THE ORGANOLEPTIC ORACLE: Wine is the Perfect Dry Farming Poster Child ...


1.     Wine is a known /safe industry to all stakeholders

2.     Valuable historic climate data recorded by winemakers – what other industry possess centuries of daily temperature records, harvest dates and yields?

3.     Investment-friendly offers: Economic viability / Technical possibility / Political acceptability

4.     Strong, coherent network between the players

5.     Has Experience in adaptation techniques for long-term resilience (thanks to the life-line of vine)

6.     Marketing and media/communication structures already in place

7.     Industry possesses a strong sustainability mind-set – comparatively

8.     Highly-visible, consumer market: must be seen to be taking action / brand protection is important

 9.     Product has a very long value chain: from root stock selection and planting to bottling and transport, thus encompasses all adaptation issues, from land use, agriculture, transport, energy, insurance models … a good “template”.

So with all eyes on the wine industry – let’s lead the agricultural sector in true sustainability.

For viticulture to survive, for it to go beyond adaptation, beyond sustainability and to become truly resilient, it must not only take responsibility for its role in water conservation, but it must also protect its soil, its low and healthy yields, and its quality, or its “luxury” status will be lost. This cannot be achieved through irrigation. Many wine producers already understand that the Vitis vinifera is busily migrating and they may have to follow. Assisting winemakers to envision this outcome and the ensuing ramifications is part of being resilient to climate change.  The winemakers who do not embrace such realities, however unthinkable, risk being the ones who will be destroyed by adversity as opposed to merely being changed by it.

When a natural environment is contrived and manipulated to such an extent in order to accommodate a crop’s growing process; when local government legislation prioritises viticultural export products in lieu of food crops; and when the very essence of a crop’s value and identity is altered beyond recognition, then assisted diversification and or migration at a forced pace may be the only option.

In the reality of the current water crisis. It is too late to debate the virtues of Regulated Deficit Irrigation versus sub-surface drip irrigation or of recycled water, rainwater harvesting, or what does or does not constitute supplemental rainfall, or the accuracy of water footprints or the effects of irrigation on wine quality or how much water stress is too much or the existence of terroir.

It is simply time to ask: Wine? Or Water?

Transitioning from Wet to Dry

The principle behind converting a vineyard from irrigation to dry farming is that the irrigation water is slowly and gradually reduced on an annual basis, so as to avoid any shock or damage to the crop. Determining how much reduction in irrigation is required is achieved by assessing the soil information and the use of the same data employed when determining irrigation amounts. The process can take from 3-5 growing seasons. For example, areas with greater precipitation and soils with sufficient water-holding capacity and deep root stocks will require less time to transition. Whilst vineyards with less annual precipitation, planted with riparian root stocks in shallow, sandy soils with tight planting densities, would be difficult, if not impossible, to transition.

Do the French have it right? Can this be the way to create that level playing field?

Irrigation in the European vineyards has always been illegal in the quality appellations. This was partially to reduce yields during the 1930s and 1950s when over-production and low prices were an issue, but also in acknowledgement of the qualitative advantage. Now, with the recurring droughts in many parts of Europe, the INAO and the EU are relaxing irrigation laws in the Mediterranean. 

With the décret n° 2006-1527, JORF n°282 of 6 Décembre 2006, irrigation became (very quietly) legal in France. More recently, following a further décret n° 2017-1327 of 8 Septembre 2017 regarding AOC vineyards, the legislation has had several amendments, allowing irrigation after the 15th of August, and allowing underground drip irrigation systems. Crucially, also, the décret has been revised to ensure that irrigated parcels keep to the original dry farmed yields. Only dry farmers are allowed to exceed the traditional maximum yield limits. The French may have found a balance.

More worrying still is the new project, Aqua Domitia, intent on bringing irrigation water supplies from the Rhône Valley to Béziers and Narbonne. The project was initiated by the region of Languedoc-Roussillon, which today, is the most irrigated vineyard in France, with some 23,000 hectares, or, 10% of the region (Irrigazette 2016).

Is allowing more irrigation in France a step backward or forwards? Olivier Martin, Président délégué de la Féderation des Vins de Nantes and co-owner of the Domaine Merceron Martin, states that “it is a shame to see people undo all the work Mother Nature has already done. To start irrigating means to invite all the root systems back up to the surface. More and more, with the heat and the irrigation, the traditional French wines will not be French anymore. They will taste like they come from anywhere. But many French winemakers are happy to now have the high yields that can be found in the rest of the world”.

In a nutshell, incentives and support are needed:

Incentives and support for transitioning producers are needed from local government, from insurers and from consumers … actions such as imposed regional yields so to provide economic level playing fields, transitioning programmes with access to soil experts, transitioning grants,  comprehensive and legally-binding sustainability certifications, regional diversification options and modifying crop insurance to reduce incentives for unsustainable farming practices could be an effective way to ensure the resilience of our future agricultural system” (Fullerton et al 2018). There also needs to be incentives for consumers to recognise, understand and identify the value of dry farmed wines   - DRY FARMING needs to be the next consumer trend. To that end, The Wine and Climate Change is currently working on a Transitioning Action Plan and Package and a Dry Farmed Directory.


Wine Water Rights and Water Wrongs ....

At present, those wine producers resisting dry farming argue that the greatest deterrent to adopting or transiting to dry farming, is the loss of profit due to the lower yields. Yet dry farmers tell us that these can be greatly offset by the long-term savings afforded by dry farming. Dry-farmed vineyards incur vastly lower costs, both in terms of start-up and maintenance. Irrigated vineyards require the extra costs of the irrigation system, the trellising system, the water, as well as all maintenance. Not to mention, licence fees and applications. Dry farmers will only have the cost of watering the vines for the first years. CAFF data reports that dry-farmed vineyards average $6000 per acre as opposed to $30,000 per acre for an irrigated vineyard (CAFF 2018).

How much water is saved due to dry farming is a grey area. There does not exist sufficient quantitative research, and data thus far is on a case-by-case basis. TWACCI was going to commission a study on this topic but we realised that it would be a waste of time – the water savings is simply the reverse figure, more or less, of the amount of water used to irrigate … so it would be much easier to find those figures working in the converse.

Another deterrent is the fear of not achieving required economic yields.

When the Australian dry farmers I spoke to resort to irrigation (rescue irrigation) at the end of the growing season, or if a producer in Bordeaux abandons their organic farming methods at the end of a disastrous vintage, they do so to “save their crop”. But this does not mean that their vines were not producing any crop; it means that their vines were risking not producing enough crop to meet their anticipated yields. It is not an ecological construct, but an economic one. Presently, it is only those wine producers who are voluntarily engaging in sustainability practices who are taking the largest risks for the industry. If they are forced to abandon these practices at the final hurdle due to competition from their non-practising peers, then this poses an enormous inequity and retards the advancement of the adoption of sustainable farming practices. There needs to be a level playing field. We have to create a market place and a mindset that allows 1 ton per acre yields to be economically viable and desirable.

Water is also a legal issue – a rights issue. in the same instance that sustainable farming programmes are voluntary, water laws are being enacted and enforced on both national and local levels across the globe. An example of this is the South African Water Act of 1998 that is only now enacting and quasi-enforcing water allocation certificates. Water is being rationed, even if a producer could afford the increasing costs. VinPro, a non-profit company which represents 2,500 South African wine producers, states that the majority of areas in the Western Cape have seen their water rights cut in half, forcing producers in the north of the region to select which vineyards to save.

And over the last decade, grape growers in SE South Australia have had their water entitlements converted to volumetric allocations; have experienced a reduction in annual rainfall, and have seen a rise in the salinity of irrigation groundwater.  Most wine producers have shifted from flood and sprinkler irrigation, which was still widely used in the last decade, to precision drip-irrigation (Stevens et al. 2012). Still, thousands of grape growers have not been able to afford their water bills and have had to cease their production.

In Australia’s Riverina wine region, severe drought conditions have forced more than 10,000 families, mostly sheep and wheat farmers, off their land.. The creeks and streams of the Murray-Darling river system are dry. Many vineyards have been abandoned to soil salinity, unable to grow any crop at all (Johnson-Bell 2017).  In the recent past, winemakers were faring better than other farmers because their business was deemed so “important to the local economy that it had been guaranteed water” (Mercer 2008). Chardonnay was put before wheat and livestock. This preferential treatment is no longer physically possible. Thank god.

From this debate over water rights, the role of the educated consumer comes into force. Increasingly, the consumer IS making the link between wine and agriculture. Consumers want eggs to be free-range, chicken to be corn-fed and vegetables, organic. The provenance of foodstuff is now a key market leader and there is evidence that this demand has translated into the drinks industry. Unilever claims that “over a third of consumers are now actively seeking out brands and companies based on their social, environmental and ethical impact and behaviour. And Nielsen research shows that “75% of millennials are prepared to spend more for a sustainable product, up from 50% in 2014”. Great news. But we have to be better at explaining to the consumer why they are paying for these “risks” - and even better, we have to eliminate these perceived risks for the producers.

There are more hurdles …For example, instead of insurance being used as an incentive to farmers to conserve water, it has become an important “last-ditch” adaptation tool: a safety net. One of the key elements, in the US  ‘‘Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018’’ is crop insurance which helps protect farmer income in times of volatile production when crops are damaged by droughts or floods (House Committee on Agriculture, 2018).

But “crop insurance is good for farmers, but not always for the environment” (Fullerton et al 2018). Studies have shown that crop insurance encourages overuse of resources, particularly water, and makes the agricultural system less resilient in the face of climate change. An example of this are the policies offered many of the world’s wine producers. Drought insurance is cost prohibitive and often not issued if the wine producer does not have an irrigation system in place, thus encouraging irrigation as opposed to supporting water conservation. And worse, Californian wine producers are encouraged to rely upon their crop insurance policies as their primary backup method of drought management, with such advice as “growers have several options for addressing risks through the purchase of crop insurance, an important sustainability tool” (California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance 2018).  Drought insurance cannot be considered a sustainability tool. Period.

Viticulture's Tipping Points ...

If dry farming and other desert-farming techniques are not positioned as the international default position, I fear that the looming collision between the economic, legislative and ecological tipping points will make it happen for us …. We won’t have the choice.  

If dry farming wine grapes is physically and ecologically impossible, then diversification is the next step. Crop diversification is already in the mind-set of many of the producers I have spoken to – especially those in South Africa. Many of them are already experimenting with 5 or more new crops. Agave … seems to crop up in many conversations – pass the margaritas, please!

And sadly, from the most arid wine regions, tales of migration and cessation are already being heard. For a 200 year-old wine estate in Tuscany, for example, this is an unpalatable prospect, for never in the history of viticulture has the wine industry been so intricately and intimately  entwined throughout our economic and cultural identities. Transitioning to dry farming is the first step in slowing the migration process and allowing existing regions to stay where they are for longer …

Irrigation doesn't work anymore ...

Irrigation doesn’t work anymore. Irrigation is Adaptation’s greatest ally whilst it is Mitigation’s greatest foe…

There is just so much we can divert from a river, drain an aquifer or rely on snow melt…

Even when we consider other water sources for irrigation, such as desalinated or recycled wastewater or rainfall – they all contribute to soil salinization, compromised grape quality, and artificially higher yields …

And even if you do not support the arguments (and the science) that irrigation creates shallow root systems rendering the plant more susceptible to drought, that it dilutes the nutritional and microbiological components of the grape, and it dilutes or erases the effect of terroir as well as damages the soil … the undeniable and unarguable fact that there is not enough water to irrigate a luxury crop, is strong enough to stand alone.




What is true "sustainability" for viticulture?

So, what IS sustainability? Here is the current standard definition:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

 “Sustainability” has become a wine trend. It is the new “organic”. There is a plethora of regional accreditations and certifications (mostly voluntary) addressing key adaptation strategies and embracing organic and biodynamic farming practices. The majority of these programmes focus on conservation of habitat and biodiversity as well as pest management, soil health, energy efficiency, green buildings, recycling materials, and water and waste reduction. ALL VITAL and ALL CRITICALLY IMPORTANT

But If water management is mentioned at all, it is too often concerned only with water conservation within a system of irrigation; espousing the benefits of drip irrigation, Regulated Deficit Irrigation (RDI), or the need for better water and soil moisture measuring tools. Absent is the acknowledgement that ceasing freshwater irrigation and choosing to dry farm, would be the most effective sustainability measure.

In the vast majority of the sustainability programmes we have researched across the globe, the use of freshwater irrigation or even a Water Management programme is glaringly omitted ….

And it is my firm belief that going forward, that True Viticultural Sustainability will only be achieved through the practice of dry farming … And we already know how to do this … We have the European irrigation laws as a model – it is not unknown territory and in the New World, there are swathes of dry farmers in our most arid and even desert wine regions: the dry farmers in South Africa’s Swartland, the California’s Zinfandel farmers, Chile, Lebanon etc… There are examples everywhere of the economic and ecological viability of dry farming. So the EU needs to relax their planting laws, but keep their irrigation bans firm, and these should serve as a template for the rest of the world’s wine regions.

When I ran this thesis past an eminent Californian wine producer who dry farms, he warned me that I might have to proceed with caution as he said:

“Americans are as crazy about their water as they are about their guns.”


Why has wine escaped the water wars debate?

Whilst the effect of climate change on viticulture is immense, cultural traditions and consumer attachment to this luxury commodity has protected it from scrutiny and its role in the world’s water wars.

With the present 2°C limit imposing new “planetary boundaries” and pitting science against politics (von Storch and Krauss 2013), I would suggest that in the context of viticulture, the greater conflict is between science and culture.  It is the failure to shift cultural perceptions of wine that risks slowing down its adaptation survival options, which are already limited by the built-in time-line of the vine.

The link between social systems and food production systems in the context of wine production is a tenuous one. Wine is not often viewed as a “crop”.

Vineyards are often portrayed as glamorous holiday destinations as opposed to places of agricultural production. The consumer views wine production as a benign “past-time”, heavy with emotional attachments to historical and cultural allegories. Who dreams of retiring and moving to India to start a tea plantation or to Columbia to grow coffee?

Wine producers also exhibit this behaviour of strong attachment. Theirs is either to historical and traditional regional practices or to profit and production-enhancing practices. Both mindsets retard the needed response to adaptation and mitigation.

Further, the majority of viticultural discourse, whether it be of consumer, wine producer or scientific origin, is productivity/yield focused, with the cause and effect relationship between yields and quality being poorly understood and usually misrepresented. This disconnect skewers the findings of many scientific papers on the topic, as the authors’ approach is most often from a pure agricultural perspective (quantity) rather than a viticultural one (quality).

For true climate action in viticulture, for true SUSTAINABILITY, we are going to have to unwrap wine from its cosy protective layering … she has to take off her mink coat!


That glass of wine is wearing Louboutins ...

It is very difficult to size up wine’s water footprint in the context of irrigation. There are so many variables. Consider all of the different irrigation systems, different watering amounts, watering timings and watering methods … as irrigation is dependent upon interacting with the unique characteristics of a micro-climate: wind factors, soil types, evapotranspiration rates, etc. The list of variables is endless, but the overall analysis still holds firm.


LUXURY CROPS: Comparative Water Footprints

Here, we have placed wine’s water footprint in context with 5 other luxury crops. Admittedly, Wine’s average global water footprint may not be enormous compared to other crops, or even other luxury crops, but it ranks as the most important fruit crop in the world in terms of production and economic importance (Cramer et al. 2006 and Vivier and Pretorious 2002). And, crucially, its blue water or freshwater, content is disproportionately high for its production values

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Water use is measured in terms of a water footprint.

The water footprint of a product (good or service) is the volume of fresh water used to produce the product, summed over the various steps of the production chain. ‘Water use’ is measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated) and/or polluted.

The ‘water footprint’ includes three components: consumptive use of rainwater (green water), consumptive use of water withdrawn from groundwater or surface water (blue water) and pollution of water (grey water).  

As we know, water is used in every process of wine production. AND In sites where irrigation is legally practiced, this is its greatest use of water. 83% of the surface under vine is irrigated in the New World as opposed to 10% in the Old World -  Institut national de la recherche agronomique ( It is the variables inherent in the practice of irrigation; from country to country; region to region; and micro-climate to micro-climate, plant to plant - that renders determining wine’s water footprint, so difficult.

That said - Incorporating all water sources, the Water Footprint Network reports that it takes an average of 110 litres of water for a 125 ml glass of wine. In drier regions, the average is higher (Australia = 120 litres and California = 131 litres) (WFN, 2014).

It has to be mentioned here that these estimates are challenged by many New World oenologists. They believe that the Dutch researchers at the WFN, failed to consider the higher yields in California and other non-European vineyards, arguing that there is “more wine for the water buck”. And in drought-ridden southern Spain, where limited irrigation is now permitted, researchers argue that the water footprint alone is not a viable enough indicator with which to measure water’s “economic productivity”.

Now … this shared argument overlooks the illogical attempt of justifying increasing irrigation with higher yields and thus, greater economic profitability, when higher yields due to increased irrigation will ultimately lead to lower quality and lower economic profitability in the context of water scarcity. Any profit initially afforded by the greater yields will eventually be consumed.

Linda Johnson-Bell