Amidst the Old World vineyard restructuring, Spain stands out as the country that has lost most vineyard in the 21st century (Anderson, 2013). Most of Spain’s losses have occurred outside of Denominación de Origen (D.O.) regions. Yet with high labour costs and pressure on prices, the more remote D.O. wine regions have had no option but to change the way that they operate.
D.O. Bierzo is located in the far northwest of Castilla y León, with vineyards adjoining Galicia’s Valdeorras wine region. The 2013 harvest in Bierzo totalled 13.2 million kg and is notable for the large percentage of Mencia (75%) with the next largest cultivar being Palomino (15%). Although there is a trend for replacing (low quality) Palomino with (now fashionable) Godello, this does not seem to be occurring with particular haste. This is somewhat surprising given the success that the likes of Rafael Palacios and Valdesil have had with Godello in Valdeorras. Although Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have been planted here since at least 1997 (González-Fernández et al., 2012), they are permitted only on an experimental basis and to date have had no significant impact. Bierzo remains very much a Mencia-based wine region.
Although there has been little change in the cultivar mix, there has still been considerable activity in restructuring Bierzo’s vineyard. In 2002 the total vineyard was 4,100 ha, but this had shrunk to 3,045 ha by 2012 – a reduction of 26%. The number of growers has declined even more rapidly from 5,186 in 2002 to 2,634 in 2012. As a result holdings per grower has increased from an average of 0.8 ha/grower to an average of 1.2 ha/grower over the same period. No doubt to management consultants this represents much needed efficiency savings, but these changes of necessity must also have had an associated human cost.
On a more cheerful note, Bierzo has seen a considerable increase in the number of bodegas during the 21st century. Whilst a considerable amount of fruit is still sent to co-operative ventures, a fast-growing trend is the establishment of small bodegas being developed by younger enthusiastic entrepreneurs. This is evidenced by the number of wineries which undertake their own bottling, which has risen from 27 in 2002 to 57 in 2012. Domain Tares (2000), Bodega Peique (2001), and Bodega del Abad (2003) are examples of quality-orientated wineries established this century which have already made something of a name for themselves.
So will Bierzo’s approach of producing less wine of higher quality from smaller wineries using an established grape cultivar mix prove to be a long-term success? It’s by no means guaranteed but, for wine lovers interested in trying something different, Bierzo offers unusual often delicious wines at attractive prices. Although export volumes are small, the growth of exports suggests that Bierzo wines will soon become more widely available at independent wine stores.