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s p r i n g 2 0 1 7 | 5 5 B efore mechanization, a horse was man's constant companion for work and pleasure. Before there were air-conditioned tractors to till the soil, there was a horse or teams of horses to break the earth so that fields could be planted and then kept friable. And before man fell in love with flashy motorcars, there were glistening, proud steeds to speed us to our destinations. Now, after a half-century in which almost no horses could be found pulling plows through vineyards, the horse is again returning to his domain as Pegasus of the vine rows. And this is not occurring because of man's nostalgia for times past. It is happening because many people who work the vines have concluded that horses contribute more to the well-being of a great wine's terroir than do tractors. There are several reasons. Plowing by horse is gentler on the soil than tractors, which keep getting bigger; a horse is an alternative to no-till farming where vine- yards are too steep for tractors; and horses—and occasionally oxen—fit in neatly with the trend toward organic and Biodynamic agriculture. "Working a horse is very good in many ways," says Christian Rouchier of Do- maine Rouchier in St.-Joseph in France's Rhône Valley. "First of all, it does not compact the soil [as a heavy tractor does]. Also, I am behind the horse, and the plow does not go very deep—as it does with a tractor—and that limits erosion." This trend of reintroducing animals to work the vineyards is most prominent in France. Such famous wine estates as Châteaux Latour, Pontet-Canet, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clément in Bordeaux, and M. Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet Aîne in the Rhône Valley all use horses for plowing at least parts—if not all—of their vineyards. The practice has not yet caught on in many American vineyards. At Smith Haut Lafitte, Eise Courtiade says horses are used to plow SHL's 11 hectares (27 acres) of vines used to produce white Pessac-Léognan wine. Unlike the soil in the vineyards where red grapes are grown, Courtiade says this white block has "a fragile terroir of mixed sand and gravel on a pronounced slope." After making the switch from tractors to horses a few years ago, the results were "better behavior of the soil, better texture, a nice diversity of natu- ral grasses in these soils." At Smith Haut Lafitte's neighbor, Châ- teau de Rouillac, Clio Lestable explains the typical roles for which horses are employed—to plow for weeds, to harrow, to loosen the soil and to mound up earth around vines. Rouchier says he typically works his horse four to six times a year in the vineyard, but also employs them for other farming chores, such as hauling firewood and plowing a potato patch. Lestable says Rouillac is careful to exercise its ten-year-old Percheron, Titan, year-round to keep his muscles strong. In addition to Percherons, other popular working breeds are Bretons and Boulonnaises. Plowing is slow work, and the plowman or leader has to be trained in commanding the horse and must have the strength and skills to master a variety of plows, harrows and other implements. According to Lestable, "We use commands such as 'droite' and gauche' for right and left and 'yeeeep' and 'youuuu' to stop and start." One downside of using horses is that the process is slower— fine when there is no rush but hectic when there is a short time window. And although less expensive than a tractor, horses need housing, feeding and grooming if they are kept on the estate. Find- ing a good veterinarian can be as difficult as securing a good farm mechanic. Thomas Duroux, General Manager of Château Palmer, has adopted biodynamics and many traditional farming techniques but says he's decided not to use horses for one reason. "I don't want to adopt any practice that I can't expand to all parts of the vineyard," he says, "and that is not practical for an estate as large [55 hectares or 136 acres] as Palmer." However, Duroux has intro- duced sheep into the vineyard for seasonal grazing as part of the estate's poly-agricultural philosophy. In addition to practical and economic reasons for using horses—and oxen, as Pape Clément does—in the vineyard, there are also lifestyle advantages. Em- ployees at Smith Haut Lafitte recently celebrated the birth of Diese, a young foal whose sire works the vineyards and whose dam is used there in reserve. "There is another dimension when you have animals at the estate," Courti- ade says. "The atmosphere, the feeling is different—we feel more alive!" While most estates that have switched may own one or two horses, Pontet-Canet now has seven stabled at its property in Pauillac. Other estates, rather than owning their own horses, hire local farmers who also serve as plowmen—the French call them "horse leaders." These farmers usually work for several wineries. For example, Sébastien Bouetz founded Cheval des Vignes, his contracting plowing business in Bordeaux's Fronsac region, in 2009 and now has seven horses servicing more than 15 estates. PHOTO COURTESY OF CH. PONTET-CANET PHOTO COURTESY OF DOMAINE GONON Meet Samson of Domaine Gonon, from the St.-Joseph appellation in the Northern Rhône wine region of France. A long day's work in Hermitage is complete. ■cr

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