- Background Secondary metabolism contributes to the adaptation of a plant to its environment. In wine grapes, fruit secondary metabolism largely determines wine quality. Climate change is predicted to exacerbate drought events in several viticultural areas, potentially affecting the wine quality. In red grapes, water deficit modulates flavonoid accumulation, leading to major quantitative and compositional changes in the profile of the anthocyanin pigments; in white grapes, the effect of water deficit on secondary metabolism is still largely unknown. Results In this study we investigated the impact of water deficit on the secondary metabolism of white grapes using a large scale metabolite and transcript profiling approach in a season characterized by prolonged drought. Irrigated grapevines were compared to non-irrigated grapevines that suffered from water deficit from early stages of berry development to harvest. A large effect of water deficit on fruit secondary metabolism was observed. Increased concentrations of phenylpropanoids, monoterpenes, and tocopherols were detected, while carotenoid and flavonoid accumulations were differentially modulated by water deficit according to the berry developmental stage. The RNA-sequencing analysis carried out on berries collected at three developmental stages—before, at the onset, and at late ripening—indicated that water deficit affected the expression of 4,889 genes. The Gene Ontology category secondary metabolic process was overrepresented within up-regulated genes at all the stages of fruit development considered, and within down-regulated genes before ripening. Eighteen phenylpropanoid, 16 flavonoid, 9 carotenoid, and 16 terpenoid structural genes were modulated by water deficit, indicating the transcriptional regulation of these metabolic pathways in fruit exposed to water deficit. An integrated network and promoter analyses identified a transcriptional regulatory module that encompasses terpenoid genes, transcription factors, and enriched drought-responsive elements in the promoter regions of those genes as part of the grapes response to drought. Conclusion Our study reveals that grapevine berries respond to drought by modulating several secondary metabolic pathways, and particularly, by stimulating the production of phenylpropanoids, the carotenoid zeaxanthin, and of volatile organic compounds such as monoterpenes, with potential effects on grape and wine antioxidant potential, composition, and sensory features. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12870-016-0760-1) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.