2015 GRAPE HARVEST – CHÂTEAU PALMER –
BETWEEN THE EARTH AND THE SKY
Somewhere out there, between the earth and the sky, one is in a constant quest to shelter one’s body and soul, to find an expression of the gifts he is endowed by nature and recreate them into earthly and heavenly fruits.
One walks upright: his steps outline the trajectories of his incessant pursuits, his hands, free and flexible, give them shape and a vertical that runs from his head to his heart connects him with the nature “down below” and the one “up there.” This is the conscious human being: the one that thinks, feels, and acts in harmony with the Universe.
I cannot help but bind these thoughts with what – ever since the time of Rudolf Steiner’s first lecture on biodynamic agriculture in 1924 – has become the philosophy of hundreds of conscious people whose work is directly linked to the earth, and to vine growing and wine making, in particular. And also to share the observation that here, in France that has always impressed me with its art of creating some exceptionally pure wines, in terms of both their nature and expression, the tendency of bio- passing into bio-dynamism is picking up speed.
Classically, in its essence, Bordeaux is also especially cautious about such serious undertakings such as the passage into bio-dynamism, and continues to be the stately “wine bastion” I have always liken it to. This is understandable – in a country such as France that not only because of its very strict legislation but mostly because of the fact that here the terroir has been scientifically studied for centuries and the entire wine-making cycle is examined under a microscope the responsibility that goes hand in hand with the challenge is huge. It is inevitable to speak about investments, too, in funds, time and specialists, as well as about the risks that go along with such an undertaking. Because apart from the consumer the responsibility is also towards all those who work in the wine sector, one of the leading industries in the region in terms of employment. And now that we are speaking of responsibility, I would add: the responsibility of a wine producer whose domain is situated in an appellation that ranks lower is no less than the responsibility of a Grand Cru, for example. Because what is more valid for biodynamic estates compared to the traditional ones is precisely the Love for the Earth however much of a cliché it may sound (at this point a wide-spread image might appear in front of your eyes: the image of a happy and well-meaning vintner. He claims he is in love with the land that he cultivates as per his perceptions. In this sense, there is a difference only in substance, in the terroir’s quality.
Thanks to my professional occupation and personal interest that has deepened with the passage of time my fate got me in touch with some producers of biodynamic wines of different Bordeaux appellations. Maybe it was precisely those acquaintances that gave me the impetus for a more in-depth quest. Later, the fate, fortunately always unpredictable, again turned out to be decisive for what I will speak about later.
In early 2015, during my stay in Shenzhen, China, we were invited by an elite local wine club to an event marking the anniversary of its opening. The wine selection served during the formal reception was exceptionally wide. In the end of the evening, however, in a much narrower circle of high connoisseur collectors, by a very generous gesture, which as a matter of fact is typical of the Chinese, the club introduced us to the intimate atmosphere of several “wine works of art.” Whether it was because I already felt some kind of wine nostalgia for Bordeaux, and because of the fact (I confess) that over time it became my “wine home” the spirit of the Margaux’s Château Palmer 2005, GCC wine that we tasted that night imbued my entire self. What I knew about the domain was that it is one of the few GCC representatives that create bio wines for quite some time. A couple of months later, now in Bordeaux, I came across the most recent list of the top-class wines and Palmer was listed under the group of biodynamic wines.
I am writing these lines in a very exciting moment: when one turns to the earth to reap the outcome of one’s labor. There is certain symbolism in this act, especially in the case of grape harvests: before gathering the harvest one first bends down to the earth (and to the vine) as in giving a bow – as a sign of gratitude to its generosity. Nature gives itself in full to its metamorphosis: the mornings and the evenings stand out crisply fresh, the warmth, in contrast to the one during the summer season, is somewhat more rounded and soft and it spills to the last onto the ripe fruits, and the earth is ready to pick them out of its womb.
Grape harvest is that moment when one tastes one’s labor!
I let myself freely experience my emotion. It follows the line of nature’s motion from late spring when I came back to Bordeaux to the present: from the blossoming accompanied by the tenderest floral aromas, through the fruit set, the cluster and berry formation to the veraison, to the finale. I think that if there is any compensation for the missed moment in 2014, the only year not lived, it is certainly embodied in 2015. For since the last cult year of 2010, followed by the more traditional 2011 and the harder years of 2012 and 2013, the 2015 Bordeaux vintage gets the outlines of the great years of 2005 and 2010. A calm spring, a hot July when the vines experienced the so useful hydric stress, followed by the moderately hot and slightly rainy August, the warm autumn enabling the full ripening of the fruit, the absence of frostbites: the perfect combination for a truly exceptional yield, for both the white and the red wines. And there is no way of being otherwise: I have not seen the entire Bordelaise wine class so eupohorized and smiling for quite a while!
That wine happiness of mine culminated at the moment when Château Palmer accepted my request to visit the, during the grape harvest.
The sunny face of Médoc, its ripe, feminine essence: graceful, sensual and deep.
In terms of geography, Margaux, the first appellation along the way of Médoc chateaux, is the one that opens the door to the traveler. Marojallia, as it was called in ancient times, which has the greatest area among all appellations on the left bank of the Garonne and the most homogeneous expression among the wines of different domains, and which is favored by nature by the most intense sun shine, have impressed, among others, the famous poet Ausonius for its special hospitality.
Château Palmer adorns one of Margaux’s most remarkable domains. The chateau itself, a true piece of architectural jewelry, was built by the famous Bordelaise architect Burguet, who is also the author of another, not less famous one: Château Pichon-Longueville Baron. The 19th century was decisive for Palmer’s history which, unfortunately, did not developed quite favorably for the domain and for its owners, the brothers Isaac and Emile Péreire. People of progressive thinking, realizing the true value of Palmer’s terroir, in 1853 they took large-scale action to develop the estate. At that time, the wine born of this land categorically ranked among the Médoc’s first growths (Premiers Crus). However, just two years later, the 1855 Médoc and Sauternes Classification became the reason why Palmer was listed among the Third Growths (Troisièmes Crus).
The new history of the domain is not less impressive. It follows the set course: the course of perfectionism. And if today Palmer’s wine ranks among the first growths during tastings the praise for that goes to the ones who, led by their deep love for the terroir and the knowledge of it, create the following generations of Palmer wine.
The day when I visited the domain was idyllic: an azure blue sky artistically decorated with a couple of white clouds, quite slight wind walking through the vines while they stood strained in orderly lines, as if proud of the fruit they were bearing.
My host is Annabelle Grellier, Palmer’s Communication Director. During my visit she drew me into the deep substance of domain’s life by comprehensively revealing all of its dimensions. Logically, we start walking through the plot stretching right next to the chateau and the string of low-storied buildings erected before it was constructed.
There are “windows” of vegetation that smoothly fit in between them: they are shaped as an English garden, in homage to Palmer’s history from the time when the estate was owned by the Englishman Charles Palmer who also gave it his name. The feeling is one of lightness: here the nature breaths in freedom!
The first taste of the fruit: Merlot which is emblematic for Palmer. In contrast to other Margaux domains where the Cabernet Sauvignon dominates (even in small proportions), here the two varieties are equally represented: 47% each. The remaining part is Petit Verdot which in Palmer’s “recipe” is manifested in the fine notes of spices. The area of planted vines is 55 hectares as the main portion is on a plateau of gravels which mainly characterize the terroir.
Palmer’s passage into a bio domain happened in 2007-2008 when the terroir was re-mapped with exceptional precision. The “Transfiguration” is a parallel move that Director General Thomas Duroux and Technical Director Sabrina Pernet decided to make very well aware that what was to follow could only be a more pure expression of the deep and rounded Merlot, of the powerful and rich Cabernet; so to speak, to express Palmer in its true nature. The studies for a total transformation into bio-dynamism started as early as in 2008 by the first 2 hectares, in 2009 there were already 5 hectares, in 2013 33 of the total of 55 hectares as Palmer absolutely turned into a bio-dynamic domain in 2014. This, in its own unique way, crowns one very important event in the history of the domain: the 200th anniversary of its foundation.
While rushing between the lines I am constantly asking the question about the bio-dynamic practices applied at Palmer and the extent to which they follow Steiner’s theory. And here I come across a living intellect: the actions taken in this field are borrowed from his teachings without, however, being turned into a dogma: one needs a critical eye and observations because it is all about a single-unit terroir. This is Thomas Duroux’s shared vision. And the practices are numerous: from the preparation of herbal tea as per the natural cycles, through letting in, from November to March, a herd of sheep to graze and at the same time fertilize the soil; through its cultivation – the manual grass growing in order to preserve the wealth of its surrounding flora, the breeding of two cows in a neighboring meadow which contributes to the independent compost production. Nothing is invented: the aim is to have the domain rediscover its harmony in which the vines may thrive alongside the entire nature. All actions are associated with a great deal of caution because the stakes are too high!
On September 22nd, grape harvests start by the earlier ripening Merlot. At that time about 150 grape harvesters join the domain’s team of 25. The atmosphere is tense and magical: the laughter gushing across the lines, the hands that take up the clusters and then the cases that carefully shelter Palmer’s Blue. The royal blue of a grape berry with an innate velvet essence!
We pass along the sorting table, along the table for optic selection, we enter the vat room, grandiose in both technical and architectural terms, with 54 temperature-controlled stainless steel vats enabling the harvest separation on a parcel by parcel basis: the grapes for the Château Palmer wine and the ones for its Alter Ego. We climb up on the second level where the work goes on in a literally unearthly rhythm: a symbiosis of human and cutting-edge technology.
The first cellar, the authentic one, with the oak barrels that contain the resting 2014 vintage, and the second cellar, ready to welcome the new-born 2015 vintage. We stop amidst the silence that will soon lend its acoustics to the 2015 Palmer “symphony”.
It is not chance that I am speaking of music, and what music at that! Palmer’s exceptionality, as you might guess, is informed not only by its terroir. It reflects the unique essence of the people who create it. And here Palmer goes beyond the standard of most Grand Crus which have been welcoming classical music celebrities of world renown for years. A passionate jazz fan, Thomas Duroux invites jazz bands to “christen” the new vintage every year during the en primeur campaign in late March/early April.
After just a few moments, at the tasting room we rush right into the Listening to 2014 Palmer experience. We are tasting Château Palmer’s “Blue” and its Golden Alter Ego, quite literally (the label on the bottle, as Charles Palmer saw it, is designed in deep nocturnal blue and not in black!).
2014 Alter Ego is a vital composition of fruit, ripe and juicy, with a finale of fine spices. On the other hand, 2014 Château Palmer makes us simultaneously immerse ourselves into a delicate minerality and sweetness: a reflection of the Merlot and into the vertical structure of built by the Cabernet. This is a sublime moment: the nose and the palate catch Palmer in its overall natural beauty!
At parting, Annabelle Grellier presents me with the recording of the concert performed to mark the 200th anniversary of domain’s establishment as a souvenir. This is a biographical music narrative about the life of a wine that has been born and lived between the Earth and the Sky for 200 years now.
In this sense I have no choice but to wish the future 2015 wine Bon voyage!
The original text written in Bulgarian was published in 2015 by DiVino magazine, Bulgaria