On the Auxinis parcel (Sancerre, Sauvignon Blanc)
This is a fair afternoon in early june, and Sébastien Riffault is completing the seasonal plowing on his Sancerre slopes. He is among the growing numbers of French growers who bring back the horse on the fields and the vineyards. We may think that the last horses were replaced by tractors just after World War II but actually when you dig the question and ask around, there were still many draft horses in the vineyards until the mid 1960s'. First, there were so many farmers then and many had very modest means in terms of investment capability, also they often had kept working on parcels which were unfit for tractors, either too narrow inter-rows or too steep. So when a few vignerons decided to reintroduce the horse in the vineyard, the older generation was still around to give its expertise and the tools were still somewhere in a barn (farmers have difficulty discarding their tools).
On the Sancerre Appellation, Sébastien Riffault was the first to bring the draft horse back, but he likes to say that the last draft horses were not that far in the past, as there were still a few plow horses until the mid-1960s', it's not like if a century had passed, and the memory was still around. Like in several other French regions, the first over-the-row machines arrived here in the 1950s' but before that time, everything was done by horse in Sancerre.
Sébastien makes Sancerre wines without adding anything, no sugar, no SO2, no fining and no filtering, even for whites, which is even rarer. The resulting wines are worth a try if you never had the occasion, they're not like mainstream Sancerre but wine lovers usually get hooked on these onctuous and lively wines.
Sébastien has two horses, the one on the left being from the Ardennais breed and the other being what is called a half-draft horse from the Cob Normand breed. As its name hints, the Cob Normand is a French breed originating from Normandy. It is a cheval carrossier or coach-pulling horse, a half-draft horse being a driving horse that can be used also for horseback riding, and a few minor tasks in the fields like harrow pulling.
The Ardennais breed, which is the horse on the left which Sébastien uses for his vineyard plows, is a heavy-duty draft horse. It is a very old middle-size French breed which originated in the Ardennes region. It is known since the Roman times, when it was used for military transport. If Wikipedia is right, these horses are known for having survived Napoleon's Russian campaign, from which some 13 000 horses never came back.
. When we arrived near the prairie, the horses walked to the other end, as if the Ardennais knew that there was work coming ahead. But wen Sébastien reached it to put the leather headstall in place, it didn't resist after all, looking pleased that it was taken care of. The Cob Normand was looking with curiosity but it would stay here on the prairie. This horse actually belongs to Sebastien's wife Juraté, who is Lithuanian born. Sébastien used to drive the Ardennais horse with a cart and the plows to the parcels but he realized it was too tiring for the horse even though the vineyards are not very far, it was better to concentrate on the vineyard work. So now he uses his truck pulling a van where he can also conveniently put several plows.
Speaking of the tools, there's no modern manufacturer making light walk plows like the ones made in the first half of the 20th century, and they have to look here and there in the farms and barns. Farmers are conservative and often keep their old tools and plows somewhere in a barn and they are sympathetic to young growers who are willing to revive this agriculture practice and skills. For example the hoe plow on the left named griffe (claw) in French is from the make Puzenat (not to mistake with Puzelat, the Loire winemaker), an old French company specialized in plowing tools. The other plows like the décavaillonneuse below is a Bulette, another maker which was based in Langeais further west in the Loire.
There is today actually a French company, Equivinum, which has been making again plows and tools for draft horses, but Sébastien says that their walk plows are still heavier than they should be to allow a comfortable handling and swinging. He says that when you plow for a few hours, the weight of the walk plow makes a big difference, especially when you have to always keep the blade off the the vine by swinging on the left and the right. It's not like if it was a plowing on a flat field with no obstacle.
Among the 35 parcels of the domaine, Sébastien Riffault will plow some 15 of them with the horse, and as they're not in the same area, he'll have to drive the horse and tools in his truck. He'll plow the vineyard plots behind the cuvée Raudonas (red), the Les Quarterons (red), Auxinis (white), Sauletas (white) and Skéveldra (white). 90 % of the vineyards are located in the vicinity of Verdigny-en-Sancerre.
The first thing Sébastien does after walking the horse out of the van is brushing it. It's hard to guess what a horse can feel or think, compared to a dog, but somehow I felt that it like that, maybe from the way it kept still while Sébastien was brushing her neck and her sides.
For the first plowing, Sébastien uses one of the single-blade plows, this one being adapted to plow along the row close to the vineroots (but not under the wires). You can see how powerful this horse can be, and you can also see how light this earth is : when you take some between you fingers it's gentle and not tightly compacted. There's breathing in this ground, and the reasons are multiple, one of the reasons of course are the fact that no weedkillers are used and that the microbial and other life is intense in the soil, another reason being that the horse doesn't crush the ground like a tractor would. If you tried to open a furrow in a weedkiller-saturated vineyard with a ground pummeled by coming and going tractors, you could have more trouble.
Note how placid this horse is : it works willingly, at its own pace, stopping a few seconds from time to time, you don't know why, and going again after Sébastien gently tells her to. There's an almost-permanent vocal exchange, the horse understanding what Sébastien asks.
The buttage is when you plow along the vines and push the moved earth in a mound (butte). Thhis is quite simple a plow : the furrow is straight and the earth is pushed on the side.
The débuttage or décavaillonnage is the reverse plowing : with a different type of walk plow (but which looks very similar for someone like me), he will skillfully plow between the vines (labour inter-ceps) and bring back the mound in the middle of the inter-row space. This needs more skills and concentration because you have to wind right and left without harming the vines (particularly the young ones), and be wary of the sudden speed changes of the horse. Also, on slopes like this one, the horse tends naturally to go faster when going uphill, because of the bigger effort needed : it's like humans, when we have to carry a very heavy load, we hurry up so that we can reach the destination faster. The horse does the same when plowing uphill, and the handler behind the walk plow has to adjust and be more carefull because at a higher speed it's more easy to inadvertedly damage a vine when you're doing the inter-vine décavaillonage.
On this other video, you can see how it feels when you're handling the plow behind the horse, the griffe. I somehow managed to shoot this video all the while walking the plow and that's why it' very shaky. Otherwise it's not that difficult (it was the easiest plowing though, not the buttage or the décavaillonnage).
Growers often do the buttage in autumn and wait the end of winter or spring for the following stage, the décavaillonnage or débuttage. Sébastien prefers to do the buttage during spring and do the décavaillonage at the end of spring, because this way he not only aerates the earth but he uproots the weeds at this critical spring season, when they grow the thickest. Then, later, the soil being quite poor with a depth of only 20cm to 40 cm, the weeds tend to be less a problem and they can dry in summer.
Speaking about how it all began for Sébastien, he says that he happened to bebriend Olivier Cousin in Anjou through his then-importer François Ecot. Olivier Cousin worked with horses in his vineyard, and he liked the thing, so he and Alexandre Bain (his neighbor) visited Olivier Cousin in Anjou to learn the trade. Then in 2007 Sébastien bought this Ardennais mare (Ophélie) while Alexandre bought his own horse (Phénomène) and they began to work with horses at about the same time and often together. Phénomène was already trained for agriculture and plowing, which was easier, but Ophélie had been trained only as a driving horse and he had to teach her the plowing skills, which took some time (plus they had to adapt to each other, like it's the case between a human and an animal). Plus, this mare was 5 years old when he bought her, 5 years being the equivalent of teenage years for a horse, and at 9 years now, she is an adult, she's calmer and more placid. It's been two years, he says, since Ophélie is really doing the job nicely, and they plow 4 hectares of vineyards today.
Also Sébastien says that he is part of the first generation of farmers who make only grapes. In the generation of his father the farmers used to grow different crops, among which vines, they had farm animals, goats (to make the local crottin de Chavignol goat cheese) and so on. In that time the draft horses were multi-task and were used for all these different crops and fields.
The world and life has changed much for farmers since then in the region and in France, with monoculture being widespread. One thing interesting to note with Sébastien Riffault is that his wines are made without subsidies, which is pretty rare. Like Olivier Cousin he voluntarily refuses any state or European subsidies : when people buy a bottle of his wine, this is 100 % his own work, there's no hidden part paid by the taxpayer-funded subsidies. Plus, his picking time window like his non-interventionist winemaking (without lab yeasts, chaptalization and the likes) are more risky than a secure early-picking coupled with the related corrections, and there is a resulting quality which is worth the price.
We also had our own treat after releasing the mare in the prairie with her mate which seemed happy as if they were apart for days.
__ Sancerre Sauletas 2010. Sauvignon. No SO2 at all until now and there will be none either at bottling. Sébastien adds with a smile : I don't know if you feel it but it's plowed with a horse here too... The wine is very clear, no haze at all. There has been no stirring in there and the wine has been resting on its lees for 18 months. The mouth is full, with ripe fruits aromas. Very refined. From vines grown on kimmeridgian marls.
__ Sancerre Auxinis 2010, another white Sancerre, made from the vineyard we've just been plowing today. Old vines and limestone soil. The limestone nature here is different from his other white Sancerres, it is mostly made of caillottes, or small stones. He used to blend this one and the previous (it was labelled as Auxinis) but he vinifies this parcel separately since 2010. Here the wine is really different, more powerful and intense, and the winemaking being exactly the same, you really get here the terroir difference in the wine. It is going to be bottled progressively. The bottling is made by gravity only, it takes time but the wine isn't stressed.
__ Sancerre Skeveldra 2010. This Sauvignon grows on clay & flintstone (silex). It's not because I was told about the flintstone, but there's obviously much more minerality here, more tension. It's less on the ripe-fruit side and more on the rock. Beautiful also. Golden color is like the previous wines, it has to do with the fact that the grapes were picked ripe. Many white wines are almost colorless because of the high SO2 doses, a side effect of sulphites being to clarify the wine, and the consumers are sometimes puzzled when looking at the golden color of a wine made without SO2. Very enjoyable wine.
Visit report by Kate at Sébastien's
A day with Sébastien and Alexandre Bain (in French), both working sometimes together with their respective horses.
Coincidently, a recent Time magazine article by Jeffrey Iverson on the rise of natural wines, with one of my pictures of Olivier Cousin plowing his vineyard.