Water into Wine

A Short Course on Water in and around the Vineyard

Wine is an agricultural product.  Farmers grow grapes and harvest them and then a bottle magically appears on my table.   This phenomenon is not so different to a steak from a cow or a mandarin orange that may have come from some distant country.

Grapes need water but it is such an intricate dance of how much and how little; what time of the season;  does a large body of water nearby soften the impact of harsh weather effectively; does too much moisture in the air cause either devastating mold and mildew or does it provide just enough to cause botrytis, the “noble rot” that allows the production of luscious dessert wines.

  •  Grape vines like rain water in the winter.  This raises the water table for the grapes to use in the hot summer months.   The worst time for rain is at harvest time.  Water can swell the grapes up with… well, water!!  Too much water in grapes reduces the flavors and natural sugar ratios in the wine.
  • Grapes love rocky soil preferably heading up the side of a nice size hill or mountain (benchland).  The roots have to dig deep to find water and all of this work is usually rewarded by complex flavors in the wine.
  • Some places are so dry that even the grape vines can’t survive without irrigation.  Argentina funnels water from the Andes Mountain Range snow and water runoff to keep their vines hydrated.
  • Large bodies of waters, like oceans and lakes, help reduce temperature extremes in harsh climates.  Have you noticed that is cooler at the  coast in the summer and warmer in the winter?  This temperature effect, caused by large bodies of water, allows grapes to grow in places like Niagra Falls, New Zealand and  Austria or warmer places like Baja, Mexico.
  • Even river water can influence the production of grapes.  In places like the Mosel River in Germany (home to some of my favorite Rieslings), the sunlight reflected off the water and on to the south facing vineyards, causes the grapes to ripen far better than vineyards facing in other directions or further from the river.

It is a rough estimate that it takes 50 to 100 gallons of water to make just one bottle of wine.  The drought in California has wineries working overtime on developing new practices to lessen the use of water.  Water is used in wine making, barrel cleaning, tank cleaning, floor cleaning and I am sure they even pour some in the tasting room.  New practices allow for water recapture and recycling to lessen the use of this precious commodity.

So when you reach for that glass of wine tonight you can tell yourself you are getting your water, too.  Cheers!

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