Wine Words: Dry Farming

How a lack of water makes for better wine


Most winemakers you meet will insist that wines are made in the vineyard, not the cellar. The truth is that good wine can be made in the cellar, but great wine really does begin out in the field. There are a lot of different vineyard management techniques that are worthy of discussion, but one that is most interesting to me is dry farming.

Each country, and sometimes different regions within that country, maintain their own regulations regarding the irrigation of vines. In some areas all the vines are dry farmed by default, but in others, where irrigation is an available option, wineries often stress on their wine labels that their vines are dry farmed by choice. Ever wonder why?

Dry farmed

So what is dry farming, and what good is it anyway? Well "dry farmed" means just that: The vines don’t benefit from irrigation. The struggle for survival puts stress on the vines, and stress, if you ask some folks (yours truly included) equals flavor, complexity, and balance in a wine.

Think about it. If you give a vine everything it needs to grow in abundance -- lots of warm sunlight, rich soil, and endless water -- the vine is gonna get fat. That means it’ll produce lots of vegetation, lots of grapes, and with just a little help limiting those yields, lots of really sugar rich grapes at that.

Now, if there are some stresses placed on that vines, what happens? The first thing is that yields go down. Fewer grapes are produced, so energy is concentrated on the remaining grapes. In order to be prepared to deal with any eventuality, the vines go through a different growth cycle, producing different flavors and textures than those pampered vines. One way to make sure that the vines feel this stress each year is by dry-farming them. In addition, dry farmed vines go searching for water, probing deeply into the soil so that they are prepared when drought conditions do occur.

Of course that is not to say that these vines don't undergo what's known as hydric stress, a condition that causes vines to shut down photosynthesis when there is not enough avaable water to supply the vine with its daily requirements. Even dry farmed vines can suffer from drought, and more importantly high heat, but it takes much more severe conditions to affect them in this way. Before they get to the point of shutting down, they exhibit the classic traits of vines under stress, something that I believe contributes to interesting character in the resulting wine!

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Kyle Graynor
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    455797 7,460

    Great insight into the process of wine making. I always assumed more water was better.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 2:16 PM

  • Snooth User: nonyabizz
    129930 12


    Aug 03, 2010 at 2:37 PM

  • It's a not-well-kept secret in the wine industry that the the Really Big producers flood their vineyards prior to harvest. That surge of water plumps up the grapes, so they yield more juice. However, the juice is "diluted" with the extra water, so the winemakes have to add sugar and flavor enhancers. Quite the opposite of dry farming, this is one reason why cheap wine tastes like cheap wine.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 3:21 PM

  • I think dry farming only works for older vines. If done by an experienced grower, I agree that it can produce exceptional wines.

    One of the reasons for that is that the dry condition leads the vine to shift from vegetative to generative reproduction. Since grapes are the generative reproduction, they receive more energy from the plant.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 3:50 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Interesting point. Of course in order to dry farm you have to, well dry farm. I think irrigation during the first few years is not an issue but afterwards the only way to do it is to simply do it. It's going to cost the winery a vintage or three of production as the vines first use more energy for root propagation while searching for water, but in the long run, and certainly by the time the vines are old, the plant will be better suited to deal with the vagaries of the seasons.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 4:11 PM

  • The grape is a essentially a "philodendron" -i.e., in its natural habitat it grew as a parasite on the trunk and branches of larger trees. Unlike the herbaceous philodendron, the grape vine is actually a tree in it's own right. Once its roots find their water supply, it produces fruit accordingly.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 4:17 PM

  • Snooth User: dryfarm
    546988 2

    If you are interested in dry farmed wines check out

    Aug 03, 2010 at 4:37 PM

  • Snooth User: Chelsey E
    Hand of Snooth
    492205 255

    I think this is true of many fruits, veggies, and herbs - they're better if they struggle a little. The same might even go for people too - make it too easy on us and we just get lazy!

    Aug 03, 2010 at 4:54 PM

  • Snooth User: JCaputo69
    458763 1

    Wines are like humans in that sense, the more trouble they overcome the better and more interesting and complex they are.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 4:59 PM

  • Snooth User: winetastinginLA
    Hand of Snooth
    498900 29

    This was an interesting article. The terroir of the vine was of interest to me, and I knew that the amount or lack of water the vines received would make a difference in the character of the wine. Great info.
    Norma Serrano, Wine Consultant

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:08 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    A good theme, Greg, and well chosen to present here. Any case studies/specific examples you can also present?

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:15 PM

  • Snooth User: rafagaz
    354268 1

    Probably this explains why in Spain's Priorat Region you find some very good wines with heavy body and high alcohol levels.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:16 PM

  • Snooth User: bonnieux
    287185 1

    Been in the wine industry for a while now, have never heard of anyone flooding the vineyard prior to harvest! The grapes are harvested based on "brix" readings (different for each varietal and the preference of the winemaker) so it's become a common practice for the winery to buy higher sugar, lower weight (ie:dehydrated) fruit and add water after crushing...higher sugar yields higher alcohol content (something I don't like, "hot" wine is not pleasant to drink alone) the lower weight of the fruit also saves the winery money because they pay their growers based on harvested weight.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:17 PM

  • I do like the concept of dry farming. However, generalising this subject would harm the concept. As with humans, too much trouble might kill.

    It all depends on the location and soil conditions. Some areas work well, others might not. E.g. if you go to the Mosel river and their steep slate vineyards, I think it works well. If the vine has enough time, it will grow roots long enough to find water. In an area with heavy (clay) soil that gets enough rain during the grow period, you never will be able to get the dry farming effect. In areas that are too dry or do not have any water table, the vines will starve to death.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:20 PM

  • This is very relative!!
    The most important of all is the genetic constitution of the vine. If the genetic basis is not good, you can kill a vine thirsty and that will not make the wine better. This is the reason why we are getting very good results in our Malbec Clonal Selection Program. First are the clones, which will behave differently in each terroir and at the end we can manage water to optimize wine quality.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:21 PM

  • Snooth User: Gavilan Vineyards
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    517320 40

    Not sure about the flooding either.
    We actually stop watering 4-6 weeks prior to projected harvest to rally the fruits. I guess you could call that dry-farming.
    One thing I want to add though is that this practice works only for certain regions and it absolutely should only be done by someone who has years of knowledge under his belt in the vineyard. You have to realize when the plant is shutting down and that will ruin your fruits. Very dangerous game.
    I believe you should keep a good eye out thorugh the year on your vines and let them be what they are. They seek water, so don't over water them through the year and at the same time don't starve them either.
    I simply do not believe that a vine that is starved or a human that is starved for food or water (this to some prior comments) gets more 'character'. I know I get cranky if I don't get my drink in the evening and have a decent lunch and dinner. Of course some may say cranky is a 'character trade' :)))

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:24 PM

  • Snooth User: skysaddle
    Hand of Snooth
    85120 3

    I just made a 12 min. documentary on dry farming in Sonoma County.
    Dry farming is the way to go-even for new vineyards. Not only because of water issues which will increase with climate change, but to make better wine. When Kunde dug their caves they found roots down to 60 feet- grapes will search quite deep for water! Compare that to UC Davis style irrigation, where roots stay w/in 3 feet of the vine. Frog's Leap and CAFF just put on a workshop on dry farming in July and the winemaker made a radical statement:"You can not make a great wine from irrigated grapes." He went on to list all of the award winning wines in France and Napa that were dry farmed. ALL grapes in Sonoma and Napa were farmed w/o irrigation until 1971! In France it is illegal to irrigate in some areas, for fear it will dilute the quality of wine. Like a tasteless hydroponic tomato, irrigated grapes lack greatness. One drawback though is you have to cultivate the soil quite a bit more to have it retain a sponge-like quality to keep in all the winter water. Frog's Leap took a shovel to their organic soil in July and it was as moist as can be. Then we walked across the driveway to an irrigated, non-organic vineyard and it was like concrete. Truly, organic and dry farmed vines are the healthiest way to go. To see my video online and for more info go to:
    Thanks for covering the topic!

    Aug 03, 2010 at 5:26 PM

  • Snooth User: Gavilan Vineyards
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    517320 40

    "way to go" is a very dangerous statement.
    What may work in Napa, France and parts of Spain and parts of Italy (and I am saying 'parts', because it will not work everywhere, will kill a vineyard in other places.
    Understand I am not arguing that dry farming works and may bring better quality to grapes in certain parts of the world, I can assure you it will not work everywhere.
    In Argentina we have 5-6 months of summer with temperatures in December through February regularly at 40C or above 100F and no rain for months straight. I can assure you that no vines will survive and if they do the fruits they produce will be raisins.
    Things like temperature, rainfall on average through the growing season, soil and draining condition all play into how you have to manage your vineyard and your water.
    Flip this the other way around and if it rained just 3 weeks prior to the harvest the grapes would be diluted or the wine respectfully bad? Serious? Good luck with all of your German wines then. Rainfall is very much common. I know...I grew up there.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 6:11 PM

  • This is a great thread. I feel like I'm eavesdropping on a privileged conversation of professionals. What a great way to learn!!!

    Aug 03, 2010 at 7:31 PM

  • Snooth User: jamessulis
    Hand of Snooth
    426220 1,722

    I have a very old grape vine in my back yard, I published a picture of the start of it when it sent out it's first shoots. I let 2 shoots thrive, one left and one right and built a vehicle (sticks and wire) for the vine to cling to. The plant has grown at an unbelievable rate, it now reaches 12 ft to each direction and I hope to have grapes which I believe are either Riesling or Chardonnay but not really sure. If I could figure out how to publish a picture better than the grief and trouble I had posting my first picture, I may put one up of the grapes and someone out there may be able to identify the varietal. As far as watering, this will be the first year that I supplied water to it because it has become my wine garden and I plan to pick the fruit but I do not want to try to make wine as I really don't know that much about the process (yet). I am supplying water to it once per week and I live in an area of Washington that is relatively dry from July through mid September so the water that it gets is only supplied by me.
    In essence this is the beginning of a test and eventually I will make wine from my yield if the grapes are worthy. All of the comments posted here are taken into consideration with my vine and I found most of the posts very interesting and it amazes me the level of education here on Snooth, one of the finest web sites in the world !
    The vine I believe is very old, it's main trunk is about 5 inches across and was previously let run wild by a former home owner. I pruned it back to zip and transformed it from a curly giant mess to an organized "mini vinyard"
    I hope I can post pictures (if I can figure out how to do it without cursing)
    Thank You all and I enjoy being a Snooth member

    Lefty - The Great Pacific Northwest

    Aug 03, 2010 at 8:06 PM

  • Snooth User: vinsider
    541543 48

    It takes really good farming practices to have a successful dry farmed vineyard. Vintners pay a premium for dry farmed grapes and it pays off in the bottle. Our wines come from both irrigated and non-irrigated vineyards. Without question, the dry farmed are superior but hard to find.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 9:26 PM

  • Snooth User: scotyman
    349842 2

    Thats also one reason why they grow Roses on the End Rows. Roses produce flowers almost exactly like grapevines produce grapes. Another important reason to Dry Farm is to stress the Vine so it stops making Vines and makes grapes to try to reproduce itself as a plant. Cool isnt IT! The other reason is Roses show mold faster then Grapes.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 9:58 PM

  • Snooth User: cigarman168
    Hand of Snooth
    227923 333

    With less water contents in the grape will enhance the ageing power of the wines. And also its complexity, structure...

    Aug 03, 2010 at 10:16 PM

  • Snooth User: Vine Master Fanucchi
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    46167 371

    WOW! The article and most of these responders are so far off!
    In 1972 my parents purchased a dry farmed Zinfandel vineyard on St. George root stock that was planted near the end of the19th century in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County at an elevation of about 135 feet on Wood Road which has shallow sandy loam with an undulating hard pan layer at about 18 inches. We were told by folks who's parents remembered that dynamite caps were used to crack the hard pan in each planting hole. Two miles away there are vines at an elevation of about 85 feet from the same era on deep fertile clay loam with a high water table. On our site I still dry farm but if I were to fail to till in the winter cover crop and smooth/ seal the tilling at the right time (this could be at the beginning of March to as late as June depending on the weather FYI: those of us who pay attention know that the weather goes in cycles and always varies to extreme as it has since long before humans existed) and if I let it dry out I better install irrigation or the vines will decline or immediately DIE. Frankly, the vineyard two miles away could easily survive abandonment for years! Next door to our Zin, in 1981 we planted Trousseau Gris on AXR#1 Rootstock. Before planting the Soil was deep ripped to break up the Hard pan down to 3 feet but below the hard pan layer is a mostly sand layer (sand doesn't hold water). It is also important to note that Grape vine roots will stop growing where ever there is suddenly a different soil layer. Any way I converted this block to 100% non tilled but even with drip irrigation some areas were having too much competition from the ground cover so now I till every other row... I could write a book on the exponential combination of factors but the reality is; quality comes from balancing all the factors some of which are constantly changing.

    It is important to note that in Europe and many grape growing areas of the world & most of the US it can normally rain every week through the growing season while in the Sonoma-Napa area of California we can have between 5 and 9 months with NO rain. The important thing in fine quality wine growing is BALANCE! Their are hundreds of factors that stem from environment of exact site, varietal, varietal clone, root stock, training system pest levels (i.e. Gophers can instantly change the size of your root system). For the most part if you need to "stress" a vine to get quality it is because you allowed it to have too much of something & if constant stress is a way of life it will also kill little by little or quickly.

    If any body is still reading I have a gift for you. Over the last 18 years the Grapes from both the dry farmed block and the drip irrigated block have consistently collected piles of the highest ratings & competition awards for me & wineries who have purchased the grapes. O.K. , O.K. if you are still reading this you must be a friend so you may use the Extra Discount Code " Friends15 " to get an extra 15 % off all wine prices on my direct sales page including the dry farmed 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel & drip irrigated Trousseau Gris. In California I don't charge extra for shipping & Overnight Express is our standard! Judge "Dry Farm" vs irrigated for yourself !

    Use the Extra discount code " Friends15 " in the order summary section of the order page

    For More Information on the wines

    for award information

    to discover Trousseau Gris

    I farm non-cert Organic but it sounds like the work shop at Frogs' leap had some miss information!
    Irrigation did not start in 1971!
    Never heard of deliberate flood irrigating right at harvest time it would be bad for all concerned!
    Again it may be illegal to irrigate in some areas of France but it rains their!

    Aug 03, 2010 at 11:27 PM

  • Snooth User: Ocelaris
    510275 1

    water saps the grapes of their magical powers. Be strong vines, be strong! You don't need water, pull yourself up man! I dry farm my brandy wine tomatoes but they only ended up as cherry tomatoes :-( I love when people personify plants :o)

    Aug 03, 2010 at 11:29 PM

  • I work in a wine shop, and I've never seen the words, "dry farmed," on a label; however, I have read articles saying that the Spanish grape "Monastrell" likes to struggle by growing in poor soil with low rainfall. I know that the Chianti Classico grape region is of poor soil, which would not hold much moisture and nutrients, thus, struggle is part of what makes the Classico region produce better Chianti than the larger "Tuscan" Chiati growing region. Many regions with substantial rainfall produce good wines that are full bodied and not sweet (e.g., the Norton in Missouri) if there is good drainage in the vineyard. I never thought I'd enjoy knowing about the argicultural aspects of wine as much as I do!

    Aug 04, 2010 at 2:25 AM

  • Snooth User: homestar
    512161 83

    would really love to try your wines, Peter! doesn't look like you ship to Florida, but will be in SF in November.

    Aug 04, 2010 at 5:34 AM

  • Snooth User: mvmess
    190507 4

    I seem to recall dry farming being employed by the Benziger family in several of their vineyards.

    Aug 04, 2010 at 9:35 AM

  • Snooth User: asknise
    508369 6

    Chelsey E ~ Brilliant observation!!! So true.

    Aug 04, 2010 at 11:51 AM

  • Snooth User: Mart P
    Hand of Snooth
    161710 29

    Here in the Langhe region of Piemonte, home of the great nebbiolo based Italian wines as well as many other varietals, I have never seen anyone using irrigation in the vineyards. 'Dry Farming' is not a term that one would apply here because there is no 'Wet Farming'. While variable, our summers are normally pretty hot and dry and the soils range from fine clay to sandy marl - all nutrient poor and not good at holding moisture. Newly planted vineyards become productive around year 3 or 4. Roots generally go deep in search of moisture. A particularly hot summer, like 2003, can stress many plants to extreme levels, but they do not die off from lack of water. Plants in abandoned vineyards generally survive until choked out by acacia trees.

    While we can, with the right technologies, make grapes grow in deserts, maybe some regions are just better suited than others to making great wines.

    Aug 05, 2010 at 6:51 AM

  • Snooth User: Avv
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    532113 43

    I have been dry growing my vineyard for over 10 years. I dont believe you could argue which are greater wines. Certain cultivars respond better to irrigation than others and vise versa. Sauvignon Blanc is one such grape the produces far superior esters and thiols from irrigated vines. In galicia in spain they get more than 1600mm of rain per annum, it certainly wouldnt make sense to add more water. But in the riverland in Australia vines would not survive without irrigation. Dry farmed vines take longer to ripen than irrigated due to stress. Most viticulturalist would argue better management produces better grapes and therefore better wine. I honestly believe that. I also believe that climate and site has a far greater say in overall quality. I also farm in a region that receives higher than average rainfall so for me the decision is not a difficult one. I only wish all other decisions were as easy.

    Aug 10, 2010 at 8:55 AM

  • Snooth User: upendra
    542013 25

    well,In India many times wine growers facing this condition ( Dry Farming )naturally. Because unavalability of water in summer season .
    how people following this method because here is no one can grow vinyards for wine they growing only for money.because they dont have winery himself.
    so, how the winery owner overcome with that problem?
    or how overcome that problem as an internal wine making team of winery?


    Aug 11, 2010 at 5:10 AM

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