The Graceful Guardian

Text by Erwan Desplanques

The village

The Graceful Guardian

The village

The Graceful Guardian

More than just a symbol, the Pereire’s château is a talisman.

The Graceful Guardian

The Château recounts the history of Palmer much like the needle deciphers music from the grooves of a vinyl record. A walled complex that amplifies atmospheres and eras, set to an endlessly singular and overpowering melody.

Château Palmer first appears in the sky. Its four conical towers emerge around a bend on the renowned D2 “wine road” alongside the town of Margaux. But visitors must wait until reaching the gates of the estate to admire the full spectacle unfolding before them. The main building spans two floors, framed by imposing stone walls dotted with iconic blue shutters and a slate-clad hip roof bristling with multisided arrows. This mixed Renaissance and classical refinement is enhanced by a subtle Baroque twist.

The edifice owes its elegance to Charles Burguet, a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who worked as the head architect for the city of Bordeaux for 30 years. In 1854, having finished the construction of Château Pichon-Longueville in Pauillac, Burguet accepted a commission from the Pereire brothers. They asked him to build a Neoclassical marvel at the heart of the Palmer vineyard – a Greco-Roman palace disguised as a medieval château, complete with a triangular pediment, round arches, and doors framed with egg-shaped ornaments and arrows. On the lintel of the two corner windows, medallions decorated with vine branches and bunches of grapes still bare the intertwined initials of the previous owners, Émile et Isaac Pereire. These bankers and esteemed wine connoisseurs created the Bordeaux-Bayonne railroad and the seaside resort of Arcachon.

The Château is impressive both from a distance and close-up; a solid structure of pale stone completed the same year as the famous 1855 wine classification – as if by miracle. In the late 19th century, Alfred Danflou, who published the first comprehensive work on Bordeaux grand cru wines, compared the building to “a villa on the banks of Lake Como.” More recently, French writer Paul-Henry Bizon (Olympia, Gallimard) has spoken of “the fabulous quintas of the Portuguese town of Sintra, one of Lord Byron’s favorites. This reference is no coincidence, and highlights both the Pereire brothers’ Lusitanian heritage and the estate’s cosmopolitan personality”.

“Its elegant turrets and graceful façade make it resemble the villas on the banks of Lake Como.”
Alfred Danflou — Photographer

The property in itself is a self-contained tour of Europe and a limitless blank canvas for artists. Its walls are shrouded in magic as night falls, the chiaroscuro of Baroque motifs shining from the turrets. The vineyard rests while “Brigadoon” awakens.

At Palmer, the Château is worn like a talisman, and its place on the label is more than symbolic. It is a tangible part of daily life, structuring how the village is organized and lending meaning to the comestible landscape – both its significance and its purpose.

The neoclassical inspiration expresses itself even more within the château, where the dancing light on the entrance hall’s yellow marble tiles produces alternating shades of Médoc stone, pollen, and midday sunshine. Burguet clearly followed the guidelines on harmony taught by his mentor Hippolyte Lebas, a former resident of the Villa Medici in Rome. Inspired by the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, he placed two imposing gray marble columns in the entrance – like an invitation into an ancient myth – before expanding the view with a series of vast salons. The original furnishings were sold in 1938, but the founding architectural flair is still tangible in today’s floral upholstery and splashes of green, red, and ocher velvet, forming a charming interior bouquet reminiscent of the Napoleon III aesthetic.

Today, the stairwell is decorated with portraits of the owners, descendants of the Mälher-Besse and Sichel families. The dining room is adorned with a coffered ceiling whose panels depict scenes from La Fontaine’s fables such as The Wolf and the Lamb and The Crow and the Fox. The fireplace in the main living room is topped with a window in the style of a trumeau mirror, revealing chestnut trees and the old vines on the Plateau and the Rivière plots in the distance. Visitors can slip into the circular boudoir once used for discreet meals, stroll through the boardroom nestled under the stairs, and explore the kitchen, which has recently been renovated in keeping with the estate’s culinary ambitions.

However, the estate’s history can also be found hidden in a stone corridor connecting the château with the entrance to the “village.” This is the cellar, which is much like a crypt or a Roman ruin saved from the lightning and the rain. A bull’s-eye window offers a private glimpse of the impressive wine collection (the oldest bottle dates back to 1875). This silent pathway emerges onto an ensemble of winegrowers’ houses with olive-green shutters. This is where the men and women of Château Palmer meet daily, gently lulled by the scent of rosemary and the calls of the local geese.

After completing his masterpiece in Cantenac, Charles Burguet began work on the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, which features details such as pediments and mullion windows inspired by those at Palmer. He then swapped stone for metal to build the hothouses in the Jardin Public and the Halle des Chartrons, originally used as a covered market. Meanwhile, the château persevered in its serene majesty and Second Empire splendour, ready to take on the passing centuries. Still today, this celestial structure conjures up the best of Ancient Rome while celebrating its unshakable roots in the Médoc region.

Text by Erwan Desplanques. Photographs by Olivier Metzger