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The mystery of the blue label

Text by Vincent Remy

Out of the blue

The mystery of the blue label

Out of the blue

The mystery of the blue label

A rather ambiguous marriage between black and blue.

The mystery of the blue label

A blue that emerged in the Second French Empire with the arrival of the Pereire brothers in the Médoc: that's the story of the Château Palmer label, a label that's so distinctive, so recognisable, that some people think it's black, but whose 'ultramarine' blends into the dizzying opacity of the bottle.

Depth is a quality you can sense, it’s a feeling of thickness.

Blue... Are you sure? Perhaps the first thing that strikes you as you study the label of Château Palmer is this profoundly rich colour enveloping the bottle, a shade constituting a rather ambiguous marriage between blue and black. Yes, it is blue, but it’s a blue that seems to evoke the very origins of the colour, a hue which, as the historian Michel Pastoureau wrote, spraung out of the darkness of the Middles Ages. “What I love about the ‘Palmer Blue’, ” readily admits Thomas Duroux, “is that it takes time to realize that it’s actually blue. It doesn’t give itself away so easily—you have to pursue it. Exactly like Palmer, a wine that isn’t flashy or forward, which isn’t so quick to reveal itself, which demands you accord it a little time. ” Thus when Thomas and his team decided in 2006 to rework the Château’s historic label, it was with this idea in mind—rediscovering the “original blue.”

But which blue? And which origins? For a long time the great wines of Médoc were still in barrel when they were handed over to Bordeaux trading houses—often British-run—only then to travel in cargo holds across the Bay of Biscay, finally to be bottled in London or Glasgow. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the négociants of the greatest châteaux themselves began to bottle, they identified their bottles with coloured strings or a touch of paint. Then, around 1818, a lithograph artist named Cyprien Gaulon settled in Bordeaux. His workshop, which went on to become “l’Imprimerie Vinicole Wetterwald”, would be the first to offer so-called vignettes—personalized, decorative wine labels.

SOMMELIER TO THE FRENCH NATIONAL ASSEMBLY since 1993, Philippe Parès is probably the world's greatest collector of wine labels: “From the age of 15, I started writing to winemakers, going to estates to collect labels, classifying them by region, appellation and climate. Back then, nobody collected. I had access to untouched, fabulous places”. This approach is all the more valuable given that many printers kept nothing: “As for the châteaux, they were slow to realize the heritage value of their estates. They have few or no archives.”

In his apartment in Courbevoie, just outside Paris, etiquette binders sit alongside rugby shirts, his second passion... “What really makes me dream are exceptional estates. Behold “Château Palmer 1874, Cadden Klipsch”, a white label, the merchant's, with no resemblance to today's label: “Look at the beauty of this paper, it must have been made by the Gaulon printer. And look at this one, 1884, simpler, more sober, more beautiful. In those days, legislation was very light, you could do whatever you wanted.” Palmer 1916, another white label, created for Georges Audy, a Saint-Emilion wine merchant, "supplier to his majesty the King of the Belgians". And then there's a strange green label, signed “WF”, Wetterwald Frères, with no vintage: “It must have come from a catalog that the printer Wetterwald offered his customers. A standard label, the only thing that changed was the photo of the château...”.

But what about the famous midnight-blue label? The sommelier shows us an impressive series, the oldest of which dates back to 1928. But he is powerless to identify the "very first blue".

Would the Archives Départementales de la Gironde, in the Chartrons district, know more? The head of the research department, Cyril Olivier, finally unearthed the first six Palmer labels to have been filed with the Bordeaux Commercial Court. Six négociant labels, all white... The very first was registered on September 25 1872 at 10 a.m. by a certain William Piper, a wine merchant living at 52 cours du Jardin Public in Bordeaux. The heart of the label is an improbable pink coat of arms, topped by a " Château Palmer, Margaux Médoc", and surmounted by a "selected by and bottled expressly for William de Roux, Panama". William de Roux" competes in size with " Château Palmer ". At the same time, wine merchants Ehrmann Frères were even putting their name in bigger letters than Château Margaux!

In this world of imaginary coats of arms and all-powerful merchants, there was a happy surprise: on April 18, 1879, the Schoeder-Schyller merchants registered a delightful label, " Château Palmer, grand vin, Margaux", for the 1875 vintage, without attaching their name to it, and with the very first ink drawing of the young château, which the Pereire brothers, owners after General Palmer, had had built twenty years earlier...

WHITE, ALWAYS WHITE, even in the archives. Let's face it: white labels preceded blue, and we'll never know the exact date when that first "Palmer blue" label was created. But here's a clue: it's over a century old, as Thomas Duroux, director of Château Palmer, still has a label from the 1908 vintage: a midnight blue tending towards purple, close to the color of the grapes. Is this the very first blue? And by whom? “It's really difficult to reconstruct the history of labels," notes art historian Sophie Javel, who works on labels with her sister Stéphanie, at the Bordeaux studio Exceptio. In the beginning, châteaux were almost like farms: decisions were made in a very personal way, with no desire to keep a record, because there was no concern for meaning. The label was simply a piece of information, put in place by the merchants.”

Let's be content with knowing that under the "reign" of the Pereire brothers, a blue label was born, coexisting with the white ones, but testifying to the rise in power of château bottling. But where did this blue decision come from? A mystery. In the collective imagination, since the Middle Ages, blue has become a positive, reassuring, elegant color. The favorite color of the French. The owner of the time, or the artist who made the choice, had this in mind, even if unconsciously. This Palmer blue, unique in the Médoc, has endured through the decades, with slight variations, without ever turning black.

Why did the creators of this label wrap it all around in this foliage?

It’s a well-known fact among oenophiles that there are certain recurring tropes among Bordeaux wine labels, meant to convey an image of discipline, austerity, strength... But few of them can claim to be instantly recognizable. “Palmer ranks among only a handful of labels with a very strong identity, like Ducru-Beaucaillou, Cos d’Estournel or Beychevelle” notes Frédéric Berjon, founder of the eponymous printing house, who has been working the subject for three decades.
Yet it’s the bottle with its label after all which is the only thing that gets engraved in our memory. The wooden box stays in the cellar, the cork is forgotten. “The Palmer label ranks among these ‘untouchables, it imparts a sense of security, it’s very reassuring.” And at its core, this sense of security undoubtedly stems from the contrast between the blue and gold.
We are in a sombre place, and from this sombre place comes a burst of light—all of these elements are in gold on the label,” notes Stéphanie Javel. “This midnight-blue, we treated it to create the feeling that you’re not so much looking at a label as you are looking through a window into the bottle. As if we could escape into this liquid world…”

The Palmer label was entirely redesigned by hand in 2006: “We worked on this project for a year,” recalls Stéphanie. “When it comes to a well-known label with a long history, the last thing you want to do is revolutionize. The idea is simply to enhance it, to rework each element without denaturing it, but rather bringing to it whatever’s lacking: clarity, finesse, strength sometimes. It’s a balance you have to strike.”