Time always tells

Interview by Erwan Desplanques

The village

Time always tells

The village

Time always tells

It is said that a great wine is judged by how it stands the test of time.

Time always tells

IT IS SAID THAT AN EXCEPTIONALLY FINE WINE is judged by how it stands the test of time. But does this mean years or centuries? And the aging of a vintage aside, how do we reconcile the different temporalities that structure a wine estate? Juggling geological characteristics, traditions of the past, urgent climate demands of the present, and anticipation of the future, Thomas Duroux, director of Château Palmer, has learned to navigate both hours and decades, and today is confident in celebrating the power of lasting time.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : At Château Palmer, you have described yourself as the “guardian of the estate” and the one who “passes down time.” What do you mean by this latter expression?

Time always reveals the truth. This observation should inspire both humility and daring. Our job is to move between temporalities. First, there is the time it takes to tame a terroir, the time it takes to plant a vine so that it takes root and fully expresses the complexity of the soil. Achieving this requires at least ten years. Then there is the time needed to produce the grapes. This is the time of the season, which starts with the December pruning and ends with the September harvest. Next comes the time for vinification and aging. In the cellars, the wine is forged in an intimate bond between the wood and the atmosphere. Tannins and oxygen are essential to its growth. It takes about three years, from the first pruning to when we bottle the wine. For us, this is the end of a process, but the wine still has a long life ahead of it. A Bordeaux fine wine is rarely complete. Having tasted some very old vintages, I can assure you of it.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : Émile Peynaud, the father of modern oenology, followed a key principle: “I never drink the grand crus classes that make up most of my wine cellar before they have aged for ten years.” Would you agree with him?

THOMAS DUROUX : He also compared a fine wine to “an evolving work of art, never definitively fixed, rather like Calder’s mobiles.” This vision resonates more with me. After being bottled, the wine takes time to reflect, adapting to its new environment, oscillating between the passions of adolescence and the shift to adulthood. Some vintages, like 2012, have always been open. Others, like 2006, faded for a few years before shining again ten years later. It is true that a great wine often takes a decade to crack open the door to its true history, to reveal its deepest identity. It can then be considered adult, grown, even if it continues to bear certain traces of its teenage years. Among these adults, there are those who age well and others who fly too close to the sun. It can be difficult to establish fixed rules. For example, I am not very comfortable with the notion of an apogee. When a tasting note promises a wine’s apogee in 2036, what does that mean? Nothing is ever that mathematical, and just as well! Time is long, complex, and irregular. Of course, there are wines that are closed because they are too young, and wines that are worn out because they are too old. But in between, there can be several culminations depending on various parameters such as terroir, vintage, storage conditions, development of the wine, and the taster’s physiology.

“The wine takes time to reflect, adapting to its new environment, oscillating between the passions of adolescence and the shift to adulthood.”
Thomas Duroux — Director, Château Palmer

CHÂTEAU PALMER : Is there no real limit to the aging potential of a Château Palmer wine?

THOMAS DUROUX : Let me tell you a story. When I arrived here in 2004, there were about a hundred bottles of Palmer 1952 left in the cellar. I opened one at random. The vintage was cloudy and uninteresting. I thought it was finished, so much so that we almost used it to make wine-infused strawberries.
A few months later, I was visiting a leading American collector. He asked me to choose one of the 30,000 bottles in his cellar, but told me not to touch them. Instead, I had to point to the one I wanted. I chose one, which he delicately removed, keeping the bottle horizontal. He placed it in a serving basket, making sure to never stand it upright, and decanted it perfectly without a trace of sediment. Back at Château Palmer, I repeated his technique with the 1952 vintage, which was completely different. This time, I discovered a limpid, magnificent wine. I had a similar experience with a Château La Tour Haut-Brion 1928. People think some wines are dead, but they are actually just poorly prepared!
The difference lies in the origin of the wine, of the grape. Some wines resist but don’t improve. Other wines, such as ours, improve over time, developing aromatic complexity. We are no longer in the business of preservation, but of exaltation.

What is the technical explanation for this transformation?

THOMAS DUROUX : Generally speaking, bottle aging refines the tannins. This is more or less obvious depending on the vintage. If the tannins are extremely pleasant and soft, as they were in 2012, the wine’s excellence will be expressed quickly. In well-structured vintages, which can be straightforward, profound, and even a little more austere, as seen in 2010 and 2016, time is what reveals the wine’s true texture. Just like a fine fabric which is a little too thick when new, whose weave will gradually become refined, revealing the full finesse of the texture and motif.

Alter Ego remains more open in its youth, with a strong aromatic dimension. In its early years, it suffers less from a feeling of withdrawal, as its original texture is less imposing. Nonetheless, it also benefits from age. Much like Château Palmer, this wine improves with the passing years. If you open an Alter Ego 2009 today, you will realize that patience is a virtue.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : Is there a risk that climate change will decrease some of the aging potential of Bordeaux wines?

THOMAS DUROUX : A remarkable vintage requires a fairly dry summer and conditions conducive to harvesting healthy, ripe, complex grapes. The last few years have enjoyed warm, dry weather, which has therefore led to a higher berry concentration. The future is harder to predict. We can see global warming coming, but we cannot accurately measure its speed or the resilience of our vines. In the long term, of course, we have concerns about our grapes – particularly Merlot, which ripens faster than other varieties. To anticipate this, we are working more on adapting our practices rather than developing structural changes. These questions demand collective answers here in the Bordeaux region – hence the importance of dialoguing with our peers and collaborating with research institutes.

Does adaptation imply reconnecting with certain aspects of the past?

THOMAS DUROUX : There is one essential thing that we have learned from the past: We are stronger together. Monocultures and the simplification of the agricultural landscape have weakened us. There is now an urgent need to redevelop this landscape, to revive the symbiosis between plant and animal species. Château Palmer’s farming organization is in the process of reconnecting with what it used to be – an identity and set of practices that disappeared in the second half of the 20th century. We are also trying to reestablish the meaning of certain actions that are drawn from nature. There is little point in reviving any old ancient technique for its picturesque or theatrical character. Yes, we have put ewes in the vineyards and planted fruit trees, but we will only return to using animal-pulled machinery if we are certain that it will afford us more precision in caring for certain young vines. We also have great respect for the time it takes to communicate innovation. Before announcing a significant change – such as the tressage of our vines this year – we test the technique on different plots for several years. This time is also an opportunity for learning, humility, and discretion.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : You shifted to biodynamic winegrowing several years after you arrived. This decision was not easy for everyone to accept, but time seems to have proved you right…

THOMAS DUROUX : We had a vision, a collective intuition, and we saw it through. We have all accepted the fact that Palmer will never go back to winemaking using petrochemicals. It is ingrained in the minds of both the team and the owners.
At the start, our technical director Sabrina Pernet was even more vocal about environmentalism and a constant respect for nature than I was. I understood her position on an intellectual level, but at the time I was more driven by the oenological dimension – producing even better wines, expressing the terroir and the soil’s specific aspects even more precisely. Together, we shared a taste for adventure and a sense of risk. We have dealt with several challenges, such as the 2018 harvest, but that is simply a price to be paid. What counts, and I am increasingly convinced of this, is to look far ahead. The families who own Château Palmer understand this and have shown immense collective intelligence. They have owned the estate since 1938 and are now in their fourth or fifth generation. As a result, they are well placed to appreciate the virtues of the long-term.
When I meet business leaders working in banking or industry, I notice that they are experiencing the “acceleration” described by German sociologist Hartmut Rosa. They live in a society of fleeting time, which is increasingly condensed and compressed, and they rarely look more than 18 months ahead. We, on the other hand, have the extraordinary opportunity to work for people who will take over from us in in 20, 30, or even 100 years’ time. Our work is inspired by the distant past while looking into the future. Once you have understood that, it makes things less stressful, whatever the quality of the harvest. In the end, this is the true calling of anyone tasked with “passing down.”

How do you see the next ten years?

THOMAS DUROUX : Our teams were quite pioneering ten years ago. We took a risk with biodynamics, which seems to be paying off, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Today, we are undoubtedly experts in viticulture and winemaking. However, we still have a lot to learn about animal husbandry, market gardening, and arboriculture... And we are doing everything we can to develop our knowledge. We want to be specialists of the Château Palmer area, which is a complex and intertwined agricultural entity. We need to become self-sufficient in compost, and continue striving for excellence on all fronts. When we grow a tomato in our kitchen garden, it should not be good; it should be exceptional. The same goes for lamb shanks cooked by our chef.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : In her latest book, French philosopher Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent invites readers to replace chronological time with “time-landscapes,” placing human activity within multiple cycles throughout Earth’s history. How do you deal with both urgency and patience, fleeting and lasting time?

THOMAS DUROUX : The lasting time of experience fosters the more fleeting time of management. Decisions are made more quickly during the harvest. No two vintages are ever the same, but exactly what we do and how we do it is beginning to imprint on my memory with each passing year. I have a better feel for things. At the start, when we tasted the first juices, we were sometimes seized by a moment of doubt. Today, the identity of each plot is increasingly clear. I occasionally hear the expression “the wear and tear of time,” but I fail to understand what it means. I have been running Château Palmer for almost 20 years now, and I feel like I arrived yesterday, still filled with a childish curiosity. There are always things to learn from the past, and others to imagine for the future. Slow, lasting time is an extraordinary opportunity to build a certain intimacy between a place and its inhabitants. This connection was created with the owners, the winegrowers, and the terroir; we grew together and tested countless techniques, without ever losing sight of our vision. Trust also develops up over time. Our job is to make the most of this place, this landscape, and to pass it down to the generations that will inherit it.