Two horses, moving surprisingly briskly between rows of vines, are clawing up weeds with rakes they drag behind them. It’s a scene that, not so long ago, you might only see in a sepia postcard conjuring a bygone age.
But now, horses are working again in French vineyards. Some 300 vineyards so far are using the animals to do the kind of work recently done by tractors. The vineyard owners say using horses instead of tractors allows winemakers to get more out of the valuable land in French wine country.
François de Nicolay uses five horses in his vineyard, Chandon de Briailles, where his family has been making wine since 1834.
“The quality of the grapes comes from what you have under the ground, and the horses permit us not to compact the soil,” he says. “And now that we have been using horses for 10 years, we can see that the soil is getting decompacted and the vines is getting much better, also against illness, and our grapes are more flavory, more interesting.”
Demand for vineyard horses has become so strong that a training school has opened near Bordeaux. Speaking in French, training director Sophie Parel explained another reason winegrowers are readopting the horse.
“Horses are able to work on land that is completely inaccessible for tractors, on slopes that are steep or rocky, or between rows of vines that are close together,” she said.
Back in the Chandon de Briailles vineyard, Diva, as this mare is called, is taking a break, snacking on some weeds. Winemaker Francois de Nicolay says working with horses comes at a price because it is more labor intensive.
“When you use tractor, it’s about $3,500 per hectare [or $1,400 per acre], but when you use horses, it costs about $7,000 per hectare because of the hours of working — the people,” he says.
As for the horses, they don’t know how lucky they are. Until this return to grace in the vineyards, one major reason for breeding these horses in France was to eat them.