Less Water, Better Wine?

By Schneider, Sara | Sunset, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Less Water, Better Wine?


Schneider, Sara, Sunset


A growing number of West Coast vintners are trying dry-farming-and discovering it's no compromise.

"FEW CALIFORNIA wines have any terroir," declares Brice Jones, proprietor of Emeritus Vineyards in Sonoma's Russian River Valley and founder of Sonoma-Cutrer. If you're a wine lover, you've heard of the concept of terroir-that wines derive character from the climate, and particularly from the soil, where they're grown. But why slam California wines for lacking this sense of place?

Jones pins the blame on California vineyards' reliance on drip irrigation. Widely adopted in the 1970s, drip irrigation is inarguably an efficient way to dole out water to vines-an emitter at the base of each delivers just the amount needed onto the soil. But when you drip small amounts of water at the surface, explains Jones, the vine forms a shallow, onionshaped rootball-and no roots dive deep through the layers of earth looking for moisture. And thus no roots absorb what those earthy layers could bring to the wine. As Jones puts it: "You're practically farming hydroponically!"

Jones and a growing number of other dryfarming advocates around the state are convinced that under most circumstances, established vines don't need any water beyond what nature gives them-in fact, they produce better wine when they aren't given any.

Besides delivering a sense of place, deeprooted vines also produce smaller grapes, with a greater skin-to-juice ratio. And since much of a wine's flavors, textures, and color come from the skins, the result is more intense and complex flavors, deeper color, and richer textures in the mouth. Plus, says Jones's vineyard manager, Kirk Lokka, "A dry-farmed vine is in tune with the season." Its grapes get fully ripe (winemakers use the term "physiological ripeness," meaning that tannins and other phenolic compounds are mature) at lower sugar levels, resulting in a full-flavored, lower-alcohol wine.

Jones started dry-farming his vineyards long before the drought, at the urging of his former business partner, French winemaker Aubert de Villaine, who was horrified at the thought of irrigation: "You will change the signature of the wine!" (In most of France, it's illegal to irrigate vineyards; but then, most of France gets more rain than California. …

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