Small Sips #16: Turning water into wine

Jesus got a lot of kudos for turning water into wine but this is a trick that wineries across the world do all the time when they irrigate their vineyards, a widely-used but controversial practice that can increase grape and wine yields by up to 300%. Banned in many classical European regions, except during ‘extreme weather events’ (e.g. the 2003 heatwave), irrigation is much criticised as, when abused – as it often is – the result is dilute, unripe and unpleasant wine.

There are three main types used in vineyards – namely surface irrigation (sometimes called flood irrigation), sprinkler irrigation and micro-irrigation (also know as drip or trickle irrigation). Drip irrigation is the process where water is dropped onto the soil at very low rates from a system of pipes with holes in them. It is the most precise method and gives winemakers the ability to control water deficit (RDI) and plant stress whilst using a fraction of the water that overhead spray devices use.

Wisely employed irrigation can actually improve wine quality, as severely dehydrated and overheated vines totally shut down which is bad news for grapes. Vineyards are also experimenting with using recycled wastewater with very positive results which makes the whole process more ecologically sound. It’s worth remembering, too, that without irrigation many famous wine regions (e.g. Mendoza) wouldn’t even be viable!


Image: Inside a fermentation tank at Benazzoli Wines; © Benazzoli.

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