Truth: Irrigation is allowed, but it is strictly regulated
It’s a persistent myth that it’s forbidden to irrigate in the vineyards in Europe. In the past, the rules were stricter, it was even sometimes forbidden, even though it was always allowed to a certain extent. But today it is allowed, but strictly regulated.
By irrigating you can increase production. The vine sucks up the water and the grapes grow bigger and you get more wine, but of lower quality. That is why there are restrictions and why in the past it was “forbidden”.
It was forbidden for appellation contrôlée wines, but for simpler wines it could be allowed. (What I describe here are the rules in France. In for example Italy and Spain the rules may be slightly different.)
But irrigation can also have positive effects. If, for example, there is a lack of precipitation the maturity of the grapes can be blocked. The grape may suffer from “water stress”, which is rather stress due to lack of water. That was exactly what happened in the very hot and dry summer of 2003. It was hot and sunny, but the grapes did not ripen as they should, simply because it was too hot and above all too dry. Then the vine closes down the maturation process to save water so that it does not die from drought. The result was, despite the sunny summer, grapes that did not have a balanced maturity at harvest. Immature grapes despite good weather.
This was the starting point for the debate to liberalise the irrigation rules. Had it been allowed to irrigate in 2003, the wine producers could have avoided the unripe and dehydrated grapes that were the result in many cases.
So a few years later, in 2007, it was allowed to irrigate even in appellation contrôlée vineyards. But of course under strict rules, such as no irrigation after August 15. Each appellation could also have stricter rules that limited it more.
New rules for irrigation
Just recently the INAO, the Institut nationale de l’origine et de la qualité (formerly called Institut nationale des appellations d’origine), has decided on new irrigation rules which include:
- You can now irrigate from June 15 up until the harvest (so, no longer limited to August15). In the final growing period, the maturation of the grapes can be blocked by very hot and dry weather (as in 2017), which can be avoided with a little irrigation near the harvest.
- You can now use underground irrigation systems. In the past, drip irrigation suspended on a wire and overhead spray irrigation (unusual) were the only methods allowed.
- However, different rules for yields apply where you irrigate. Where you use irrigation you cannot exceed the base yield (rendement de base); whereas where you do not irrigate you can exceed the base yield. This is, of course, to prevent pumping up the volume with too liberal irrigation.
This applies to appellation protégée (also called appellation contrôlée). An AOP / AOC region may choose to have stricter rules. Read more about the new rules at vitisphere.com.
More liberal rules apply to the lower categories: IGP (indication géographique protégée, formerly known as vin de pays; and for vin de france, formerly called vin de table).
So yes, it is allowed to irrigate in the vineyard in Europe, but not in any which way.
It can also be worth pointing out that a vineyard can be equipped with an irrigation system but that it is (almost) never used. It can be the case that it has been installed but is only used very, very dry years.
This post is also available in: Swedish