Water challenges for wine industry

Access to water is an issue for many wine regions including Chile and Argentina. Even when it rains, the water evaporates as soon as the shower is over

A water shortage and lack of effective irrigation has become a serious problem in several wine producing regions, writes Helen Coburn

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15 January 2015 | 0

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As we Irish quibble about paying €160 for copious supplies of water, we might give a thought to the travails of the wine industry in warmer climes. Chile, Argentina, Australia and the USA are only some of the producing countries where access to water and effective irrigation have become a pressing issue. During December, California experienced record rains but they weren’t enough to remedy the ravages of a drought which some scientists say is the worst for 1,000 years. Much of the region is now drier than the famous dustbowl period, with only modern irrigation and conservation keeping the effects under control. But how much longer can that go on?

According to meterologists, it is unprecedented heat which is keeping the land so dry, despite some moderate rainfalls. Even when it rains, the water evaporates as soon as the shower is over. In such conditions, wine producers suffer, with over-stressed vines going into periods of growth shutdown. Great heat also affects the style of wine. Crops are small and tend to throw grapes of dark colour, due to high dry matter, and excessively high levels of alcohol. While the modern consumer will accept, sometimes reluctantly, wines of 14.5% alcohol by volume, they tend not to buy when levels pass 15%, as is now happening to some California wines, especially those made from Grenache and zinfandel. These varieties can reach 17% alcohol in really hot conditions but the wine is not well balanced.

Growers are praying now for a winter of rain to refill the wells and reservoirs. These had just enough water to keep the grape crop going in 2014 but won’t be adequate for 2015 if the drought continues. Some climate historians have pointed out that, in the past, there have been droughts which lasted for 50 or 100 years. Proposals to mitigate drought have been brought forward by California governor Jerry Brown, and are likely to cost well over $7bn dollars. That’s on top of $16bn spent on water management during the last decade.

Australia recently emerged from what was a ten year drought in some regions, while in Chile, which has been battling drought for almost five years, the government is poised to spend at least $1bn on improved water management. Meanwhile vineyard owners are working to achieve more sustainable vineyards through minimal irrigation, better canopy management and water conservation projects, including the replanting of trees and shrubbery to protect top soil.

 

 

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