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WINE

Spanish wine: Is blue the new red?

Five years ago, a group of university students in Spain's Basque Country decided they wanted to shake up a sector - any sector - but preferably one to do with food or drink.

Spanish wine: Is blue the new red?
Photo: AFP

So Imanol, Inigo, Gorka, Aritz and Taig picked the most traditional of them all – and created blue wine, one of several innovations in a deeply conservative industry.

After two years of research at the University of the Basque Country with the help of in-house, professional chemical engineers and an outside centre for food innovation, they launched their company Gik Live! in 2015.

It sold 30,000 bottles in its first year and close to 500,000 in 2017.   

The young company now exports to 21 countries, the United States being its main market… and wine-loving France its second.   

From five rookie entrepreneurs, the company has grown to 12 employees.   

“We understand that for many people… wine is something sacred that mustn't be changed,” says Irish-Basque co-founder Taig Mac Carthy, standing at a bar in the company office in Portugalete, a northern town near Bilbao.   

“But we like to change things and we're not afraid to try,” he adds, as employees type at their computers in the room next door where a drum kit and guitars stand ready for use in true hipster startup tradition.

Blue recipe


Can blue wine challenge pink? Photo: Gik

One look at a glass of blue wine can be enough to send sommeliers scurrying.   

Electric blue in colour, Gik Blue is made in several wineries in Spain following the traditional winemaking process.   

As well as being sold online, some bars, restaurants and shops in Spain sell it.

The recipe?

Mix a lot of white wine with a smaller amount of red wine, and a tiny bit of must, or freshly-crushed grape juice.   

The blue colour is obtained via a mix of “nature and technology” using two pigments — anthocyanin, found in the skin of red grapes, and indigo carmine.   

The company won't divulge any more of what they say is their “industrial secret.”

Gik Live used to use sugar substitutes but now adds dessert wine instead to get a sweet taste.

Other brands have followed suit in Spain including a blue sparkling cava, and the company has created other types.   

There is red wine infused with Earl Grey tea, white wine infused with Japanese Sencha tea, or spicy red wine named “Bastarde.”   

Prices online range roughly from €11 to €13 euros ($13 to $15) a bottle and clients are usually aged 25 to 45, men and women alike, says the company.

Chinese counterfeit

The reaction to blue wine has been decidedly mixed.   

Jean-Michel Deluc, former head sommelier at the Ritz in Paris, labelled it “surprising.”

“It's not what I'd drink but still, it's not bad, it's quite well done,” he said in a video posted on the blog of wine-ordering business Le Petit Ballon, which comments on news in the sector.

In an August review, Britain's The Daily Telegraph newspaper decided it was “sweet. Very sweet. Too sweet,” calling it a “gimmick.”   

For Rafael del Rey, director of the Spanish Observatory of the Wine Market, blue wine is one of several innovations in a “conservative” sector that has been losing consumers, including among the young, women and city dwellers.   

Factors such as people having less time for meals, needing lighter products and a trend for slightly sweeter flavours have also had an impact.   

“Many of them haven't found a wine they find attractive,” he says.   

That demand, he adds, is generating innovative products like blue wine, or wine with low alcohol content.   In Europe, the company has had to label Gik Blue an “alcoholic drink” as authorities have ruled it isn't wine due to its blue colour.   

READ MORE: Red, white, but not blue: Spain bans wine because it's the wrong colour

But other countries, including the United States, allow it to be sold as wine.

“We knew from the start that Gik Blue would be a product that would polarise opinion a lot,” says 25-year-old Aritz Lopez, another co-founder of Gik Live, speaking as he walks through the rolling vineyards of a winery that makes the blue wine in Zaragoza province.

But he's asked not to reveal the name of the winery, nor the village it's in, to protect it from criticism in the sector.   

The company says it is on track to make 1.5 million euros in turnover this year.

And in a surefire gauge of popularity, Mac Carthy says he even found counterfeit replicas of Gik Live's blue wine in Spain… that had been made in China.

By AFP's Marianne Barriaux 

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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