As many wine estates have developed into proper farms over the last decade, the number and diversity of animals working or helping in the vineyards has grown considerably.
In recent years Gramona and Raventós i Blanc in Penedès or Pilar Higuero in her property in Ourense, where she saved a premature-born mouton who is now her inseparable pet, have turned their wineries into real farms. Meanwhile, in Rueda, the Vidal siblings practice falconry and use birds of prey to repel animals that may harm their vines.
Anyone who has visited Ricardo Pérez in Bierzo before architect Rafael Moneo built the impressive winery knows that he lives surrounded by animals. The stable is just a few metres away from his house and he sleeps wall to wall to his farming school Cando, where activities range from baking bread, cheese making, ploughing with animals to an annual encounter of top producers and renowned experts —sulfur was the focus of the latest edition.
When we asked Ricardo to choose his favourite animal, he instead produced the whole list of his four-legged companions. Most of his horses (there are seven altogether) are featured in the photo above. From right to left: Lyra, a Spanish-Breton mare (“she is the boss,” Ricardo says); Pincho, a horse brought from Navarra and “one of the noblest and most hard-working we have ever had at home”; Corcho, “a four-year-old mule who was born on the farm from a local donkey and a Breton mare”; Rubio, “a mule brought from Solsona in Catalonia that we call 'surfer' because of its blond hair and zebra-like legs,” and Rabel (you can only see its back on the photo): “He is three years old, came two weeks ago from Mallorca and we are taming him.”
La Moreneta, is very dear to Ricardo. “She was the first mule we brought from Priorat. She must be 35 years old by now and she is enjoying retirement after over 20 years working the hilly vineyards of Corullón.” Finally, Tales de Mileto is a mule living a very relaxed life. “He only works the orchard not the vines, carries some loads and takes walks.”
At Descendientes there is still room for five dogs: three mastiffs (Cora, Seo and Pando) and two can de palleiro (Santo y Zarco), a breed of shepherd dog native to Galicia. Curiously, each dog is assigned to a group of horses and goes to work with them every morning. Pando was named after the place where the winery is located (“Chao do Pando means bread plain, an area where rye was grown,” explains Ricardo) and after Fino Pando —Paola Medina, winemaker at Williams & Humbert in Jerez, is Pérez’s partner. Pando is part of the first litter of mastiffs born at Descendientes meant to expand a breed that, according to Ricardo, “is one of the best in the world”. Pando’s siblings are currently working for wine producers in Chinon and Calce in France, San Fernando and Sanlúcar in Cadiz (southern Spain) and Alfaro (La Rioja).
Lagar de Sabariz is a stunning property set amidst winding paths and green hills around an old and tastefully restored pazo, Galicia’s traditional country manor house. Located in San Amaro (Ourense), it lies just outside the boundaries of DO Ribeiro. Owner Pilar Higuero turned to biodynamics despite the area’s relatively high rainfall and she now lives surrounded by geese, hens, sheep and dogs.
Yet her most beloved animal is Gafe (jinx), a prematurely born mutton with an endearing survival story. She found him in the vineyard while pruning. “Gafe was tiny; he actually looked like an old sock on the ground,” she recalls.
“Gafe was not strong enough to suckle, so I had to milk his mother and feed him with a dropper. Two weeks later, he was able to suckle from his mother so I let him out to pasture with the others even if he was still tiny. That day, on the way back to the stable, the sheep walked over Gafe and broke his leg. I realigned his bones with two splints and a bandage. Everything went fine; despite his limp, he managed to run; he didn’t grow much but he looked happy.”
But the following week the mother died, so Pilar brought Gafe into her house and fed him with baby bottles. “He slept in the shower on towels instead of straw and followed me everywhere —he was convinced that I was his mother.” As Gafe grew up, Pilar decided that he wouldn’t end up roasted in the oven, so he was castrated instead. Now the four-year-old mutton goes regularly with Pilar to the vineyards. “Gafe brings the raffia and even the scissors; he clearly doesn’t think he is a mutton,” says Higuero. For her, Gafe is a true example of survival. “His life proves that good or back luck are relative,” she concludes.
Jaume Gramona has rekindled his childhood passion for animals after he turned 50. Whenever he was asked what he would like to be when he grew up, he would invariably answer “a vet!”. A staunch advocate of biodynamics for some years now, this renowned sparkling wine producer who also pioneered different styles of wine in Penedès (Catalonia), has turned the family vineyards into a proper farm.
The current list of animals includes hens (eggshells are used in biodynamic preparations), mastiffs who look after them, geese, the traditional Catalan donkey, cows, muttons (“we want to raise them and make cheese with their milk”), falcons to prevent starlings from eating early ripening grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or a new project involving bees that is set to turn this family of winemakers into honey producers as well.
Animal traction is a cornerstone of vineyard work at Gramona with a team formed by Altair, a Percheron horse, a mare from Ardene called La Divine or a mule called La Flamenca, but Jaume Gramona’s favourite is Chick, a 12-year-old Breton horse purchased in Brest in 2017. “It was a difficult choice because at that time I knew very little about horses. In a way we have had to learn a great deal together, but I’m happy that Chick has adapted so well,” Gramona explains.
Prior to his arrival in Penedès, Chick was a draft horse hauling trees and trunks in the Alps. Probably, life at Gramona is more bearable for this robust 1,000 kg stallion, particularly since he is the apple of Jaume’s eye and is fed 20 kg of hay on a daily basis.
Mules, both female and male, —the latter harder to tame— and horses like Moreno have always been a fixture of the breathtaking vineyard slopes in Priorat. In the past they ploughed the slopes up to three times and at harvest time they were in charge of carrying the grapes from the vineyard to the villages.
Nowadays these animals still work the costers or slopes, but in the case of Moreno, explains José Mas, from Costers del Priorat, his job is limited to one plough a year and to transport grapes from the most inaccessible slopes.
Moreno came from Castellón to Finca Sant Martí, in Bellmunt del Priorat, a couple of years ago. He lives surrounded by olive trees and has plenty of space to move around. It is a sturdy horse but not a large one; in the steep slate floors of the area, large draft horses are of no use. What's required here are quick, agile animals that can climb back and forth the costers —something that donkeys don't know how to do.
Moreno's routine normally consists of working about four consecutive hours, until his guide's lunchtime, followed by rest. "The dentist came by the other day —his teeth change shape as he gets older and he has trouble eating the straw. The blacksmith visits every four months to fix his horseshoes and hoofs because they get deformed and Moreno has trouble treading well and the shearer also comes a couple of times a year to cut his hair so that he can wear the gear more comfortably. Moreno, 13, is now on vacation because he is not allowed to go to the vineyard during the flowering season. "Moreno lives better than us humans," jokes Mas. Y.O.A.
Siblings Vidal and Alicia Vidal are behind the Vidal Soblechero winery and also Pagos de Villavendimia, a pioneering project to make single-vineyard wines in Rueda from some of their best plots located in the village of La Seca.
I will never forget the crowed tasting organised by their distributor in Madrid a few years ago. I was tasting the Pagos de Villavendimia range surrounded by other professionals when I realised that there was a falcon standing next to the ice bucket. It stood still, almost hieratic, but it clearly was not part of the decoration. Vidal explained that as long as it had its head covered, the falcon would be totally calm regardless of the noise.
Undoubtedly, it is much more interesting to see these birds of prey in their natural environment. Vidal has been feeding, training and monitoring falcons for 30 years now. Their mere presence in the sky repels hares, rabbits, starlings and other animals which may cause damage to the vine or the grapes. At Vidal Soblechero falcons are treated as workers of the winery, the same as the horses destined to ploughing and the insect-eating peacocks.
Since Pepe Raventós embraced biodynamics, he has turned the Raventós i Blanc property into farm where ploughing horses share room with sheep and goats pasturing the fields. There is also a henhouse, a rabbit hutch and the family’s two Labradors, Bronx and Jay Z, whose names evoke the years they lived in New York.
But perhaps Pepe’s most beloved companion is Henri Crystal, a horse he brought from Jura on December last year. The trip had a second purpose: to cook a paella for legendary wine producer Pierre Overnoy, a real food lover who makes his own bread at home.
Henri Crystal is an 800kg male Comtois, the traditional horse breed of the region. Comtois are highly sought after both because of their ability as draft horses and their docile nature. Pepe acquired it directly from its breeder Danny Pujol, who is based in Le Chauz Denis north of Arbois. He wanted a smaller horse than François, a Breton that had been ploughing the vineyards in Raventós i Blanc for some time. The idea was that this smaller animal could tread more carefully among fragile vines and work with more precision.
The paella was not too successful though. Pepe Raventós traveled with his winemaker Joan Munné and Vicent Rioja, from the eponymous hotel in Valencia, who was in charge of cooking. Maybe the previous blind tasting went on for too long or perhaps it included too many wines, but the thing is that an unfortunate slip when they were carrying the paella to the table ended up with the food all over the floor. The episode unquestionably made the trip all the more memorable.
Additional reporting by Yolanda Ortiz de Arri.