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The soil in conventional Mediterranean vineyards is an active and non-sustainable source of sediment and water. Lack of vegetation cover, small soil organic matter content and intense ploughing result in large rates of erosion in a millennia-old tillage system. There is a need for soil conservation strategies that enable sustainability of wine and grape production; therefore, it is essential to measure the rates and to investigate the processes and factors of soil erosion. This study evaluated factors that can reduce soil losses in traditional Mediterranean vineyards. The investigation was carried out with 96 rainfall simulation experiments at the pedon scale (0.24 m2) to measure soil detachment and runoff yield under low frequency-high magnitude rainfall events of 1 hour at 55 mm hour-1. On average, runoff was 40.6% of the rainfall, and the rate of soil erosion (i.e. amount of soil lost) was 71.5 g m-2. The key factor controlling erosion was the rock fragment cover. There was a clear decrease in soil losses with increased rock fragment cover on the soil surface, but an increase in surface runoff. The results of our study showed that rock fragments at the pedon scale reduced soil erosion in Mediterranean vineyards, but when a layer of embedded rock fragments developed, large rates of runoff were triggered. Highlights: We investigated soil erosion factors in Mediterranean vineyards. Rainfall simulation at the pedon scale achieved accurate measurements. Rock fragment cover reduces soil losses. Embedded rock fragment cover will trigger large runoff rates.