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French vineyards revive horse-drawn ploughs

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French vineyards revive horse-drawn ploughs
The main advantage is that horses have a much lighter "footprint" than tractors, so they compact the ground much less. Photo: AFP
12:12 CEST+02:00
The sight of a large, lumbering horse pulling a plough through a vineyard may seem like a time warp, but hundreds of French winegrowers have returned to the centuries-old practice.

"It's a picture postcard image," said oenologist Gilles de Revel, adding that the renaissance took off about 10 years ago with many vineyards looking to burnish their brands.

Using draught horses is a "strong new trend along with organic winegrowing", said De Revel, the dean of the oenology faculty at the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences at the University of Bordeaux.

But one Bordeaux vintner, Dominique Leandre-Chevalier, "was really a pioneer" in the revival, De Revel said, noting that he reintroduced horses soon after inheriting his father's vineyard back in 1985.

The vineyard and its Chateau Le Queyroux dates to 1895, a time when all winegrowers were still using horses as they had since the 16th century.

It lies by the Gironde River estuary near the town of Anglade, across from the renowned Medoc region, and includes land on Patiras island in the middle of the waterway -- his horses are loaded onto a barge to reach the spit.

After his father died in an accident at the winery, Leandre-Chevalier decided to revive the old tradition, or as he told AFP, "to reappropriate my ancestors' know-how".

The main advantage is that horses have a much lighter "footprint" than tractors, so they compact the ground much less.

"There's not a lot of science in it," said De Revel. "There's less compacting, so that the soil is allowed to breathe."

Leandre-Chevalier, 53, concentrates his efforts on three hectares (7.5 acres) of land, just a quarter of the original family estate.

He also decided to concentrate his vines, replanting them at 10 times the density -- fitting in up to 33,000 plants per hectare compared with 3,500 previously.

Many grand crus have densities of around 11,000 plants per hectare.

"It's what was done in past centuries, with few clusters on each plant, just two or three -- to conserve the stock's energy," says Leandre-Chevalier, who produces 66,000 bottles of red, white and rose wines a year.

While he set about replanting vines, he devised an original -- and picturesque -- layout for one plot: concentric circles.

Hundreds of other French winegrowers, in Bordeaux as well as Burgundy and the Loire Valley, have embraced draught horses, using them for some or all of their ploughing.

In the Loire winegrowing region of Chinon, British vintner Fiona Beeston hires a mare named Isis to plough her Clos des Capucins vineyard, two plots totalling a little less than three hectares that she bought in 2010 and 2012.

The tranquility of using a horse instead of a tractor "was a real discovery for me," she told AFP by telephone.

Behind the plough, "you are a long way off from the horse's ears... but all you have to do is whisper 'a gauche, un pas arriere' (to the left, one step back), and she hears it all and does it instantly and with tremendous gentleness."

The 60-year-old winegrower said that apart from the problem of compacted soil, tractors hurt the vines' roots with their vibrations, shortening the life of the plants.

"And the horse doesn't break down," she added with a laugh.

Even some grand crus have embraced horses at least for part of their domains, including the Chateau Latour in Pauillac, across the estuary from Leandre-Chevalier's operation.

In another nod to the past, Leandre-Chevalier uses the petit verdot grape -- which predates the 19th-century phylloxera plague that wiped out vast swathes of France's viticulture -- in some of his reds.

A bit of a rebel, Leandre-Chevalier says he is more concerned with creating wines "of character" than meeting the criteria required for certification as a "controlled designation of origin" (AOC).

While four of his wines do boast the coveted distinction, his best go to market as humble Vins de France -- table wines -- with cheeky names such as 100% Provocateur and L'Homme Cheval (The Horse Man).

Leandre-Chevalier's main claim to fame as a pioneer in the modern use of draught horses coincidentally resonates with his very name, which contains the root words for man and horse.

 
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