name="description" content="Terroir-expressing natural wine minimum intervention">

Friday, 14 September 2012

Another day in the life…

The other day (Wed 12 Sept 2012) I went out to Gredos to check out an old-vine Garnacha vineyard in a little village called Sotillo de la Adrada. A few months ago I reached an agreement with the owner of the vineyard to buy the grapes, and I’ve been going out there once a week or so over the last month to check the grapes as to ripeness and to set the date for harvesting. Quite banal and boring really, but it set me off thinking of ‘greater things’ or the ‘wider context’ as it were.

It takes me about 90 minutes to get there from Madrid, and I don’t like listening to the radio or even music in the car, so I prefer to use the time to just think and fantasize!!!

Well, first the actual visit, and then I’ll move on to what I think is going on.

Beautiful vineyard! I’ve seen quite a few around Sotillo recently and this one is fairly typical: sandy soil, at an altitude of between 600 m and 700 m, on the fairly flat foothills of the Gredos mountain range; not actually ‘mountainous’ like the vineyards in the more famous Cebreros just down the road, but more ‘valley-like’ I’d say.

All the vineyards I’ve seen there are quite small (max 1 or 2 ha) and a lot are interspersed with olive trees, and fig-trees.

Prickly pears in the vineyard

Fig tree in the vineyard

Olive tree in the vineyard

So I took samples of grapes, picking berries at random from every 3rd or 4th vine more or less during a random walk from one end of the vineyard to the other. And I tasted some berries, chewed the skins, and the pips, and looking though the spectrometer I got a probable alcohol level of 13.6%. So I decided to harvest this weekend! And the owner thought I was absolutely crazy! Because no-one else has harvested in the village, and they won’t be harvesting till October!

But hey, what can I say? I’m doing some experimenting here! I don’t think the wine world needs any more 15% or 16% or 17% alcohol Garnachas, does it? There’s some good ones out there already, and some not so good ones too! So, I’m going to try something a bit different, ie attempt to make a ‘lighter’ Garnacha alcohol-wise, while at the same time not losing any of the Garnachosity :)  We shall just have to wait and see! Anyway, I have a wine-making plan, but no doubt it will change every other day and the ultimate results are of course unpredictable!!!

There are also some vines in the vineyard

And now for the profound and sad thoughts!

Tragic and sad. Those are the main feelings I’ve been getting. Sotillo de la Adrada, like many, many other small towns in Spain (and no doubt in other countries in Europe too) with some agricultural heritage in general, and with a history of grape-growing and wine-making in particular, is dying!

Well, let’s not get too dramatic here! Let me rephrase: let’s just say that Sotillo is dying in terms of its agricultural and viticultural and vinous heritage. I’m sure it will live on for many years somehow or other!

Firstly, all the vineyard owners I’ve met were old men, well past retirement age!

Secondly, I saw many vineyards around Sotillo that have been abandoned, and many that look like they’re going to be abandoned any year now.

The reasons for this state of affairs are no doubt complex (and worthy of a socio-economic analysis!) but here are a few basic reasons which I believe may be relevant:

1. The sons and daughters of these vineyard owners have absolutely no interest in running them. They’ve probably gone to school and university and have a job in an office in the nearest city. Which is fair enough, as their parents made a huge effort to give them an education so that they wouldn’t have to slave in the fields from dawn to dark, from the age of 7 to 70, like they themselves have done!

2.The only outlet for the grapes produced by these grape-growers is the local co-op, which for decades has been faithfully buying up all the local grapes and faithfully making local table wine. And this is now a big problem for everybody concerned! Maybe a few decades ago, when Spain was a quasi-third-world country, there was a big demand for local table wine, and it all got sold, and everyone was happy. Back then, local table wine was a basic commodity like eggs, bread, fruit and veg, etc. But it’s not like that anymore. Spain, even in small rural villages, has supermarkets, and people just don’t buy as much table wine as they used to. And if they do, then it won’t necessarily be local, but it could be from anywhere, and based on price and transport logistics, etc. There must be thousands of wine-making co-ops in Spain, all making cheap table wine and all desperately competing on price points. It’s a no-no! It’s certain death, eventually, for both the co-op itself and for the many local grape-growers. Just a question of time.

The vineyard owner that I’ve reached an agreement with was complaining: last year he sold his grapes to the co-op. Firstly, they paid him a totally ridiculous price (per kilo and per degree of probable alcohol), and secondly, they haven’t paid him yet for last year’s harvest. That’s 12 months!

This is basically why so many vineyard owners are abandoning their vineyards. The running costs during the year (ploughing, pruning, composting, harvesting, etc) are not even covered by the price of grapes that the co-op is paying. And they don’t even pay that in a reasonable time frame.

It’s a vicious circle too. The co-op pays by kilo of grapes AND by degree of possible alcohol. So of course, the grapegrowers harvest as late as possible, because that way they earn more money. And the co-op proceeds to make wine that has 15%, 16%, 17% and more alcohol, and no doubt mixes and homogenizes and manipulates in all sorts of ways to produce millions of litres of cheap table wine. Competing with thousands of other co-ops who are doing exactly the same thing, all chasing a shrinking market for that type of product.

Small wonder that it’s so easy to find vineyards, either to rent directly or to buy the grapes from!!!

And here’s an anecdote, which illustrates how desperate the situation is. Like I said above, I’ve been visiting Sotillo quite regularly this summer, and word must have got around that I was buying grapes (and at a better price than the co-op and with immediate payment at harvest!), because I was invited to a local wine tasting event, organized by the Town Council. And not just invited to attend, but I was actually invited to give a talk and to sit on a tasting panel to judge the local wines that would be participating! This is totally ridiculous! Firstly, I’m not an experience or qualified taster, and in fact, I probably couldn’t even taste my way out of a paper bag! The only experience I have of tasting is of my own wines, and the occasional tastings I participate in informally! Secondly, it’s not like I’m Mr Delmonte about to decide whether to buy up the whole village’s grape production!!! I’m only buying a couple of thousand kilos from one grower, FCS!!!

So I gave a short little talk to an audience of about 40 old grapegrowers! I told them briefly about what I do with Vinos Ambiz, ie that I grow my own grapes organically with no chemicals, that I buy grapes that have been grown organically from third parties, that I make wine without chemicals, and that I sell it all, either locally in Madrid or abroad. Well, I must have said something right, because after the talk and the tastings, when we were all mingling and chatting and having aperitivos and canapés, two of the grapesgrowers come up to me to ask if I’d be interested in seeing their vineyards and buying their grapes next year!!!

That tasting itself was quite traumatic for me, as I’d never done an ‘official’ tasting before, with scores and notes, etc! I think that I was so nervous that I couldn’t really taste anything properly, and all 14 wines tasted exactly the same to me. They were all local Garnachas, they all had at least 17% or 18% alcohol, and they all had loads of residual sugar, as the fermentations had all stuck!!! They were more like ports or fortified wine rather than ‘regular’ wine. Actually, chatting later with the other tasters on the panel, I discovered that they also thought that all 14 wines were pretty similar!!!

I suspect that what was happening here was that these grapegrowers were selling their grapes to the co-op (harvesting as late as possible, so as to get paid more) but keeping a few hundred kilos back to make wine for themselves and their family and friends!

So there you have it. Sad and tragic. A potential treasure - hundreds of hectares of old-vine Garnacha, and other interesting unknown varieties - all being abandoned and lost.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please write a comment to this post.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.