This trip saw us travel to four very different wine producing regions found in Spain and Portugal.
Our first stop was a place called Galicia in the North West corner of Spain. Galicia is famous for its capital Santiago De Compostela, which is said to be built upon the remains of one of the Saints. Galicia is also becoming well known for its production of a native variety of white grape called Albariño.
It was here I visited what many consider to be the world leading company of Albariño production, Martin Codax. Martin Codax is a medium sized winemaking firm based in a small town called Combados surrounded by the hundreds of growers that supply fruit to their business.
I was lucky enough to spend a full day with the company’s two viticulturalists, Diego and Miguel, who gave me a comprehensive look at their operation (focusing on the grape growing side rather then the winemaking).
The key point about their business was that they had over 500 growers producing roughly 4500 tonnes of fruit total. The average block size for their growers was 500 m2. I was told that the main reason for such a small area per block is that most vineyards have been split up over generations as family succession plans have meant larger pieces of land have slowly been cut into smaller and smaller blocks. I was also told that the region had been producing Albariño for over 500 years. The logistics of harvest were pretty intense as you can imagine, 500 different parcels of fruit need to be recorded as growers are paid per kilogram before pressing.
As a result of having such history most of the viticultural practices are traditional and not always the most cost effective or productive. For example, 99% of the Albariño Martin Codax produces is grown on a traditional pergola type system called ‘para’. This means that all vineyard tasks apart from crop spraying must be carried out by hand. Furthermore, 99% of all the blocks are not irrigated.
Example of a Para or Pergola trellising
Their major pest was downy mildew, which was able to wipe out the entire crop if not controlled correctly in early season. Red mite and leaf roll caterpillar were also an issue for them. The region had a high rainfall of 1500 mm/yr (500mm/yr > Gisborne). However, 90% of this fell during the months of November- July leaving the ripening months of July to October relatively dry.
As a result of the dry ripening months and the exceptionally tough skin of the grapes Botrytis and other bunch rots are uncommon.
I was there pre harvest so I got to taste some grapes. The berries themselves were relatively nondescript however I was told that most of the flavour in the wine is derived from pre-cursors in the grapes that are only expressed after primary fermentation. Due to the flavour being hard to detect in the berry most picking decisions were done via chemical analysis of brix and TA. A typical picking analysis would be 22 brix and 8g/L acid.
The fruit is de-stemmed and then pressed and the juice settled and fermented in stainless steel tanks before cold stabilisation, blending and bottling within 6 months of harvest. This is very similar to Sauvignon Blanc production.
The wines were very fruity and up front with nice pallet weight and a crisp acid finish. It kind of tasted like a dry NZ Riesling.
Martin Codax is a bold new company that is breaking away from tradition and making new world style wines in an economical, state of the art winemaking facility. These wines are gaining momentum in the UK, Europe and now the US.
My view is that this variety would grow very well in warmer regions of NZ such as Gisborne, Auckland and maybe Marlborough. The first material is only just being imported to the country and will take a while to become commercially available, but it could have a big future as an alternative white variety.
From Galicia, we travelled to Portugal to a place called Villa Nova De Gaia which is across the Douro River from the city of Porto. Porto is the home of the many aging facilities and cellar doors of various port houses. We had arranged to meet up with the head winemaker from Taylor’s Port, but unfortunately he was busy and was unable to meet up with us. So we took his advice and took a cellar door tour in Villa Nova De Gaia to learn a little bit more about the complex art and the history of port.
During the 17th Century, British traders were cut off from their supplies of Bordeaux by frequent wars with France. They consequently took a liking to the full flavoured, robust wines of Portugal. Due to the long and bumpy voyage across the Atlantic, the wines were not arriving in England in particularly good condition. Port was born when, as a trial, they decided to add brandy to the barrels to fortify them and to stop the wine from going off on the voyage. Nowadays, the grapes are picked when they begin to shrivel so that they get the jammy type character and then stomped by foot to extract the juice and the colour before being fermented. White spirit is added to stop fermentation when about half of the sugar has been transferred to alcohol. This leaves a sweet jammy flavour and a hot alcoholic finish.
The next day we were given directions to one of their vineyards located on the banks of the Douro River called Quinta de Pascal.
The trip to the Douro was very impressive and either side of the river was lined with millions of vines growing on the steep hill sides surrounding the river. The drive was a little scary at times as there was not much room for error, especially in a camper van.
Port wines consist of 5 main red grape varieties:
The predominant trellising system was VSP using a Guyot pruning system. The blocks are not irrigated and most vineyard operations are carried out by hand (expect for crop spraying and trimming).
The vineyards were planted on terraces, some of which are so narrow they only support one row of vines. Separated by ancient dry stone walls, they tower above one another like steps on a pyramid, the product of centuries of slave labour. Now many of these vineyards are classified as world heritage sites.
As we continued on up the Douro River the vines kept coming and coming. The volume of wine produced in the region must be immense and I can see why the world is awash with good red wines!
La Rioja is a famous wine growing region in the interior of Spain. Its history dates back thousands of years and covers an area of over 62,000Ha.
The main Varieties grown are:
Reds: Tempranillo, Grenache, Mauelo and Graciano
Whites: Viura, Malvasia and Grenache Blanca
La Rioja, along with other Spanish wine growing regions, is staging a resurgence in popularity as it has the flexibility to change winemaking and viticultural practices as well as varieties. It is not so constrained by legislation as are other regions of Europe.
We did not have any contacts to visit in La Rioja itself so we based ourselves in a place called Haro and made day trips to various areas within La Rioja. We visited a number of local bodegas - or wineries – as well as a trip to the Donostia Vivanco (Museo de la cultura Del Vino, or a museum of wine), which offers a fascinating look at the history of winemaking and viticulture. It also includes the largest single collection of different varieties of grape vines in the world - a collection totalling more than 200.
La Rioja has a mix of old and new. Some producers maintain traditions where as others are embracing new technology and others are trying to find a happy medium between the two.
Calatayud is not particularly famous for anything however we had a friend, Sylvia that worked with us in Marlborough last vintage who is a winemaker at a large horticultural co-operative in Catalayud. Catalyud was on our way back to Barcelona so we decided to drop by and have a look at the operation.
The Co-op was called Nino Jesus (baby jesus) and produced:
Cherries fresh and preserved
Spain is full of co-operatives which are owned by the growers in that region. The co-op buys the produce from the growers and processes or packages it and uses their scale to market the produce and hopefully extract the best return for all the owners of the co-op.
Nino Jesus was mainly a cherry producing co-operative; they processed and marketed over 3000T of cherries most years. 25% of which were fresh graded, washed and packed, the balance were preserved in citric acid and sulphur and sold to food manufacturers to use in their products. One of Nino Jesus’ main clients was Forrera Roche (confectionary giant).
From what I could gather the rest of the crops were grown more as a supplement to the main crop which was cherries. Grapes were a small part of the portfolio, and due to the region not being well known and the ‘jack of all trades’ growers the wines were drinkable but not of a very high quality.
It was just another co-op producing mediocre red wines of which there is a massive global oversupply, and consequently grapes were the least profitable of the crops grown in the area.
Throughout the trip, we often took the time to talk with the local growers whenever possible. As my wife Samantha speaks Spanish, we managed to meet and talk to people we wouldn’t have been able to communicate with otherwise. The funniest anecdote I recall was when a grower in Rioja told me about the huge impact Phylloxera (an insect pest affecting grapevines) had on his business in “83”. When I asked him why it took until 1983 for Phylloxera to reach Rioja, he said, “Oh no, I mean 1883.” That gave me an appreciation of just how young the New Zealand wine industry really is.
Overall, our sojourn to Spain and Portugal was an unforgettable and fascinating trip and I would like to thank the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture (RNZIH) for making it possible.
I feel that our trip has opened my eyes to the complexity and variety of the climates and soils in which grapes are grown. It has also highlighted the sheer volume of grapes and the relatively low profitability of most grape growers and wine makers around the world.
I have also got a strong desire to try and find the perfect place to produce Albariño grapes in NZ. I think it has a future as an alternative white wine that NZ could produce to a high standard.
2006 NZ Young Horticulturalist of the Year
Young Horticulturist 2019
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