A vineyard under influence

Interview by Erwan Desplanques

The village

A vineyard under influence

The village

A vineyard under influence

Vines are not solitary passengers, but part of a greater whole.

A vineyard under influence

HER ESSENTIAL INTUITIONS about biodynamic winegrowing and her sensitivity to the living world have transformed the estate through initiatives such as planting fruit trees and hedges, experimenting with green fertilizer, and introducing animals. Sabrina Pernet, Technical Director of Château Palmer, champions a holistic approach to winemaking and nurtures each plot as if it were a precious garden.

“Vines are not solitary passengers, but part of a greater whole that must be cared for.”
Sabrina Pernet — Technical Director, Château Palmer

Château Palmer : When did your passion for biodiversity and permaculture really take root?

Sabrina Pernet :
It is a natural reflex when you dive into the deepest corners of the land and begin to understand how this unique plant works. At my parents’ house, for example, in Le Perche in Normandy, there was a vegetable garden and a chicken coop. I was lucky enough to grow up eating fruit and vegetables from the garden every day. My parents never used the words “market gardening” or “organic production,” but they knew how to listen to and work with the land.
When I started at college, I had my first meal at the student cafeteria. I remember it was a spinach gratin. This was one of my favorite recipes – at least the one my mother cooked was! By comparison, the one I was served was inedible. The difference was unbelievable. How could such different dishes, fruits, or vegetables share the same name?
When Thomas Duroux hired me to work with him on improving the quality of the estate’s wine, my first instinct was to say: Can you see all the vines there, in front of us? We’re going to work with them as if they were a vast garden. We’ll make the grapes grow like my parents’ fruit and vegetables, and the quality will come through.
I then visited the permaculture pioneers at the Bec Hellouin farm and we invited botanist Gilles Clément to visit the estate. He was the person who introduced me to “biomimetics”, the idea that each action should mimic the plant’s movement as faithfully as possible.

Château Palmer :
Before you started, you carried out a major study into the local terroir. How essential was this intricate mapping phase?

Sabrina Pernet : Our priority was to improve our knowledge of the soil and adapt our working methods to each specific plot. The terroir’s profile was too vague, so we developed a “resistivity” map in 2007, sending an electric current directly into the earth to measure the water content of each plot. This enabled us to precisely identify the soil structure and establish intra-plot borders.
We then drew up a vigor map of the vines, recording the water and nitrogen supply in order to regulate climatic constraints and adapt our actions. In their natural state, vines are creepers that grow up trees and produce very few grapes. A certain amount of constraint is needed to keep it alert and encourage it to focus on reproduction and therefore the quality of its berries.
Based on this in-depth knowledge of the soil, we were able to adapt the ground cover and provide the vines with the exact amount of water and nitrogen they needed to reach their full potential.

Château Palmer : Was biodynamic agriculture a natural next step??

Sabrina Pernet : At the time, a scandal had erupted over pesticide residues in wines, including in some of the grands crus classés. We urgently had to try something else, to start a virtuous cycle with the vine at its center. We experimented with biodynamics on an initial hectare in the Boulibranne plot in 2009. We studied micro-vinification and organized blind tastings. The wines retained their identity, which was enough for Thomas Duroux. He then took the initiative and pitched the total conversion of Château Palmer in 2014. The owners approved, and we started the transformation.
Of course, we are all aware that this sort of winemaking carries a certain amount of risk. In 2018, mildew caused us to lose a significant part of the harvest. But as luck would have it, that year we created a truly extraordinary, legendary wine. Today, 2018 is a vintage that is almost impossible to find, which helped to grow our reputation. We have kept our promise.

Château Palmer : Has the more esoteric aspect of biodynamic agriculture always been well received?

Sabrina Pernet : We have never had a “religious” approach to biodynamics. We are rational, scientists first and foremost. We experiment and then observe the results. We quickly saw how our working method benefitted the wine’s finesse and the vine’s resilience. Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course did not go into great detail on the subject, but many of his intuitions have since been confirmed by science, including the amazing quality of compost extracted from cow dung buried in horns. The same goes for the influence of the moon, which even the most logical minds can understand.
I often use Steiner’s compass metaphor. If you are trying to understand why it points north, there is no point in dismantling the mechanism to examine the needle, the springs, the base, the screws… It is only by taking a step back that you will learn how the magnetic pole influences the needle. The plant world works in the same way. You have to analyze vine stock very closely, including the stem, the leaves, and the roots, but you will never understand why it produces such great wine if you do not look around. You have to consider other living species, the essential role of the river flowing alongside the estate, the structure and sun exposure of the soil, and the importance of the climate, the lunar calendar, and any cosmic influences. Vines are not solitary passengers, but part of a greater whole that must be cared for.

Château Palmer : Is “holistic” winemaking founded on working within an overall landscape instead of simply focusing on grapes?

Sabrina Pernet :
We need to think in terms of biodiversity, of virtuous synergies between animals, plants, and humans. As Thomas Duroux says, our mission is to put a place in a glass. So, yes, we must think about this place in aesthetic, technical, philosophical, and nourishing terms.
However, the quality of the wine is what matters the most. We did not plant a thousand trees in the vineyard in order to grow a forest, but rather because we know that the vine is a social plant that needs to weave a network of connections with other species. It creates aerial and underground inter-root links with a complex system of exchange and solidarity.
For example, we know that trees regulate soil temperatures, cushioning hot and cold spells while acting as extraordinary natural water pumps. They also lend the landscape its structure, attract bats to deal with pests such as “grape worms”, eudemis and cochylis moths, and provide fruit for the château and the future winegrowers’ cafeteria.
Meanwhile, we have planted hedges of hazel, hawthorn, and sloe bushes, along with herbs that we use to treat the vines, such as thyme, rosemary, sage, and savory. There is also a crop of fava beans, a magical legume that fixes nitrogen from the air, stores it in its roots, and then passes it on to the vines. This is the core concept behind green manuring: we roll this fava bean coverage along the rows of vines, creating a sort of mulch that encourages organic life to develop in the soil.

Château Palmer :
Animals are natural partners in this system. Can you tell us more?

Sabrina Pernet : We want to become self-sufficient in compost. Our cows produce manure in the barn, 200 sheep graze in the vineyards, and goats take care of the undergrowth on the Boston plot. We also have pigs, chickens, and geese, just like on a farm! But as I said, our goal is not to artificially create a pretty setting. Everything must be thought through in order to convey a deep meaning. Instead of sourcing Irish cows, we brought in an ancient Bordelaise breed. There were only about fifty left in 1982, but Château Palmer is now France’s largest owner of Bordelaise cows! Our pigs are from Gascony, our ewes from the Landes region, and our goats come from the Pyrenees.
The next step is to bring in horses to work the soil among the younger vines. This is an enormous project, but I have a lot of faith in it. The plan is to use electric tractors for treating the vines with copper solutions and herbal teas, and animal traction for soil care.

“Our goal is not to artificially create a pretty setting. Everything must be thought through in order to convey a deep meaning.”
Sabrina Pernet — Technical director, Château Palmer

Château Palmer : Does this holistic approach make the winemaking vocation more complicated?

Sabrina Pernet : Eventually, it could mean that we work less directly with the vines, but this is a long-term investment. Today, there are 23 winegrowers, compared with 15 when I first arrived. We have become more precise and efficient. Ten years ago, there were just two tractor operators, and it took them three days to cover the whole estate. Now, our seven tractor operators can get through all the plots in six hours. The farmer looks after the livestock and the compost; the gardener tends the fruit trees; and the vegetable gardener develops herbal teas. Everyone plays a role in this fertile, circular system. Palmer’s estate has been transformed. Most of our winemakers arrived in a sea of vines, and now they work in a lush garden. Of course, this requires constant attention. We have all developed an emotional relationship with the vineyard. In June, a simple rain shower is enough to wake me up at night, but that’s the price you pay for championing such a remarkable terroir and ambitious winemaking. And you enjoy the results of this hard work with each new vintage.