Wine O’Clock: To Till Or Not To Till?

By Pierrick Jegu

It’s all change in the wine world! What was certain yesterday is no longer certain today. From the vineyard to the cellar, practices are changing as knowledge increases.

To till or not to till?

For example, I remember a time not so long ago when in France, after decades of herbicides and other chemicals, winegrowers began working their land more. The tiller became a symbol of the desire to get back in touch with the terroir. And the purpose of this spring and summer ritual? To aerate the soil and manage the plants that sometimes outcompete the vines. These problems still exist today but tilling no longer attracts quite the same adulation. From Muscadet to Alsace and from Corsica to Beaujolais, I hear more and more doubts, even amongst winegrowers themselves. What are their objections? Critics argue that excessive tillage damages the soil structure and system, and kills the creatures that live there, like the precious worms. They also claim it exposes the earth to sudden, harmful temperature rises. 

So, I barely see any of those inches-deep furrows amongst the vines anymore. Some winegrowers just till the surface when necessary, others have stopped completely! Instead, they opt for spontaneous cover crops or sow selected species. Earthworms do the same work as a tractor, aerating the soil as they dig their tunnels. Plant roots do the same. And that's not all. Crop cover provides protection against hydraulic and wind erosion, increases infiltration of rainwater, shields the soil against extreme weather, promotes the development of organic matter and supports biological activity! Not bad… But what if this crop cover outcompetes the vines, and they no longer have enough food for the grapes to ripen? - I hear you say. Again, I have seen various solutions, particularly the one that consists of flattening the grass to limit its growth and retain a little moisture. Just one of many examples of how this amazing industry is evolving all the time, and of the ability of winegrowers to constantly rewrite their job descriptions! 


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