With four turreted towers and flags flying,
Château Palmer looks like a small, perfect castle surrounded by a vineyard, proudly situated in the Margaux commune of Bordeaux. Right now its vines are heavy with bunches of purple merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot grapes. Harvest is here.
The grapes will go into a wine that is one of the top reds in the world: sensuous, with lush red fruit flavors and plenty of elegance. Classified a third growth in the
famous 1855 classification that ranked Bordeaux châteaux from 1st to 5th “cru,” Palmer has punched above that level in the past decade in price and quality.
That’s because of young, energetic winemaker and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Duroux, who arrived in 2004 after a stint in Italy at Ornellaia and Masseto. He’s shifted the vineyard to biodynamics, an uber-organic farming method that few in Bordeaux follow. And a risky one at that. This year, despite threats of mildew and possibly botrytis, his team didn't spray the vines and got lucky.
“2016 has been a year of strange weather: a wet spring and a dry summer with no rain for almost two months,” he says. “But this harvest season is perfect. I have a smile on my face.”
Here’s how harvest went on Oct. 4. Unlike the simpler,
ancient winemaking method used for a white pét-nat, making Château Palmer's complex red requires different techniques, a combo of the latest in technology and precision viticulture to create the best wine in the particular vintage.
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The sun is shining on Château Palmer, its lush garden and lawn, its outbuildings that form a little village around it, and, of course, the rows of vines planted on a plateau of thin gravel. It’s a good day for harvesting grapes.
Every day Thomas Duroux and two of his team spend the morning tasting grapes and deciding whether and when to pick. Are the grapes ripe enough? Today, that answer is “yes” for some of the merlot.
The vineyard is 64 hectares (158 acres) of about half cabernet sauvignon and half merlot, with a small percentage in petit verdot. An advocate of what’s called “precision winemaking,” Duroux has divided the entire vineyard into 106 plots, based on soil, varietal, and quality and keeps each lot separate during the winemaking process.
One hundred thirty pickers swarmed into the vineyard to pick seven hectares of merlot grapes, in 20 different plots. The team did it in eight hours, carefully cutting off only the best bunches and placing them in
cagettes (bins) that hold 7 kilos (15.4 pounds) each.
Loading the Cagettes
Workers load 200 cagettes of grapes (just over 1.5 tons) onto a flatbed attached to a tractor and haul them to the crushpad. Once there, they’re loaded onto a conveyor belt that dumps them onto a vibrating sorting table.
Sorting the Grapes
Duroux wants only the very best grapes to go into the wine. He has a multilevel process to weed out any that don’t measure up. The vibrating table shakes the clusters so that leaves and bits of wood are separated from the grapes. At the same time, women at each table, wearing gloves, scrutinize each cluster and berry and pluck out any that are green, smushed, or misshapen in any way.
A conveyor takes the grapes to the destemmer, which spits out the stems into a plastic bin with the help of a worker wielding a long rake. The stems go to the compost pile. Duroux has experimented with using whole clusters, stems and all,
as is done for making pét-nats and some pinot noirs, but says it only works well with merlot when the grapes are very, very ripe.
The last layer of sorting is the optical sorter, a camera that uses multispectrum light waves to reject insects, leaves, green or smashed grapes in picoseconds.
The now highly selected grapes are lightly crushed to break the skins, then go on a conveyor into a mini-vat. This is when Duroux adds yeast to “pop,” as he calls it, fermentation from the beginning, thus crowding out the possibility for microbial organisms and oxidation to take hold. While most producers add sulfites to prevent the development of bad microorganisms, he’s found this works just as well.
Filling the Vats
The cute mini-vats with wheels look like small robots. Once one is full, cellar workers roll it along a catwalk until it’s centered above an open fermentation vat below, and its trap door is opened. Thanks to gravity, the grapes drop gently into the big vat. It will take several trips to fill one of the winery’s 54 vats. Having so many in different sizes lets Duroux micro-vinify each lot of grapes, from different parts of the vineyard. Today, they fill six vats.
The wine ferments in a temperature-controlled stainless steel vat that sits on four stilt-like legs. A “cap,” or thick layer of grape skins, stems, and seeds, forms on the surface of fermenting red wine. This year, Duroux expects fermentation to be fast, five or six days instead of eight or 10. The temperature for the merlot that will go into Château Palmer’s
grand vin is about 30C (86F).
Submerging the Skins
To break up the cap and submerge the skins, a machine periodically pumps the wine up from the bottom of the tank and splashes it over the cap. This helps hurry up fermentation, as well as extract color, flavor, and tannin from the skins. Some producers punch down the cap using a tool that looks like a giant potato masher: Duroux thinks that extracts too much for Palmer’s style of wine.
During fermentation, and the eight to 10 days of maceration following, Duroux is constantly sniffing and tasting, tasting, tasting to evaluate what’s happening to the wine. Is it balanced? How high is the quality? And is it ready to be racked off into barrels?
In the winery lab, the winemaking team repeatedly tests the sugar and acidity levels of every batch of wine to ensure it hasn't developed any faults, like volatile acidity (vinegar taint).
To the Cellar
But this is just the first part of making Château Palmer’s wine. After maceration, today’s merlot will go into wooden barrels for a second fermentation called malolactic, which makes wines softer and smoother and reduces acidity. Eventually they’ll age quietly in the new
chai, or barrel cellar, as these in the photo are doing. And, of course, there’s still more merlot as well as cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot to pick, probably starting next week.
In February, Duroux will do the first blending of various different lots of each type of wine. He’ll fine (clarify) the wine with egg whites and let it age another year or more. How good will it be? I’ll be tasting the early blend next April at
, and I’ll let you know. en primeur in Bordeaux