Was It Dry Farmed?

Anyone who has spent anytime attempting to wrap their mind around the concept of "Terroir" is eventually forced to consider the concept of "Dry Farming": growing grapes without resort to irrigation.

I’ve heard it said that the less irrigation a vineyard receives, the more likely the wine made from its grapes will reflect the vineyard’s terroir. This is not a controversial idea. I doubt many grape growers would have much to say in response other than "Duh!"

But how about this:

"A wine doesn’t need to reflect terroir to be good, but it must be dry farmed to reflect terroir"

This is a claim I recently heard made by a pretty smart guy. Pretty definite, eh, particularly the last part of the statement.

Is it true?

I think in order for it to be true the following must also be true:

1. "Terroir" is something that exists before a vine is ever planted, before a wine is ever made and always is a description of a natural, unsullied environment.

2. The natural sources of water a grape vine pulls from is an integral and defining part of any "terroir".

3. The "Terroir" of a vineyard can not be improved upon by human manipulation because once a natural environment is altered it now a different terroir altogether, not an improved terroir.

The above statement about dry farming does not suggest that if only irrigation is avoided a grape vine will produce grapes that reflect the authentic terroir of the vineyard. It merely lays down one of the conditions necessary to produce fruit that is an authentic reflection of an environment’s terroir. And that’s a good thing for the sake of consistency because it follows from the three prerequisites to the Dry Farming Statement that the best a human being can do is produce grapes that come close to being a reflection of an authentic terroir, but can never actually reflect it because the very act of interacting with the environment alters the terroir.

But we are going to ignore this because it would not be very much fun to follow this logic too strictly since it would mean we can never be tasting anything that is an authentic reflection of a natural terroir. That sort of dismisses the point of even talking about terroir.

So, let’s just go with the idea that coming really close to producing a wine that is an authentic reflection of a natural terroir is enough for us mortals, and enough to keep us interested in topic, not to mention our own ongoing wine educations.

That said, I think the fella’s point about Dry Farming is dead on the mark. If you want to observe the trans-formative effects of irrigation all you had to do is study what the roots of a vine do when it is dry farmed vs. when it is irrigated. The roots of the irrigated vine, assuming it’s on a drip system, will gather and bunch around the drip emitter and remain fairly shallow. And why shouldn’t they. The vine need not dig deep to find its life sustaining water. The roots of a dry farmed vine, however, will drill deep into the earth, wrapping itself around boulders and cracking layers of hard clay to get where it needs to be in order to find the precious water.

By irrigating the farmer is essentially forcing the vine to ignore the content of the soils character and muddle around about the surface.

So if you follow me and if you agree, then this leads to a particular action by those who like to ask questions about the wines they drink and the wines they buy: If a wine is said to exhibit a vineyard’s terroir, you really must ask, "Was it Dry Farmed"?

Posted In: Terroir


21 Responses

  1. Richard Shaffer - April 2, 2008

    I agree! The father of boutique winemaking in Israel, Dr. Yair Margalit (former professor at UC Davis and author) told me once that Dry Farming drives a roots down deep ito the soil and translates the land into the wine. I think he’s right. That’s the way he manages his vineyards.

  2. Arthur - April 2, 2008

    Nicely reasoned out, Tom.

  3. Derrick Schneider - April 2, 2008

    Yeah, and don’t just ask if it’s dry-farmed: Ask if it uses natural yeast. When you can alter flavor by using cultured yeast, how “made in the vineyard” is your wine?

  4. Zinny - April 2, 2008

    Interesting take. I think that terroir exists is evident in Vidalia onions.
    Vidalia onions don’t have to be dry farmed to taste like Vidalia Onions. In fact I bet that almost all Vidalia Onions are irrigated – yet the soil composition of Vidalia, GA (low sulfer) imparts the familiar taste.
    Onions are onions and grapes are grapes, of course. I’ll bet, though, that certain elements of terroir are present even if you irrigate. Whether or not they (or any element of terroir) are detectable in wine . . .that is a lovely debate because, really, who knows? I just thought it meant the wine tasted “earthy” . .ha ha.

  5. Craig Camp - April 2, 2008

    Tom – Just planting a vineyards impacts terroir and a terroir cannot be expressed with out planting a vineyards. For example, your choice of canopy management changes heat and humidity in the rows. On one level terroir is the potential of a vineyard and on an other it is the interrelationship with humans. I believe you are taking a one dimensional view on this topic. Just today I flew out of Santa Rosa and viewed the vast spread of vineyards below me. Just having such intense plantings of vines has an impact on the environment and the expression of terroir.
    Concerning the comment above about dry farming pushing roots down, this is true only to a point. If you over-stress a vine it does have enough energy to drive its roots deep. Low levels of drip irrigation can create a healthier vine without giving it so much water that the roots do not go deep.
    Only a healthy robust vine can ripen grapes that realizes a sites potential terroir. Overstressed vines will only give fruit that exhibit more stress flavors than terroir.

  6. lagramiere - April 2, 2008

    Maybe that’s why the French are so attached to their notion of “terroir”. Here irrigation is the exception not the rule (though this is changing in some areas.) Yes, in drought years the vines are stressed, but since they have never been irrigated they are more likely to be able to handle that stress.

  7. Thomas Pellechia - April 3, 2008

    lagramiere points out what I was going to point out–aside from the explosive and forever unsettled issue of terroir, if vines are treated well, given all the water they want, so that their roots don’t reach and the vines don’t stress, watch out when the first serious stress condition arrives.
    Grape vines must have an innate programming for reaching deep into the ground for water. They’ve been on this earth doing that far longer than we have. It seems to me that if they need help through irrigation it might just be that they don’t belong in that spot right now, but over some time span they might be able to adapt to it without help.

  8. Craig Camp - April 3, 2008

    Properly applied drip irrigation does not give a vine all the water it wants, just enough to keep it from becoming over-stressed. It is a popular misconception that vines that are over-stressed somehow make better wines. They don’t. The issue is always to give the vines just enough stress, but not too much.
    The French don’t irrigate because they rarely need too. Rainfall in France is generally adequate. Burgundy for example gets far more rainfall during the growing season than Oregon. The reason vines in France can handle that drought year that lagramiere mentions is that they are healthy enough to do so because they receive adequate rainfall in most years. If they faced those drought conditions every year they would not handle it so well.

  9. Oenophilus - April 3, 2008

    When begins the surge to fight the Terroiristes?

  10. Morton Leslie - April 3, 2008

    In Burgundy where there is excess rainfall during the growing season (20 inches of irrigation), and where one grape variety is planted, pruned, harvested and made into wine by essentially one recipe, the effects of the soil and its ability to drain away excess water and to ultimately stress vines creating a distinctive impact on wine flavor…there is such a thing as terroir. Most everywhere else using the word terroir it is a bunch of crap. We need a “War on Terroir.”
    In the Napa Valley, which gets no rainfall during the growing season, dry farming is relegated to heavier, richer soils of the valley floor. (there are a few exceptions) Often I hear growers who have vineyards planted on what was pasture land with ground water four feet below the surface bragging about their “terroir” and “dry farming.” I asked one of these boasting growers (who had sprinklers for frost protection on the bottom land near the Napa river)if he used the sprinklers during frost. He said he did. I asked him if he used the sprinklers on young vines when he planted the vineyard. He said yes. I asked him why? He said because the vines needed it!
    So, the real issue is watering the vines when they need it and not watering them when they don’t? I also asked him if he knew what a pressure bomb was. He didn’t.
    I wouldn’t trade Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and all of the other interesting, but arid, regions of stressful soils… soils that require maybe 5 inches of artfully applied “artificial rain”…for a boastful vineyardist’s naive view of “terroir.”

  11. Tom Wark - April 3, 2008

    “On one level terroir is the potential of a vineyard and on an other it is the interrelationship with humans. I believe you are taking a one dimensional view on this topic.”
    I think I’m taking a one dimensional view of terroir also, Craig. What I really wanted to only touch on was the possibility that “terroir”, as it is most often used to discuss the uniqueness of a wine, really is what we decide it will be, not necessarily what the natural environments originally gives.
    Indeed, if you plant vines closely together you severely impact how the natural environment is conveyed. And as you noted, canopy management has an impact, as well as other aspects.
    I think we live in a winemaking age in which a wine, almost regardless of where its raw materials come from, will taste the way the winemaker wants it taste. The question becomes, after what degree of human intervention is terroir really only a description of what man has made the environment into?

  12. Craig Camp - April 3, 2008

    Talk to someone who has farmed the same vineyard for many years and they can tell you definitively terroir exists because they have lived it. They know the extreme differences that can exist in wines harvested from different sections of an individual vineyard, much less from vineyard to vineyard. For example in our Mineral Springs Estate Vineyard , which is 16 acres of pinot noir, we harvested individual blocks of that vineyard on 7 different dates over a period of 4 weeks as those blocks ripened at such different rates. The wines are fermented and aged separately and you can taste the terroir differences in these blocks.
    To me there at two main things that obliterate terroir: harvesting overripe or over-stressed grapes and winemaking. There are also two schools of winemaking: one that wants to force the wine to conform to a pre-conceived style and one that wants the wine to reflect the vintage, variety and vineyard – a combination also known as terroir. For the latter this means making a unique wine each vintage, something that is unacceptable to some producers.
    I think terroir almost always exists to some degreee at the point of harvest, but what happens after that is another matter.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - April 3, 2008

    “The French don’t irrigate because they rarely need too.”
    Just to be clear: that’s what I meant when I said that “…It seems to me that if they (vines) need help through irrigation it might just be that they don’t belong in that spot…”
    To your two things that can ruin terroir (with which I agree), I might be inclined to add irrigation, but only after I could do a complete study with maybe a few rows of the same vineyard irrigated and a few not.
    Wouldn’t that be a better test than all of us speaking through prevailing belief systems?
    Has anyone ever published any such tests? If so, I would love to read the results.
    And Tom, I think that in the New World, terroir mostly is what we want it to be. In parts of the Old World, some cling to the old belief, which at first I don’t think took in much else but the soil’s affect on wine.

  14. Rob Hagman - April 3, 2008

    Thanks for the info and clearing things up on such a complex issue.

  15. Morton Leslie - April 3, 2008

    Seems like there is always someone telling us their wines have terroir and someone else’s doesn’t. If Craig precisely controls the irrigation of his 16 acres of Pinot by using a pressure bomb to intelligently monitor and control stress he will provide moisture to the vine only when it absolutely must have it and is unable to provide for itself. His vines will continue to seek moisture throughout his property’s soil, their roots will explore the depths of his soil particularly during the Spring and early Summer, they will not ball up around his emitters because he was smart and made them moveable and he waters deep. He will not have overstressed vines or unbalanced grapes. He will still have to harvest the blocks on 7 different dates and he will still make 7 completely different wines. Though his wines will be better overall, he can still call it terroir if he wants.

  16. Morton Leslie - April 3, 2008

    Also Richard should talk again to Dr. Margalit. He established his vineyard in Galilee on drip and continues to use it after mid-July putting on about 1.5 liters a day. Easy to talk theory at the University…until you are present with the real world. If he would learn to use the pressure bomb, he would probably save on water.

  17. Tom Wark - April 3, 2008

    While it’s true that minimal and only-when-it’s-necessary-irrigation is likely to still allow roots to grow deep, I still wonder if this manipulation is enough for us to conclude that we are altering the environmental conditions to the point we are altering the effect of the terroir on the character of the fruit. I have no doubt that we can say this with complete confidence. In fact, I think it is a “therefore” kind of situation.
    But what I really find fascinating is this question: Does it matter? And if does matter, why does it matter?

  18. Benjamin Rousseau - April 3, 2008

    I think it’s also fair to add that for an irrigated vineyard, winemaker needs on average between 140 and 200 liters of water to produce 1 liter of wine. With the water supply pressure issue getting stronger day by day, I believe this debate is just not a bout terroir anymore, it’s about common sense.

  19. Craig Camp - April 3, 2008

    I’ll add that at this time all of our vineyards are dry farmed. However, I wish I had installed drip, although I might rarely use it – say 3 or 4 vintages out of 10 and then only to stop the vines from shutting down due to vine stress, which requires little water. It’s a moot point anyway as at this time I don’t have enough water anyway. Considering that, I totally agree that dry farming is the best!

  20. Morton Leslie - April 4, 2008

    Let’s look at this a different way. Rainfall(irrigation) occurs in Burgundy in a wide and random range, yet terroir supposedly shows through this sloppy form of irrigation. If it does then irrigation cannot be a defining factor. Why then can it not show itself through equally sloppy drip irrigation.
    The idea that a vine has to send roots deep into little nooks and crannies to show terroir is not always true. Often it is the opposite in the case of clay or a sub-surface hard pan causing vineyard specific characteristic. When the roots reach the water table in valley floor vineyards the “terroir” becomes unmanageable vegetative growth.
    When a grower picks a devigorating rootsock that has a shallow horizontal root zone to deal with a wet, fertile site can the vineyard show terroir? What if the grower drops fruit or removes leaves to advance maturity? Seems like “terroir” is in the eyes of the beholder.

  21. Tom Wark - April 4, 2008

    “Let’s look at this a different way. Rainfall(irrigation) occurs in Burgundy in a wide and random range, yet terroir supposedly shows through this sloppy form of irrigation. If it does then irrigation cannot be a defining factor. Why then can it not show itself through equally sloppy drip irrigation.”
    This is a different way of looking at it insofar as it assumes that rainfall is not part of the “terroir”. The French tend to associate terroir most specifically with soil and geography while climate is a secondary concern. In CA somewhat more emphasis is placed on climate (including rainfail). I’d argue that rainfall, particularly the tendencies toward an average over time, are an integral part of any vineyard’s “natural” terroir. Irrigation on the other hand is unnatural.

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