Uncorked: Dry farming — A little drought builds character
by Pat Kettles
Jul 16, 2013 | 1862 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On my first foray into Napa wine country many years ago, I inquired of a vineyard tour guide how often vines were fertilized to keep them so luxuriant. The guide acted as if I had stabbed her in the heart with my seemingly innocent question, and a polite lecture ensued.

Grapes are not fertilized. Vines must struggle if they are to produce flavor-intensive grapes, I was told.

Grapevines do not need to be made too comfy. Foliage must be controlled by pruning and leaf removal. If vines put on too much fruit, some clusters must be removed so vines can expend their energy on remaining clusters.

To enhance the vine’s struggle, sometimes no irrigation is used. In many wine-growing regions of Spain, Italy and France, irrigation is prohibited for certain classified wines. If a vigneron irrigates vines in Bordeaux, the resulting wines must be released as unclassified table wines.

Even in American and Australian wine industries, irrigation is a relatively new thing. When vines were first planted in California, irrigation was unheard of. Basically all farming was dry farming unless Mother Nature intervened with rainfall.

Drip irrigation was not widely used in Napa until the late ’70s. Many award-winning wines from America’s infant wine industry were products of dry farming.

Grape vines like rainy springs and cool, dry summers and an extremely dry autumn leading up to harvest. In more arid wine-growing regions like Israel, where growing any kind of produce would be impossible without irrigation, some drip irrigation is essential.

There are no regulations prohibiting irrigation of vines in America. To irrigate or not to irrigate is up to the producer. Irrigation is costly in dry wine-producing areas where water is scarce, but water scarcity is not necessarily the prime motivating factor for dry farming. Producers practice dry farming because they believe stressed vines produce more flavor-intensive fruit.

Dry farming must take soil composition into consideration. Soils should be sufficiently permeable so roots can grow deep enough to absorb the moisture needed for the plant to sustain itself under extremely dry conditions. Growers who practice dry farming must till soil often to keep it porous and absorbent, plant cover crops that help soils retain their moisture, space vines far enough apart so they do not have to fight for moisture over long dry periods, and select varietals that are drought tolerant.

Today, many California zinfandels are dry farmed, but other varietals are also grown using dry-farming methods. Zinfandel has proven to be particularly resilient to dry farming. The oldest living American zinfandel vine dates to the 1880s and is a product of dry farming.

There are many dry-farmed wines on the market in all price ranges. Are they better than wines made from grapes that are maintained by a bit of drip irrigation? Not necessarily. Both farming methods produce stellar wines, but here are a few dry-farmed wines found locally:

Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel 2010. $10.99 at the Wine Cellar on Quintard in Anniston. Bogle has long been a producer of high-quality, reasonably priced wines. Fruit for this zinfandel is sourced from 60- to 80-year-old vines. A bold, concentrated zin but balanced with a nice mouth feel and a pleasant finish. So jammy you want to spread it on toast.

Seghesio 2009 “Old Vines” Sonoma County Zinfandel. $34.25 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs. Fruit is sourced from old vines planted between 1920 and 1950 by the Seghesio family, who first planted zinfandel in the Alexander Valley in 1895. Dried dark berry fruit flavors laced with a hint of eucalyptus and vanilla. Medium bodied with well integrated tannins. Smooth finish.

VSL “M” Monastrell 2010. $12.75 at Tyson’s. Monastrell is one of Spain’s oldest grape varietals. Made from 45-plus-year-old vines. Very zinfandel-like. Lots of dark jammy fruit but more rustic than American zins.

Email Pat Kettles at pkettles@annistonstar.com
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