Anyone who has ever visited the Médoc region has inevitably admired the elegant Château Palmer in Margaux, named after British Major-General Charles Palmer. But when he talked the young heiress to the winery into giving it to him on a carriage ride to Paris in 1814, there was only a collection of small – now tastefully restored – workers’ houses. Bankers Émile and Isaac Pereire bought the estate in 1853 and made it more attractive by adding the pretty château.
While the long-standing reputation of Palmer as one of the best grands crus is thanks to the Mähler-Besse and Sichel families, the company’s wines have entered a new dimension. You can see it in the vineyards, which are full of life. A green carpet grows between the vines, made up of an abundance of grasses, herbs and other plants, and hedges and fruit trees sprout around the edge. The air is filled with the chirping of birds. Palmer is in the process of becoming a living organism.
It all started in 2007, when General Director Thomas Duroux and Technical Director Sabrina Pernet decided to stop using chemical products in the vineyards, for the health of employees and customers and also to pass on a living terroir to future generations. In 2008, they began experimenting with biodynamics on one hectare. When the Bordeaux region had a particularly difficult year in 2013, half the estate had already been converted. However, as these plots withstood the bad weather the best, the big step was taken in 2014 to expand biodynamic cultivation to the whole vineyard.
The wizards of Pauillac
As much as Jean-Michel Comme at Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac is happy with the 2019 vintage, which combines good quantities with superb quality, he was deeply troubled by the fact that he lost two thirds of the normal harvest in 2018. He categorically rejects the opinion that if you work organically or biodynamically, you have to accept losing a harvest every now and then. "We’ve been working biodynamically for over fifteen years now," he explains. "We had a problem in 2007. We tried to understand it at the time so that it would never be repeated. After ten years, you say to yourself that nothing bad can happen to you any more. But in the eleventh year, nature gives you a big slap in the face." It was also a lesson for him to go further, as each year is a new challenge. He has realised that, “Biodynamics is not universal, because it depends on the local climate.” On the other hand, Rudolf Steiner’s thinking is universal and an inexhaustible source of inspiration for him.
The pioneers on the right bank
As the daughter of François Bouchet, Véronique Cochran grew up with biodynamics. Her father started cultivating the family estate at Saumur biodynamically back in 1962, becoming a pioneer of the technique in French winegrowing. When John and Véronique Cochran bought the beautiful Château Falfas in Côtes de Bourg in 1988 – built in 1612 – they immediately converted it. "You have to trust in life and accept that there will be vintages that produce a smaller amount than others... years that are less excellent than others," she says. "But with biodynamics, you have an answer that goes beyond the climatic extremes, namely always a fruit that speaks, that is alive." It brings minerality, an imprint of the location, balance, harmony and freshness to the wines.
Located directly above the Dordogne are the four hectares of Château La Grave near Fronsac, which Paul Barre began cultivating in 1974. He managed to acquire the three hectares of Château La Fleur Caillou, higher up the slope, in 1982. Having watched nature closely and scrutinised every gesture, he came across biodynamics in 1990. It became his life, his vineyards the Eldorado of his tireless research, producing wines full of life and energy. In 2016, Paul passed responsibility on to his son Gabriel and daughter-in-law Edith, who are following the path laid out for them with their own understanding. "The distinctive feature of our estate is that we assemble the wines in the vineyard," says Gabriel Barre. “We have planted eight rows of Merlot, two rows of Cabernet Franc and here and there is a Malbec hidden in amongst them. We want what we put in the bottle to be the expression of a vintage and a terroir," he notes, "and for the wines to be good."
Château Fonroque in Saint-Emilion has a gleaming new look – exquisitely restored on the outside, stylishly modernised on the inside. Alain Moueix had to sell the estate in 2017 to pay off family members and the new owners, the Guillard family, were not only willing to continue investing, but insisted that he continue to run Fonroque according to the same philosophy. Alain – "the only person in Bordeaux called Moueix who is not a wine merchant" – took over responsibility for the estate of 17 hectares of vines in 2001. With his right-hand man Laurent Nougaro, he gathered information from biodynamic winegrowers in Alsace and Burgundy, including from Anne-Claude Leflaives Montrachet. By 2004, Fonroque had been converted to biodynamics. It was followed by Château Mazeyres in Pomerol, which Moueix has been in charge of since 1992.
"The influence of biodynamics on the life and structure of the soil is undeniable,” he says. Previous problems with erosion immediately disappeared. In addition, the vines found a natural balance in terms of yield, making green harvesting unnecessary. "The difference in the wines is clear: the finesse of the tannins, the crystalline side, the verticality." Even in years with lots of sun, they would always keep a fresher and longer finish. "If you sit in a chair with the wine and taste it again and again over the course of an hour, a lot of different things happen. It goes from flowers to fruits to spices, then it becomes mineral. These are wines that tell stories."
Awareness is growing
Over the years, a number of other winemakers have turned to biodynamics , including Château La Grolet and Château Fougas in Côtes de Bourg, Château Combaude Guillot in Pomerol, Château Maison Blanche in Montagne Saint-Emilion and Clos Puy Arnaud in Côtes du Castillon. Patricia Aroldi grew up at Castillon in a family that had been using organic methods since 1970. When she began assisting her father at Château des Rochers, she received his full support to pursue biodynamic cultivation in 2003. The Amoreau family has lived at Château Le Puy in nearby Saint-Cibard since 1610. In 1990, Jean Pierre and Pascal Amoreau began using biodynamics and vinification without sulphur. Their wines have enormous ageing potential and are appreciated by connoisseurs around the world. Alain Tourenne has expanded Château Beynat in Saint-Magne-de-Castillon in the past twelve years from 7.5 to 25 hectares and switched to biodynamic cultivation in 2016.
Château Couronneau, right on the border between the Gironde and Bergeracois, is part of the AOP Sainte-Foy Côtes de Bordeaux and almost half of its 100 hectares are planted with vines. "This château was built at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, when we were still English here and fought the French on the other side of the Dordogne," jokes Christophe Piat. He and his wife Bénédicte bought a ruin in 1994, rebuilt it, planted vines and became winemakers. When a plot of white wine produced barely any grapes, their vineyard manager introduced biodynamic methods. The switch was made starting in 2009, followed by Demeter certification. Since 2017, they have been making more and more wines without sulphur.
There is also a lot going on in terms of biodynamics on the left side of the Gironde, and not just at Pontet-Canet and Palmer. Claire Villars-Lurton is working hard to make her Châteaux Ferrière, La Gurgue and Haut-Bages-Libéral biodynamic. In Sauternes, Bérenice Lurton at Château Climens, with advice from Corinne Comme, demonstrates how much finesse sweet wines can achieve using the technique. Château Guiraud is working towards it cautiously. In the AOP Pessac-Léognan, half of the approximately 80 hectares of vines are already cultivated biodynamically at Château Smith Haut-Lafitte. Estate manager Fabien Teitgen likes to point out the medicinal plants he has planted for the vineyards and his dynamisers. He is now increasing the biodiversity with hedges, herbs and other plants. "I am convinced that there is an exchange between plants and animals," he says. "When vines go back to being surrounded by life, they do better."
More and more winegrowers in Bordeaux are becoming aware that with biodynamics they can not only bring life back to their vineyards, but also to their wines, a characteristic that more wine lovers are increasingly coming to appreciate.
A longer version of this article first appeared in Weinwelt magazine, published by Meininger Verlag. It has been translated from the German.