Tuesday, 20 December 2016 09:25

Horses for vines

Written by  Tessa Nicholson
Gracie the Clydesdale in full flight spraying the vines. Gracie the Clydesdale in full flight spraying the vines.

They may be a common sight in Europe, but having a Clydesdale horse spraying the vines is not something people expect to see here in New Zealand.

That might be about to change in Marlborough at least, with a new business aiming to introduce the draught horses onto the viticulture scene.

The two Clydesdales, Gracie and Bill, are no strangers to vines given they were working at Seresin Estate up until 12 months ago. Now with new owners they are back in the swing of things, with their first up job being to spray one of Fromm’s 25-year-old organic Pinot Noir blocks.

Fromm’s General Manager William Hoare says they are currently looking at producing a natural wine and utilizing draught horses fits well with the ethos of that. While Fromm wine is already extremely close to being natural he admits he never thought they would formalise the process and ‘put it on a label’.

“I am on record for saying that natural wine is possibly the worst trend in the wine industry. This is based on going to restaurants and wine bars where the wine buyer has a 30 something cool hipster mate, who inevitably has a beard, wears tight pants or dirty Chuck Taylors. They have bought fruit from somebody and made a natural wine, but, have no idea what they are doing and it turns out that the fruit isn’t even organic, and the aromatics of the wine resemble rotting fish left out in the sun. I think these wines miss the point of natural wine. However, recently I have changed my mind after tasting some great wines, such as Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon from Beaujolais and James Milton’s Libiamo.

We want to make a wine like this, a really good wine that happens to be natural, rather than a natural wine that isn’t really that good”

With the 0.8 hectares of 25-year-old Pinot Noir, he says they have all the ingredients to achieve that goal – and the horses doing the spraying just adds to the natural aspect.

“I was in Australia recently and met up with Bill Downie who makes some very good natural wines. He has been using horses to spray his vineyard for years as it fits the ethos. I thought that would be nice, but maybe it’s a little far-fetched. Who is going to make that sort of investment?”

By that Hoare means, who would buy the Clydesdales, train them up and then custom build the machinery to tow behind. Enter a serendipitous moment.

“I was just off the plane and had taken my kids to a café in Renwick and ran into Stephen (Rae). He was telling me that he and his wife were taking over Seresin’s horses and planning to start up their own business. Would we be interested?”

He certainly was and in October the two horses arrived at the vineyard, with a custom built sprayer, to place a seaweed spray on the emerging buds.

Travelling between five and six kilometres per hour, the job is only slightly slower than with a tractor, but the coverage was perfect, there was no use of fossil fuels and far less compaction down the rows. Hoare says it is a win-win situation.

Melisa Rae is the person behind the reins of the Clydesales, having worked with them at Seresin Wines for nearly five years. When the company decided to sell the horses, she and her husband were quick to bite the bullet and buy the horses, with plans to establish their own business.

Now she and the horses are stopping people in their tracks, as they amble up and down rows of vines in Marlborough. Not surprising when the last thing you expect to see in a vineyard where technology rules, is a horse pulling a spray unit behind it.

The skill set required to work these draught horses is not gained overnight Rae says. It has taken her years to get to know the horses and understand their needs.

“There is skill involved,” she says, “and you need to have good timing. You have to understand the commands the horse needs, as they listen to your voice, not just what you are doing with the reins.”

Working in amongst vine rows is another skill set the partnership requires. While it is not so tough when the rows are 3 metres wide, it becomes a little trickier when you get down to 1.8 metres.

“That’s the narrowest we can do, it would be a bit hard to do any less.”

Currently Rae is only using the horses for spraying in the vines, but there have been numerous enquiries regarding the potential of using them to cultivate between rows.

“I think it is possible to do, if we could get the right discs – that is something we are looking into.”

In terms of Clydesdales, on average they stand at 1.7 metres at the shoulder, weigh between 820 and 910 kilograms and can pull many times their own weight. They can travel with the spray unit behind, at five to six kilometres an hour, and work for up to eight hours a day.

Currently Rae’s horse drawn spray unit is the only one of its kind in the New Zealand wine scene – but given the interest being shown, it may not be the last.


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