The decisive moment

Text by Pauline Boyer


The decisive moment


The decisive moment

Triggering a grape harvest is no exact science.

The decisive moment

Early September.They move silently forward, in a line, each positioned according to rank. Sabrina Pernet, the technical director of Château Palmer, is joined by the vineyard’s eyes and ears, standing in an order guided by a secret hierarchy and imposed by years of experience. Vineyard manager Alba, her assistant Arnaud, and Federico, the R&D vineyard assistant. Their hands brush against the branches, and seemingly at random, with a single glance, they pick a berry. In a delicate, mechanical movement, they bring it to their mouths while time stops on the tongue. “It’s fleshy, aromatically balanced. This is going to be good…

The scene is underpinned as much by confidence as it is by doubt. Alba adjusts a branch as she walks past, carefully observing every detail. Arnaud clears a piece of wood from the entrance to one of the rows. In a few days, a few hours, when the waves of grape-pickers flood through the vines, every tiny act, every gesture, will have made a difference.

SUMMER HAS DONE ITS WORK,the grapes are filled to bursting with sunlight, the leaves vibrating in the September breeze. Something has played out in the secrecy of the heavens. Every walk through the vines, every berry tasted, every hour of sunshine now plays its part in the difficult process of the final decision. It will be as radical as it is obvious; as fragile as it is crucial. Tomorrow, Château Palmer will begin the harvest.

“The aim is to be there at the right time to draw out the essence of a terroir, of a vintage.”
Thomas Duroux — director, Château Palmer

In late august, a heat wave turned the bottoms of the leaves yellow. Within a week, the vineyard had transformed. A tasting of the vines confirms the approach to take: the harvest must start, sooner than expected. “The weather makes us change our minds every three hours. Setting a date is complicated, because not everyone agrees,” says Alba with a smile. “But that’s what makes our team work so well. ” In the end, director Thomas Duroux and Sabrina make the final call. On what grounds? Impossible to say. Knowing when to start the harvest is an indefinable combination of concentrated intuition, experience, and analytical data. We will never know the precise recipe, proportions, or amounts, because they don’t exist.

“This choice is the result of technical and sensitive interpretation combined with logistics,” says Thomas Duroux. “This point has become a constraint; we have less flexibility than before because it is harder to find pickers. The sensitive aspect is based on knowledge of the area, and is developed year after year. It implies trying to understand the kinetics of an environment as a whole. It comes down to observation, vine height, but also imagination. The aim is to be there at the right time to draw out the essence of a terroir, of a vintage.”

The success of a harvest depends on how it is prepared. In the weeks leading up to it, the vineyard hums with a flurry of different tasks. Everyone plays their part, making their own individual contribution. The work includes redefining the paths with the tractor, setting up the sorting line, and ensuring that each part of the process is working properly; preparing the lunch tables, checking the pickers’ equipment; filling time with useful gestures. And taking care of the vines, ad infinitum, right down to the last leaf. We do one last check of the vineyard to pick up any branches lying about and to make sure no vines are broken during the harvest," says Alba. It can be a little chaotic at Palmer, as some of the branches are 10 feet long! We mustn’t damage them, because they help to conserve the plant’s resources, and we want them to be preserved in their entirety.

Over the last few days, Federico has been monitoring each plot, tasting and recording the different areas based on their ripeness. He also counts the number of bunches on each vine, predicting shift times and the quantities of grapes that will arrive at the sorting table. This decisive vineyard census ensures the whole operation is properly orchestrated. Tastings in the vineyard will continue every day throughout the harvest, striving to better anticipate the following morning while getting the plots “ready” for their big day. An intricate symphony, tailored to every passing hour.

“If everyone plays their part, then it works in total harmony. After that, the weather decides how things go”
Sabrina Pernet — Technical Director

Dyas of harvest. The rain comes, as if to make us forget the heat leading up to this exciting venture. The vines are getting lighter; the crates bursting with grapes. The vintage is defined by abundance, similar to 2019. The deft movements are perfectly integrated, the ballet mastered, the fruits of centuries-old heritage. One hundred and twenty-five pickers lead the dance, with the white plots serving as the final rehearsal.

For Sabrina, the commitment of all the teams guarantees a smooth harvest. “The permanent staff work hard to get the seasonal teams in sync. If everyone is on point, if everyone plays their part, completes their part of the process, then everyone works in total harmony. After that, the weather decides how things go.” Case in point, the weather has prompted Palmer’s teams to draft a large number of seasonal workers. Everyone has to “move fast,” harvesting the Merlot plots in just a few days before turning to the Cabernets. Alba wanders from plot to plot, “checking that nothing has been forgotten, that no bunches of grapes have been left on the ground, that no branches have been cut off. Sometimes we have to sort the grapes in the vineyard, but this year, we’re picking everything because the grapes are so beautiful.” She observes, coordinates, guides.

“We have a strength; we may be filled with doubt, but when we decide, we stick to it”
Thomas Duroux — director, Château Palmer

On plot N°47, Stéphanie and Driss, both winemakers at Palmer, are exceptionally observant. Nothing escapes them – a crate carried the wrong way, a picker changing pace, a truck returning to the vineyard late. “It’s a mix of excitement and stress,” says Stéphanie, whose broad grin is hardly dampened by the downpour. “We work all year for this,” says Driss, content, a man of few words. A few miles away, the village hive is in a frenzy as crates arrive in an unbroken flow. Everything is weighed, counted, and recorded so that each plot can be traced. Arnaud is on the lookout, ensuring that everything runs smoothly from the grapes arriving to being sent to the vats. He speaks of “culmination” and “a moment of truth.” His eyes fill with the gleam of poetic satisfaction.

Meanwhile, in the vat room, another moment of truth has brought the team together. This is the technical tasting of the very first jus, when the next steps of the harvest are decided. The atmosphere is solemn, silent. “We’re going to see which plots are the priority, the ones that must be put into the vats immediately,” whispers Alba. The harvest start date is still the subject of lively debate. Was it too soon, or too late? Was this question, more obsession than decision, even the right one? Doubt, it seems, is a form of elegance among the greats.At Palmer, each person upholds a certain perfectionism, stretching out towards excellence. “We have a strength; we may be filled with doubt, but when we decide, we stick to it,” says Thomas. “It’s not arrogance, it’s experience – and a lot of collective spirit.”

Tomorrow, it might be sunny. Or perhaps it will rain. At dawn, Sabrina, Thomas, and Federico will walk through the vines to taste some of the grapes. Trusting the vineyard’s memory is how they perceive the future vintage. With the feeling that the most intense – and the most joyful – moments of the year are being played out at that very moment. Harvests both unique and immutable.

“This vineyard is our playground, our garden. And we are its guardians.”
Alba Sanchez — Vineyard manager