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WINE

Spain becomes world’s biggest wine producer

In their fields of vines in deepest Spain, the winemakers at the Jesús del Perdón cooperative smiled last August: the blend of rain and sun promised a bumper grape crop. They just didn't realize how big it would be.

Spain becomes world's biggest wine producer
People harvest grapes at a vineyard of the winery "Raul Calvo" near Burgos in October 2013, a year which saw Spain become the world's biggest wine producer. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP

The massive crop vaulted Spain to the world's biggest wine producer, forcing its vintners to compete abroad in a tough market to sell off the surplus.

Spain overall produced 50 million hectolitres (6.7 billion bottles) of wine in 2013, a 41 percent surge from 2012, the Spanish agriculture ministry says.

The ministry's figure for Spanish production exceeds the estimates from the Italian and French wine industries for their own production — 47 million and 42 million hectolitres respectively.

The definitive production figures from the International Organisation of Wine and Vine are published in May. But if confirmed, they would give Spain another industry to look to for exports to build a lasting recovery from the burst property bubble that has hobbled the economy since 2008.

Even Rafael del Rey, director of the Spanish Wine Market Observatory, admitted he found it "most surprising" that Spain leapt ahead to become the top wine producer in the world in 2013.

While weather helped — last summer the country enjoyed the usual sunny weather plus enough rain to really water the vines — the rise in Spanish production is also the result of a drive to increase productivity.

"We have spent many years investing in improving the vineyards", said del Rey.

Twenty five years ago, Spanish vineyards had average yield of 17 hectolitres per hectare — "very low", said Roca. But in recent years the yield has reached about 50 hectolitres per hectare.

Older, less productive vines have been torn up and vineyards made more efficient by replacing handpicking with machines where possible.

"The vineyards' productivity has improved noticeably," del Rey said.

 A euro a bottle 

But one problem for winemakers is that Spanish drinkers, who generally prefer a cold beer on their sunny terraces, are not keeping pace with the surge.

"Apart from Norway, Spain is the country with the lowest wine consumption per capita in Europe," said Pau Roca, secretary general of the Spanish Wine Federation.

While just eight years ago, wine made in Spain was mostly drunk there, according to del Rey, now it is mostly exported.

"In the past two years, Spain has been exporting more than double the amount of wine it consumes," he said.

The experience of the Jesús del Perdón cooperative, nestled in the Castile-La Mancha region whose windmills and castles are the setting for Miguel de Cervantes's classic novel "Don Quixote", is typical.

The group of 682 producers in the central Spanish region exported just 20 percent of its output a decade ago. Now 86 percent goes abroad.

Exporting is not always an easy option for vineyards, however.    

While Castile-La Mancha accounts for over half of the country's wine production, the region's producers must fight to distinguish themselves from better-known names in Spanish wine such as La Rioja and Cava.

"Unfortunately, wine from our region is still not sufficiently appreciated, especially in the foreign market," said the cooperative's viticulturist, Jorge Martinez.

And competition at the lower end of the market is fierce.   

Spanish wine generally sells for half the price of French and the vintners of Castile-La Mancha have to keep their prices especially low.

Martinez said the range of 11 bottles the cooperative produces under its own brand sell for between one and six euros ($8.30) per bottle.

While growing output and need to export pose challenges for Spanish vineyards, it is an opportunity for the government which is counting on exports to drive economic recovery.

With the economy having contracted more than five percent since the property bubble burst in 2008, Spanish firms have been looking abroad for sales and the country's exports hit a record high last year.

The government expects the economy will grow by 1.0 percent this year, after having contracted in four out of the past five years.

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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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