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
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
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
News
news
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
A photograph taken by David Redferm of Sonny Rollins
people
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Extras
indybest
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

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker