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.