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‘Spanish winery will destroy US redwoods’

Spanish wine conglomerate Codorníu says environmentalists are wrong to claim that the creation of new company vineyard in California will do away with over 150 acres of redwood forest.

'Spanish winery will destroy US redwoods'
California's iconic redwood trees can live for up to 2,000 years. Photo: Michael Balint

It's been billed as a battle between redwoods and red wine by the US' National Public Radio.

On one side, there are environmentalists hoping to protect trees which are the world's largest, but which also see their habit under increasing threat from logging, pollution and fire management techniques.

In the opposite camp are California's winemakers who, according to Chris Poehlmann, president of the environmental group Friends of the Gualala River, are creeping ever closer to the coast in their search for land to grow cold-climate wines.

Now, in what has been seen as a test case for the expansion of the state's wine industry, environmentalists have launched a legal challenge to the development of a vineyard owned by Arteasa, part of the holdings of Spanish wine conglomerate Codorníu.

The site in California where Spanish-owned company Artesa hopes to develop its vineyard. 

Three environmental groups have joined forces to sue California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

They say officials violated California's environmental laws when they green-lighted Artesa's redwood felling project in 2012, and argue the new vineyard will damage the local ecosystem and lead to the clear-felling of redwood trees.

But Artesa say the area of the vineyard in California's Sonoma Country is home to only two large redwood trees of around 60 years in age, and that these would be protected.  

The area in question was clear cut less 60 years ago and an apple orchard planted, the company said in a statement.

Other redwood trees on the site were younger, and therefore not protected they argue.

Artesa also plan to leave 47 percent of the site forested, a move they called "unusual" given that vineyards were usually designed for maximum efficiency.

The California state attorney general's office agrees with the winemakers.

In a written rebuttal to the lawsuit opposing the vineyard, they wrote: "Petitioners are wrong. The project site is not a 'redwood forest.' . . . [I]t was completely harvested and converted to grazing and orchard. . . . Conifer timber is now just beginning to recapture the site."  

California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also said a thorough environmental impact report had shown potential impacts to be "less-than-significant."

It's not a position that satisfies locals.

"I basically moved up here to live in a forest, and [their project] is going to destroy everything I came here for," resident Jamie Hall told local website bohemian.com.

"At least we'll have plenty of wine to drink while we bemoan the fact that our forests are all used up," Poehlmann of the Friends of the Gualala River said. 

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WINE

Uphill battle: Spain’s wine growers forced to adapt to climate change

For over a century, Joaquin Gay de Montella Estany's family produced wine in Spain's Mediterranean region of Catalonia, but the effects of climate change have pushed them to seek higher ground.

Uphill battle: Spain's wine growers forced to adapt to climate change
Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, forcing Spanish wine producers to adapt. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

Now their Torre del Veguer winery also has vineyards at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains — at an altitude of nearly 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) — where temperatures are cooler.

It’s one of the ways in which Spain’s wine producers are trying to adapt, as a warmer climate advances the harvest season and makes the need for more heat-tolerant grape varieties greater.

In searing August heat, farm workers pick the white grapes by hand at a vineyard with sea views in Penedes, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the city of Barcelona.

Higher temperatures have brought the grape harvest forward by 10 to 15 days over the past decade, said Gay de Montella Estany, who owns the ecological winery.

“We have to harvest at the start of August when the heat is the most intense,” he told AFP.

So in 2008, the company moved part of its production to Bolvir, a village in the Pyrenees near the French border.

Speedy ripening

With a total of 961,000 hectares (2.4 million acres) of vines, Spain has the largest area of vineyards in the world, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine says.

It is the third biggest wine producer behind Italy and France.

Over the past 60 years, average temperatures in Spain have risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius, according to the national weather office, Aemet.

And wine producers have seen an impact, as the timing of the harvest is crucial.

An employee tends to the grapevines at the Torres vineyard at a 950-metre altitude in Tremp near Lleida in the Catalan Pyrenees. 

Higher average temperatures speed up the ripening of the grapes, which leads to lower acidity and increased sugars in the fruit.

This yields higher alcohol levels in the wine and also alters other compounds in grapes that affect aroma and flavour.

Grapes must be picked quickly to avoid an excessive alcohol content.

“Essentially these grapes have not fully ripened in the right way,” said Fernando Zamora, a professor in the oenology department at Rovira I Virgili University in Tarragona.

‘Absurd’

The Familia Torres winery, one of Spain’s largest producers, embraced higher elevation more than 20 years ago, despite facing scepticism at the time.

The company, which has grown from a small family business in the late 19th century, began planting grapes in Tremp, 160 kilometres northeast of its Vilafranca de Penedes base, in 1998.

Grapes for making wine had never been grown before at higher altitudes in this region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

“Farmers in the area thought it was absurd. They thought grapes would not mature,” said Xavier Admella, who is in charge of the farm located at an altitude of 950 metres.

“Climate change has proven us right,” he added, as workers set up nets to protect the vines from hail which is much more common along mountain ranges.

Ancient grape varieties are treated in vitro at the Torres vineyard lab in Vilafranca del Penedes near Barcelona.

New techniques

In Tremp, temperatures are almost 10 degrees Celsius cooler than at sea level, Miguel A. Torres, president of the Familia Torres winery, said.

That makes it possible to grow grape varieties to produce white wines “that still have very good acidity levels”, he added.

The company, which exports to 150 countries, also has a laboratory where it revives grape strains that have almost disappeared.

One of them which performs well at high altitudes has already been planted in Tremp.

But the fight to adapt has a stiff price tag.

“The future is complicated,” Torres said, adding the wine sector had asked for aid from both the Spanish government and European Union.

Gay de Montella Estany agrees.

He predicts that Spain’s wine sector will have to go on planting at higher altitudes and “look for grape varieties that ripen later” to survive.

He does not rule out that some parts of the country, especially in the south, will one day no longer be suitable for wine production.

Not everyone is as pessimistic, though.

“Climate change is leading many wineries to get their act together and learn how to make wine, not like our grandparents did, but by looking for new techniques,” university professor Zamora said.

“And wines are now much better than they were a few years ago.”

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