Abstract Crop simulation models are commonly used to forecast the performance of cropping systems under different hypotheses of change. Their use on a regional scale is generally constrained, however, by a lack of information on the spatial and temporal variability of environment-related input variables (e.g., soil) and agricultural practices (e.g., sowing dates) that influence crop yields. Satellite remote sensing data can shed light on such variability by providing timely information on crop dynamics and conditions over large areas. This paper proposes a method for analyzing time series of MODIS satellite data in order to estimate the inter-annual variability of winter wheat sowing dates. A rule-based method was developed to automatically identify a reliable sample of winter wheat field time series, and to infer the corresponding sowing dates. The method was designed for a case study in the Camargue region (France), where winter wheat is characterized by vernalization, as in other temperate regions. The detection criteria were chosen on the grounds of agronomic expertise and by analyzing high-confidence time-series vegetation index profiles for winter wheat. This automatic method identified the target crop on more than 56% (four-year average) of the cultivated areas, with low commission errors (11%). It also captured the seasonal variability in sowing dates with errors of ±8 and ±16days in 46% and 66% of cases, respectively. Extending the analysis to the years 2002–2012 showed that sowing in the Camargue was usually done on or around November 1st (±4days). Comparing inter-annual sowing date variability with the main local agro-climatic drivers showed that the type of preceding crop and the weather conditions during the summer season before the wheat sowing had a prominent role in influencing winter wheat sowing dates.