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 farmedSo 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!