NZ's Dry River - not so dry?
Caution - wine wankery/vineyard trainspotting ahead. Tune out now if bored by such geekiness. I'm highlighting this here as it sparked much debate and the response is an excellent one.
Everyone loves a bit of a scandal. Or even just a whiff of a scandal.
Clearly I do (and have too much time on may hands) as my interest was
piqued when I read this article recently in the Dominion Post:
'Pinot Pioneer Neil McCallum retires'
What actually caught my eye though was this line:
'..there's no sign of a harvesting machine or a bottling machine for
that matter. While other vineyards typically boast irrigation systems,
Dry River doesn't have a hose or tap in sight, believing that drier
vines give more intense wine flavours.'
To most people it wouldn't mean much, except for the fact that the
eagle eyed (wine nerds. My hand is up) would have spotted some black
hoses in the photo of Neil that looks suspiciously like irrigation
lines (the white arrows point to them in the image below. Image derived from here)...
So intriguing (to me at least) where those black hoses then that I put the question out on twitter.
'Is it just me or are those irrigation lines in this photo of Dry River?'
Suffice to say that, considering we are talking about Dry River, most people thought that it couldn't be an irrigation system. Several suggested it could have been rolled up bird netting, others that it might be for fertigation, others still that for watering the gardens nearby. It sparked much debate...
Ultimately though there was only one way to settle whether they were indeed irrigation lines. To go straight to the source. So I asked Dry River themselves.
I'm really thankful then for the new Dry River viticulturist Robert Wills for providing a response (and allowing me to publish it here), particularly given the context of the vineyard.
Why the impact of this response? Why is this newsworthy? Because I emailed back in December and only got a response now and honestly didn't expect to get one. Because historically Dry River has been something of a closed door operation, the veritable cult winery of Martinborough (of sorts) and something of an enigma. A vineyard that has no cellar door and operates largely via a closed mailing list. An operation that has mystique and intrigue and produces wines that are special (or at least I belive so).
In an Australian context the best example I can think of is Wendouree, yet obviously without the strange crayon colours on the mailing list order forms (and more than just a fax machine to communicate with). Dry River is, like Wendouree, one of the pioneers of the region (with the old vines to match) and is renowned for not only for the artfully made wines produced but also the meticulous, super precision viticulture practised (have a read of Jamie Goode's article here for an appreciation).
For anyone interested in 'dry' viticulture then this response is worth a read. It really is the very pointy end of wine production...
'Thanks for your email and the very good question that you have asked. I should also say "well spotted that man"!
Anyway, to your question about irrigation at the Dry River vineyards. We do not irrigate our cropping vines. We do however install drip irrigation for new plantings, and leave those lines in place for the first four years of the young vines life. The photo referred to shows Neil McCallum with our new Pinot Gris block in the background and as observed, the visible irrigation lines don't match the newspaper article's line that "Dry River doesn't have a hose or tap in sight".
This Pinot Gris block was planted following the removal of our old original Sauvignon Blanc vines. Our policy in the first year of a vine's life is to see that they have adequate soil moisture to survive. In the next year we follow a similar routine but moderate it depending on the season and the status of the vines.
It's worth noting that Martinborough is in one of the driest regions in New Zealand and so the risk of young vine failure is a very real one here. The block in question has not had any irrigation this season (and won't), and I don't believe it had any last year either. In 2011 we picked 400 kgs off that block of 1.16 acres and in 2012 we expect the handsome total of about 1 tonne!
That particular block was replanted over two years so vines there are four and five years old. For most vineyard operations these days, a cropping regime of less than 1 tonne/acre off five year old vines would be a recipe for ruin, but then Dry River has always been"a bit different".
I compare that approach to a situation I had in Australia,where I worked for many years. In a new Shiraz block we took a 1.5 tonne/acre crop off in the vine's second year and the winery paid us a quality bonus!
Back to the photo and associated article. We have 43,225 metres of row length at Dry River. The now redundant irrigation lines cover 1,881 metres, ie 4.3% of the total area.
We care about and for our vines because wecare about making good wine. So we particularly look after our"youngsters". Looking at that block this season, I think that we are going to have some very nice fruit. But then, only time will tell.'
Robert Wills, 16th January
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