In a game of associations, the link between horses and champagne wouldn’t be the first to spring to mind. However, horses have always had a special place in winemaking, not least in Champagne, albeit their presence in the fields has tended to ebb and flow. Horses have become an increasingly common sight in Louis Roederer Champagne’s vineyards since 2001, when the house began experimenting with a new sustainable viticulture trend: biodynamics.
Louis Roederer Champagne, known in part for producing the first prestige cuvée in the region, Cristal, has been family owned since it was established in 1776. The current CEO Frédéric Rouzaud, a seventh-generation Roederer, oversees the careful maintenance of its 240 hectares of vineyards, exclusively in grand and premier cru villages and often with a single viticulturist responsible for each row. Roederer takes enormous pride in the fact that it is self-sufficient for approximately 70 per cent of the non-vintage production and 100 per cent of all vintage champagnes – an unusual and impressive feat in the region.
It was a desire to build on this self-sufficiency and to create terroir-driven, expressive wines that reflect the true essence of the microclimates in which they are grown that led Louis Roederer to turn to nature in a “back-to-basics” approach to viticulture and winemaking. This biodynamic method has allowed the family to retrace the steps of their forefathers and farm in accordance with the lunar calendar, eschewing over-reliance on mechanisation, along with chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which came into vogue in the 1980s. While this may sound like witchcraft, there is method to the madness: preventing the use of chemicals in the vineyards means that Louis Roederer’s viticulturists need to watch over their vines with extra care and attention, creating an unusually strong bond between the vineyard workers and the grapes.
The switch from tractors to horses – all part of the biodynamic approach – yielded several positive results: the horses’ hooves create four evenly distributed points of contact with the earth, as opposed to the heavy tires of a tractor. This reduces soil compression, and the movement of the hooves has the positive effect of naturally churning up the soil, adding extra aeration – not to mention a healthy dose of natural fertiliser coming out of the back.
For Roederer, the plots it owns and cultivates are the key to everything it does, and preserving the land for future generations is crucial. The biodynamic processes used, such as the comparatively gentle impact of the horses’ hooves on the earth, help to conserve the quality of the soil, as well as being less destructive to the flora and fauna that naturally live in the vineyard. Furthermore, fewer tractors equates to less chemical pollution among the vines.
But can horse play change the taste of champagne?
By preventing the soil from being tainted by chemicals, the soil has more of a chance to impart its subtle qualities and mineral make-up into the wine, adding a pureness of fruit, greater character and depth of flavour that are unique to the local microclimate. According to Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, cellar master at Louis Roederer Champagne, going back to nature in this way generates “more freshness, more chalkiness, more intensity, more complexity. It has forced [us] to think differently at blending. The focus is now on texture and soil site expression rather than on grape variety percentages.”
While Roederer is committed to the benefits of a bit of horse play in the vineyard – it aims to grow 100 per cent biodynamic grapes for its prestige cuvée, Cristal, by 2020 – the rest of Champagne may be harder to convince. Switching from mechanisation back to slower, more old-fashioned methods is not an easy transition – the vines react badly initially, having been used to the chemical supplements. “You lose 20-30 per cent of yields in the first and second year [after conversion], but after four or five years the yields come back – probably not to the previous level, but enough,” explains Lécaillon. As such, it is not an easy choice to make, especially if livelihood depends on a constant and dependable supply of grapes.
The horses are here to stay
However, for Roederer the horses are here to stay, both on and off the vineyard. As well as encouraging the use of horses in the vineyard, Roederer was the proud sponsor of Cowdray Park’s Jaeger LeCoultre Gold Cup for the third time in a row this year, manifesting its belief in “horse play” in a more sporting setting than the undulating hillsides of Champagne. Spectators were able to enjoy the match while sipping a selection of Louis Roederer’s finest wines, bringing equine involvement in the Louis Roederer Champagne experience full circle: the entertainment the horses provided on the pitch was echoed in the delicate, yet undeniable, impact they had had on the golden, sparkling liquid in the glass. For Roederer, the quality of the grapes grown in equine-tilled fields is unparalleled, as is the quality of the soil itself – the very life source of Roederer vines that the Rouzaud family strive to preserve and enrich for many generations to come.
Biodynamics: organic farming following the lunar calendar, which prohibits the use of chemicals and pesticides in the vineyard and replaces machinery with animals and human hands. “Bio” indicates that farming must be natural or organic, replacing synthetic chemicals with copper and cow manure. “Dynamic” refers to the energy released by compost preparations of horsetail, willow bark, stinging nettles and chamomile blossoms, among other ingredients, and field preparations of horse manure and horn silica.
Louis Roederer Champagne has been the official champagne sponsor of Cowdray Park’s Jaeger LeCoultre Gold Cup since 2015.