What's the thought process behind "dry-farming" grapes?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I caught the tail end of a show about dry-farming grapes, and how it’s supposed to be terrific for them. Can you explain the thought process behind it?

—Maribeth, Guerneville, Calif.

Dear Maribeth,

“Dry farming” refers to a practice of relying only on natural annual rainfall for growing grapes. This is no problem for most of Europe’s classic grape-growing regions, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, where too much water is a greater danger than too little. In fact, in many wine regions, dry farming is obligatory, because irrigation is illegal.

However, in dryer regions, such as most of California, irrigation has become common practice, especially in the past few decades. And, as is often the case, a backlash has developed, and some growers believe that dry farming is preferable.

There are two main reasons to dry farm: water conservation and grape quality. On the conservation side, I’ve read that dry farming can save as much as 16,000 gallons of water per acre annually. That’s a lot of potential ice cubes! On the quality side, some vintners believe the practice leads to more intensely flavored grapes. Dry-farmed fruit is supposed to be sweeter, denser and smaller. Sure, too much water can dilute flavors (anyone who’s bitten into a hydroponically grown tomato knows what I’m talking about). However, we also know that too little water leads to raisins. In fact, with the recent trend of ultra-ripe flavors, it’s very popular to hydrate grapes just a little before harvest to give them some extra hang time.

Dry farming means more than just turning off the faucet. First, it’s important to pick a rootstock that will seek the moisture deep in the soil (not just on the surface). Vines must be spaced sufficiently to get all the moisture they can—if you plant vines too close together, there’s too much competition for water. And the correct soil mix is crucial to prevent moisture from escaping. Grapevines are pretty adaptable, but there’s definitely more hands-on work when it comes to dry farming.

—Dr. Vinny

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