The irrigation of vineyards has become a struggle in several wine regions

The irrigation of vineyards has become a struggle in several wine regions

The importance of water in the production of wine has grown in recent years, to such an extent that many wine companies are struggling. Chris Losh considers where irrigation has become a problem issue.

The picture of the man in a Panama hat striding across the cracked mud flat said it all. By rights, since he was walking across the floor of a dam in Chile's Elqui Valley, our man should have been under several million litres of water. But, instead, years of drought have left the dam baked into a million cracks.

To add to the irony, the photographer who took the snap told me that the site used to be a vineyard.

For most of the history of the wine industry, water was only an issue if it fell at the wrong times and wrecked a harvest. Now, it is the lack of water that is causing problems. In South Africa, parts of the Cape are experiencing their worst drought for nearly 30 years, while some Californian aquifers came close to terminal collapse during the US's recent run of dry years. Chile's government, which has commissioned several studies in this area, has admitted that 95% of the current vineyard area (130,000 hectares) could be facing water shortages for irrigation by 2050.

And, a look at official Australian Bureau of Meteorology figures shows a pretty consistent decline in rainfall volumes of 25% over the last ten years compared to the 1950s. In Mildura, the beating heart of Australian wine's volume industry, all but two of the last 20 vintages have seen below-average rainfall in a region that's hardly blessed with much of the stuff to start with.

Moreover, it's not simply a case of not getting enough water, per se. The rain that does fall often comes at unusual times of the year, and in intense downpours that prove difficult to collect. As one Cape winemaker put it: "Enormous quantities of rainwater continue to gush into the sea each winter."

The problem in many areas is that dams and reservoirs are hugely-controversial projects, impacting on properties that draw water from rivers downstream, and also stirring up the green lobby.

"The political reality is that no new dams will be built in Victoria," was the bald assessment of Neil Larsen, winemaker at Tahbilk, while Tom Klein of Rodney Strong vineyards told me that "California has a water shortage, but really we have a dam shortage. Our population has doubled, and we haven't added a dam in 50 years."

The Chilean government has been less squeamish – a number of reservoirs have been built recently, and wineries have been granted permission to build 50m-litre reservoirs without requiring an official permit.

But, this is not a panacea.

In warmer, drier regions, such as Lolol and Marchihue, it's estimated that every hectare of vineyard requires 1m litres of stored water. Even for an industry like Chile's - dominated as it is by large companies - the economics aren't necessarily compelling.

Understandably, governments have been quick to implement what they most easily can: a tightening up of water rights, reductions in the amount permitted for each estate, and far stricter policing of users.

Some years ago, the South Australian government bought back irrigation rights from farmers, and allocations generally are lower across the board. In Chile, the Government now measures the depth of winery's wells every year, to prevent them sneakily boring deeper in search of water during dry spells. California, meanwhile, has run across-the-board educational programmes on water management.

With less water available, and more stringent enforcement of tougher legislation, it's perhaps no surprise that improved irrigation is a recurring theme across the New World's wineries. As recently as ten years ago, 25% of Australia's industry was still using hugely inefficient flood or spray irrigation techniques. That's now down to under 10%, and will surely fall further. The country is at the forefront of water preservation.

Such changes may not necessarily be cheap to implement, but that they work isn't in doubt. Jackson Family Wines in California has implemented turbines rather than spraying for frost protection, built water collection dams and introduced technology that monitors the soil and sap flow for super-targeted irrigation. The result: a 30% saving in water use - 28m gallons - a year. Back in Chile, Ventisquero and Montes (to name but two) have carried out similar investments, with equally dramatic results.

In other words, the industry is doing the best it can with what it has been dealt. But, what are the knock-on impacts on the industry of the lack of rain?

One of the most obvious changes is the shift towards more drought-friendly varieties. Chile, for instance, is seeing a rise in prominence of the likes of Shiraz and Mourvedre - and a decline in thirsty Merlot. It's also probably no coincidence that Australia's growing interest in Spanish and Italian grape varieties seems to have started in the mid-noughties, in the middle of the great ten-year drought.

The politics of water (and its availability) are also having a significant impact on the expansion (or not) of existing wine areas – New Zealand's Marlborough springs to mind – and the planting of potential new areas. Chile, as Undurraga's Rafael Urrejola ruefully pointed out, has dozens of amazing sites that would be nailed-on perfect for vine growing … if they only had access to water. Moreover, some of the country's existing vineyards are struggling. In appellations like Casablanca and San Antonio, no more water licences are available, period, while Limari - excitedly talked about as the country's great fine white wine region just ten years ago - was described to me by one winemaker as 'totally screwed', the victim of smaller snowfalls on the Andes and less river water for irrigation.

It is perhaps this, as much as the search for cooler climates and older vines, that explains why the centre of Chile's wine industry is moving steadily south. Bio Bio, Maule and even Itata are firmly on the radar in a way that was unthinkable a decade ago. They have their problems, but a lack of water is not one of them.

If the industry's adoption of water-saving techniques, the planting of different varieties, and the appearance (or renaissance) of new regions are all, in a sense, positive reactions to a heaven-sent problem – and trends which we're likely to see continuing - there's a darker side, too.

It's hard enough to turn a profit in wine at the best of times, and the added costs and complications caused by drought have already put extra strains on growers poorly equipped to tolerate them. Younger growers starting out, in dry-farmed areas are particularly susceptible. 

It's to be hoped, then, that we aren't looking at pictures of them in ten years' time, walking across dust bowls in a Panama hat.