Water or Wine? Dry-farming needs to become a consumer trend

Water or Wine? If you really want to show off your eco credentials, then start insisting on dry-farmed wines when dining in a restaurant. If you are a fan of European wines, then you are most likely already doing so, as irrigation is illegal in the quality designated appellations. But not for water conservation reasons - for quality reasons. Europeans have already embraced that indelible horticultural fact: water dilutes. But severe droughts have meant that irrigation legislation is loosening in southern France, but only for the entry-level or bulk wines, not the AOC wines. Soil experts such as Dr. Emmanual Bourgignon inform us that irrigation creates shallow root systems, dilutes fruit concentration, dilutes terroir, artificially increases yields, salinates soils, and, uses up too much water. Certainly, my twenty-five years of tasting notes confirm this.  

At first, New World wine growers used irrigation to bump up their yields and compensate for the lack of summer rain. But soon, the increasing heat and droughts will mean prohibitive water costs, tighter legislative allocations and ultimately, a lack of water. If wine makers don’t establish their new plantings as dry-farmed and weaning their established parcels off water, which can take years, then they will get caught unprepared. And if they are caught unprepared, then they will be forced to employ crop diversification or cease production and migrate. After all, that’s what other crops are having to do right now, all over the globe: Pack up, and move to more viable climates. We are seeing this already with the other luxury crops such as coffee, cacao, tea and tobacco.

For the moment, the wine trade is fighting any real mitigation measures. Heck, they have only just acknowledged that climate change exists. And this is only because when there are ten international journalists standing in their vineyard watching plants shut-down under the heat or being harvested three weeks earlier than they were a decade ago, they can’t hide it anymore. And when wines that used to be fresh, elegant and distinctive at 12.5% ABV are now coming in at 15% or more, and taste hot, alcoholic, dry, and boring and as if they were grown anywhere, they can’t hide it anymore. And, they can’t blame high alcohol wines on “consumer preferences” anymore, either.

So, whilst the market place does not (at the moment) reward grape farmers who dry-farm (so, where is the incentive?) and since we know that public policy won’t move fast enough to keep up with what is happening on the ground, there is only the consumer who can affect any change in this situation. The consumer has to be informed about viticulture’s global water footprint and insist on properly sustainable wines. Only then will the playing field level out enough to provide enough incentive for grape farmers to take what they perceive as the risk towards a dry-farming transition. We have to make it a “trend”, just like we did with “organic” and “meritage” and “unfiltered” and all the other European practices that the New World pretended they invented when they finally figured out for themselves that they were the better practices!

We have to now take responsibility for what we drink. In a world where water licenses are being allocated to local wineries instead of consumers or farmers of staple crops, we need to think about why we are using precious ground water supplies for this luxury crop. We need to only source the wines we drink from climates and from winemakers who do not irrigate. If wineries in Turkey and Lebanon who survive on 400mm of winter rainfall a year can do it, then California, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Chile can bloody well figure it out.

We really have to start asking ourselves: “Wine? Or water?”