WE USE COOKIES TO ENSURE THAT WE GIVE YOU THE BEST EXPERIENCE
WE USE COOKIES TO ENSURE THAT WE GIVE YOU THE BEST EXPERIENCE

Queens of the castle

Text by Pauline Boyer

Thread

Queens of the castle

Thread

Queens of the castle

The cows of Château Palmer, in all their majesty.

Queens of the castle

In the farthest-flung corners of the Boston plots, in the midst of the Cantenac marshes, and alongside the port of Issan, Château Palmer’s cows live the life of Riley, basking in the dual luxuries of time and space.

There stands the colossus, Narcisse, disdainfully gazing at the young, spirited Momo the sheepdog, who playfully nibbles the legs of the herd. Physalis and Plantain are equal parts annoyed and agitated by his carousing. On another plot, Lena and Ivresse, the eldest ladies of the group, approach their cowhand beseechingly, begging for the slightest glance or caress. At the foot of the dark trees, under the heavy October rain, the steady presence of these ruminants both reassures and delights. Wherever they graze, the world can’t be so bad.

Emilie and Teddy keep a close eye on the livestock. She is mischievously vigilant; he quietly affectionate. This duo is in charge of the vineyard’s increasingly populous ark, which has developed over the years to welcome calves, ewes, pigs, goats, chickens, geese, and dogs. Caring for them, feeding them, delivering them. Watching over them, moving them, sheltering them. Bringing them to graze amid the vines. Just like in any big house, the list of jobs is endless but no day is ever quite the same.

The first cows arrived on the estate in late 2014. The château was already home to several ewes, which had been introduced following a very wet spring and a suggestion – half-joke, half-challenge – about finding an efficient solution for mowing the grass between the vines. The idea of having animals was a big hit. The cows were therefore moved onto the estate, with the obvious yet somewhat madcap plan to produce homemade manure and dung for compost and biodynamic preparations. And given the principle that “there’s nothing better for a place than what comes from that place,” the team was naturally drawn to a local breed with the help of the Conservatoire des Races d’Aquitaine, a regional heritage breeds conservancy.

BORDELAISE COWS are the local stars and the choice was made without a moment’s hesitation. These lands were their stronghold, their birthplace. In the late 19th century, they were actually the most widespread breed in the region. “They were the great milk cows feeding the city of Bordeaux, and could be found almost everywhere,” says Flora Dartiailh, project leader at the Conservatoire. They spread to the banks of the Garonne River, across the Landes, and all the way to the Dordogne. “They made the most of these hostile, unfarmable, flood-prone lands.” Yet a century later, this breed was on the brink of extinction. During the era of re-industrialization, more productive cows took over from the solid Bordelaise breed and by 1970, they were even considered extinct. The Conservatoire fought to recover around a dozen cattle from breeders in the region.

“Aside from the fact that it made sense to have them here, we are also very fond of them”
Sabrina Pernet — technical Director, Château Palmer

The Palmer teams initially welcomed three cows onto their land as part of an agreement with the Conservatoire. The early days were hardly a walk in the park. One of the first cows, Réglisse, came down with a digestive disorder a few months after arriving and had to be euthanized. A traumatic experience. But adventure is also built on hardship, and Palmer wanted to do things right. “We’re winegrowers, not animal breeders,” says Sabrina, who believes that experience is key to success. Emilie Husson, a “worker specialized in mixed farming and breeding,” was soon hired. As the granddaughter of butchers from Bordeaux, she became the château’s cowherd, the animals’ mother and guide.

The herd has grown, over the years and these stocky figures have become part of the furniture. With black legs, heads, and snouts, their unique features set them apart. The “Beyrette” varieties have white stripes along their backs, while the “Pigaillé” cows have finely speckled coats. None of them are very tall – just big enough to be spotted standing behind the rows of vines. Their rustic characters are also well suited to the teams, who like to let nature do its work. “Bordelaise cows can live outside all year round,” explains Flora Dartiailh. “They feed on grass and hay, and don’t need supplements to thrive.” Sabrina Pernet agrees: “Aside from the fact that it made sense to have them here, providing a connection to our history, we are also very fond of them. They are friendly, docile, and not at all fussy.” The Bordelaise cows have flourished on Château Palmer’s land – so much so that this stretch of Médoc vines has become a place of survival.

Today, the estate has 25 cows and 10 calves, making it one of the largest herds of Bordelaise cattle in the region. What’s more, Château Palmer can now donate some of them back to the Conservatoire to help develop the breed, which now has 525 females in the region. However, this is far more than a rescue mission. “When you arrive on a plot and there are animals on it, there is an atmosphere, an energy that moves everyone,” says Sabrina. “It creates a bond with the locals, the people in the village,” says Emilie. But “it’s more than folklore,” they add, in chorus. “What we feel, what the plants feel, all has an impact on the ecosystem.” In more practical terms, “cow dung brings micro-organisms, life,” says Sabrina. The soils are stimulated. “And there are more insects, birds, and biodiversity,” adds Emilie. The cows are now “part of the team” and part of the balance.

The original ambition, meanwhile, has not been forgotten. Château Palmer’s cows produce manure which, when mixed with crushed vine shoots and grape harvest stalks, produces a unique, homemade fertilizer. This compost is spread “across the plots that we are going to replant,” says Sabrina. “And in the planting holes when we replace dead vines.” This matter functions a lot like a leavening agent. There is no waste, only elements in nature’s great cycle. This is how biodynamic farming works, with cows simultaneously playing a technical and sacred role. This is particularly true of the famous “Preparation 500,” in which a cow’s horn is filled with dung and buried for several months in the vineyard. The unearthed contents are then mixed with water and sprayed onto the vines once a year to support and enhance both the soil and the plants.

This is how biodynamic farming works, giving cows a role as technical as it is sacred

At Château Palmer, the aim is to be self-sufficient “in compost and at the cafeteria,” as these beautiful cattle are also destined to be used as food. “Breeders generally sell their steers at four years of age,” says Emilie. “We feed them for five or six years, to fatten then up and produce high-quality meat. They are then slaughtered and eaten here.” Teddy recently joined Emilie in her breeding mission after working on the vineyard for seven years.

Wearing boots and beaming smiles, the two cowherds do their rounds and tend to these regal beasts. “I start here every morning,” says Teddy. “I go see the animals, I bring them hay. We fill the water tanks as needed. In reality, I still work in the vineyards. It’s an all-encompassing job, and an opportunity to learn more about it.” While it is true that the vines are also alive, the animals have a way of looking right into your soul. “You do form bonds with them,” says Teddy. “You develop affinities with certain animals, which isn’t always easy when the ultimate aim is to eat them. So we pamper them as much as we can.” For example, the team has made the decision not to cut the cows’ horns, a common practice elsewhere “so they don’t hurt each other” and to make breeders’ jobs easier. In the vast area reserved for them, there is a very low risk of accidents. Right until the very end, Palmer therefore chooses the path of respect for the animals’ physical integrity.

Animal welfare is part of a larger concept that encompasses respect of all living things

THE ESTATE would like to increase its compost production, but must deal with the issues of soil and space. Today, the animals have free reign across 69 acres; almost twice as much would be needed to achieve the desired autonomy. There is also talk of bringing in more poultry, horses, and perhaps animal-drawn machinery. But no one wants to “put pressure” on the land. “Life is a whole; everything is connected,” says Emilie. Here, animal welfare is part of a larger concept that encompasses respect for the vitality of all living things. Vitality with a capital “V,” the one formed by the animals’ horns stretching upwards to the gray fall sky. So that Palmer’s cows will always have the time – and space – that they need.