The horse drawn plough is a comforting sight. It recalls a slower, more natural pace of life and simpler methods of agriculture, the polar opposite of massive mechanically managed vineyards designed to bring in fruit at a keen price point. But while the Côte d’Or may be light years away from such places as the Murray River in Australia, it does not exist in a time capsule, but in a world of commercial viticulture. I wanted to discover if the traditional, horse drawn plough is a practical and commercially viable option or about as useful as a night harvesting machine in parcel of grand cru vines. Of course most ploughs are not horse drawn, so my main purpose was to consider the arguments for and against ploughing itself, to look at the alternatives and to draw some conclusions on managing the soil a vineyard on the Côte d’Or.

Sod Culture

For the purposes of this exercise I used a broad definition of ploughing. The French use the following terms. There is ‘labourer’, to plough, which is a proper deep turning of the earth, usually practiced after the harvest in October, November or December and which is also necessary after grubbing up vines to prepare the ground for new plantings in the spring. ‘Binage’ is to hoe, a superficial plough just a few inches deep, which is much more common than proper ploughing and takes place during the months of May, June and July to aerate the soil and turn in the weeds. There is also the practice of ‘buttage and debuttage. The latter is the piling up of earth around the roots of the vine against frost damage in November and de-earthing in March, which also aerates the soil and helps distribute any organic matter which has been added. Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau is among the many growers who no longer practice earthing up, “I just don’t see the need.”

Arguments for ploughing

The principal argument for ploughing is of course that it can eliminate or at least reduce the need for herbicides. Herbicides, which replaced the traditional method of ploughing from the 1960s and 1970s, have been a major problem in Burgundy. Claude Bourguignon has vividly described herbicides as being responsible for turning the soil into a desert, devoid of life. Conscientious vigneron in the Côte d’Or stopped using herbicides routinely some time ago. For example the last time Frédéric Mugnier used them was in 1989 and comments, “This is a major factor in the improvement in the health of my vineyard especially in June. All the vineyards ploughed for more than 4 or 5 years are in much better condition, dark green, good shape, versus others which were yellow and weak.”

An added benefit comes in the natural mulch the ‘mauvaises herbes’ – no nasty added nitrogen which leads to excessive growth of vegetation or potassium which bumps up the yields and lowers the acidity in the grapes.

As Fédéric Mugnier rightly observes, “the soil is not an inert material in which the vine grows. It must be a diversity.” He mulches with grass and the pruned material, both of which have helpful bacteria on them and in addition assist in creating good structure in the soil.

At Domaine René Lamy Pilot, Sébastien Caillat was fortunate to have an open minded father-in-law who allowed him to change many things, so the domaine stopped using chemicals on the soil, both herbicides and fertilisers, back in 1998. In consequence the vineyard became much more labour intensive requiring 3 tractors to work 19 hectares and a workshop at the domaine for quick repairs. Sebastien comments that to achieve weedless vines, in a vintage such as 2005, they had to plough 10 times because the ground was so hard. Six women, including his mother in law, supplemented the tractors by hoeing around the feet of the vines. He considers that they have achieved ” good balance for the vines. I couldn’t bear to see the vines like a dessert with no insects.”

Roots down

At Domaine Michel Bouzereau in Meursault they consider that ploughing, by cutting the lateral roots, encourages the principal roots to go deeper. Jean-Baptiste firmly believed that ploughing enabled the roots to reach different levels in the soil making the resulting wine more complex. They began ploughing in 2001at the domaine and were so impressed with the results, they extended the practice to their vines on the slopes and by 2005 they were no longer ploughing only in the spring, but from March through to July.

The most important aspect of ploughing a Domaine Dujac is to encourage the roots to go downwards. The approach hereis really hoeing. It is quite superficial. The objective is to establish a natural green cover between the rows. Jacques Seysses began this approach encouraged figures from Claude Bourguignon (whom I always think of as the earthworm man having attended a lecture he gave on the subject many years ago) which reveal that the life in the soil increases by a factor of 20 when it is managed in this way.

In Meursault Jean Marc Roulot has some very old vines dating from 1945 in a parcel of Meursault, Porusot, which he purchased in 2003. Until 2007 it remained on a metayage basis allowing him no control over the viticulture. He felt that being unable to plough the soil suppressed the expression of the terroir. And it was interesting tasting this wine at the time – unlike his other wines, which showed clearly defined identitiesfor example Les Vireuils, Les Luchets and Les Meix Chavaux, which lie above one another on the border with Auxey-Duresses, it was difficult to get a handle on the terroir style of his Porusot. Jean-Marc Roulot considers it important to plough carefully, so as not to cut all the roots, but to gently encouraged them downwards so they do not suck up surface water.

Jean-Marc Roulot also does a light plough after the harvest “to keep the water at depth” or it may pan on top. Opening up the soil in the autumn allows water to penetrate the soil which is important for holding reserves at depth. Michel Bouzereau and Jean-Marc commented that in the drought of 2003 the vines in ploughed vineyards suffered least from the drought. Ploughing in October or November allows frost into the soil, which helps sanitise it.


At Domaine de L’Arlot, when I visited in November a year or two ago, they were in the process of ploughing to oxygenate the soil, although they stopped temporarily as the cold weather had frozen the ground and they were in danger of breaking the plough. Oxygen is a key factor in ploughing, which many consider to be beneficial for the micro-organisms, as Jean-Marc Roulot observes, “the micro-organisms are the identity of the soil.” After the autumn plough these growers leave any grasses which appear to grow undisturbed over the winter. At Domaine de L’Arlot they plough lightly in the spring, not really for the weeds but to turn in the bio-prep. “This is the most important element for us, as it is the first level of exchange between the land and the vine. The soil must be a living place.”

A clean soil can also limit the danger of frost in the late spring. Etienne Grivot advocates hoeing in March/April to minimise the dangers of a strike in May.

Also, by not using herbicides many growers argue that ploughing is the environmentally sound option. But is it? It is time to consider the arguments against ploughing.

Starting with the green and clean argument – one must consider just how environmentally friendly are tractors. Frédéric Mugnier has obviously spent some time researching ploughing as he has developed his own approach and reports that 60% of land producing cereals in Argentina is not ploughed because of the long term depletion of the soil leading to erosion. As well as being considerable cheaper by saving on tractor fuel, it saves on engine emissions making this approach altogether more environmentally sound.

Frédéric ploughs in spring and summer, but he points out that it is superficial. “I don’t like the idea of turning the soil. The soil has a vertical structure. Each layer has its own bacteria, yeasts and insects, which have adapted to that particular layer. Turning it disturbs the wildlife in the soil.”

As farmers will tell you, carbon and nitrogen exist in the soil in a form not immediately accessible to the plant. These elements break down, but it is a slow process particularly below 10 cm beneath the surface. Ploughing speeds up the mineralisation of carbon and nitrogen. Hence it is used by farmers to help make carbon and nitrogen more readily available to the plant. However as Frédéric Mugnier points out, farmers plough deeper and deeper to reach layers where organic material is still available, and when they have exhausted this, they plough deeper still, to a point at which there is no organic material (humous is a complex form of organic material) available. The soil loses its structure and becomes extremely susceptible to erosion.

So Frédéric Mugnier”s solution? “Stop ploughing. This will restructure the soil and assist in the production of humous.” He also advocates leaving organic material such as straw on top of the soil and remarks, “the biological life will return. It is more ecological.” Frédéric prefers to hoe, just to get rid of the weeds. On this point, Jean-Marc Roulot, who ploughs in the autumn, comments that after ploughing he leaves any weeds to grow through the winter to prevent erosion.

What about cutting the laterals and encouraging the roots downwards? Dominic Lafon, who plough with horses remarks, “I am not worried about the laterals. That is stupid.  They will not go down. You must get the plant to grow to improve root activity.”

Etienne Grivot is equally unimpressed with this argument, although he adds that it does depend on the rootstock. With most rootstock, the principal root will go out laterally and along this root the second or third offshoot will descend. The rootstock 3309 is particularly lateral in behaviour while Riparia is the most vertical. So, he warns, you could kill your vine. He is sure the vine’s roots are more vulnerable in the winter, so he ploughs only in the spring.

Frédéric Mugnier finds the oxygen argument equally spurious pointing out that if the bacteria are used to living 15 cm beneath the surface, they are well adapted and why should they benefit from the extra oxygen? Again he stresses that “the soil will restructure itself if left alone and the bacteria and worms will re-establish themselves.” When he acquired Clos de la Marachale the soils were very compacted from deep ploughing with tractors. Frédéric used plants, in this case rye grass, to naturally aerate the soil via the channels made by the roots. The roots will grow in winter and then at the end of winter he will bury the grass to prevent it competing with the vines.

So what about the life of the soil? Well there is the strong argument that the tractors will compact the soil and impact on this life. At Domaine de L’Arlot they admit that compaction is a problem particularly with clay dominant soil and carefully control the number and the timing of the passes.

It may be a minor point, but a clean surface loses heat more quickly than a covered one, which is a point in consider in a marginal climate.

So there are certainly a few strong arguments against ploughing. Does ploughing using a horse mitigate some of these problems or does it entail a new set of its own?

The horse drawn plough

Dominic Lafon is one of the few vigneron who uses a horse. He argues “Horses are lighter. When using a tractor the back wheel goes on what we have just ploughed,” but more important to Dominic is the fact that he is introducing an animal into the vineyard. This is a biodymanic thing “a balance of animals, weeds, fruits etc – a horse is part of the biodiversity. “The breed of horse most often used is Auxerrois originating near Chablis, if I understood correctly, and have been traditionally used in Burgundy. Also in use today are small horses from the Jura. A third breed, Boulonnais is small and very strong, but remarks Dominic, is rather tricky.

Etienne Grivot gets technical with the compaction issue. He argues that a horse is not necessarily better. If a horse weighs in at 800-850 kilos, when it walks it has three hooves on the ground at any one time and carries a third of that weight on a tiny area. A tractor weighing 1800 kilos carries 450 kilos on each wheel, but it is spread over a much larger area. “So it is not just a question of philosophy, horses may just not be so good,” he muses and wonders if perhaps the best option might be a mule, lighter and stronger than a horse and more able to cope with difficult terrain.

So it’s not looking so good for the horse, particularly when one starts assessing the practicalities of sustaining the lovely image of the horse among the vines. Getting down to bass tacks, Dominic Lafon admits it costs three times that of a tractor.

At Domaine de L’Arlot horses were used for ten years. The particular vineyard is on a hill of 30-50% inclination, where the turning space is too small for a conventional tractor, but it is possible with a horse. They stopped using horses because it was too difficult to find someone to do the work well. Now they do it with a hand plough and a small caterpillar tractor.

Yves Confuron, wine-maker at Confuron-Cotetidot and Domaine de Courcel in Pommard, ploughs using an old tractor weighing 1.7 tonnes, which he says does not compact the soil. He can plough when the soil is dry… you can pick your timing he says, something you cannot do with a horse, as you have to book them in advance. However he would like to try them out a very uneven vineyard in Chambolle, which is difficult for tractors.

At Domaine Darviot Perrin they have some 95 year old vines. It is difficult to plough between these because the roots are very big and knotted. Didier and Genevrière have a small light plough and have to keep adjusting it to go around the roots. They comment that their parents, who experienced both tractor and horse, said that working with horses was too hard. Happily tractors technology is evolving. Some tractors have sensors which register the root of a vine and work away from it.

Didier comments that although a horse may only be 800 kilos on four hooves, the problem is getting the team you want. They know a ploughman with two horses. One is better than the other. When the good one feels a root it stops immediately, but the other stumbles ahead. Added to which, Didier argues, how practical are horses these days. In their parents’ day there were fields in which to graze the horses, but now these are now planted with Bourgogne Blanc and Aligoté. Perhaps it is not sustainable now.

There is a magic to the image of the horse drawn plough, but perhaps that is all it is? A myth in fact – an illusion of something better. What are the alternatives?

Permanent grass sward

This is the new world option and one which has been used successfully at Domaine Gouges since 1985 when they began planting ray grass between the rows to combat erosion in one vineyard. After four or five years Pierre and ChristianGouges noticed that the fruit from this vineyard had a greater concentration of colour, acidities and sugar. They proceeded to plant seven hectares, some in each of their premier cru, although not where there were very young vines on a slope as this would create too much competition. They argue that the grass competition in the mature vineyards has made the vine roots go deeper and interestingly the flavour of the terroir has become more pronounced. Christian Gouges adds that they also hoe under the feet of the vines two or three times in spring.

Gregory Gouges, who is now in charge, is convinced that the grasses have encouraged the microbial life and increased the number of earthworms. They are not only using ray grass these days, but fetuque. As the weather has changed and become drier the ray grass may offer too much competition, but the fetuque is a smaller Mediterranean plant which needs less water. Greg points out that the grass must be tough to withstand the tyres of the tractors passing through carrying out other work in the vineyard. This grass is tough. It is used on football pitches and golf courses.

Christian Gouges tells me there is a history of growing grasses between the vines which were traditionally cut by hand..this is a very laborious process. The grasses they are using now grow much more slowly and are easier to manage.

“It is very interesting to see the evolution of the wine, the increase in structure and depth since we began this system,”  says Greg Gouges. “The berries have become smaller and more concentrated with increased sugar, acidity and thickness of skins. There is increasing colour and tannins..and there is generally better maturity of the vine and grapes.”

Christian and Pierre Gouges also considers the resistance to disease has been increased. They have experienced much less rot. I asked them if they were measuring their results against a control and the answer is yes. In Clos de Porrets they have made four different vinifications – with and without grasses.

So why are other people not using grasses, if the benefits are so great? Christian Gouges reasons that it is more difficult to work with grasses and there is a risk as it can increase completion detrimentally and he admits that in 2003, maybe the vines/grapes were too mature.

And what of the dangers of frost? Greg Gouges admits that it could be a problem in April or May when the days are warm and the nights cold. The heat can rise if the soil is bare, but not where there is grass. It is a risk, particularly at the bottom of a slope where the frost settles. However as Domaine Gouges’s last major spring frost was 1988, the risk is not as great and the weather seems to have generally become warmer.

Growers including Etienne Grivot don’t like a permanent sward. He argues that it creates too much competition and this can result in the vines needing more nitrogen. Also he is convinced that during flowering the plant takes on some of the smell of the grasses which show up later on in the wine.

It seems that the ideal answer is a combination of two approaches, selective ploughing or hoeing, probably with a light tractor, together with some grass.

Dominic Lafon says, “weeds are good for the soil. If you get to the end of the cycle, the flower gives back to the soil. Also I believe in the good ambience they create.” He advocates working with natural weeds and flowers – whatever grows. “Genevrières comes up in yellow flowers and Charmes in dark blue flowers.” They provide a natural diversity, so Dominic does not seed.

He is convinced that you should not plough too much and delays the first ploughing in the spring until the end of April to benefit from all the spring flowers. He ploughs again at the end of May and maybe in July. Just three times, after which he lets the weeds grow. “It is better for the soil structure to have weeds. If the soil is not covered by plants it is very fragile to the water and the heat. So after July 15th I stop ploughing. Then by harvest other plants grow and all winter the vineyard stays green, which protects against erosion. I don’t touch the soil from the end of July until the next year.”

Etienne Grivot allows the weeds to grow in the winter to limit erosion and make the soil more permeable. As he points out, if there is a flash storm and the soil is bare though using herbicides, the soil may wash away. He does a light plough, essentially hoeing, in the spring to mulch the weeds, but the grasses still continue to play a part. As the roots die and decay they leave a vacuum, improving the structure.

There are two important words in my philosophy says Etienne Grivot, “compromise and harmony.” He has experimented with many approaches to sod culture and admits that “for 24 years I would not accept compromise, but over the years I realise that it is best to compromise in many things. Often in the middle ground there is a kind of wisdom.”  Today he uses a light herbicide in the spring; so that he starts the season with clean soil and although he admits this is a compromise, it is one that works for him.

As for ploughing Etienne Grivot uses a tractor, but one with large wheels of low pressure, so that the tyre squashes out and the surface area is flatter. He agrees a light tractor is better for avoiding soil compaction, but points out the difficulty in working the soil as the wheels spin and it is difficult to break the soil. “You need power to break the soil and so I use chose a compromise between light and strong.”

There are certainly benefits to the practice of ploughing, albeit they seem scientifically unproven and I think one cannot underestimate the importance of ploughing to the viticulture of the Côte d’Or. After the horrors of herbicides, it has significantly contributed to the improved quality of the life in the soil, the quality of the wine, and maybe even the expression of terroir.

There are drawbacks to ploughing, most notably erosion and compaction, but at its most effective ploughing is a more subtle process than I had envisaged – more of a light scratching – hoeing the surface, rather than a deep, furrowed turning of the soil and this approach leaves the important and fragile structure of the soil undisturbed. While Domaine Gouges seem to in a minority in advocating a permanent sward, it does appear that ploughing is most effective when used in conjunction with a natural cover of weeds.

As for the horse drawn plough, this seems more linked to philosophy than a practical or economic option for most vigneron. Those who harness up, soon discover why their forbearers gratefully abandoned horse power for engine power.