Draught wines: French vineyards rediscover the power of horses

It’s early morning and the air vibrates with the sound of birds and frogs at the L’Affût wine estate in Sologne, north-central France. Draught horses Urbanie and Bambi are slowly working their way between rows of vines. Carefully guided by their owner, Jean-Pierre Dupont, and his son, they each pull a cultivator that drags up grass growing between the grapevines.

Several times a year, Urbanie and Bambi can be seen working at L’Affût, often to the surprise of passersby: working horses can be deemed obsolete, relics of a time before the mid-20th century’s mechanisation of farming.

The vineyard’s owner, Isabelle Pangault, acquired her estate in 2018 and did not set out to work with horses. It was only as she learned more about her land that the idea took shape. “It became quite obvious when I looked at one plot, that I wanted to use horses,” she says.

That plot is home to vines planted in 1894, sinuous plants that could easily be damaged by a tractor while weeding. Pangault hadn’t often seen draught horses in vineyards but knew they enable a more precise approach; research helped her to find Urbanie and Bambi.

Pangault is one of at least 300 winegrowers across mainland France and Corsica using draught horses identified during a recent study, Equivigne.

The study was carried out by the French Horse and Riding Institute (IFCE), in partnership with the French Wine and Vine Institute (IFV), and its results were presented last month at a conference on draught horses in viticulture.

Clémence Bénézet, who co-authored the study, has researched the working horse industry for the past decade. “Draught horse professionals, in viticulture in particular, were economically successful and witnessed a demand greater than the supply due to a lack of service providers,” she says of research she carried out in 2017. “There was therefore potential for this sector to develop.”

Equivigne sought to gain a better understanding of the recent re-emergence of working horses in viticulture. It found that technical problems such as terrain (or in Pangault’s case, old vines) was one reason to use horses, but soil health was the leading factor. Horses offer an alternative to chemical herbicides and compact the soil less than a tractor.

For this reason, Pangault now plans to use horses on a plot with newly planted grapevines. “The objective is to avoid compacting the soil from the beginning of the life of the plot,” she explains. This will lead to better soil structure and, consequently, healthier plants.

During last year’s harvest, Pangault hired Urbanie to pull a container ahead of grape-pickers. Although not a cheap option, she chose it to spare the grape-pickers being exposed to the fumes and noise of a tractor.

Her decision paid off in ways she had not anticipated. “I cried when I saw it. The atmosphere was completely different when the horse was there: people were laughing, they were working at the same rhythm as one another. Horses really have this magical power,” she says.

Pangault is in the process of converting her estate to organic and is also contemplating biodynamic certification. Her profile corresponds to the Equivigne findings. Of the estates using horses that responded to its survey, 68% were certified organic and 22% had the Demeter biodynamic certification, figures much higher than the national average. Working with horses ties in with an environmental mindset.

“When you want to put life back [into land], you need flora and fauna. The flora will be the habitat for the insects or birds that will help me control pests,” says Pangault.

“It was also quite obvious to me that big animals had a place here, too. That’s why I started working with horses and why I am also looking into putting sheep in the vineyard next winter. It is completely relevant with the biodynamic philosophy, in which you consider your farm as a living organism.”

Projects examining the value of grazing sheep in vineyards – sometimes called vitipastoralisme in French – have surfaced in the past few years. The findings prompted many regions to encourage farmers to take up the practice.

Sheep are already very present in vineyards belonging to Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC, an appellation covering 3,200 hectares: in 2020, 37 estates used sheep across more than 400 hectares.

Elsewhere, a three-year research project by the Dordogne’s chamber of agriculture concluded that, for sheep farmers, this method provides access to a free source of food from November to March.

It found benefits for winegrowers, too: by using sheep as an alternative to chemical herbicides, soil and water quality improves, and the practice encourages the growth of nitrogen-fixing plants, such as clover.

Some regions have already sought to foster partnerships between vineyard owners and farmers, including in Costières de Nîmes. Guy Marjollet, deputy director of the Gard’s chamber of agriculture, says there was a sheep farming revival in the Costières area around 2010. “At that time, grazing in the vines was marginal – except that we found it interesting as an alternative to herbicides in catchment areas for drinking water,” he says.

The chamber created an interactive map, Qui Veut Mon Herbe? (Who wants my grass?), to allow winegrowers, among others, to connect with sheep farmers. The map is being expanded to go from covering about 15,000 hectares to about 50,000.

The IFCE and IFV are working on a follow-on project to Equivigne, aiming to better integrate horses in viticulture.

It is an example of a push to professionalise the working horse sector nationally. L’École Nationale du Cheval Vigneron, a school for horses in viticulture, was created in 2019 to train horses, winegrowers and service providers, while the society for working horses has created a certificate for horses in viticulture. An association designed to bring together those in the working horse industry, including from viticulture, was created in 2020.

Ultimately, incorporating animals in winegrowing can also stem from a very simple appeal. “[Winegrowing] is a difficult job and you need some pleasure in the way you do it, says Pangault. “And it’s always a real pleasure to see horses working in the field.”

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