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The cellar alchemist

Text by Vincent Remy

The village

The cellar alchemist

The village

The cellar alchemist

Olivier Campadieu is the master of a miraculous transmutation.

The cellar alchemist

Banyuls-sur-Mer, on the southernmost coast of the Gulf of Lion, between the mountains and the sea, just across the border from Spain… it was here, around the eighth century BC, that Greek mariners from Corinth first planted grapevines. And it’s here that Olivier Campadieu, cellar master of Château Palmer since 2009, spent his childhood.

“In Banyuls, you saw a lot of dual professions; most often people were both fishermen and wine makers.”
Olivier Campadieu — Cellar Master, Château Palmer

Back in the days, in the living room of his family home, there was a mysterious wooden door, hidden by a curtain. As a young child, Olivier would sometimes hear noises from behind this door and back away in fear. “As soon as I understood what was happening on the other side, everything changed.” He discovered a large, dark room filled with cement vats, two dug into the ground and two above it, and two old wooden vertical presses. Every September, grapes were brought here from the four family plots – less than a hectare of Grenache and Carignan scattered about the village. The boy loved the smell of the wine cellar, its coolness, and working there as a family.

For the Campadieus, wine is a family affair. Olivier’s grandfather was technical director for Cellier des Templiers, a union of Banyuls wine producers spanning Banyuls, Collioure, Port-Vendres and Cerbère. While an employee of the co-operative, he also made his own wine. “In Banyuls, you saw a lot of dual professions; most often people were both fishermen and wine makers.” From a young age, Olivier’s favourite time of the year became the harvest, and his greatest pleasure was being in the back of the old family pick-up truck heading home with a pile of freshly picked grapes, the Mediterranean glistening on the horizon.

To those who ask what the profession of a cellar master consists of, Olivier responds simply, in his lovely, earthy, accent from the foothills of the Pyrénées: “Give me a bunch of grapes, and two years later I’ll give you a bottle of wine.” Easier said than done.

“Give me a bunch of grapes, and two years later i’ll give you a bottle of wine.”
Olivier Campadieu — Cella Master, Château Palmer

The creation of a wine begins from the moment the harvest arrives. As soon as the cagettes filled with grapes reach the threshold of the winery, the grapes of each individual parcel are attributed to a different vat. When the alcoholic fermentation has concluded, the wine is transferred to barrels, still separated by parcel. Thus begins the malolactic fermentation, which will last from two days to a month. Next comes blending. “Every day, all of this juice, representing the various vine parcels, is tasted to define the new Palmer, and the new Alter Ego.” A large core of vines, surrounding the château, goes into Palmer. Two other blocks will make Alter Ego. But beyond that it’s more complicated, because a third portion, representing around 30 per cent of the total vineyards, can go into the creation of either of the two wines, depending on the nature of the vintage. At Palmer, these tastings are thus decisive moments, endlessly repeated. “We separate everything into three lots, Palmer, Alter Ego and undecided. We do a trial blend of the Palmer lot and then test adding wine from each of the other lots, to see whether it adds something or takes away.”

Beforehand, each of the forty vats will have been tasted daily since the beginning of alcoholic fermentation, not to assess if the juice is good or not, but to respond to certain questions: are the tannins being extracted smooth, hard, or bitter? Should we further extract, that is to say pump over the must in the vat, or not? “Pumping over will give additional colour, tannins and structure. In 2015, a great vintage, for certain vats we were obliged to slow or stop extraction rather early on. In 2016 we continued pumping over until the end of the fermentation, because the juice continued to be smooth, with any bitter edge. Every year is different.”

Once in barrels, the wine is tasted anew. But no longer on a daily basis. The wine marc left in the vats is pressed, yielding the press wine, a certain percentage of which may be added during the blending period. But first comes the barrel ageing: twenty-two months during which the wine must be monitored but also clarified, the clear wine separated from its lees every three months by transferring it from one barrel to another. This process will naturally oxygenate the wine. Next comes fining, involving the addition of fresh egg whites which bind with fine suspended particles, allowing them to be separated from the wine. Finally, there’s one last return to the vats for blending.

At every stage in this complex process comes the question of sulphur. When Olivier arrived at Château Palmer, trials in organic viticulture had already begun. Three years later the initiative to reduce the use of sulphur came into play. “It was an essential challenge to take on. We can’t do without sulphur, which is an antioxidant and an antiseptic, but in some cases it’s added unnecessarily.” After several experiments, the entire 2014 harvest went into vat to be vinified without sulphur. “Since that day, the wine no longer encounters any sulphur until after the malolactic fermentation. Beyond that, whether it’s during barrel ageing or at the moment of blending, we try to use the absolute minimum.”

“The wine no longer encounters any sulphur until after the malolactic fermentation.”
Olivier Campadieur — Cellar Master, Château Palmer

For the layperson who enters into this splendid wood-beamed cathedral with its gigantic steel vats, or into the great hall where thousands of oak casks lie – an veritable ocean of barrels in perfect alignment – at first everything appears to be a wash of undifferentiated order. Untrue, in fact. “From the beginning, every vat corresponds to a different vineyard parcel. If there are not markings on the vats, it’s simply because we use a tracking system. The person in charge of receiving the harvest makes sure that the grapes from each parcel are sent to the right vat, while recording all the data about the production. For my part, I manage the digital tracking of all future interventions for each of these vats.”

Yet another form of marking is done manually, using chalk, when the wine is moved to barrels. This ocean of seemingly identical barrels is actually rippled by waves: parcel 3, for example, which underwent its alcoholic fermentation in vat 1, occupies a precise lot of barrels. On the first and the last barrel of this lot arrows have been drawn, each pointing towards the other to indicate that the lot is comprised within this space. On the face of each barrel is a cross, etched in chalk, creating four separate spaces: in the upper left we find the initial of the last operation; E for entonnage or barrel-filling, S for soutirage or racking, S/C for soutirage-collage or racking and fining, LC for levée de colle or post-fining racking. In the upper right is the day of the operation; underneath, from left to right, the month and the year. On the other side of the barrel is inscribed the name of the wine and the number of its vat of origin. These inscriptions in chalk, done by the person in charge of the operation, are crucial for Olivier, ensuring that the right barrels are sent to the right vats at blending time. Thus the traditional word game, rather esoteric for the uninitiated, lives on in this universe of increasingly sophisticated technology. “The famous cross with its four spaces is something I’ve always known, and frankly I can’t imagine why we’d ever change it.”

When we left olivier in the midst
of his forest of barrels – along with 30-hectoliter foudres for aging the wine in its second year of maturation – we got the feeling that the cellar will always be the setting for a special kind of magic. And that, for a child of the XXIst century or beyond who might sneak into this cathedral one day, these curious crosses traced on the barrels will always represent a mystery as captivating as that of the curtain in Banyuls, which once concealed the doorway to the Campadieu cellar…