Dry Farmed Wine 101
Anish Patel @ 2022-11-03 13:51:16 -0700
The topic of dry farming doesn’t begin with wine, but in the wine world, it’s only becoming more relevant by the day. If you’ve ever heard the term “dry-farmed wine” you may have been in the presence of a very thoughtful, natural winemaker. But what is dry farming? How does it relate to wine and why is it important?
You’ll soon find that there are some pretty major opinions around it. It’s a conversation that leads to questions about what a grapevine needs to survive, and what’s happening with the climate as the planet warms. This guide is designed to tell you everything you need to know so that you can join in on the conversation too.
And even more importantly, your new understanding will help you make better choices the next time it’s time you go shopping for a bottle.
What is dry farmed wine?
Dry farming is the practice of growing a crop without irrigation. Meaning: no added water, just some good ole rain. Dry-farmed wine means that the grapevines survived off of rainwater alone during the summer.
The summer, as it turns out, is a pretty important season for grapevines. It is during the summer that the flowers on the grapevines become small green beads, which eventually ripen into delicious grapes full of sugar and flavor.
Grapevines are actually pretty tough plants. They can adapt to extreme climates. They can withstand weather patterns that other crops can’t like high winds, frigid winters, scorching summers, and nutrient-poor soils. The roots of a grapevine have the potential to grow as long as 9 feet, making it easy to compete with neighboring plants for nutrients. But it also means that if the soils are parched, they can dig deep into the earth to find a steady water supply.
So you can see that it's very important for a grapevine to have deep roots.
To encourage the roots to grow, it’s actually necessary to have a water deficit. Winemakers who want to ensure a long, healthy life for their vineyards will make sure that there’s not too much water readily available to the vines. The lack of water will cause the roots to go digging.
But even then, it takes a lot of water to make wine—like, a lot. And some climates are too hot and dry during the summers for the grapevines to rely on rainfall alone. At the same time, water conservation is more important today than it’s ever been.
Dry farming and the grapevine’s environment.
Dry farming and irrigation are two huge topics in wine, and as you’re about to see, they’re not so cut and dry (no pun intended).
As climate change continues to influence more severe weather patterns, it’s becoming harder and harder for winemakers to rely solely on rainfall to maintain their vineyards. And as the earth heats up and water becomes scarce, it is even more important to use the least amount of water necessary.
Let’s take a closer look at this complex topic.
Dry farming reduces water use
Water is a scarce resource and droughts are becoming more dangerous as the climate crisis progresses. It has been estimated that almost 400 liters of water are needed to make just one liter of wine. This water is used in the vineyard and inside the winery to maintain cleanliness.
In addition to drought, as the earth heats and dries, water evaporates faster. This means even more water is lost. Winemakers who are devoted to sustainability must come up with ways to minimize their water use, and dry farming is one way to do that.
Dry farming is better for vineyard health and longevity
Dry farmed wines cannot be made without a strong, deep root system in the vineyard. A steady water supply can often be found at deeper levels, and a strong root system is better for the grapevine in the long run. These grapevines are often able to live longer than irrigated vines, which means that they yield more wine over their lifetime.
Irrigated vines don’t have to search as enthusiastically for water, and as a result, their root systems are shallow.
More resilient against drought
In California, many winemakers reported that their dry-farmed vines didn’t suffer during droughts. This is another major reason to encourage root systems to grow deep into the earth, where they will find water supplies that can sustain them during hard times.
More minerals for the grapes to ripen.
There’s another major benefit of having a deep root system: more access to minerals. As the roots dig down into the earth, the soil structure changes, and there are more opportunities for mineral absorption. This also contributes to a healthier, more resilient grapevine.
But many winemakers also suggest that it also leads to better quality grapes.
Does dry-farmed wine taste better?
There’s a healthy debate going on in the wine community: does dry farmed wine taste better?
Those who say yes claim that the grapes are more concentrated, while irrigated wines tend to be more diluted as a result of getting too much water into the grapes when they’re ripe. They also argue that dry-farmed wines better express terroir, while irrigated wines don’t.
Proponents of dry farming understand that deeper root systems pull up more nutrients, but they also tend to yield lower sugar levels. In the end, this means a wine with lower alcohol levels, which in turn means a more approachable character.
Another reason that dry-farmed wines might taste better is because of how larger, conventional winemakers use irrigation. Their goal is to increase their crop yield, and they use irrigation to do it—but at the expense of wine quality. However, many smaller producers in hot, dry regions irrigate simply because they have to, rather than to maximize their profits. And they argue that irrigated vines can produce a wine that tastes just as good as any dry-farmed wine when done correctly.
How you irrigate matters too.
Unfortunately, global warming is forcing irrigation on many regions that have never had to rely on it in the past. While some water deficit is healthy for a grapevine to become strong, there is a line. Drought can stress the grapevine, causing them to shut down. This makes dry farming a difficult goal to achieve for many.
There are different methods of irrigation, some of which are more conservative than others. Overhead spraying drenches everything from above, like rainfall. But it uses a lot of water and isn’t a very efficient use of the water, so it is frowned upon by sustainable vintners. A drip line, which targets the root and uses less water, is more efficient.
Some winemakers use reclaimed wastewater to irrigate their vines, a practice being used in California. In Mendoza, Argentina, an ancient network of canals repurposes meltwater from the Andes to irrigate vines.
If it’s better for the environment, why doesn’t everyone do it?
Dry farming is an important goal for the wine community and the environmental benefits are glaringly obvious. But there are some major challenges to getting it done.
Because irrigated vines have shallow roots, switching to dry farming can take years. Those roots need to grow longer in order to survive the switch. Some vineyards are on soils that don’t retain water as well as others, and this makes dry farming a challenge as well.
Climate change is a huge obstacle to dry farming. Many regions simply can’t survive the season without supplementing their water as droughts and heat waves shock their vineyards.
Here’s how you can find dry-farmed wine
Like most things, you won’t find the term “dry-farmed” on the label. However, if you focus on small, natural wine producers, you’ll get closer to dry-farmed wine. These winemakers are intentional about how they interact with their environment to make their wine, and that includes water use. Some small producers will even tell you on their website whether or not they irrigate, and if they do, how it’s done.
This allows you to make an environmentally sound choice as you shop.
Our part in sustainability
Global warming certainly has changed the conversation around dry farming, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. Dry farming options in climate-stressed regions do exist, and in an industry that requires an astounding amount of water to function, conservation is key.
At the same time, a warming climate means that some regions simply can’t rely on rainfall year-round anymore. As a consumer, it’s important to look for dry-farmed wines. But it’s also important to do your part in understanding the climate crisis so that the winemakers that currently dry farm can continue to do so in the future.
Ready to try dry-farmed wine? Shop our selection of natural wines, made vegan and dry-farmed.