Chateau Le Payral – The embarrassing luxury of experience

The most important thing to know about my wines now is that all our work is in the vineyards!” This was the beginning of my afternoon visiting with Thierry D’Auhliac on a recent February afternoon. As we headed out of his house towards his backyard and surrounding vineyards, Thierry began to explain that his whole focus presently was in the vineyards, the soil, the building of life, vitality, and diversity.

Thierry, a true Bergeraçois, is the seventh generation to farm this land, and proud to remind me that 2016 had marked his twentieth harvest. What made this afternoon all the more memorable was that it was all outdoors. We spent the whole afternoon climbing in and out of his van, from plot to plot. Here the best for Sauvignon Gris, that one best for Merlot, and still another couple sites that were best suited for his youngest vines, Malbec. We passed some beautifully slopped rows, each in various stages of winter’s pruning. We even passed an old tractor that his father, long-retired but unable to stop working, had stranded at the base of one vineyard, and Thierry sort of holding back a laugh at the site of the machine lodged between two huge limbs.

The photo above is a larger plot planted to Merlot and Cabernet Franc

Thierry began his tenure at Chateau Le Payral with a focus in the cellar, but began to realize that his soils had real variation and some varietals might be better suited on different soils, so began the long process of replanting some varieties. This proved to be a huge help in the cellar, and he witnessed the difference in the wines, reds with better ripeness and polish, and whites with more acidity. And while he has been certified organic since 2006, and farming biodynamically for years now, his current focus is on the soil, building the topsoil and hummus and trying to avoid too much compaction.

Thierry is a tinkerer, and sort of engineer at heart. He has taken the time and effort to develop his own blend of cover crops, which he sows in alternating rows, leaving the natural grasses in the alternate rows. This blend of seeds is even grown and propagated on his farm, so he doesn’t have to buy seeds, also ensuring that each plant type is adapted to his soil and microclimate. More importantly, Thierry has developed an incorporation method that he believes is better than the typical turn-over. He doesn’t mow, just makes a low pass with his tractor, a hotrod version, that pushes the growth down, flattening the whole mass, yet still keeps all the vegetation in the row, beginning the natural breakdown process. This custom-fitted the tractor with side and rear attachments enables him to do multiple actions all with one pass of each row, reducing the further reducing soil compaction.

At the end of our afternoon, Thierry went into a barn returning with a shovel, I was sure he was ready to get to work. Instead, he headed to a nearby parcel of vines and began digging, turning over a few shovels of soil. Proudly he asked me to regard the different clear layers of soil, different colors, the rich layer going many inches down. And he picked out all the worms, proudly proclaiming that even in winter his soils were alive.

After all the years, Thierry still enjoys spending time in his vines. The hard work and technique in the cellar is all behind him now. Now, its his work in the vineyards that has enabled him to achieve even better results in the cellar, lowering sulfur levels, and beginning with better, healthier grapes. He is planting a new parcel of vines across the road from his house, for many years it had been rented to graze cattle without knowing the soils were so well suited for grapes. And so he is beginning again his regimen of cover crops. This example is emblematic of Thierry’s work and mission.

It was refreshing to visit Thierry and sense his passion and confidence in where he has come from, 20 years of hard work and diligence, and what lies ahead, moving from strength to strength.

The photo below is of the new parcel, which will begin to be planted this season.