by Charlie Leary

The Tale of Two Château Palmers

What would Major General Charles Palmer think of Château Palmer being turned into a public cinema in 2022?

This is a different Chíateau Palmer from the one most wine lovers contemplate, but also in Bordeaux; famous now for a different reason but also a fine wine estate, at least when Charles owned it. The story of Charles and the two châteaux becomes interesting because, despite the importance of the castle to Château Palmer’s current iconography, when the English military officer bought the property in 1814, no “real château” existed according to a 19th century source. To be fair, he gained an extremely well-known wine estate from Widow de Gasq featuring a maison de maître, cellars and vat room, but a second 1824 source refers simply to the vineyards of Charles Palmer, no château in Margaux.

He snapped up another estate, though, with a proper château, conveniently located and with stunning panoramic views of the city of Bordeaux over the Garonne River from Cenon, Entre-Deux-Mers. On July 24, 1824, there is reference to “M. Palmer” (represented by the bevy of Belouguet, Lavidalie, Baudouin, Cailly, Sabes and Coupat) hiring an expert to oppose land expropriation in Cenon for a public road, but no one bothered showing up at the next meeting. Even at that early date, contemporaries foresaw Bordeaux’s urban sprawl extending “beyond Avenue Thiers.”

Lieutenant Colonel Palmer of the 10th Hussards Regiment had paused in Bordeaux after mopping up from the Battle of Toulouse and Napoleon’s abdication. Starting in 1814, with low land prices occasioned by Napoleon’s just-ended blockade of England, optimist Charles cobbled together the capital to create a viticultural empire. Bordeaux, today as in the 19th century, welcomes foreign investment, but it may chew up and spit out the unwary, unpresent, or undedicated, keeping their precious brands. Palmer went on a peripatetic acquisition of grape producing parcels, swiftly accumulating 163 hectares in the Médoc and large holdings in Cenon, many of them from Widow de Gasq, sole controller of family wine estates developed since at least the 16th century. As a French source summarized 30 years ago: in a short time, Palmer “bought domains at Cenon, very close to Bordeaux, and amassed an immense viticultural ensemble at the entry to Médoc, too big, in fact.”

The vinous produce was sold as Margaux wine in England and elsewhere, using phrases like “Palmer’s Claret” and “Palmer’s Superior Margaux Claret”; in 1834 India, it was even “Genl. Palmer’s Château Margaux Claret.” In 1821 Barbados we find, “For Sale—A few dozen of Palmer’s claret, cheap for cash, to close a consignment.” “GENERAL PALMER’S MARGAUX CLARET, three years in Bottle, 60s. per doz., Bottles included,” was a typical advert in 1830s England; simply “Palmer Margaux” appeared in 1839 New York and New Orleans. Copious publications existed in London, Bath, Barbados, and Bombay newspapers. A notable one is the June 6, 1821, announcement in the Bombay Gazette of “Superior Palmer’s Claret of the Vintage of 1815”:

“Messrs. Forbes & Co. have just received by the Ship Mulgrave Castle, from Messrs. John Wild, and Sons, of London, a few 12 and 6 Dozen Chests of Superior Claret of Colonel Palmer’s Growth, and of the highly esteemed vintage of 1815, so much celebrated for possessing greater body and delicacy of flavour, than any vintage since 1798, which may be had, on application at their office, at Rupees 40 per Dozen.” 

Notably, Tastet & Lawton’s vintage notes for the 1815 harvest agree: “Marvellous, on a par with the 1798.”

Was that Cenon wine included in the claret blend? This seems likely. Yet, the French who acquired former Palmer lands retained the name quite vociferously; the same was true of “Boston,” which attests to his acquisition of quality land.

Palmer planted the Boston vineyard in 1822; all Palmer’s Médoc vines fell victim to fungal disease (part of his ruination in France), but this plot regained productivity in the late 19th century, and then fell fallow for decades, though its reputation remained, even as scrubby woods and cow pasture. Boston’s nearly pure gravel soil, with just 2% clay, plunges eight meters deep. The former owners of Château Margaux, the Ginestet family, bought and replanted it to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in 2002; after construction, they bottled “Château Boston” for a few years starting around 2008. The folks at Rauzan-Ségla snapped up three hectares in 2010 to improve their first wine. In 2014, it re-joined Château Palmer’s estate for an undisclosed sum. Charles would be happy. There’s now a “Team Boston” at his eponymous chateau, the quality of that terroir undoubted today.

Château Palmer

The Cenon château lies a good half hour’s drive away from Château Palmer in Margaux, which was built in 1854-55, a decade after the mortgage bank had repossessed the estate. It also produced wine into the 20th century under the Palmer name. But in 1834, Charles lost this too, with its hectares of vines, to pay off a vast debt to négociant Félix Delbos. Charles might have done better to sell Margaux and keep Cenon. The latter Château Palmer produced 80 900-litre tonneaux of red wine that year and the same in 1880 under Delbos descendant’s Fernand Thomas. An 1897 report on Château Palmer and the now-vanished Côtes de Cenon reported that these red wines were “highly sought after.”

Palmer’s history in Bordeaux was a side alley in my research on the Delbos family, but it instantly intrigued me, in part, because I had no idea two wine-producing châteaux named Palmer existed, but more precisely because I wondered why the Palmer brand remained current after two centuries given his inglorious if not ignominious registration in l’Hexagone. Saying Palmer did not have a good financial track record in France would be an understatement; mildew and distant neglect ravaged his seeming sage prowess in the original viticultural purchases, though most were already proven winegrowing dominions of the de Gasq family. Nonetheless, the Palmer brand had pronounced stickiness in Bordeaux.

Then, as now, producing red wine from a renowned sub-appellation in Bordeaux required free capital. As economists have pointed out, by Palmer’s time, Médoc and Cenon weren’t lands of sharecropping or diversified family farms (in contrast with, say, Bourgogne or Tuscany). Owning a Bordeaux wine growing estate by 1855 would mean having a winemaking château, with the correct architectural accoutrements and size to represent the international brand, sufficient salaried staff, and a huge investment in equipment.

Prior to his ownership, the Margaux vineyards claimed fame as the Domaine de Gasq, that is, not a château but a landholding that produced great wine, served to King Louis XV after an earlier act of self-serving promotion by the Maréchal de Richelieu. Richelieu’s efforts “contributed much to the reputation of the wines of Médoc,” notes one source, achieving more prestige for the de Gasq cru than many others. Palmer also appears to have come up with the name Boston (I can’t find anyone else who did), which consisted of a vineyard down the road from Château Palmer. Was this Palmer’s brand for the American market? In 1867 this terrain was referred to as the “Boston vineyards,” a dependance of Château Palmer. No “real château” here either, as far as I can tell. In the 1930s, the most notable edifice was a cow barn.

Over decades, Palmer struggled from afar to raise the capital to succeed in the big wine business. A bit more than a year after losing Cenon’s Château Palmer and its vineyards, still owning hundreds of probably-in hock hectares in Margaux, Charles borrowed 400,000 francs from the Caisse hypotéchaire; a total of 720,000 francs to be paid over 20 years. For comparison, he had bought the domaine de Gasq for 100,000 francs. Evidently squeezed and ignorant of the mortgage contract details, he launched a lawsuit challenging the Caisse’s interest calculations and quickly lost.

He had married Miss Atkins of Huntercombe House, Buckinghamshire, in 1823; a decade later she filed suit in Bordeaux claiming a mortgage on the Margaux holdings — her attempt to wrest them from the bank’s clutches, possibly for Charles. Her case travelled to the court of appeal, which a decade later decided she had no access, either based on an English marriage contract or on Charles’ purported French residency, to French immovable property rights.

The Pereire brothers who built the actual Chateau Palmer in Cantenac christened it with Charles’ surname, even though the mortgage bank had owned the estate for a decade, giving sufficient time to distance the ill-reputed debtor general from the wine and its marketing. This is even more remarkable given that the de Gasq brand for wine remained more famous in France, starting with the royal patronage. Félix Delbos stuck with the name too, as did his descendants. He died at “Chateau Palmer” in 1844. The family marketed the estate’s wine as Chateau Palmer or cru Palmer into the early 20th century; the last recorded vintage was 1910.

This devotion to the Palmer brands came despite Palmer’s litigious absentee landlordism, his ultimately abysmal grape-growing career, and his defaults on French loans.

He intended things to be different. In 1814-15, Charles had dreams of living in Bordeaux, going to the trouble of seeking royal assent for French residency, acquiring the substantial château in Cenon, remodelling it, and assembling 163 hectares in Margaux with the necessary staff evidences his conviction. There’s also the reputed romantic attraction to Widow de Gasq, whom he allowed to continue to live on the Margaux estate, with free wine.

Alas, reality quickly set in.

In August 1814, he returned to England to prosecute a court-martial against a fellow colonel named Quentin. It didn’t go well, and Charles’ military trajectory faltered; he later attained the rank of General, but with no increase in pay. He quickly reappeared in France. Colonel Quentin travelled there in February 1815, in fact, to duel over his harmed reputation. Having dodged the bullet, we next find Charles back in Bath, occupied with duties as an MP and running an inherited theatre, the Royal Bath. It appears he pretty much stayed there.

Indeed, in 1846 the French court found that despite the 1815 royal decree granting Charles domicile in France “on the condition that he actually continue to reside there,” he never did so.

Whereas at the time the Decree of Jan. 10, 1815, was made, Charles Palmer was a Member of the Parliament of England, and he did not cease as a Member until few years past; that, after the said decree, he constantly served in the English army, and that he even obtained promotion therein; that the exercise of his civil and military functions made his presence in England indispensable; that he therefore did not reside in France, in the sense that the letter and the spirit of the law attach to this word.

Whereas the mortgage bank produces a large number of public documents, subsequent to the Decree of Jan. 10, 1815, originating from Palmer or his agents, of diverse epochs, in which it is expressed, alternatively, that Palmer is residing and domiciled either in Bath or in London, and that in none of these acts is mention made of his residence in France.
Whereas, after 1815, Palmer sometimes came to France to visit his properties; but that these apparitions have been so rare and so short that it is impossible to consider them as constituting a residence proper.

Charles turned to marketing his wine in the homeland. “There are plenty of English newspaper advertisements for Palmer’s Claret or Palmer’s Margaux from the 1820s onwards,” notes Jane Anson. There’s also an oft-recounted, but undated, first-hand recollection of him serving Palmer’s Margaux at Carlton House, hoping royal patronage would do as much for the Palmer name in England as it did for de Gasq in France. At an infamous dinner party hosted by the Prince of Wales, a comparative tasting of Bordeaux wines (accompanied by anchovy sandwiches) didn’t go well. The penchant for copious advertising points more to sales worries by Palmer and his négociants than successes. Still, the Palmer brand and Margaux wine indelibly marked the French and English psyches. His marketing and egocentric nomenclature paid off in terms of international recognition. Maybe he was ahead of his time in amassing vineyards lands under one or two fined-tuned brand names, terroir in the wind.

We’ve grown accustomed to vintage Bordeaux wine aged in bottles, with a château named and pictured on the label. It hasn’t always been so. Though every Palmer biography points to his financial failure (lack of “sound financial sense,” says Clive Coates MW), the key to Palmer’s value as a wine brand was marketing innovation in the early 19th century.

Those 1820s and 1830s advertisements possess a unique combination of illuminating elements uncommon at the time, though familiar now: First, a winegrower’s (not a négociant’s) name, and an English one, attached to the wine and the vineyard (“Colonel Palmer’s Growth”); second, reference to a specific terroir (this was maybe obvious, with Margaux already a known commodity, but still innovative for a new brand, even if his proprietary Cenon wine joined the mix); third, targeted international distribution (English-speaking countries and colonies); fourth, transported and sold in bottles not in bulk; fifth, bottles by the dozen, in containers presumably from the place of origin, not bottled at the final destination; sixth, superlatives like “superior,” “Colonel,” and “General” (depending on his rank that year) suggesting knowing quality; seventh, reference to bottle age (“three years in Bottle”) or to an expertly-assessed vintage, for example, the “esteemed” 1815. Of course, “possessing greater body and delicacy of flavour” could be from a back label today. What he lacked was a chateau in Margaux to complete the picture, though of course by 1835, his Palmer’s Claret advert infringing Château Margaux’s future hallmark suggests this was on his mind. Between 1840 and 1855, châteaux became much more important for wineries beyond Margaux, Lafite and Haut-Brion.

In the 21st century, absentee Bordeaux landlords and re-naming châteaux have drawn ire from some parts. This is rather silly considering local history. Encroaching suburbs killed off the well-reputed Côtes de Cenon vineyards, including Cru Palmer, decades ago. By the 1960s, the Delbos family – which included Yvonnede de Secondat, Marquis de Montesquieu, born at Château Palmer in 1902 – sold the estate to the Cenon government, among a wave of divestitures by the monied. One published theory is that World War II’s devastation caused the closeout. A more plausible explanation is that the encroaching suburban sprawl led the wealthy to lose fascination with owning beautiful vinous estates close to the city, but not amid its masses. Château Palmer, Cenon, became a 21-hectare, vineless public park, and this year the building converted to a theatre, something else that was close to Palmer’s heart.

Palmer’s story tells us about Bordeaux’s commercial culture, branding, capital, and authenticity. Although universally maligned as a poor businessman, Palmer’s prescient combination of marketing innovations stuck. My judgment is that not a lot has changed since Palmer’s ill-fated foray. Foreign absentee landlords are nothing new. Neither is losing it all. Palmer had to raise huge amounts of money to piece together his estates, and he failed, his dream of the French wine life in Bordeaux kaput. He went bankrupt in England in 1838. He died without will or testament in 1851. But his brands endured fabulously, including what now called the Rocher de Palmer in Cenon, Château Boston, and last but not least, Château Palmer itself.

Photo of Château Palmer by Tim Atkin MW; photo of the Cenon Château Palmer courtesy of Charlie Leary

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