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Increasing Alcohol Content in Red Rioja

The Consejo Regulador (regulatory authority) for the vineyards and wines of Rioja was established in 1926.  They carefully maintain and publish statistics of the Rioja Wine Industry, which allows a number of important parameters to be tracked through time.

In the 2013 vintage, the wineries within the Rioja DOCa produced 2.64 million hl of wine.  As part of the Rioja wine approval process, there is a regulatory requirement for a sample from each tank of wine to be subjected to analytical (and sensory) investigation.  Last year 3,973 wine samples were analysed by the Rioja Control Board, for parameters such as pH, volatile acidity and Alcohol content (abv).  Although the raw data has not been published, the summary data provides a useful snapshot of the vintage, and provides the opportunity to compare with earlier vintages as far back as 2001.

In the case of alcohol content for red wine there is, as would be expected with any agricultural product, a good deal of variation between vintages.  Underlying this scatter is an upward trend which amounts to an increase of abv of ca. 0.5% from 2001-2013.  (The p-value associated with the trend line is 0.03; values of less that 0.05 are generally considered significant).  The causes of this increase (e.g. climate? picking dates?) are presently unclear, and there is currently no reason to believe that it will necessarily continue in future.

Winegrape Cultivar Mix in Galicia’s Five Denominaciónes de Origen

Galicia-D.OGalicia has five Denominaciónes de Origen (D.O.) for wine, of which Rias Baixas has the largest vineyard area, produces the most grapes and has the most wineries.  Rias Baixas’ success has been based on producing fruity, refreshing, dry white wines from the Albariño grape cultivar. Also increasingly featuring on the international radar are red and white wines from Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei.  Part of their attraction is their use of indigenous grape cultivars, which give many of the wines an attractive and welcome flavour profile change from that of the more commonly encountered international winegrapes.

The most important indigenous cultivars are Albariño, Godello and Treixadura (whites) and Mencia (black).  Many other cultivars may be permitted according to D.O. regulations, but are usually encountered in only small amounts.  The following pie charts show the compositional makeup of each of Gallicia’s D.O.s based on 2013 harvest information.  For Ribeiro, limited information only allows a split between black and white cultivars to be made.  Also included for comparative purposes is the 2013 harvest composition for the Bierzo wine region which, although located in Castilla y Leon, is contiguous with Valdeorras.



The Bierzo Formula: Same Cultivars, Fewer Vines, More Bodegas

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.

Bierzo-Harvest-Composition-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.

Bierzo-Grower-NumbersAlthough 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.

Bierzo-Wine-ProducersOn 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.

Bierzo-Export-VolumesSo 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.


Evolution of Northern Spain’s D.O. Navarra Vineyard

The Autonomous Community of Navarra in northern Spain extends from just south of the Ebro River, northwards to the French border in the Pyranees.  Wine growing is restricted to the southern half of the Community and becomes more concentrated near to the Ebro. Vines are divided geographically into two Denominacións de Origen (D.O.), with approximately one third belonging to D.O. Rioja and approximately two thirds belonging to the contiguous D.O. Navarra.

Navarra-Vineyard-area-by-coWine growing in the region of D.O. Navarra dates back to Roman times and flourished in the Middle Ages.  Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago were both consumers and advocates of the wine, which became well known throughout northern Spain.  The vineyard had to be replanted in the early 20th century following the arrival of Phylloxera in 1892.  The new vineyards on American rootstocks were given over almost entirely to Garnacha, whereas the pre-Phylloxera vineyard is believed to have been much more diverse, though details are sketchy.

For most of the 20th century, the wine industry in Navarra was dominated by co-operatives who produced much bulk wine for export.  Garnacha Tinta with its drought tolerance and high yields, was largely treated as a workhorse grape.  In 1974, Garnacha Tinta made up 93% of the then 25,016 ha of vineyards.  Much of the fruit was vinified to produce rosé wines, destined to be drunk not long after production and often showing oxidised notes.  White cultivars then totalled 650 ha, roughly 2.5% of the D.O. Navarra vineyard.

Garnacha-vs-TempranilloSince 1990 the overall size of the D.O. Navarra vineyard has ebbed and flowed in response to economic factors.  In response to changing consumer taste, winemakers have shifted from Garnacha-based rosés to red table wines based on a broader grape palate.  To achieve this, many Garnacha vines have been removed and new cultivars, especially Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, introduced into the D.O. Navarra vineyard.   From 23,336 ha in 1974, to ca. 10,000 ha in 1995 to 2,632 ha in 2012, the removal of Garnacha has been ruthless and relentless.

Part of the transformation has been facilitated by the increasing availability of irrigation water which, in 2005, meant that for the first time more vineyard area was irrigated than dry farmed.  This has given farmers greater opportunity to plant non-Garnacha cultivars, as well as non-vine crops.

Navarra-Vineyard-ComparisonThe D.O. Navarra vineyard of 2012 is almost unrecognisable compared to how it was composed forty years previously.  Is this a good thing?  If you hold to the view that a region’s vineyard composition reflects centuries of experimentation by small farmers and gradual selection of cultivars to those most suitable to the available terroir, then this could be the stuff of nightmares.  Much of the work on determining suitable cultivars and clones has taken place in the last 25 years at La Estación de Viticultura y Enología de Navarra (EVENA).  There can be do denying that the region is now producing many excellent wines, especially full-bodied reds.  Navarra has reinvented itself and is now an exciting wine region producing wines in a variety of styles and at a range of price points.  Let’s hope that climate change does not scupper the ambitions of experimental viticulturalists and wine producers alike.

Climate Maps of the Iberian Peninsula

There are a number of factors which contribute to an individual vineyard’s terroir but climate goes a long way towards understanding a particular wine region.  In the case of Spain and Portugal, climate is governed by the competing influences of a number of different Climate Components.


This provides a handy conceptual framework, but to understand the climate we need to look at real data compilations.  A GIS climate database was launched in 2000 by the University of Barcelona, which integrates data from over 2,000 weather stations.  Aimed at providing a better understanding of the link between climate and vegetation, this database integrates climate data for the period 1951-1999 at a spatial resolution of 200 m.


Summary information from this database was subsequently used to produce the Atlas Climático Digital de la Península Ibérica (PDF)¹, which is a very useful document for anyone interested in understanding Spain or Portugal’s wine regions and from which the following maps are taken.

The topographic map of the Iberian Peninsula shows elevation at 300 m intervals, which brings out major structural elements.  Note, for example, how Castilla y Leon (including the Ribera del Duero wine region) is a high plateau surrounded by mountains on three sides.  By contrast, the Ebro Valley (including the Rioja wine region) has a much lower elevation and a link with the Mediterranean.  Jerez meanwhile is located on low-lying coastal plain at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River basin.

Iberian-Average-TemperatureLatitude, continentality and elevation all influence average temperature.  Note the cool average temperatures of Castilla y Leon, the warmer temperatures of the Ebro Valley and the hot temperatures of Guadalquivir River Basin.  The Atlas Climático also includes average minimum and average maximum temperature maps, which paint a much fuller picture of temperature patterns across the peninsula.  From even a cursory examination of these maps, Ribeira del Duero and Rioja would be expected to be quite different wine regions – notwithstanding the fact that they both grow mainly Tempranillo.


The average precipitation map brings out the strong influences exerted by the Atlantic and by elevation.  Note the extreme range of precipitation across the peninsula.  For parts of northeastern Portugal, much of coastal Galicia and along the southern borders of the Pyrenees,  annual precipitation is >1,500 mm.  By contrast, in southeast Spain the annual precipitation is <300 mm.  From a wine-growing perspective, Galicia’s wine regions understandably exist without any need of irrigation.  Throughout many other parts of Spain and Portugal, either irrigation is required or yields per vine are rather low.

In addition to the Atlas Climatico, very useful climate data can be found in the Iberian Climate Atlas (PDF)², which summarises climate data for the period from 1971-2000.  This atlas includes many additional maps such as average temperatures by month, average number of days with minimum temeratues <0°C and average number of days with maximum temperatures >25°C.

It should be remembered that maps from both these atlases show average values.  Year on year variation, which greatly influence the size and quality of the harvest, require a different type of investigation.

¹ Ninyerola M, Pons X y Roure JM. (2005) Atlas Climático Digital de la Península Ibérica. Metodología y aplicaciones en bioclimatología y geobotánica. ISBN 932860-8-7. Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra, 45pp

² Iberian Climate Atlas (2011)  Produced by the State Meteorological Agency of Spain and by the Institute of Meteorology, Portugal.  ISBN: 978-84-7837-079-5, 80pp

Ribeira Sacra Wine Region in Figures

Exports from Galicia’s stunningly beautiful Ribeira Sacra D.O. are tiny.  In 2012 they totaled only 299 hl (40,000 bottles), yet they’ve still managed to impress a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic.  Sufficiently so for President Obama to be served a Peza do Rei 2011 at a recent Gala dinner.

Ribeira-Sacra-Location-mapHow has a wine region that seemed to be in serious decline not so very long ago been able to reinvent itself?  The answer  includes improvements to rural infrastructure and producers with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to quality.  The five page free to download PDF Ribeira Sacra in Figures tracks the region’s recent history through data compilations to help explain a part of the story.