To irrigate or not to irrigate, that is the question. While the idea of wineries dry farming may seem like a new concept, in fact it is a reality of traditional viticulture spanning hundreds of years. Dry farming is simply growing grapes without the use of irrigation and solely relying on Mother Nature.
For most New World producers, irrigation seems like the be-all and end-all of viticulture. After all, it allows for much larger yields – but at the cost of the quality of the grapes.
The purpose of dry farming is to force the vine’s roots to dig deep for water, which ultimately results in them becoming drought-resistant. Dry-farmed vineyards have proven to be the hardiest and healthiest vines, resistant to drought, freezing weather and infestations.
Those seeking domestic dry-farmed wines should look to California, where an upsurge of this practice took root as a result of the drought that began in 2011. For some wineries, it was a logical step because of the increased strain on existing water supplies. For others, it was the product of the rising cost of irrigation. The fear in California was that they wouldn’t be able to successfully dry farm. What we have seen over the past few years, though, are lower yields and increased quality.
It’s commonly known within the wine industry that all European wines are dry-farmed. In fact, it is illegal to irrigate there. There are, as always, a few exceptions, but as a whole, if you are seeking dry-farmed wines, France, Italy and Spain are the best place to begin your search. It is permissible to irrigate new plantings of vines, but this practice is only allowed until the vines become fit for production, usually 3 to 5 years into their lives. Once grapes begin to be harvested for wine production, all irrigation is prohibited.
Over the past several months there has been a surge of interest regarding this age-old tradition. Social media seems to be the vector, with several online wine clubs targeting consumers with this so-called new viticultural philosophy – at an expensive price tag to boot. But don’t fret – there are countless options for those interested in dry-farmed wines at prices starting under $10.
Another concern of those seeking dry-farmed wines is sustainability. The practice of dry farming in and of itself is sustainable to some degree. While not all European producers are committed to sustainable practices, the majority are committed to farming organically and even bio-dynamically. The organic and bio-dynamic principles vary, but the underlying principle is to not use herbicides and pesticides, thus preserving the microbial life of their soils and maintaining a clean water table.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.