The Armchair Sommelier notices dry-farming and much more: please stop by the post to see the illustrations and photos for this piece:
There’s a lot of chatter in the wine world today about viticultural practices — specifically organic, biodynamic, and sustainable practices. Many vineyards are moving away from conventional practices (which have few limitations on pesticides and chemical fertilizers) and toward one or more of these guys. All three share similar, broad goals — advocating environmentally responsible practices like soil conservation, habitat protection & restoration, and water & energy conservation. However, they differ in specifics and limitations.
Here’s a neat a Venn diagram that illustrates the overlap:
In organic viticulture, grapes are grown without any pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers. Organic growers use natural botanicals, cover crops to control weeds, and compost to build organic matter in the soil. Organic viticulture is rigid in its limitations, and requires certification by a government regulating body (here in the US, it’s the USDA).
If organics are important to you, I should point out that a wine can be made from organically grown grapes, but still not be an organic wine. All wines contain sulfites (because they occur naturally in grapes), but if a wine is made organically, additional sulfites cannot be added during the winemaking process. Look for the acronym “NSA” (no sulfites added) on the label.
Biodynamic viticulture is a hot-button topic in the wine world. It’s based on the ideas of Austrian esoteric (read as: wack-a-doodle), Rudolf Steiner. To provide a little context, Steiner believed mistletoe could cure cancer, and that left-handedness was a weakness resulting from a former earth-life in which the individual has overtaxed himself either physically or emotionally. And it should be corrected.
Essentially, biodynamic viticulture is organic viticulture, with metaphysics and astrology added sprinkled on top. Wine writers and sommeliers gush about biodynamic wines, and there’s no denying that there are some kick-ass wines made using biodynamic techniques. And I respect the sincerity of folks who are committed to biodynamics. But I remain unconvinced that stuffing the manure of a female cow into a cow horn, burying it for six months, digging it up again, and then spraying it on your vineyard during a descending phase of the moon . . . is anything other than viticultural voodoo.
Sustainability is a practice I can wrap my brain around — because it’s rational and reasonable. It’s sensitive to both the environment and the community, and it’s balanced, too. Sustainable practices allow for minimal interventions when necessary (and you don’t have to consult astrological charts). At its core, sustainability means being a good steward of the land . . . and a good neighbor.
Meet good steward and neighbor, Stu Smith.
Brothers Stu and Charlie Smith founded Smith-Madrone Winery (in the Spring Mountain District of Napa Valley) in 1971. The Spring Mountain District is a cool climate, mountain appellation — the vineyards there are planted on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains (the range separating Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley). Elevations in the Spring Mountain District range anywhere from 400 to 2,600 feet. And the Spring Mountain District is small — there are only about 30 wineries (there are 400+ wineries in all of Napa Valley). Napa Valley produces about 4% of all California wine, but the Spring Mountain District makes up only 2% of that figure.
The vines at Smith-Madrone are dry farmed, which means (very simply) that the vines get only the water Mother Nature chooses to give them. Dry farming is completely sustainable, and was actually the norm in Napa Valley until the late 1970s, when drip irrigation was introduced to the region. Before then, farmers and vines alike adapted to whatever Mother Nature gave them. They did more, with less.
Historical sidebar: The California wines that won the Judgement of Paris wine competition in 1976? Dry farmed.
As California begins to emerge from an epic multi-year drought (check out this really, really, really cool drought map), good steward farmers continue to look for ways to conserve and protect water resources. Stu Smith points out, “wine grapes use the least amount of water than any other agricultural product.” (Almonds and rice are notorious California water hogs.) And dry farming can save as much as 16,000 gallons of water per acre annually.
Is there a downside?
Dry farming does lower overall crop yields, but it also increases grape quality. Dry farmed grapes produce smaller berries, with a higher skin to juice ratio, which means you have a more intensely flavored grape.
Quality over quantity.
Dry farming is more than just praying for rain, though. You need the right kind of soil (the kind that absorbs and retains moisture), the right kind of vines (drought-resistant deep rooting vines), and the vines must be properly spaced so there’s not too much competition for scarce water.
There’s also technique to dry farming — the first few inches of soil are broken-up in the springtime, when there’s moisture in the soil, leftover from winter rains. Then, the soil is compacted, forming a dry crust (sometimes called dust mulch) that seals in the moisture. Deprived of consistent surface moisture (irrigation), the vine roots quickly adapt, and grow deep into the soil (sometimes 20 or more feet) to find and absorb moisture.
I found this fantastic graphic from Emeritus Vineyards and Forbes Magazine that visually explains how vine roots adapt to dry farming:
So, how do dry-farmed, mountain wines taste?
2014 Riesling /91
Made from 42 year old vines. Fermented entirely in stainless steel. Beautifully dry and just plain clean, this might just be my favorite Napa Valley Riesling. Bright, sassy acidity. Loaded with minerals, wet rocks, green apple, lemon rind, and pears. A long, rewarding finish ends with a hint of honey. This Riesling has aging potential in spades. 12.8% ABV. $30.
2014 Chardonnay /91
Made from 42 year old vines. 100% barrel fermented for nine months in new French oak. This wine underwent bâttonage (lees stirring), which, in addition to being really fun to say, gives a wine irresistible flavors of biscuit and dough. Beautiful nose of green apple, lemon and buttered brioche. Dry and highly textured, with flavors of yellow apple, pear, butterscotch, vanilla and biscuits. The oak is present to support, but not overpower, the fruit. The finish lingers with a passing almond. 14.2% ABV. $32.
2013 Cabernet Sauvignon /91
Made from 41 year old vines. A blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc and 6% Merlot. Aged in both new and one-year-old French oak. The nose is a glorious menagerie of bramble, cigar, lavender and cloves. Dry, elegant, and restrained, with flavors of blackberry, black currant, white pepper, graphite, nutmeg. The tannins are young, but well integrated. 14.2% ABV. $50.
Smith-Madrone wines are made from well-tended, well-loved, dry-farmed vines:
These vines are our friends. We walk these rows year-round and know all their personalities. ~Stu Smith
The resulting wines are a lean, elegant, and focused expression of cool climate, mountain terroir. They reflect a consistency and keen sense of place . . . and good stewardship.