The Horsepower Behind Champagne

Despite the leaps and bounds taken in viticulture and winemaking, sometimes, reverting back a few steps can actually be the best way forward.

As the biodynamic approach to winemaking becomes increasingly popular and widely used in more recent years, the aim to be a fully biodynamic vineyard has become somewhat of a purpose for numerous winemakers, including those both big and small in Champagne. Looking to nature is all part of the efforts to build on a self-sufficient, terroir-driven approach to cultivating vines and it is not just the omission of pesticides and fertilizers that has achieved this but, in some cases, the re-introduction of horses in the vineyards.

Ploughing by horse rather than by tractor has been brought back to light in more recent years as the astonishing benefits have been recognised by winemakers all over the world. Champagne Louis Roederer are a pioneering House in this approach and have expanded their experiment of using horses to plough their vineyards to the extent where 26 hectares of their vines are worked entirely by horse – and the advantages are plentiful. The horse’s four hooves are even in distributing weight on the soil, as opposed to the heavy tyres of a tractor, therefore not only reducing compression of the soil but also allowing for a natural churning process providing extra aeration…

…and do we need to mention the natural fertilizer that is thrown in for free with this method?

Champagne Drappier also use horses in their vineyards and have done so for the past five years, reaping the benefits in their Champagne. Michel Drappier’s sons are well educated in their studies of equine agriculture, oenological engineering and viticultural engineering meaning that their system is well understood and implemented in their vineyards.

With the help of horses, the plots can be preserved for generations to come and these gentle giants are far less disruptive to the flora and fauna that naturally grow in the vineyard, helpful and effective in conserving the quality of the soil and also successful in lowering the chemical pollution emitted compared to when tractors are used. Not to mention the boosted morale in the vineyards by the wonderful relationships developed between people and horses as they work together to create a team that has a stronger understanding of the needs for the vines than a machine ever could.

Although there are multiple, undeniable benefits of the help of horses in the vineyards, Louis Roederer’s cellar master, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, has acknowledged that switching back to older methods is not an easy process. Although it is eventually better, turning back from recent advancement can cause issues and the vines initially react badly causing a loss of 20-30% of yields in the first and second year after conversion. It is clear to see that horses have brought some incredible agricultural, economic and social qualities to the vineyards of Champagne but the hesitation to introduce them is understandable with the risks attached to any major changes in the winemaking process.

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