For vineyards located in the right climate, dry farming can conserve water and encourage grapes to grow deeper roots.
Grape farmers don’t mess around when it comes to their farming practices. Depending on the region, vineyards might utilize techniques that are hundreds of years old. One such technique is dry farming.
In the broadest sense, dry farming is when farmers cultivate crops without the use of irrigation. It has pros and cons, like any other farming practice. But if you ask a vintner about this Old World style of production, it can be a pretty polarizing topic.
The SECCO Wine Club vineyard exclusively practices dry farming and never irrigates. We do this to ensure that our grapes provide a superior juice that allows us to avoid making wines that rely on chemicals, additives, and artificial flavors /sweeteners. For us, dry farming is non-negotiable. However, it’s not always practical for every vineyard. Let us explain…
What is Dry Farming?
The dictionary says dry farming is, “the cultivation of crops without irrigation in regions of limited moisture, typically less than 20 inches (50 centimeters) of precipitation annually.” That sounds simple, but deciding to dry farm is anything but.
Dry farming doesn’t mean grapes NEVER get water. It just means they rely on rainfall. Plus, the lack of irrigation is environmentally responsible because it conserves water. This makes it useful for areas experiencing water shortages. In fact, vineyards in California struggled with the recent drought that lasted nearly eight years in some regions.
A few historic vineyards established in California by Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian immigrants didn’t suffer nearly as much. The reason? Dry Farming. These vineyards didn’t escape the drought entirely, but the deep roots of their dry farms were better able to acclimatize to new conditions.
Roots of irrigated grapes stay closer to the surface since they’re used to frequent watering. Because roots are shallower, they’re not able to reach water deep below the ground’s surface during times of water scarcity.
The Flavor of Dry Farmed Wine
The average wine drinker may not notice a huge difference when comparing dry-farmed and irrigated wines, but over time the complexities of dry farmed wines become apparent. Irrigated vines tend to produce the same flavors every year due to regular water. This means there might not be much difference in flavor from vintage to vintage.
The flavor of dry farmed grapes, however, will have more concentrated flavors that are characteristic of the region they’re grown in. This will, in turn, create more interesting terroir wines.
You might be thinking, “This sounds great! Why don’t all vineyards use this practice?” Sadly, it’s just not possible for some vineyards. Dry farming requires strategy and planning years in advance. Also, it depends on rainfall and soil quality–two things farmers don’t have much control over.
The History of Dry Farming
Dry farming has been used for thousands of years, particularly in Mediterranean areas for crops like olives and grapes. Today, certain parts of Spain, Greece, Italy, and France still use this practice. In fact, in some parts of Europe, it’s illegal to irrigate wine grapes during certain seasons because it’s believed to lower the overall quality.
And that’s one of the biggest arguments in favor of dry farming. This technique isn’t about producing the maximum amount of grapes, it’s about the overall quality. The California Ag Water Stewardship Initiative says, “it allows nature to dictate the true sustainability of agricultural production in a region.”
Often, dry farmers will only get a portion of the yield that their competitors yield. However, the price these grapes sell for can be significantly higher than their irrigated competitors. The reason is that dry farmed grapes tend to have more interesting expressions of flavor.
When the roots are trying to find water deep underground they soak up different aspects of soil in the process. This tends to produce grapes with lower cluster weights and smaller berries–which results in higher concentrated flavor in the wine. The ratio of skin-to-juice is higher in smaller grapes, and because the majority of wine flavors originate in the skin it makes sense that these grapes would produce wine with more intense flavors.
Imbibe Magazine also adds “The sugar content of dry-farmed grapes is also typically lower than that of their irrigated counterparts (thanks to smaller leaf canopies), which in turn creates a wine with a lower alcohol percentage.” When irrigation practices became common, the average alcohol levels went from around 12.5 percent up to 15 percent.
What Are The Benefits of Dry Farming?
The agricultural history of dry farming is vast, and the environmental impact of these practices is still being studied. So instead of going on and on about it (and believe us, we could!), here are the main takeaways of dry farming.
Dry Farming is More Environmentally Responsible
Not only does it use less water by not irrigating, but it also uses less energy overall. Vineyards that irrigate have to set up, manage, and sometimes repair irrigation equipment. Plus, having to irrigate means transporting and pumping all that water. By dry farming, vintners save massive amounts of energy.
Dry Farming Doesn’t Often Require Herbicides or Weeding
Soil quality is a prime concern for dry farmers since it’s what helps trap moisture for plants. Dust Mulch, a dry top layer of soil designed to trap moisture, isn’t conducive for weed growth. This means that herbicides aren’t often needed and very little weeding is ever required.
Dry Farming Encourages Grapes to Grow Deep Roots
Because the grapes have to reach down in search of groundwater, the roots naturally grow quite deep. This creates stronger vines that are more able to withstand drought and other adverse weather.
Dry Farmed Grapes Have More Vitamins and Minerals
As the roots grow deeper into the soil they absorb more minerals from the earth. So, by starving the grapes (not irrigating) you force the grape juice to have a higher concentration of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals.
Dry Farmed Grapes Can Yield Intensely Flavored Wine
Like we said earlier, dry farmed grapes tend to be smaller with a higher skin-to-juice ratio. Since most of the flavor in wine comes from grape skins, this makes wine with more intense, regional flavors.
What Are The Drawbacks of Dry Farming?
We’ve touched on a few of these already, but it’s only fair that we cover some of the drawbacks to this farming practice as well.
Dry Farming Won’t Work in All Regions
This farming practice requires an extensive list of non-negotiable items. Growing Produce says that the vineyard must be in an area that receives a minimum of 15-20 inches of rainfall every year (although vineyards with excellent soil quality can get by with less).
Speaking of soil, the quality and depth of soil can make or break the success of a dry farm. Just a few other items to consider are grape variety, vine spacing, drainage, day and night temperatures, humidity, depth of water table, and sun and UV exposure.
Dry Farming Produces Fewer Grapes
Because the overall yield of dry farms is significantly less than irrigated farms, the economics of managing this type of vineyard can be tricky. A dry farmed vineyard may yield 2 to 3 tons for every acre, but an irrigated vineyard might yield up to 4 tons per acre depending on the region.
Farmers that irrigate have more control and flexibility in times of drought, so strategic planning is necessary for dry farmers to establish their vineyards and help them thrive.
Some Vintners MUST Resort to Emergency Irrigation (rare)
Not all vintners will resort to this, but in times of extreme crisis due to drought and/or increased temperatures, a vintner may choose to implement emergency irrigation.
This is something that most dry farmers avoid at all costs, however, “In 2013, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture began allowing emergency irrigation to combat heatwaves and drought, even in denominations like Brunello and Barolo that are, by law, dry-farmed.”
Why WE Dry Farm Our Wines
Dry farming isn’t easy, and when things go wrong it’s not cheap. It yields fewer grapes and dry farmers are often at the mercy of mother nature. However, the environmental friendliness and overall health of dry farmed grapes make it a farming practice that may adapt more readily to climate change.
None of this is to say that irrigated vineyards don’t cultivate quality grapes or wines. Newer irrigation technologies can avoid water-plumped grapes and shallow root systems. Ultimately, quality grapes are cultivated from vineyards that are located in the right region and that are run by vintners who are passionate about what they do.
That’s certainly what we try to do! We dry farm our vineyards in Tuscany because that’s what instills so many of the qualities people love in our PALO61 wines. We’re passionate about low-carb wine with no added sugar, so dry farming just makes sense for us.
If you’re curious about the complex, intense flavors our vineyards produce, then feel free to select one of our bottles OR become a full-fledged SECCO Wine Club Member. And don’t forget to tag us in your reviews on Instagram for a chance to be featured in one of our stories!