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

The essence of the earth

Text by Vincent Remy

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The essence of the earth

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The essence of the earth

The story behind Château Palmer's vintage compost.

The essence of the earth

COWS GRAZING IN THE MEADOWS, SHEEP IN THE VINEYARDS! By reviving these old Médoc traditions at Château Palmer, the estate can now produce its own compost, using manure, mulched vine shoots and grape stalks. It’s a virtuous cycle of organic matter, to fertilise naturally an exceptional terroir.

A TRACTOR PURRS IN THE MEADOW as the first glimmers of daylight appear. Before the suffocating, late-July heat rises, the shepherd and the farmer hurry to bring in the hay, stacking the bales on the trailer and driving it to the sheep pen. Château Palmer not only has the most beautiful gravel terroirs of the Margaux appellation, but also multiple hectares of pastureland where around twenty Bordelaise cattle may be found grazing.

“We don’t have cattle for decoration, but because we decided to produce our own compost to fertilise the vines. To do so, we needed to have manure.”
Sabrina Pernet — Technical Director, Château Palmer

UNTIL THE MID TWENTIETH CENTURY, the Bordelaise, recognisable by its elegant black-spotted coat (described as pigaillé in French), was found all across the region’s rich alluvial plains and sandy coastal areas. Every large château owned its own herd to provide milk and manure for their vineyards. Threatened by agricultural standardisation, the species very nearly became extinct. Since 2013, Château Palmer has taken part in its renaissance, in collaboration with the Conservatoire des races d’Aquitaine.

“WE DON'T HAVE CATTLE FOR DECORATION, but because we decided to produce our own compost to fertilise the vines. To do so, we needed to have manure.” explains Sabrina Pernet, technical director at Château Palmer. The idea emerged around fifteen years ago. At the time, all the vine shoots left over from winter pruning would be burnt. And so arose the question of all this wasted organic matter, and carbon being released into the atmosphere, while the estate was buying in compost and fertiliser from elsewhere. “We decided to start gathering our vine shoots, to mulch and compost them, but we also needed animal matter. As we didn’t have any animals yet aside from a few sheep, we bought manure from an organic cattle farmer. And so was born our first compost pile.”

OVER THE YEARS, this project has taken on a life of its own. Not far from the château, on a plot surrounded by vines known as “Les Blés”, several windrows run across the ground in lines around fifty metres long. In one, we find the vine shoots from winter. From December to March, when the soil is sufficiently dry, a machine hitched to a tractor gathers them up and mulches them. In another we see the manure, brought over from the sheep pen and the cowshed. Further over, we notice two less imposing piles, representing the green waste collected all year long by Vincent, the château gardener, as well as the sorting waste from harvest, including grape stalks and plant debris, which the beaks of hungry birds have scattered about a bit. In a few days a power shovel will be used to mix the piles, scoop by scoop.

A GOOD YEAR REQUIRES LIGHT, EPISODIC RAIN. Because when it is over-dry, compost will mineralise, becoming ashen. To make up for a lack of rain, moderate, regular watering is needed, without which the nutritive elements will be leached away, left behind in the soil on which the compost was being prepared. Besides the size and shape of the piles and their moisture content, the age of a compost matters. Young compost, matured for three months, will have higher concentrations of nutritive elements – notably nitrogen compounds that encourage plant growth – compared to compost that is a year old, which will improve soil structure. At Château Palmer relatively old composts are preferred, because the soils of the Médoc are composed of sandy gravel, are poor in clay and contain relatively little organic matter.

“Compost is like wine, there are good vintages. It all depends on the temperature and precipitation.”
Sabrina Pernet — Technical Director, Château Palmer

The compost is analysed before it’s decided how and where it will be used in the vine parcels. The young compost is reserved for co-planted vines and parcels of freshly planted vines – it will give the vine a boost, helping its growth when it’s just starting out. “The vine does not need much input of organic matter, which is why we only add the compost at the beginning, and then every three to five years, depending on the case,” says Sabrina. “Our intention is to add not only matter, but also energy, structure and micro-organisms. Which is also why it’s important to us that the compost originates from raw materials taken from the Palmer terroir.”

THANKS TO COMPOST AND THE NATURAL GRASSING BETWEEN THE VINES, the colour and the aroma of the estate’s soils have changed. Analyses show that the percentage of organic matter in the soil has doubled, and grass is growing now where it had never grown before. “When we pick up a clump of soil,” explains Sabrina, “we realise that the structure is crumbly and holds together. Before, when we’d dig into the earth after a rain, it was often like cement. Today it crumbles like flour...”

CHÂTEAU PALMER’S SHEPHERDESS, ÉMILIE, grazes her sheep across most of the estate’s plots from the end of the harvest through to April. “I love this time when we receive the ewes in late November. A breeder in the Médoc region entrusts us with a hundred or so each winter, on top of the ones living on the estate year-round. When I started working at Château Palmer, we only had three cows and barely 20 ewes. We were the laughing stock of the village! Today, we have 26 cows and occasionally welcome up to 200 ewes, along with pigs, goats, and even a couple of geese! The wine profession is now sitting up and taking notice, even though this approach was seen as pure fantasy just five years ago. Our aim is to be fully self-sufficient in compost. What’s more, the animals are invaluable for working the land. The ewes mow the grass, the geese scratch up the soil, the hens eat the ticks, and so on. The sheepfold is finally helping to build our future food landscape.”

AS IF IT WASN’T ENOUGH THAT THE SHEEP GRAZE and maintain perfectly trimmed grass in the vineyard, they also increase the soil fertility. A quality compost gives life to the soil, which allows us to develop a diversity of vegetation, kept in check by the sheep, who through their droppings simultaneously transmit a host of micro-organisms. Clearly, the idea of using compost made on the property has nothing to do with prestige. "As vignerons, our role is not to feed our plants, but to ensure that the soil is alive and well structured, which in turn will provide everything the plant needs to develop properly. Yet nothing is better suited to sustaining a terroir than what comes from it! To bring compost or other elements here from the other side of France does not tally with the notion of an estate as an autonomous entity," says Sabrina Pernet. She likes to recall the guiding ambition of Thomas Duroux: “To put a place in a glass.” Compost is no more than a means by which to do that, just one key to Château Palmer’s success; but one that provides a fascinating window into a virtuous cycle of living matter.

“As vignerons, our role is not to feed our plants, but to ensure that the soil is alive”
Sabrina Pernet —Technical Director, Château Palmer

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