Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Farming Dry

I ended last week reading an interesting article in the SF Chronicle about the emergence in popularity of dry farmed fruit. Not to belabor what may seem an obvious definition, dry farmed means that no watering or in the case of modern, larger scale farming, drip irrigation, is used during the growing season. A few smaller growers in drought prone northern california were profiled, describing how eliminating irrigation resulted in smaller, but more intensely flavored and better quality fruit. I can personally attest to this, having enjoyed dry farmed early girl tomatoes from the Santa Cruz mountains last summer and finding them to be amongst the most flavorful tomatoes I have ever eaten. Of course, besides fruit quality, a primary reason for dry farming would simply be the serious drought in which California finds itself.

As it relates to wine, many regions throughout the world practice drip irrigation. Mendoza, Argentina. The Colchagua Valley in Chile. South Australia. Even Ribera del Duero in Spain. Here in California, irrigation from Mendocino county all the way to the most southerly wine AVA's is the rule rather than the exception. That having been said, I recently tasted a line-up of wines from Qupe with Bob Lindquist. Amongst a strong line-up (if you haven't tasted these wines before, they have good acidity, balance, and true varietal character), one of the most expressive wines was an '05 Bien Nacido Syrah. Though it was a very dry, sunny year (not unusual for Santa Barbara county), apparently it had rained a lot the past few years. As a result, the drip irrigation was hardly implemented, and according to Bob the fruit was among the best quality he had ever seen.

Past rainfall, as well as the existence of a water table at a certain depth below ground, are two critical elements of successful dry farming in dry climates. What I am still grappling with, though, is why more smaller wineries throughout the world are not dry farming. Yes, it's more labor intensive and results in less productive vines, but if you're relatively small and want to produce good wine, then aren't lots of quality time in the vineyard and less productive vines two things that you're already seeking out?