen­ing, it

‘It be­came ob­vi­ous from 2010 that some­thing spe­cial was go­ing on with the wine’

be­came ob­vi­ous from 2010 that some­thing spe­cial was go­ing on with the wine.’

What had been merely in­ter­est­ing at first be­came a con­vic­tion that land such as this, clas­si­fied and recog­nised as one of the great­est vine­yard trea­sures in France, should be pro­tected and al­lowed to speak in an unadul­ter­ated way. It’s why Duroux is hop­ing that the 2018 vin­tage, even if small in quan­tity, will still quicken the pulse of those lucky enough to drink it. And why, away from Château Palmer, he is ca­pa­ble of be­ing equally thrilled with an in­ex­pen­sive glass of any wine that is an au­then­tic and true re­flec­tion of place. I asked him for a rec­om­men­da­tion of some­thing that he drinks on his rare nights off at home with his Amer­i­can wife. He chose the bril­liant Do­maine du Cros in Mar­cil­lac, south­west France, and its Lo Sang del Païs.

‘It’s a wine that I cher­ish be­cause it’s sim­ple but true, and it tells you some­thing. There are times when all you want is bread, a bit of paté, maybe a few gherkins, a great bot­tle of some­thing hon­est, and to live in peace.’

Jane An­son is a Decanter contributing editor and its Bordeaux correspondent

Above: pick­ing Mer­lot grapes at Château Palmer, whose vine­yards have been con­verted to bio­dy­namic farm­ing by Duroux

Left: tast­ing Sas­si­caia 1985 was a for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for the young Thomas Duroux

Right: Al­ter Ego is Château Palmer’s sec­ond wine

Duroux with tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Sab­rina Per­net

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