The Château Palmer grape harvest gives the impression of a gentle sprint, a controlled frenzy. Each person knows their role by their heart, making timely adjustments and reacting calmly in the face of unpredictable weather. And indeed, the expected — or rather dreaded — late-September rains lived up to the term "precipitation" in every sense of the word. These downpours kicked off the spectacle: the harvest of the 2021 vintage began three days early, on Friday, September 24, and ended in the second week of October after a marathon that proved to be more relaxed than expected. The solemn, heart-warming culmination of an intense year and a gloomy summer.
"It's a happy time for us," says Driss, a winemaker and groundskeeper on the estate. The rest of the year, we work in separate teams. The harvest is when we all come together to take part in the grand finale." Some 15 winemakers are working around him: the "cutters," red secateurs in hand, remove plump bunches of Merlot from the vines, alternating with the "porters" who, with crates harnessed to their backs, march back and forth between the vine stock and the truck. Château Palmer's permanent staff get to know the seasonal workers, including Carmen, who has travelled from the town of Gradignan with her son, or joke around with the apprentices, such as Isabella, accompanied by her dogs. Here, separating the grapes from each plot is as important as uniting those who harvest them. Fruit is divided; people are mixed together.
A few feet away, a group task is being completed by 16 refugees, including Niazi, a former taxi driver from Afghanistan who arrived in France in 2019, and Abdul, originally from Sudan. "Some of them are eager to keep working on the vines after the harvest," says Stéphanie, wearing a blue Château Palmer "Vintage 2021" T-shirt. She and Émilie are also supervising a group from the local youth career centre, comprised of young adults from 16 to 25. For many of them, this is their first professional experience. "They get off the coach on the first day as if they were arriving at a holiday camp," say the two winemakers. "Then they discover the connection with nature and the rigor of our work. Guiding them takes a lot of energy and you have to really make yourself heard, but it's a fulfilling experience. We are team leaders, canteen staff and social workers all at once!"
A little further on, in the midst of the vines, three other figures are choreographing this autumnal dance: Thomas Duroux, director of Château Palmer, Sabrina Pernet, technical director, and Oriane Heuillet, head of research and development. Every day, these pillars of the estate scour the vineyard, smelling and tasting the grapes, comparing and deciding which plots to harvest first. Number 38, for example, can wait until Saturday, while number 70's clusters of Petit Verdot must be picked as soon as possible - and "gently," insists Sabrina, relaying instructions over the phone.
After a challenging year marred by a lack of sunshine, spring frosts, and persistent mildew, the trio seems to be reassured by their mobile tasting-session. "The tannins in this plot are fantastic," says Thomas Duroux, who is predicting "wines that might just surprise us."