The Other Way of Doing It

More about ploughing…

Walked from Beaune to Meursault and back today.  In Volnay I saw a tractor rigged out with all the apparatus for ploughing, conveniently parked where I could have a good look whilst the driver had his lunch.

Looking at it, the first thing that came to mind was Bonnie Raitt’s (in)famous lyrics “let me be your blender baby / I can whip, chop and purée…”  These tractors come with bits to do it all – plough, spray, cut, the lot.  When you have been walking in too hot sun too long and your mind is a bit wandery, they really do start to look like something from a sci fi move – maybe the Matrix movie that had the war scenes down in the home base, those robotic monster machines that the good guys used.

Any way… in greater detail, the charrue like bits are between front and back wheels, there seem to be three different sorts of blades going on:

And then the griffe behind the back wheels:

Now, I wasn’t quite sure how all this would work, but as luck would have it, when I pushed on from Volnay to Meursault, someone was actually doing some ploughing – on his lunch hour no less! – in Champans (still in Volnay vineyards, and still pinot noir, and just to my left there was a sort of milestone to indicate this was Domaine Jacques Prieur).

First big difference of course, the tractor straddles a line of vines and ploughs two allées at once.  If you look really closely you can see that at least part of the charrue like bits is swung out slightly to the side (that red bit on left of wheel), I assume cutting along the foot of the outer vines.  On a guess, I would imagine one of those other pieces is cutting along the center vine, and of course the mirror image is going on on the other side.  And the griffe follows on and opens up the soil after the tractor wheels.

When he came out of the vineyard at my end, he had quite a pile of cut weeds and stuff tangled up in the charrue blades – he backed and forthed a bit to shake it off, then turned and went up the next pair of rows – and that’s when I took this picture.

When I visited David Clarke in April we talked about his choices re ploughing – he is using a horse for his Vosne Romanee vineyard, but still using tractor on the others.   I don’t remember the numbers, but David quoted the relative weights of tractor and horse, and when you think about the impact – the compacting of the soil – it was  sobering.  One of the key tenets of organic and bio-dynamic culture is maintaining the health of the soil, and keeping it loose and open structured is key to this, to encourage aeration, microbial and insect life and easy absorption of water.

Basically – the choice is driven by expense.  By horse is very expensive (he hires someone to do this for him) and time consuming (four passes by horse versus one by tractor, so up goes the time and expense), and of course if the weather goes against you the day you’ve booked it, bad luck, and if the horse is having a bad day and doesn’t get it all done as planned you might need to book another day or part day … you get the drift.  And it represents a new additional expense out of pocket, whereas for him to use the tractor is basically free – or rather, incurs no significant additional expense, as he’s already paid for the thing, and he can do the work himself.

So, it has to be a balance between expense, time, and the expected price and market for the wine – will the wine from this particular vineyard be able to be sold at a price to justify and cover the cost of horse ploughing?

Of course the dewey eyed environmentalist wants no more tractors (hunks of junk consuming all that nasty petrol!), and from the standpoint of the ideal health and optimum tilth of the soil, the horse is to be preferred.  And heck, it’s rather an appealing and romantic image – until you actually watch horse and man sweating in the blistering heat and can fully appreciate just what bloody hard work it is.

But I can see the sense in carrying on with the tractors too, and honestly, having looked at the allées ploughed by each, I haven’t seen very much difference – granted as an amateur only looking as best she can from the edge of the vineyard; if you could dig down a bit, you might better realise the extent of the compaction of tractor ploughed land.  The one ploughed by tractor which I had a really good look at a few days ago – no photos, apologies – the main difference I could see was that some of the vines were a bit damaged by the blades.  In theory this shouldn’t happen – there are sensors ahead of the blades which if they hit a vine will swing the blade inward a bit in an effort to avert damage.  And they move really slowly, and the ploughman is always looking down to keep an eye on all this – as in the photo above.  Further on towards Meursault today I was walking past someone else ploughing, in vines which ran parallel with the road.  I was tired and having a good look around, so probably walking only perhaps 2 or 2.5 miles an hour – and I passed him effortlessly.

What can I say?  I’ve got Libra rising.  I can see both sides of the argument and sympathise with and understand the use of both, whatever my own preference might be if I had a vineyard of my own to tend (dream on…).

Oh… and coming back into Beaune I saw three people resting from their labours – leaning on good old fashioned hand held hoes.