IN PICS: Spain’s vineyards feel the pinch but harvest must go on

When young German Friedrich Schatz turned up in 1982 to grow grapes in a part of southern Spain which hadn't produced wine in 100 years, they thought he was crazy.

IN PICS: Spain's vineyards feel the pinch but harvest must go on
A vineyard beneath the "Tajo de Ronda" bridge in Ronda. Photos: Jorge Guerrero

But nearly four decades on, Schatz is still tending his vines in the Andalusian hilltop town of Ronda.

And despite the fact that sales have been battered by the coronavirus crisis, the harvest must go on because the land “just won't wait”.   

Located inland from the Costa del Sol, the Ronda highlands today boast more than 20 wineries and experts view it as one of the most promising regions in Spain, the world's third-largest wine producer by value after France and Italy.

Winemaking here dates back to Roman times, but it disappeared following a phylloxera epidemic, which hit Ronda in 1878, with the aphid devastating 13,000 hectares (32,123 acres) of vines.   

And it would take the arrival, more than 100 years later, of a teenager from a family of German winegrowers to turn things around.   

Schatz, who goes by the name of Federico, was barely 18 when he arrived in Ronda and fell in love with the Finca Sanguijuela, a beguiling property on three hectares of land on a gentle slope “with soil which is vibrant and very well-aerated”.   

There he planted classical varieties, such as pinot noir, merlot, petit verdot and chardonnay, and today he counts some 15,000 vines, producing premium bottles of red, white and rose from nine varieties of grape.

The harvest is all done by hand, with Schatz (pictured above) working alongside his mum, wife, daughter and three employees.


Vines need tending

So far, 2020 has been a difficult year, with bars and restaurants badly hit by the crisis and Schatz expecting sales to fall by up to 80 percent.   

But the vines still need tending.   

“Even if you were to tell me that tomorrow we'll all die of the virus, we'd carry on the same, because you can't stop working the fields,” says Schatz, 57.   

“You can't just abandon a vineyard like shutting down a factory.”    For those harvesting the grapes, the pandemic hasn't changed much.   

“Working in the fields is just the same,” shrugs Francisco Sanchez Campanario, as he cuts bunches of merlot grapes in the brilliant morning sunshine.

“The good thing about working in the fields is that we have a lot of space,” says Schatz's wife Raquel Elia.

“We work quite far away from each other and inside the winery we all wear masks.”

These days, they don't let visitors into the winery because they would “constantly have to disinfect it” and all tastings are held outside, Schatz says.   

The crisis has also dealt a blow to wine tourism, which has really taken off in recent years, bringing in considerable funds for many wineries.   

Gema Perez Barea, of Milamores wine tours, whose business is almost entirely dependent on foreign tourism, says she earned “nothing” for four months although things have started to ease.

“The pandemic has changed everything, now all the tourists we have are from Spain,” she says, adding that there are “far fewer visitors” however.   

An opportunity?

Globally, Spanish wine exports fell by 7.1 percent in value and 11.6 percent in volume during the first half of the year, the Spanish Wine Market Observatory (OEMV) says.

“This is a considerable and painful loss but not as serious as we had expected and we hope the market will recover in the second half,” said OEMV head Rafael del Rey.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” admits wine expert and blogger Yolanda Hidalgo, who is based in the country's south west.

But she believes the industry is at a moment when it could “reinvent itself”: with many hotels, bars and restaurants closed or operating with limited capacity, people are “drinking more at home and buying online” which will trigger some form of “natural selection”.   

This situation will play into the hands of “reputable brands with a faithful clientele” at the expense of “emerging projects which have yet to be established” and can't rely on trade shows and fairs to build recognition.

Coming from a family that has been making wine since 1641, Schatz is optimistic about the future, knowing he's in for the long-haul.   

“Making good wine is easy, the difficult part is the first 200 years,” he grins.

By AFP's Álvaro Villalobos

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Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

While the more forceful approach of some governments is failing to convince many unvaccinated and making some even more uncompromising, vaccine champion Spain is giving them the facts and letting them decide. So far, it appears to be working.

People stroll around the Catalan town of Sitges in May 2021.
People stroll around the Catalan town of Sitges in May 2021. As of late November, almost 90 percent of Spain's population is fully vaccinated. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Vaccinated people are three times less likely to contract the Covid-19 Delta variant. 

In the 30-50 age group, the risk of admission to hospital is ten times lower if people are vaccinated. 

In the 60 to 80 age group, the risk of death is 25 times higher for unvaccinated people. 

These are just some of the conclusions drawn from a study that was presented by Spain’s Health Ministry on Tuesday. 

Every week from now on, the ministry headed by Carolina Darias has decided to share with the Spanish public stats from the pandemic’s infection, hospitalisations and deaths indexes that contrast the data between vaccinated and unvaccinated.

The objective is for the Spanish public to “value” vaccines and their positive effects as well as to continue insisting on the importance of getting vaccinated to stop the virus in its tracks. 

The new strategy comes as Europe is again the epicentre of the coronavirus, accounting for two thirds of active global cases (2.4 million).

“The new ECDC and EU risk assessment is clear: we must step up vaccination to control the pandemic,” tweeted European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen on Wednesday, adding that the EU’s vaccination coverage of under 70 percent “gives a wide margin for the spread of the virus”.

In Spain, where infections are rising every day, the situation is still markedly better than across the continent, largely thanks to the fact that almost 90 percent of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated.

Nationwide Covid hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths all remain low. 

So even though the current infection rate (149 cases per 100,000 people) is similar to that seen last March, the number of people ending up in hospital or dying from Covid now is much lower than 9 months ago.  

bar in burgos spain during the pandemic
Many people in Spain still wear masks outdoors even though they don’t have to in most cases. (Photo by Cesar Manso / AFP)

The Spanish psyche

The truth is that Spain, which was hit hard by the first waves of the pandemic, has barely had to convince its citizens to get vaccinated against the coronavirus since its campaign began in late December 2020.

Since inoculations were approved by the WHO and EMA, any previous vaccination hesitancy has faded away in most cases.

Spain’s successful campaign has proven that there isn’t the same degree of mistrust in government, healthcare or big pharma as in other European countries, nor large conspiracy-driven networks sowing doubt online. 

Talk to people in Spain and there’s a sense that they just want to ‘get on with it’ and get back to normal life, that there is no individual freedom without public wellbeing, no me without you. 

You see it also in the public’s willingness to continue wearing face masks outdoors when they’re no longer necessary in most situations. 

Some may see it as excessively subservient behaviour from a people not famed for always following the rules, but Spaniards’ civic responsibility is a crucial advantage the Spanish government has over its European counterparts. 


The remaining unvaccinated

For the past few months however, the approximate figure of 4 million unvaccinated people has remained unchanged in Spain, almost stagnant long after all age groups over 12 were called on to get vaccinated earlier in the year. 

This fortunately now appears to be changing. 

In fact, 72,000 people received their first dose over the past week in Spain, a 25 percent weekly increase.

Regional authorities are putting pressure on Spain’s Health Ministry to impose a national Covid health pass to keep the unvaccinated out of the country’s bars and restaurants over Christmas, but Carolina Darias insists that rather than restrictions the focus should be on vaccination and offering information to convince the unvaccinated.  

Claiming this resurgence in vaccination in Spain is only down to the fact-based, non-threatening approach of Spain’s Health ministry wouldn’t be true.

There are numerous other possible reasons for this change of heart among the unvaccinated, from fear of contracting the virus as Spain’s sixth wave slowly gathers pace to the possibility of limitations over Christmas if the Covid health pass is approved in some places.

But the stance of the Spanish government is no doubt playing a pivotal role. 

There’s never been any talk of mandatory vaccination nor threats of restrictions just for the unvaccinated, whose fundamental rights have been consistently protected by the courts.

Getting vaccinated remains their choice and Spain’s health department would rather feed them the science-based facts and let them decide than force them into a corner.

They’re not claiming that vaccines are 100 percent effective, but they’re giving them the data that proves there’s a lower risk of contracting the virus if you are vaccinated and a much lower chance of ending up in hospital or dying from the virus if inoculated.

So far, the message and the approach appear to be working.