Background A large proportion of vineyards are located in regions with seasonal drought (e.g. Mediterraneantype climates) where soil and atmospheric water deficits, together with high temperatures, exert large constraints on yield and quality. The increasing demand for vineyard irrigation requires an improvement in the efficiency of water use. Deficit irrigation has emerged as a potential strategy to allow crops to withstand mild water stress with little or no decreases of yield, and potentially a positive impact on fruit quality. Understanding the physiological and molecular bases of grapevine responses to mild to moderate water deficits is fundamental to optimize deficit irrigation management and identify the most suitable varieties to those conditions. Scope How the whole plant acclimatizes to water scarcity and how short-and long-distance chemical and hydraulic signals intervene are reviewed. Chemical compounds synthesized in drying roots are shown to act as long-distance signals inducing leaf stomatal closure and/or restricting leaf growth. This explains why some plants endure soil drying without significant changes in shoot water status. The control of plant water potential by stomatal aperture via feed-forward mechanisms is associated with 'isohydric' behaviour in contrast to 'anysohydric' behaviour in which lower plant water potentials are attained. This review discusses differences in this respect between grapevines varieties and experimental conditions. Mild water deficits also exert direct and/or indirect (via the light environment around grape clusters) effects on berry development and composition; a higher content of skin-based constituents (e.g. tannins and anthocyanins) has generally being reported. Regulation under water deficit of genes and proteins of the various metabolic pathways responsible for berry composition and therefore wine quality are reviewed.