Are Dry-Farmed Wines Better?

Paul Blow

It’s been raining a lot in Northern California. Every day seems to bring another chance of showers, another downpour. I caught a nasty cold and everything is damp. With an umbrella as my constant companion, I have been dreaming about warm days and arid land. And I’ve been craving dry-farmed wine.

Dry farming (also known as dryland farming) is a contentious issue in the wine world, but I think it produces wines of unbeatable character. I’ll never forget the expression on the face of a wine science professor after an exchange with Claude Bourguignon, the French soil guru, at a wine conference in New Zealand. In his talk, Bourguignon had declared that the only way to make wines of terroir is by dry farming, which encourages the vine’s roots to dig deep into the earth in search of water. The deeper and larger the root systems, the more contact with various nutrients, minerals, and micro-organisms. Drip irrigation of the vine, he asserted, keeps the root systems close to the surface and small. The Australian scientist approached Bourguignon after the talk and said, “But Claude, we can’t grow grapes without irrigation in many places. If we didn’t irrigate, the vines would die.” Bourguignon’s reply was simple: “Then you have no terroir.” The Australian stood reeling, unable to come up with a reply.

And it’s that kind of statement that makes new-world winegrowers insecure. Bourguignon was saying that if you have to add water to your soil, it’s not a place fit to grow grapes. While most of Europe is dry-farmed (by law), most vineyards in the New World—places like California, Washington state, and Australia—are irrigated.

Most new-world winemakers respect dry farming, but don’t trust it. They desire more control over the watering of their vineyards than prayer or rain dances afford. Globetrotting winemaker Nick Goldschmidt of Forefathers wines wrote me that he works with dry-farmed vineyards in Spain, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and California, but said that he “would never plant a vineyard without water … all you are doing is removing a tool for making great wine.”

That’s how most new-world winemakers see it: Irrigation is a tool. But every time they turn on the spigot they are discouraging the roots from digging deeper for water. It may not be a coincidence that wines have become bigger, jammier, and fruitier with the control that drip irrigation has given winemakers. What irrigation mostly provides is safety—with all the new money and bank loans riding on new-world vineyards and wine brands, it’s much harder to afford a failure than in the generations-old vineyards of Europe.

However, not all new-world winemakers are daunted by dry farming. Everything in California was dry-farmed until the 1960s and ’70s, when irrigation became available. And some vintners are proving it still can be done, even in places like the Napa Valley, where most feel it’s impossible.

John Williams of Napa’s Frog’s Leap winery dry-farms over 200 acres in Rutherford, surrounded by neighbors with drip irrigation. Williams said in an article a couple of years ago, “If we talk about when wine went from its historic place as a mealtime beverage that deeply reflects the soil and climate from whence it comes to killer, jammy monsters that advertise that they will ‘melt your panties,’ I think you will come to the same conclusion that we did 18 years ago: that the real wines are made by deeply connecting them to their soils and that dry farming is fundamental to that.”

So this constant rain is somewhat more bearable with the knowledge that somewhere it is recharging the soil in a dry-farmed vineyard, providing the moisture that, come the heat spikes of August, will nurture those threadlike root-tendrils searching deep underground for something to drink.

Here are two of the dry-farmed wines I’m craving:

Frog’s Leap 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford–Napa Valley—The vineyards that make this wine are organic as well as dry-farmed. Light, crisp, and flinty, the wine is low in alcohol but high in zip.

Ottimino 2006 Russian River Valley Zinfandel—A complex constellation of berry fruits mixed with spice and orange zest highlights this wine from a dry-farmed vineyard in Northern California. Lush and deep, it’s a mouthful of a wine.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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