Turn it off: Why the wine industry should prioritise dry farming

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Drinks: Drinks, Wines

Sustainability is a big buzzword in the wine world at the moment – yet the industry’s cavalier use of water is an environmental time bomb. Time we prioritised dry farming, says Linda Johnson-Bell


Wine or water? This is the choice that many of the world’s winemakers are currently facing as our most well-loved wine regions across the globe shrivel with heat and drought.

With the effects of climate change regularly making front pages, the wine industry is responding by moving beyond the scope of ‘organic’ and working towards a broader definition of sustainability. However, many sustainable wine programmes tend to overlook the use of freshwater irrigation, instead focusing on issues such as renewable energy, biodiversity and social equity.

Wouldn’t consumers be interested to know the impact wine production has on the world’s water supply?

Recent research found that over a third of consumers actively seek out brands and companies based on their social, environmental and ethical impact. The figure is even higher for millennials, with 75% of people in that age group willing to spend more on sustainable products.

But with all of the climate change stories in the media, there is one story that has escaped public scrutiny – the amount of freshwater being used to irrigate vineyards across the globe. Vineyards where irrigation is legally practised tend to use the greatest amount of freshwater.

Some 83% of the New World wine regions are irrigated. In the Old World, this figure is 10%, but it will probably increase as legislation becomes more lax and wine growers ignore or leave the appellation system in order to compete with international yields.

The Water Footprint Network states that it takes 5l of water to make a 125ml glass of wine without irrigation – this is solely water that is used in the winery.

Add irrigation and that number rises to 110l of water per glass in a temperate climate, and to over 240l in drought-ridden regions. There is a lot of controversy in the scientific community over the relativity of yields, vine stress and ‘supplemental’ irrigation, as well as how to determine wine’s water footprint and its composition: proportions used of rainfall (green), freshwater (blue), and recycled (grey).

You can imagine how wine’s freshwater footprint is unique in its dramatic variations from region to region and even plant to plant, but spending time arguing over these differences is pointless. The relevant question we need to ask is whether it’s irresponsible to use our precious freshwater supplies to irrigate a luxury crop for the sake of increased productivity and profit if we don’t have to.

Wine grapes represent a global industry worth over £229bn. They are the most valuable fruit crop in the world. At the same time, wine is the climatologist’s ‘canary in the coal mine’.

It is the crop that is most susceptible to changes in climate. It is so responsive, in fact, that scientists have predicted that the area of land suitable for wine production will have shrunk by up to 75% by 2050.

The first step

Unfortunately, if understandably, as temperatures climb, many producers are increasing freshwater irrigation, which will continue to salinate soils, dilute wine quality and further deplete our already scarce freshwater supplies.

Dry farming leaders
Here is a brief sip of New World dry-farming producers. A complete list would include thousands and it grows with each harvest season. Most of these growers also combine organic, carbon neutral and biodynamic techniques.

Both consumers and producers are asking whether we’ll run out of wine and which regions are most at risk. Questions are being raised about how climate change will affect wine’s taste and its alcohol content. But the most urgent question is this: can we make a difference through the wines we choose to stock, serve and drink?

The answer is yes, we can. But before there can be organic, natural, green, zero-carbon or biodynamic wines with any authenticity to help us in this quest, there have to be ‘dry-farmed’ wines.

Dry farming is the method of preparing the soil to maximise the moisture of the winter rainfall and sustain the vines during their growing season. It encourages root systems to grow deep enough to find their own water and micro-nutrients, and to grab hold of the taste of the soil or terroir. Irrigated vines, by contrast, have root systems that stay near the surface, rendering them vulnerable to climatic events and robbing them of vital nutrients.

Dry farming is more than just not irrigating. It requires careful soil preparation and a will of steel, but it pays off and dry-farmed grapes taste better. They are sweeter, more concentrated and intense. Dry farming also allows the vine and its soil structure to live a longer, stronger life.

European wine laws ban or restrict irrigation for both qualitative and quantitative reasons. But after the severe droughts in southern France of 2003, 2005 and 2006 and a barrage of wine producers’ protests, the strict AOC laws were relaxed and some irrigation, under certain conditions, was permitted. The French décret n° 2006-1527 was the start of this allowance.

The initial mechanisms for permitting irrigation were counterproductive to both crop growth and conservation efforts.

But more recently, the décret has been revised to allow irrigation after 15 August, ensuring that irrigated parcels keep to the original dry-farming yields. The French may have got this right.

So is allowing more irrigation in France a good or a bad thing? Olivier Martin of the Federation of Nantes Wines and co-owner of the Domaine Merceron-Martin says it’s a shame to see people undoing the work ‘mother nature’ has already done.

‘To start irrigating means to invite all the root systems back up to the surface,’ he says. ‘More and more, with the heat and the irrigation, the traditional French wines will not be French anymore. They will taste like they come from anywhere, but many French winemakers are happy now to have the high yields that can be found in the rest of the world.’

Going dry

During a recent trip to Switzerland, former Sommelier du Monde winner Paolo Basso announced that it would be ‘too hot to grow Pinot Noir here in ten years’. Shockingly, despite the substantial winter rainfall available to them, warming temperatures are leading some producers to start irrigating for the first time.

Claude Berthaudin of the Domaine du Crêt in Switzerland was dismissive of such practices. ‘The only reason someone in my region would irrigate is to increase their yields. The vines don’t need it,’ he says.

Somewhat ironically, as parts of Europe move towards irrigation, water shortages mean that New World regions are increasingly moving away from it.

Many New World wine producers are already long-time champions of dry farming, while others are now starting the slow and careful process of transitioning. British Columbia’s Painted Rock Estate has been sustainably farmed since the end of 2010. Owner John Skinner does use some drip irrigation to get his vines started, but he is otherwise in the middle of weaning his vines off water, reducing levels of irrigation every year.

A time of reckoning

Why and dry: The pros and cons of dry farming 

Pros

  • Wines show stronger terroir
  • Yields fruit that is smaller, sweeter and more intense
  • Soil has better minerality
  • The tilling required for dry farming cuts down on weeds
  • Plants live longer, are more robust
  • Allows for both energy and
    water savings
  • No installation and maintenance costs for irrigation
  • Offers marketing potential
  • Prevents soil salination
  • Only requires 12-inch minimum annual rainfall
  • More reliable than irrigation due to irregular water supplies and/or eventual no-water scenario

 

Cons

  • Smaller fruit means smaller yields
  • Vineyards come into production about five years later
  • Soil preparation and maintenance
    is time-consuming
  • Not all soils are suitable (requires deep and water-retentive soils)
  • If soil is too dry, grapes can turn into raisins – the end game
    Provides no safety net in the event of long-term drought

And in Chile, one of the worst irrigation offenders, high-profile producers are now transitioning. Aurelio Montes in the Colchagua Valley has added a premium dry-farmed range to his portfolio.

Moreover, even in the most drought-ridden regions, there are wine producers who are proving that dry farming works. Will Bucklin’s Old Hill ranch in Sonoma has vines that have not been irrigated since 1885. South Africa’s Swartland is also famous for its dry-farmed wines.

The owner of Napa’s famous Frog’s Leap, John Williams, is another champion of dry farming, and currently dry farms over 200 acres of certified-organic vineyards. He believes that ‘deeply rooted vines produce grapes with more balanced flavours that are reflective of the land’, not to mention the water-saving benefits.

Williams reminds us that dry farming was the norm in California until the late 1970s. In fact, there are many accounts that reveal that the California wines that won the Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976 were all dry farmed.

Ultimately, the best way to save both our wine and our water supply, and to ensure that we have quality wines in the future, is to make dry farming the global industry standard. If a producer isn’t able to grow grapes without irrigation, then they’ll have to diversify or migrate.

This is what producers of other luxury crops are doing. Coffee, tea, sugar and cocoa are all suffering from climate change and farmers are shifting regions and facing mass migration.

Winemaker Michael Back of Backsberg Farm, outside Cape Town, is a sustainable and carbon-neutral grower, but he irrigates. He believes that the number of growers will shrink with climate change as people look for niche terroirs where wine can still be grown. He is also climate-proofing his business by experimenting with five other crops.

A brief conversation with Warren Granat-Mulder of Orange River Cellars Co-operative, formerly of Rust en Vrede, reveals that diversification is already part of the South African winemaker’s mindset.

‘Lots of our neighbours are growing apricots and other crops – wine isn’t viable,’ he says. ‘Dry farming can be a struggle, even with the right soils and winter rainfall because of the heat. At 40°C, the stress is too much and the vines shut down.’

Rust en Vrede dry farms its Chenin Blanc and drip irrigates the rest of its vines as little as possible. ‘People will adapt until they can’t anymore,’ he says. ‘Then they’ll diversify, and then they will migrate.’

Wine, however, is a bit different from other luxury crops. Diversification and migration are scary words in this industry. It is one thing to move a wheat field or a tea plantation, but it’s quite another to expect a family to leave a 300-year-old château or to stop making wine altogether.

Making water work

There will, however, come a day when a climatic, economic and legislative collision will render irrigation impossible in many places. Earlier this year, Cape Town and its surroundings were on level-six drought restrictions. The first decent winter rains for several years have eased the situation, but dams remain little more than half full, with the Western Cape’s at only 18.3%.

Water management has to be the number-one priority of true sustainability. This is not a niche topic. The events unfolding today affect the drinks retail sector, the travel and tourism industries, environmentalists, historians, consumers, biologists, the wine investment markets and, of course, the UK’s restaurants.

Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, we need to support wine producers as they navigate their way in these changing landscapes. The best way to do this is to encourage true, water-smart sustainability so that we safeguard the future of one of life’s greatest joys and luxuries.


Linda Johnson-Bell is the author of Wine and Climate Change: Winemaking in a New World (Burford Books) and the founder and CEO of The Wine and Climate Change Institute. Her book Blind Drunk: Wine or Water? will be published in early 2019.

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Imbibe Editorial

With a core team that includes Chris Losh, Miranda Fitzgerald, Laura Foster, Holly Motion and Isabella Sullivan, plus an impressive roster of columnist bartenders, sommeliers and specialist journalists, Imbibe collectively boasts hundreds of years of on-trade drinks industry experience and knowledge.

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