To Dry Farm or Not to Dry Farm – that is the Question… By William Hoare, Fromm Winery

10.04.2016

Now is the time of year when there is a nervous quietness at the winery. All the vineyard work has been done and there is a two-week window where we can only sit and wait for the grapes to ripen. It is a time to reflect on the season and look at what you would or would not do next year.

This growing season in Marlborough was extremely dry. We suffered a drought last summer followed by very low rainfall over winter, so when we started the growing season in September we had very low soil moisture levels. By December, it was so dry that the soil moisture levels were even lower than where they should have been by the end of summer. Because of this, we were very nervous about our dry farm vines shutting down and stopping growth. Now that we are almost ready to pick, I can gladly say the vines look amazing!

I was recently explaining to a group of winery guests that at Fromm we dry farm (don’t irrigate) our vines. The reason we dry farm is we are trying to get the roots of the vines to go down and suck moisture out of the soil, which gives the grapes the flavour of their environment. There is a theory that if you irrigate, the roots stay shallow and feed only near the surface of the soil where the dripper puts the water. Wine produced from these types of vines is very varietal. The theory also goes that if you don’t irrigate, the vines have to go deeper in search of water, which gives the wines produced a sense of place.

Amazingly on our small 5.5 hectares, if you work on the district average for water usage, we save over 9.5 million litres of water every year by dry farming. In 2013 we received a Marlborough District Council Environment Award in recognition of these water savings. However dry farming is not as easy as just turning off the water.

If you wish to dry farm, there are some key factors you must take into account: your soil type, your root stocks, the age of your vines, and what style of wine you’re trying to make. It has taken us fifteen years to get the vines to the stage where we don’t have to irrigate them; it cannot be done overnight.

We started by irrigating our young vines as per a normal vineyard. Once the vines were established (around five years), instead of irrigating them once a day, we watered just once a week or fortnight, for between four and six hours. This sent the roots deeper in search of water and means that over time the vines can be weaned off irrigation completely.

Over 60% of our vines now survive with no irrigation, as dry farming encourages them to draw moisture from the soil. This means the fruit is getting its flavour from the land and gives each single vineyard a sense of place.

As well as saving water and the power needed to pump it, we believe the vines produce better fruit with riper flavours and tannins. The vines also shut down naturally in autumn which stops green flavours coming through, ultimately leading to better wines being made.

Taking the time to reflect back on the season, and having come through three very dry seasons in a row, it is exciting to realise you can successfully dry farm in Marlborough, even under extreme conditions.

By William Hoare, Fromm Winery