Dry-farming or dryland farming occurs when the vines are not irrigated. Natural rainfall alone provides the necessary moisture to promote the growth of the vine and ripen the grapes.
This practice is particularly common in Europe. It is how vineyards have always been cultivated in Burgundy, Bordeaux and other European wine growing locations. The only allowances for irrigation in areas of France, Italy, Germany and Spain would be when starting young vines or when there are extreme drought conditions and the health of the vines is threatened.
Advocates, such as California’s Frog’s Leap and Moss Wood in Western Australia, maintain dry-farming yields higher-quality grapes with more fruit and aromatic intensity. Dry-farmed grapes are typically smaller in size compared to ones that have been irrigated, which means more concentration and character in the resulting wine.
Members of Oregon’s Deep Roots Coalition, which include top producers such as Evening Land, Eyrie Vineyards and Trisaetum, believe irrigation prevents wineries from capturing the true essence of their vineyards.
One of the major benefits of irrigation is the ability for grape growers to increase yields. Many of the value-priced wines from Australia, Argentina, Chile, California and South Africa couldn’t exist without a high volume of fruit.
Technological advances and research means it’s not as simple an equation as decreasing quality to increase quantity. A considerable amount of highly collected, top-scoring wines come from irrigated vineyards.
Some wine regions couldn’t exist without irrigation. Grape vines need water. Vineyards surrounded by trees or containing other crops need to compete for water. Some grape varieties are more dependent on water than others. The water holding capacity of the soils is also a significant consideration for whether the yearly average rainfall is enough to sustain the vineyards.
Dry-farming practices have become more common as climate change and the need for water conservation force the hands of wine growers to become more sustainable, especially in arid areas prone to drought conditions. Some producers now use their irrigation systems only in extreme circumstances. Irrigated vines have shallow roots as they have never needed to develop root systems in search of moisture below the top layers of soil, making it a risky venture.
Montes Winery in Chile’s Colchagua Valley began to embrace dry farming in 2009. By 2012, Montes curtailed irrigation across 300 hectares, including vineyards responsible for its flagship M, Folly and Purple Angel labels. However, the irrigation lines have been left in place in case they are needed.
Owner Aurelio Montes has said that the vines produce half of the crop compared to the expected yields when they were regularly irrigated. Irrigation continues for the vineyards that provide the fruit for Montes’ more affordable wines.
Further south, in Maule, Chile’s oldest wine-growing region, a large number of family owned vineyards never introduced irrigation and have unwittingly found themselves ahead of the trend. The local Vigno movement, an association of producers looking to market the robust red wines made from old Carignan vines, displays “dry-farmed” on all of its labels.
The meaning of ‘dry-farming doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning to all producers, so “dry-farmed” on a label can lead to confusion. It is certainly a factor to consider as you look at the range of wines available, but it should not be interpreted as an indication of the wines quality.