Dry Farmed Wines

How you can help the world's fresh water supply one bottle of wine at a time

 


Today I want to take a moment to consider the impact wine making has not just on our lives, but also on the world around us. It can be a very intensive type of farming, with many producers using fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and significant amounts of carbon-based fuels during production, just to name the biggest factors.

One aspect of farming that is often over-looked is the use of water. While we are all in a tizzy when it comes to fossil flues and chemical additives used in farming, we often forget to examine the use of life’s most basic requirement: water.

I’m not going to belabor the point, water is a limited resource that is renewable to a certain extent, but our agricultural system is exploiting this resource faster than our aquifers can be refilled. So what should we do about it? There’s a lot we can do, but one thing we can do today, right now, is drink a bottle of wine made from dry farmed grapes. Here are five of my favorites!

Photo courtesy jazz2kde via Flickr/CC

What is Dry Farming?

A few points about dry farming before getting started. If you’re interested in reading more on the method check out: Dry Farming. Most vineyards in Europe are dry farmed and in fact are required to be dry farmed by law, though there is often some exception for new plantings which are particularly susceptible to the stress of drought.

It can be argued that dry farmed vines possess a certain balance that their irrigated brethren do not. While I’m not entirely on board with this concept, I will say that old vines that are dry farmed develop root systems that insulate them from many of the vagaries associated with inconsistent rainfall, so they generally produce more successful wines in times of either drought or excessive rainfall.  

I understand that not everyone can dry farm, but those that can. particularly when they have other options, should be applauded for it and supported.
 

Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel

If you start with old vines you’ve got a much easier road to hoe than if you’re going to plant a new vineyard. When you consider that irrigation only arrived to California’s vineyards en masse in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s no surprise that many of the old vine vineyards are still very happy to go about their business with any help from irrigation.

Dry Creek Valley is all about old vine Zinfandel, and much of it is dry farmed. It’s a way of life for most of these farmers, with winemakers convinced that they produce better wines because of it.  You also get the feeling that their farming in a place called “Dry Creek” has made an impression on them!

Two to try:

Nalle ZinfandelAn iconoclastic Zin. Dry farmed and field blend, it represents Dry Creek at its most elegant.

SausalAnother old time Zinfandel producer, Sausal continues to produce classic, gutsy, opulent Zins from their dry farmed vines.

Photo courtesy Michaela_Rose_ via Flickr/CC

Santorini Assyrtiko

At first glance, Santorini seems to be the worst place on earth to dry farm. Not only is there essentially no water, but the poor, loose soil (if you can call it that) resembles oceans of incessantly dusty pumice. Of course, the fact that this soil is youthful volcanic pumice and ash help to contribute to that impression!

Dry farming then is likely practiced here because there simply is no viable alternative. In a twist of nature, the water the vines get comes as much from overnight fogs as it does from impossibly deep root systems. Assyrtiko is a lovely wine, it’s mineral, tense and perfect for shellfish or whetting one’s appetite

Two to try:

HatzidakisAn artisanal producer practicing biodynamic methods, this is particularly tense and mineral-driven expression of Assyrtiko.

ArgyrosA more fruit-driven style, but this is still tense and sapid – a great introduction to Assyrtiko.
 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Marcelo Costa
 

Oregon Pinot Noir

In a land where too much rain is the overriding concern, it’s not surprising to find plenty of dry farmed vineyards. The real question is why all of these vineyards are not dry farmed. The truth is that in many cases, the water simply doesn’t come when it is needed, which is naturally during the hottest days of the season. Old vines and deep roots do much to alleviate this issue, but some producers are still hesitant to abandon their positions on this matter. Still, there are plenty of producers who do make wines from dry farmed fruits and compelling wines at that.

Two to try:

Cameron Pinot NoirOne of the most impressive producers of Oregon Pinot Noir which has remained a bit of a cult secret.

Brandborg Pinot Noir  – A real surprise from the Umpqua Valley in southern Oregon which can challenge the best of the Willamette.

Chilean Carignan

Chile is blessed with abundant rainfall as well as a very Euro-centric wine making culture, so it comes as no surprise to find dry farmed vineyards common throughout the country. Some larger producers do irrigate to help support yields.

One of the treasures of Chile that has not been exported enough to be recognized is the dry farmed, bush trained old vines of Carignan that are common in the Maule region. These can be a challenge to find but are worth hunting down!

Two to try:

Odfjell Vineyards Carignan - A bit of a more modern interpretation of Carignan, replete with oak spice and vanilla notes.

De Martino CarignanA more rustic effort, rich and chewy with wonderfully fresh and bright fruit
 

Long Island Whites

New York State’s wines have come a long way over the past three decades, and I have been lucky to sample many of the wines along the way. Lucky not because the wines used to be special, many sucked, but because I can now see how far they’ve come.

Long Island is a bit damp and can be a challenging place to ripen grapes at times, but one that is ideally suited for dry farming. I am coming around to some of the reds from Long Island, but I’ve found the real successes among the whites, and the Sauvignon Blancs in particular. Dry farming is far from universal on Long Island, but some of the oldest vineyards have made the commitment to dry farming and their wines continue to rank among the region’s finest.

Two to try:

Bedell ChardonnayThey helped pioneer the region and Kip Bedell is famous for mentoring half the winemakers out there!

Channing Daughter’s WhitesThe cutting edge of experimentation on Long Island’s South Fork. All of the whites are worth a taste and given their prices, maybe two!
 

Want to Learn More?

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Comments

  • Snooth User: dryfarm
    546988 2

    The small producer by the name of Rainborne is producing wines from dry-farmed vineyards exclusively.
    One of the few, perhaps only California winery that lives the philosophy of dry-farming.

    Mar 22, 2012 at 12:02 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 233,904

    Thanks for the tip! I look forward to checking them out!

    Mar 22, 2012 at 12:27 PM


  • We have dry-farmed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for the last 20 years. The deep root system allows the vines to pick up minerality and a flavor profile that is unique to our terrior. Shallow roots that develop with drip irrigation do nothing to give wine a sense of place. You might as well grow the vines in a bucket of potting mix. That's why irrigation is illegal in most of the great appelations of France!

    Mar 22, 2012 at 2:30 PM


  • Not really sure that I am on board with this story. The issue of Dry Farming is so idiosyncratic to a particular vineyard, AVA/Vintage, region, and country that I find this article just spins off another fad to overwhelm an already confused wine-buying public. I completely agree with the point that dry farming in the right regions/vineyards is a good thing. What I don't agree with is how this paints a very complex idea into a such a simple brush stroke.

    Mar 22, 2012 at 6:58 PM


  • Not really sure that I am on board with this story. The issue of Dry Farming is so idiosyncratic to a particular vineyard, AVA/Vintage, region, and country that I find this article just spins off another fad to overwhelm an already confused wine-buying public. I completely agree with the point that dry farming in the right regions/vineyards is a good thing. What I don't agree with is how this paints a very complex idea into a such a simple brush stroke.

    Mar 22, 2012 at 6:58 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 233,904

    I hear you Vitis. It is a complex question, but my point is not to suggest that people only drink dry farmed wines, but rather that we should incorporate them into the wines we drink, both for their quality as well as for their lessened environmental impact. Today is water day, and in light of that I'm suggesting that people try dry farmed wines to celebrate.

    Mar 22, 2012 at 7:23 PM


  • Fair enough. I do enjoy your writing, Greg. It's just that as a wine professional I can't tell you how often I hear you quoted (which is a testament to your following), but that people often read the headline only or fail to understand the details or complexity. I've already had one friend email me today and ask me if I 'dry farm'

    ;-)

    Mar 22, 2012 at 7:37 PM


  • I can add to the debate just a little by saying that the roots of vines that struggle for water and are not given any go further into the earth, and pick up complexity and terroir.
    This is a way of trying to understand why the French are so potty about terroir, minerality and so on, beacuse it is unique to the rock formations underneath their sunny slopes, that imbue the grapes with their particular complexity.
    It is not practicable in larger areas, where there are stories of heroism that date back to the irrigation of inhospitable land. Britain expelled to Australia many men and women, often for puny crimes like stealing a loaf of bread. One settler, skilled in building boats back in England, turned his skill to building an irrigation system for the inhospitable terrain of Langhorne Creek. Frank Potts efforts and those of others like him should be a source of wonder to our cosseted souls.
    We wine drinkers can have the best of both types of hard work in the vineyard, wet and dry........there is no need to put one above the other.

    Mar 23, 2012 at 5:56 AM


  • Gregory introduced a interesting story and I can see right away some of you are not ready to accept it as GOSSPLE. Well that is healthy in an educated community, especially with professionals involved.
    Long ago I believe I read where Martin Ray (of Santa Cruz Moutains, Mt. Eden ) said that when vines are stressed they produce better fruit then when they are over watered. The philosophical theory behind this is the vines instinctively know that where they are growing, is an inhospitable place so they produce better fruit to attract the birds who carry off the seeds to be spread to a more hospitable area to seed in.
    When I heard this, I thought of the Eric Burton and the Animal’s song “ We got to get out of this place”. A favorite tune of mine when I lived in a dorm in Ankara Turkey my Junior and Senior year of high school. So I can relate to this vines stressing over lack of water. My stress was lack of a good football team to play on, lack of a swim team to practice with, lack of working on an old jalopy, lack of the old Malt Shop. For you younger readers. McDonalds had not become the popular hamburger joint across America at that time.
    What I did not lack was girls and music. We have a large girls dorm where we had our own Dick Clark dance hall every afternoon, dancing until dinner time and on Sat and Sundays. The dorms were isolated from Ankara four miles away and we dormies could not leave the dorm or school area unless with a sponsor or dorm organized trip. So we were bottled up most of the time.
    However, I think the dorm life build character and many a grape grower has said the same thing about the fruit from vines on the hill sides verse fruit from the vines on the valley floor where more water is available to the roots.
    A good thought from Martin Ray: ” IF we have 23 to 24 inches of rainfall we consider it sufficient but a little bit of a dry year. Such years, however, are when you get your best grapes - not your heaviest crop but the berries are a bit smaller, so the seeds and skin surface are large proportionally and they get a little more sugar because there’s less moisture. Twenty-five inches of rain, if it doesn’t all fall at once, is idea. We’ve had up to 70 inches one or two years, and you get an enormous crop but also a poor vintage.”
    Talking about grapes and the juice it produces is a complex discussion because of the many variable that can enter the discussion but such a discussion is far better than none at all. Especially when it involves many passionate people about wine.
    Chris-Marks comment as a grower is very insightful and compliments Ray’s. The along came Williamsim- pson with his good insight about the Potty French, I have to think about that one as I am a good part French. Then Vitis-Venifera points out the obvious to a professional and not so obvious to the casual drinker of wine. Thank you all for your thoughts as it makes this an interesting read.

    Mar 23, 2012 at 10:10 AM


  • Oh dear - I didnt mean the French are potty - just that they are emphatic about terroir precisely because the dry grown vines send their roots towards the centre of the earth picking up traces of its minerality. To the French the terroir is emphasised so much it seems a bit unusual but when you taste the good wines especially those who pursue biodynamic viticulture or adhere to the family traditions, their emphasis makes sense. The most complex soils and the sunniest hills do indeed determine the highest prices.

    This emphasis on terroir is because they are starved of water.
    But I would be sad if we began disrespecting those whose vines need a little help

    Mar 23, 2012 at 10:32 AM


  • Good additional notes on terroir and vines. I was only trying to be funny, I took no affront from your comment but a compliment as tradional ways tend to stand up to time and progressive thinking in the wine industry.

    Mar 23, 2012 at 11:07 AM


  • Snooth User: Wisequeen Donna Jackson
    Hand of Snooth
    1062644 317

    A trend towards " natural wines" and now low impact wines, is both confusing and isolating for the average wine drinker. Of course the sophisticated investor/ collector of wine may favor French wine that hasnt had a drop of water fed to it except from the hand of God, but I suspect its purely the brand that attracts them and of course if they find the wine palatable and have been influenced by their wineseller. For the rest of us the two major factors are: do I like the taste of this wine, and, can I afford it?
    I have watched a similar debate about wines that apparently contain no sulphites virtually confuse the dickens out of people. Most of us know its impossible to make wine, thats going to be aged without sulphites, but however, that trend too is now current.
    Anything that breaks down the barriers that MW s work so hard to construct is a good thing because there is a wine for everyone.
    A particular wine is not good for the average wine drinker because The Parkers and Sucklings of the world say it is, but rather because one of his friends discovered it, recommended it and he visited the vineyard and fell in love with it, became its disciple and is now talking about it at ever dinner party he goes to, social media is his friend in this.

    Wine snobs abound and so do food snobs, we need to simplify the wine message, as we all know, many of these "so called" boutique wines are actually negotiant wines where there is no winery or provenance and noboby really knows how they actually grow their grapes or if they buy-in juice.

    So whilst I care about dry vines and being careful about water, and applaud the French, I am myself a Huguenot, I think the water argument is best left alone, new world and old world producers water their vines.
    Some amazingly good wines will die for lack of sales this year, while at the same time others much less amazing will thrive. Its called branding.
    Thanks for the article Greg.

    Apr 05, 2012 at 4:26 AM


  • Snooth User: himichael
    1809248 16

    "Most of us know its impossible to make wine, thats going to be aged without sulphites, but however, that trend too is now current." That is simply not true. If wine is made without the use of SO2 and enters the bottle unspoiled and with decent acidity, tannins and fruit, it can be very age-worthy. I have tasted such wines. I believe that I am currently making such wines. On a related note, aging wine is a worthy thing to do, but it's pretty rare. Do you have a cellar to age wine? I don't. Not one in 100 wine drinkers do.

    Feb 28, 2015 at 8:33 PM


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