11 Mar 2022

Horse and plough add French touch to Marlborough vineyard

From Country Life, 9:34 pm on 11 March 2022
Horse and plough handler Emma Rossignol with Gordon

Horse and plough handler Emma Rossignol with Gordon Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

A Clydesdale named Gordon is bringing an extra touch of France to Marlborough's Churton vineyard.

Under the expert guidance of his French handler, Gordon is in training for the autumn ploughing season after a summer kicking up his hefty hooves on this beguiling block of vines above the Waihopai Valley.

Sam and Mandy Weaver set up the vineyard on 51 hectares of former sheep and beef country 30 years ago and are in the process of handing on the reins to sons Jack and Ben.

Biodynamic principles guide them in everything they do so a horse and plough to gently till the strip between the vines fitted in well with their vision for the vineyard.

"We talk about being a farm rather than just a vineyard," Sam says, pointing out his Red Devon cattle resting in the shade.

In the winter they graze and poo on the diverse pasture in between the vines which encourages the plants, enriches the soil, the vines and the fruit.

Sam Weaver

Sam Weaver Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

"The big difficulty in an organic vineyard is how do you maintain that under vine strip because it can start devigouring the vines and then you get a loss of production," Sam says.

They had tried lots of different systems apart from chemical sprays and the tractor was tricky on Churton's sloping quirky-shaped blocks.

When vineyard worker Emma Rossignol arrived she had a better idea.

Back in her hometown of St Emilion in France's Bordeaux wine region she had learnt how to plough with a horse and she was keen to introduce it to Churton.

"It's gentle, you don't have the compaction of the tractor ... you can get really close to the vines ... and you're just turning the soil over so you're not cultivating it, you're not mashing it up so you're maintaining all that organic matter which then helps maintain the microbial activity in the soil," Sam says.

The vineyard under plough is using a quarter of the water of other parts of the vineyard and without mechanical input there is little damage to the vines, according to Sam.

Emma says the heavy horse and plough have made a comeback in St Emilion vineyards.

"A lot of vineyards now are using horses," she said.

Gordon tosses his head as Emma lifts the collar over him, testing him out before the soil starts to moisten and ploughing can start.

"When you look at that, it's way more beautiful than a tractor," Emma adds.