Taking the reins at Ch. Pontet-Canet

Behind the winery at Ch. Pontet-Canet, you’ll find a row of stables. In the first of our series taking you behind the scenes in Bordeaux, we dive into how the beautiful draft horses that live here are key to the philosophy at the leading Pauillac estate
Taking the reins at Ch. Pontet-Canet

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The grey horse stretches its neck out towards me, curling its lip towards my outreached palm, before nuzzling my pocket, in search perhaps of a potential snack. Its head is the size of my torso, its hooves the size of my head, with the entire beautiful beast weighing circa one ton, I’m told. You can sense the power of its immense muscled mass. Nearby, Adelaide Bonnefond, a petite 20-something is calling to the rest of her troupe of friendly giants. Balthazar – the aforementioned grey – is “a real lazybones”, Baudoin can be a bit fast and over-eager, while Olive is a horse of remarkable patience. “Each one has its own character,” Bonnefond says. 

We’re in a field a stone’s throw from Ch. Pontet-Canet, where the property’s 10 horses spend their weekends and holidays. This Pauillac Fifth Growth is one of a handful of estates around the region, and indeed the world, that has returned to using horses in the vineyard – in lieu of modern machinery. Unusually, they have brought this operation in house – with their own stables and a five-strong team dedicated to grooming, handling and working the horses, led by Bonnefond. 

“I have no idea,” says Mathieu Bessonet – the property’s Technical Director – when I ask how much it adds to their bills. “It’s not important for us… it’s a philosophy.” Herbicides were banned long ago at the estate, and they’ve been farming organically since 2004, certified organic and biodynamic from 2010 (the first Classed Growth to achieve the latter), with horses first introduced in 2008. They’re just one form of livestock you’ll find on the property. When I arrive, a drift of pigs is penned on the front lawn, tasked with munching on the invasive weed, common couch or quackgrass – but there are cattle and donkeys too. Collectively, they consume 60 tons of hay, three tons of barley and 600 kilos of lucerne (organic, of course) – much of which will end up back between the vines. 

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Above: Adelaide Bonnefond preparing one of Pontet-Canet's horses for a day's work. Top of page: the eager herd at attention. Photography: Benjamin Deroche

“A lot of money goes into taking good care of this place – what is in fact our tool for production,” says Bessonet. “The property is over 300 years old, so we’re just passing through. If I spend 20 years here, it’s a long time – but it’s only 3% of the history of Pontet-Canet. We have to take care of this place to be able to pass it on.” And working with horses is just one way in which they aim to do this, reducing soil compaction, allowing water, air and microbes to move through the soil. They can be more precise with their work and – most importantly – break fewer vines. A stunning number of vines are knocked out of place by tractors, something that is considered a natural consequence of modern farming – but not one that this estate is willing to accept. 

“Wine, it’s made by the roots of the vines,” says Bessonet. As vines age, their roots creep further down into the soil and Pontet-Canet has some of the oldest vineyards in the Médoc, averaging 55 years in age. And it is the age of their vines, Bessonet feels, that “allows us to express the terroir”, as well as tempering climatic extremes (a growing concern with climate change). While it wasn’t a key reason for the shift back in 2008, using horses also allows them to reduce their carbon footprint – both by using fewer fossil fuels and increasing the carbon-holding capacity of their vineyards, something that is at the forefront of producers’ minds today. 

The switch from tractor to horse has changed the way they farm more than can be measured in analytical results, however. “They are not little machines; working the vines with horses, we really become one with the vines,” says Bonnefond. The way you interact with an animal versus a machine is totally different, and she feels that as a result they are much more reactive, more aware of their work and able to stop at any moment. And, as Bessonet notes, even those that have worked at the property for 10 or 15 years can’t help but smile when the horses pass by. As any good manager knows, a happy team will pay endless dividends. 

Back in 2008, they started with just two horses, but that number has grown to 10 today. They have a combination of breeds – Percheron and Comtois largely today, although they’ve had Bretons in the past. Percherons are larger, and they’ve been moving more towards Comtois, favouring the slightly smaller and even more gentle breed that hails from the Jura. All are draft horses, historically used in war and agriculture – weighing around double that of the daintier breeds you might see eventing or show-jumping. 

Bessonet’s grandmother was, he tells me, almost insulted when he told her they were using horses – seeing it as a step backwards; but, as he and Bonnefond explain, the work is totally different to that of generations past. They might not be powered by electricity, but modern technology and know-how is being used to refine the way they work and the implements they use. Over the years, they’ve developed lots of tools themselves, and worked with a local business to craft others – a slow process that can only be tackled by those with a truly long-term vision. 

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They buy horses when they’re around three or four years old, so they’ve been broken in and have started their training but can be finished and finessed in-house (“They know the commands, but they’re still young so don’t necessarily listen,” explains Bessonet. “They’re teenagers!”). They’re unsurprisingly picky about the breeders they work with, and ensuring that the training received in their formative years is up to scratch. By the time the process is finished, the moment the plough touches the trunk of a vine, a horse will know to stop instantly, not even needing a human command, avoiding any significant damage. They have a mini faux vineyard with a handful of short rows lined with posts (but no vines) on the estate, a sort of school where they can train younger horses and use at the start of the season, spending half a day so the animals can get back to the pace of work. 

Monday to Friday, the horses are at work, stabled next to the winery (with stalls crafted from old barrels). Each horse will work for half a day (sometimes longer if the tools they’re pulling are sufficiently light), before being walked back to the stables to allow for active recovery – evacuating lactic acid in their legs, something that is essential to maintain their health. With the time to groom, harness and unharness, wash down, muck out and feed the horses, each will work around three hours or so a day. Bonnefond’s team will take one horse out in the morning, before going back out with a different one in the afternoon. Alongside their work, the horses are lunged (moved in a circle around a handler, on a long lead rein) – working both on commands and their flexibility. “To change their minds too, seeing something other than the vines” explains Bonnefond. 

There are around 10 passes per row a year, four or five to work the soils and around five others – spraying to protect pruning wounds (to prevent grapevine trunk diseases), making holes for planting new vines, spraying horsetail to control mildew pressure, as well as the 500 and 501 preparations (biodynamic sprays). Today, around half of the property’s 81 hectares is worked by horse – and the team is always working to do more, but Bessonet is unsure if 100% is a realistic goal. Copper sulphate – the main spray used in organic and biodynamic viticulture – is spread by tractor, not being something they’d want to expose the horses to (nor put gas masks on them, as was done during the Second World War).  

The work is, inevitably, seasonal – and they’re turned out to pasture at weekends and during quiet periods, with lunging to keep them sharp. As soon as véraison takes place (the grapes changing in colour from green to red), “It’s holiday time for the horses,” says Bonnefond, laughing. At that point the grapes become too fragile and could be knocked by the horses, breaking the skins and damaging the fruit.  

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The team has spent an extraordinary amount of time and money developing tools to allow them to work by horse. Photography: Benjamin Deroche

All being well, the horses work until they’re 18 or 20 years in age, and then Pontet-Canet finds them a home to live out their old age. Retirement can, in fact, be the hardest stage for these work-horses, explains Bonnefond. “They’re used to seeing everyone every day,” she says. One horse, Turbo, kept waiting at the gates, ready to go to work, for well over a month after he’d left the estate, struggling to adapt to his new, restful way of life. 

Bonnefond had never worked in agriculture before arriving at Pontet-Canet, having been at an equestrian centre, and her team has similarly varied backgrounds (one used to train trotters and one worked with circus horses, for example). They’ve each got their favourites in Pontet-Canet’s herd, she confesses (hers is a handsome bay who is especially energetic), but they all work with each of the horses, to keep it interesting for the animals, and so that no horse gets too used to any particular handler. 

It's certainly not light work – for Bonnefond and her team at least. Days are long and the work is physically demanding, but seeing Bonnefond in the field with the horses, her dainty frame at odds with the gigantic draft horses surrounding her, it’s clear that she loves it. Having a team like this in-house is something few estates can afford, but it’s reflective – as Bessonet says – of the philosophy at Pontet-Canet. Their special band of gravel terrace in the Médoc, shared with the likes of Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild and Cos d’Estournel – properties that represent the pinnacle of Cabernet Sauvignon around the world, deserves to be protected and preserved in every way possible. 

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Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on jancisrobinson.com and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.