Making the best of a dry situation

| June 30, 2016 | 0 Comments
Clos du Bois’ 2013 “Calcaire” Chardonnay, from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, pictured here, is a rich wine, characterized with citrus and mineral flavours. (Photo: © Aaron Knight | Dreamstime.com)

Clos du Bois’ 2013 “Calcaire” Chardonnay, from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, pictured here, is a rich wine, characterized with citrus and mineral flavours. (Photo: © Aaron Knight | Dreamstime.com)

Less is more when it comes to water and growing wine grapes. Pressuring a grape vine to dig deep with its roots and seek out water is the foundation of winemaking. While other factors have a role to play, great wine can only come from the fruit of an appropriately stressed vine.
However, balance is required. If water stress grows to be a true threat, a vine reacts in a primal way to insure its survival: It shuts down. When a region that is already warm endures a prolonged period without precipitation, a drought develops and this becomes a situation with serious consequences.
California, the world’s fourth most productive wine region after Italy, France and Spain, has now endured nearly five years of drought. While recent rains hold the promise of some respite, the State Water Board has adopted an extension of regulations to ensure that water conservation continues through 2016.
California’s agriculture industry consumes a vast quantity of water. The production of wine grapes, the state’s No. 3 cash crop, consumed far less water than often-vilified No. 2: almonds. However, with 615,000 acres (250,000 hectares) planted with wine grapes, the impact of even a small amount of water consumption is still significant. Just like cities and towns, farms and vineyards must operate with mandatory water supply cuts. Many grape growers and wineries have been left with 20 percent of their previously normal irrigation allocation.
At first, much of California’s quality wine production was based on dry-farming grapes that received no additional water than the rain that fell during the vintages (as with parts of France, Spain and other regions in the Old World).
After the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting put California’s wines on par with Bordeaux’s best, the state’s wine industry exploded through the ’80s and ’90s. Grape growers soon realized they could increase production by planting their vines in close proximity to one another and providing the necessary additional water with irrigation.
Today, many of California’s vineyards are irrigated to some degree. The practice is particularly common in the state’s dry Central Valley, where many bulk wines are born. However, vineyards in the more prestigious Sonoma and Napa valleys are also irrigated.
While the usage of more efficient irrigation and dry-farming are helping California wine producers to survive and prosper during this drought (2015’s wine grape crush totalled 3.7 million tons), the states’s snowpacks, rivers and lakes are depleted. Only the return of precipitation will change this. Otherwise, if the drought persists, groundwater use will continue to deplete aquifers. In the meantime, the best practices are those that help not only the wine industry, but the rest of the state as well.
Since starting up in 1974, Sonoma’s Clos du Bois winery has championed sustainability. Nearly all its electricity needs are provided by solar power, and the winery annually turns leftover grape pulp, skins and seeds into more than 5,000 cubic metres of organic compost for its vineyards. As for water consumption, one acre (0.4 hectares) of its vineyards uses less water per year than a family of four.
Their 2013 Russian River Valley “Calcaire” Chardonnay is a rich wine characterized by citrus and mineral flavours. Full malolactic fermentation has softened the mouth feel of this single-vineyard Chardonnay, but there’s still plenty of fresh acidity to provide excellent and lingering balance. This vibrant wine is available from Vintages for $29.95.
CADE Estate Winery was founded with a strong philosophy of environmental responsibility. It’s Napa Valley’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold-certified winery ­— an honour awarded for performance in five areas, for including water savings. Among its practices is the usage of grey water for irrigation of its estate vineyards.
Its 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is an impressive, weighty and delicious wine from a spectacular vintage. While many Howell Mountain wines can be austere in their youth, the Estate Cab is forward and open with generous blue and black fruit flavours and sweet tannins. The finish is long and lush. It’s composed of 93 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 7 percent Merlot, and a total of 231 barrels were produced. This luxurious and hedonistic wine is available through Vintages for $143.

Pieter Van den Weghe is general manager and sommelier at Beckta.

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Pieter Van den Weghe is general manager and wine director at Beckta dining & wine.

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