The Pereire brothers' saga

Out of the blue

The Pereire brothers' saga

Out of the blue

The Pereire brothers' saga

Château Palmer already had a name, now it has its château.

The Pereire brothers' saga

AS HE LENT HIS NAME TO THE ESTATE, Charles Palmer is often seen as its founding father. Yet the Pereire brothers were the ones who undeniably made the biggest contribution to Château Palmer’s status as a grand cru winery. By consolidating the vineyard and acquiring key plots, they played a similar role to the Benedictine monks of Burgundy in their exaltation of the terroir.

Émile and Isaac Pereire started a dynasty. Their names have entered the pantheon of French capitalism, and they figure prominently in the list of empire-building self-made men – during the Second Empire, as it happens. It was thanks to this period’s liberal policies that the two brothers made their fortune. The context was ideal; a golden age defined by the 1860 free-trade agreement with England and the domination of Henri de Saint-Simon’s political and economic ideology.

THE PEREIRE BROTHERS are renowned for their success in the railroad and real estate sectors. Born to a Jewish, Portuguese family in Bordeaux in 1800 and 1806 respectively, they went through every step in the rapid process of building a fortune. Their lives were a saga of ups and downs, twists and turns, and mysteries. As young men, they tried their luck in finance and moved to the French capital. They started out at the bottom of the ladder, at Baron James de Rothschild’s bank, before enjoying a meteoric rise in a variety of fields, from economic journalism to the stock market. A parallel between the two families immediately springs to mind. The Rothschilds already had considerable wealth and influence, whereas the Pereires were newcomers. It is not unlikely that Emile and Isaac were fascinated by the Rothschilds’ spectacular success.

After their time in the stock market, the brothers moved into industry. They proved to be visionaries, investing in the construction of some of France’s first railroad lines: Paris to Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1837 and Bordeaux to Bayonne a few years later. They played an active role in the Haussmannian revolution in the French capital, and helped transform Arcachon into the seaside resort we know today. Squares, boulevards, and villas in the southwestern town still bear their names. However, few people are aware of the decisive role they played in building the quality, renown, and prestige of Château Palmer. In fact, the estate could just as easily have been called Château Pereire…

IN 1853, Emile and Isaac were in their prime and appeared to be at the peak of their success. That same year, they bought the 205-acre estate and vineyard from the Caisse Hypothécaire bank. But what explains such a sudden interest in winegrowing? Perhaps it was a rivalry with the Rothschilds, the need for an instrument of social prestige to drive their upward mobility, their fondness of the Bordeaux region, or a purely speculative investment? In reality, it was probably a combination of these reasons. Either way, the profitability prospects seemed positive – but that was without realizing the natural blights that were to come in the second half of the century.

This idea that the Pereires acquired a wine estate in pursuit of social standing was a shrewd observation. Even back then, owning a château in the Médoc region was a sign of wealth, power, and distinction. A few days before the brothers signed the contract, Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild acquired the Brane-Mouton estate in Pauillac. Coincidence? Surely not! In 1868, James de Rothschild then set his sights on Château Lafite. Having become proprietors, the Pereires handed the management of the estate to a new steward, a certain Mr. Lefort, whom the brothers considered to be one of the best wine technicians of the time. Meanwhile, they devoted themselves to an ambitious policy of expanding and reorganizing the vineyard.

THE PEREIRES BECAME BUILDERS in the truest sense of the word when they commissioned architect Charles Burguet to design a residence befitting their success in 1853. Burguet was renowned in Bordeaux for his contribution to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, a new wing of the Bourse building, and the Chartrons market. In the Médoc, Burguet had already made a name for himself several years earlier with another major architectural work: the Château Pichon-Longueville, known as the “Baron.” In fact, anyone admiring the two residences will see several obvious similarities, including conical turrets, slate roofs, and a certain ethereal symmetry. The estate had its name; soon it would have its château.

Its architecture is a metaphor for wine, timeless yet unexpected, while the elegant classicism of the façade is spiced up with a touch of Baroque style. In the mid-19th century, Château Palmer completed the image of Médoc scattered with prestigious residences, like testimonies of its noble terroirs carved in stone.

IN THE 1850S, the Palmer vineyard, like the rest of the Médoc, was struck by a fungal disease called oidium or “powdery mildew.” While winegrowers mourned the loss of their harvests and searched for ways to combat the blight, brokers and merchants noticed that the prices of grands crus were soaring due to the resulting wine scarcity. For the Pereires, while the drop in yields was regrettable, the rise in prices was excellent for business.

It was at this point that Palmer’s troisième cru status – already conferred by merchants and leading figures – was confirmed by the Classification of 1855. Due to the Caisse Hypothécaire bank’s negligence in managing the estate, the new owners’ efforts to expand the vineyard and improve the quality of the wine did not have time to truly flourish and earn a higher classification. Could it have been an official troisième, an unofficial deuxième, and a potential premier cru? Whatever the true ranking, this classification was the least of the brothers’ worries.


FROM 1861 ONWARDS, the Pereires enjoyed almost two decades of renewed prosperity in the Médoc, before two new scourges hit the vineyards: grape phylloxera and downy mildew. At the turn of the century, their success was starting to come away at the seams; business was terrible and war was looming. However, in the hands of its trusted steward Louis Mellet, Château Palmer continued to produce fine wines and delight prestigious customers such as Claude Debussy, who ordered two cases of the 1909 vintage in 1917.

Despite these glimpses of hope, the difficulties kept mounting; first the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II. In their attempts to stay above water, the owners were forced to sell off the less attractive plots of vines. Yet even with such ill fortune, the Pereires, and their descendants after them, kept and cherished the estate for more than 80 years – a testament to their deep love of the wine. It was not until June 1937 that the family decided to sell.

The following year, at the height of the Great Depression, the Ginestet, Miailhe, Mähler-Besse and Sichel merchant families in Bordeaux decided to join forces and take over the estate. The descendants of the latter two families still own Château Palmer today.