Claret with horse power: How one top French vineyard went 'green'

The vineyard favours animals in place of tractors, and nature instead of chemicals.

Just north of the small town of Pauillac on the banks of the Gironde estuary, the great Bordeaux châteaux bunch like grapes on the vine. Mouton Rothschild; Lafite Rothschild; D'Armailhac; Pontet Canet. All have been been celebrated for their rich, dark wine for two centuries or more.

The vineyards sprawl over gentle slopes of gravel, sand and pebbles, less than a kilometre from the river. On this chilly spring morning, with the first leaves of the 2010 vintage showing on the vines, the vineyard workers are busy turning the ground between the rows.

For the most part, each château is surrounded by its own domain. In other places, the rows of vines are jumbled like a patchwork quilt, with the plots separated by, at most, paths or narrow tracks. You might find 12 rows belonging to Lafite; followed by 12 rows of Mouton and 20 rows of Pontet-Canet. The workers know precisely which vines are which. Less so, the perplexed visitor.

This spring, however, there is an easy way to tell the vines apart. In many places, the thin soil is being ploughed by noisy tractors with wheels on long stalks. In other places, the rows are being turned by elaborate, colourful carts, fitted with lights and solar panels and pulled by horses.

Horses? Can this be a tourist stunt? Horses disappeared from French vineyards more than half a century ago. But there are no tourists in the Haut Médoc vineyards at this time of year, only hundreds of wine critics and traders who have flown in from all over the world to taste the – reputedly sublime – primeur, or young, 2009 Bordeaux. Such visitors take no interest in picturesque horses working in the vineyards.

Maybe they should. The horses are part of an experiment by Pontet Canet, the only top château in Bordeaux to have gone entirely green, or "bio". The château uses no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, believing that the pebbly terrain of this part of the Haut Médoc has "magical properties" that should be respected. In other words, the gravelly soils and sub-soils, with their natural nutrients, minerals and micro-organisms, produce better wine if left unsoaked in chemicals.

It may, or may not, be a coincidence that "green" Pontet Canet, a château theoretically from the lower second division of the Bordeaux hierarchy, has risen in recent years into the wine aristocracy (in all but its relatively restrained prices).

The horse trial is the latest stage in Pontet Canet's drive to improve its already superlative quality. But how can using horses improve the taste of a wine? Alfred Tesseron, 62, the proprietor and president of Pontet Canet, is a passionate, friendly man who is devoted to the quality of his wines but is not afraid to defy conventional wisdom and take risks. "Year after year, vineyard machinery has been growing more elaborate, more expensive and more comfortable for the people who use it," he says. "The tractors now have stereos, air-conditioning. The machinery is much heavier. An impacted soil is a less natural soil. A less natural soil produces less healthy plants. Less healthy plants produce poorer grapes. We have decided to experiment by bringing back horses." Pontet Canet has three horses so far, of the medium-sized, pale chestnut (with white socks) Breton breed. This year, the mares Opale and Reine and the gelding Kakou will plough, spray and cart the grapes from 24 hectares (about 60 acres) of vines. Next year, Mr Tesseron plans to increase his herd to 10. He plans to sell his remaining tractors and turn over all 81 hectares (200 acres) of Pontet Canet to horse power.

The man behind this back-to-the-future experiment is Pontet Canet's manager, Jean-Michel Comme. "We have taken a decision to trust the soil," he says, as we admire Reine ploughing between the vines. "It's a lovely sight and a great pleasure, and much quieter, to work with horses. But we are not doing it for poetic reasons. We are doing it for practical reasons. Over the last 20 years, we have been building up the quality of Pontet Canet, brick by brick. We have improved the quality of the vines; reduced our yields; improved the quality of our wine-making equipment and methods. The next brick in the wall was to go bio. The final brick is to use horses."

Back at the château, he proudly shows off his horse-drawn machine for ploughing; another colourful machine for spraying (with nettle-based and other organic sprays); and a machine for digging holes for new vines. All have lights and solar panels to recharge their batteries. All have comfortable seats so that the vineyard workers do not have to walk behind the horses all day. "Machines did not exist for horse-operated work in vineyards," says Mr Comme. "So I invented them. I imagined them as I lay in bed at night. And we built them ourselves."

Some other French vineyards have, like Pontet Canet, gone over to "bio" or "green" methods. No other great Bordeaux vineyard has gone 100 per cent bio. No other top vineyard in France uses horses. Most of the famed Bordeaux châteaux – like Mouton and Lafite, whose recent vintages sell for €400-€500 (£350-£440) a bottle, compared to €50-€90 for Pontet Canet – still use chemical fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides.

Arguably, this addiction to chemicals is a nonsense: a denial of what we are told defines the best wines, French or otherwise. To boast their philosophical difference from New World wines, the French have invented or rediscovered a wonderful word in the last two decades – terroir. Terroir means, roughly speaking, soil conditions, plus lie of the land, plus micro-climate: all the factors which decide why a certain patch of ground produces good wine rather than bad wine; or great wine rather than good wine.

The individual wine grower, according to French purists, is a custodian of the terroir and its traditions: he does not so much "make" the wine as encourage it to achieve the full potential of its terroir, its typicité – meaning all the characteristics of bouquet, colour, taste and longevity that differentiate one wine from another one produced with exactly the same kind of grapes a few miles away, or even a few metres away.

If soil is so important, why do some of the custodians of the best terroir soak their land in chemicals? Jean-Michel Comme, Pontet Canet's manager, shrugs. "It is very complicated. If you are the owner, or manager, of a great vineyard, it is difficult to take risks which you think might lose your whole annual crop – or the vineyard itself.

"So you carry on using pesticides and fungicides and artificial fertilisers because that is what you have always done. It was perhaps easier for Mr Tesseron, as proprietor and director, to take such risks than for someone employed by absentee proprietors." Risks? "Yes. We are passionate about what we are doing but we know that we are risking our livelihoods and our lives.

"In 2007, we had an attack of mildew at Pontet Canet which threatened the whole harvest. In the end we lost 20 per cent of the crop – which was bad enough. Since it was me who had persuaded Mr Tesseron to abandon the use of protective chemicals, I felt terribly guilty I could not sleep at night. I was suicidal. That is why I say we are risking our lives, not just our livelihoods." Mr Tesseron decided at the height of the 2007 attack to suspend the "all-bio" method and revert, temporarily, to using a systemic chemical product against mildew.

He now says that he regrets this decision and would not repeat it: "I'm not sure the chemical product helped much, and we now know much more about how to use the proper doses of organic protection against mildew." Pontet Canet uses the same bright blue "Bordeaux mixture", based on copper, that is approved for organic use on tomatoes and potatoes in gardens.

Mr Tesseron, whose father bought the château in the late Seventies, says he been driven for 30 years by a simple calculation. Château Pontet Canet's vineyards adjoin those of the Mouton and Lafite. In places, as we have seen, the rows of vines are jumbled together. Should Pontet Canet not be able to grow wines to rival those of Mouton and Lafite? "We have been gradually building our quality in that direction. Now our aim is to be as natural as possible, in the belief that it is nature that gives a great wine its typicité. We no longer 'green harvest' (thin out the immature grapes). We no longer remove part of the leaves from the vines. By making Pontet Canet more natural, we believe that we will allow its true and special characteristics to be expressed more fully. We believe we will achieve the full value of the special terroir that we are so lucky to have. Our wines will not be just good, but still more recognisably different from all the others."

We tasted several vintages – 1990, 2001, even the infant 2009. All were extraordinary and extraordinarily different one from another. All had the depth – the sense of ridge after ridge of taste stretching away forever – that characterises a great wine.

Mr Tesseron insists, like Mr Comme, that Pontet Canet's pioneering approach to organic and horse-drawn production of great wine is rooted in pragmatism, not idealism. "If it doesn't work, we'll do something else," he said. "But it is my impression that it is working."

And not just his impression. Pontet Canet's tasting scores from celebrated wine critics, including the great American wine guru, Robert Parker, have soared in recent years. According to the 1855 classification of Médoc vineyards, Pontet Canet is a "cinquième cru" or fifth growth.

In other words, a great wine but not among the very greatest. Robert Parker wrote recently that Pontet Canet had skipped several levels and should now be considered a "super second growth... at half the price".

Suggested Topics
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey fans rejoice, series five returns later this month
TV
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor