Rias Baixas is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a Denominación de Origen in 2013. During this time it has undergone considerable growth and development, so now seems as good a time as any to take stock of its achievements. The 5 page free downloadable PDF, Rias Baixas in Figures summarizes the readily available data to help explain the Rias Baixas story.
Wines from Galicia, Spain’s northwestern autonomous region, have been attracting welcome attention lately. Albariños from Rias Baixas and Mencias from Ribeira Sacra are leading the charge and making their presence felt on restaurant lists outside of Spain. Perhaps less known is the overall makeup and composition of Galicia’s vineyard arrangements, which play an important role in determining the styles, quantities and prices of wines from the region.
In 2012 Galicia had 26,233 ha of vineyards, all of which are used for the production of wine grapes. Of this amount, vineyards in the five Denominaciones de Origen Protegidas (DOP) accounted for 9,689 ha or 37%. There are three areas in Galicia with Indicaciones Geográficas Protegidas (IGP) status, but their total area amounts to a mere 20 ha. Whereas regions such as Sicily are producing large quantities of IGP wine, you’re unlikely to see a Galician IGP wine in a supermarket anytime soon. The remaining 63% of the Galician vineyard lack any geographical indication and are almost entirely used to produce wines which are consumed locally.
The bedrock geology of Galicia consists of Palaeozoic igneous and metamorpic rocks. Subsequent tectonic activity and weathering have produced a rugged topography with many steep slopes and deep valleys. Along the coastline many of these valleys have been drowned producing inlets or rias. Such topography means that in many areas mechanised farming is not possible, and labour costs farming terraced plots are high. Individual plots are almost universally small, with the 2009 vineyard survey showing that 97% of Galicia’s 83,942 vineyard plots were <1 ha. Producing grapes on such small plots creates something of a logistical nightmare for the bodegas and inevitably means that Galician wine producers lack economies of scale.
Of the DOPs in Galicia, only Rias Baixas has been able to increase its vineyard area to any significant extent during the 21st century. The other four DOPs are constrained by their geography and their vineyard areas have remained more or less constant. Wine production from these DOPs isn’t going to markedly increase anytime soon. So if you want to taste Palacios’ Godello from Valdeorras or Peza do Rei’s Mencia from Ribeira Sacra, you’ll have to be prepared to pay for these delights. Hopefully you’ll take some comfort from an appreciation as to why production is so limited and why their production costs are so high.
The relatively unknown wine region of D.O. Ribeira Sacra was in the news recently when it emerged that a red Peza do Rei 2011 would be served to President Obama at a Gala dinner. This producer usually makes red wine with 100% Mencia, but what other grape varietals are available in the Ribeira Sacra vineyard?
Unlike the neighbouring Galician D.O. of Rias Biaxas (whose vineyard is dominated by the white varietal Albariño), the D.O. Ribeira Sacra vineyard is dominated by black vines. White grapes have made up less than 10% of total grape production for every year this century and for the last eight years their contribution has been under 5%. The D.O. regulations permit the white varietals Albariño, Godello, Treixadura, Loreira, Torrontes and Dona Branca. Of these, Godello is the most important and typically contributes >70% of white grape production. Albarino is the second most important white grape with a contribution of ca. 15%.
The black varietal vineyard is dominated by Mencia, which has comprised >90% of black grape production every year this century. Apart from Mencia, the other recommended black grape varietals for D.O. Ribeira Sacra include Brancellao, Caino tinto, Merenzao and Souson. These varietals make up a tiny part of the vineyard and in 2012 their combined contribution was <1% of black grape production. More important is Tempranillo (also recommended) but more important still is the permitted varietal Garnacha tintorera, which made up 6% of black grape production.
Spain had ca. 1 million hectares of land occupied by vineyards in 2012, the largest of any country. Yet only a quarter of a century ago, this figure was 50% greater (1.5 million ha). As the national vineyard continues to evolve, which of the country’s regions are winners (expanding) and which are losers (decreasing)?
In the second half of the 20th century Spanish winegrowers faced the twin threat of decreasing per capita wine consumption at home and increasing competition from New World producers in export markets. Domestic wine consumption went from ca. 60 litres per capita per annum in 1980 to about half that figure by the end of the century. Demand for table wines were particularly hard hit as Spanish consumers turned their attention to quality wines. With vineyard yields and wine stocks increasing, whilst prices were falling, Spain began to reduce the size of its vineyard in 1980. With Spain’s entry into the EU in 1986, it became subject to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which then subsidised vine-pulls, especially for lower quality vines. All these factors contributed to not only the overall shrinking of Spain’s national vineyard, but for those vineyard areas outside of Denmonación de Origen Protegida (DOP) regions to be disproportionately affected.
Since 1990 Spain’s total DOP vineyard area has remained roughly constant at ca. 600,000 ha. Yet within this space there has been much jockeying for position, reflecting the ease, or otherwise, of commercialising the wines from a particular DOP. The greatest vineyard losses in the 21st century have been in La Mancha DOP (down by ca. 31,000 ha) and Jumilla DOP (down by ca. 18,000 ha). A number of much smaller DOPs have lost between a third and a half of their vineyard area including Alicante, Méntrida, Montilla-Moriles, Calatyud and Condado de Huelva.
Those DOPs that have been able to significantly increase their size in the 21st century are presumably enjoying a greater than average commercial success. They include well known DOPs such as Rioja (+ ca. 5,500 ha), Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Rias Baixas and Priorat. Yet the greatest vineyard gain in the 21st century has been at Extremadura’s less well known Ribera del Guadiana DOP (+ ca. 18,000 ha), Only established as a DOP in 1999, Ribera del Guadiana’s success appears to based on vinifying Tempranillo in a fruity “New World” style.
Rioja has a long history of winemaking and in 1925 became the first wine region in Spain to obtain Denominación de Origen (DO) status. At both home and abroad, Rioja is most well known for the production of red wines.
Over the last quarter century, the total productive vineyard area of the Rioja D.O. has increased from ca. 40,000 ha to just over 60,000 ha. During this period black varietals have increased their area whilst white varietals have shown a small decrease. As a result, white varietals have moved from occupying 23% of the total productive vineyard area in 1985 to occpying only 6% of the total vineyard in 2012.
Over the last five years the areas of total black and total white varietals have remained more or less unchanged. Yet this should not be mistaken for a period of stasis in the vineyard. Following years of consultation, the Consejo Regulador for D.O Rioja allowed the introduction of nine new varieties in 2007. This led to a minor revolution in the vineyard, the results of which are only just beginning to be experienced.
White Rioja is produced predominantly from the varietal Viura (which is known outside of Rioja as Macabeo). In 2008 Viura accounted for 96% of the white varietals vineyard, but in the wake of the new regulations growers have taken the opportunity to replace Viura with other varietals. The apparent reason for this is that Viura, with its tendancy towards low aromatics and neutral characteristics, often yields wines which are of simple nature and soon forgotten. Only careful vine management, which usually means lower than average yields on sites away from the valley floors, can produce quality fruit. A small number of producers such as Allende and Marqués de Murrieta couple carefully selected fruit with barrel fermentation and battonage which yield complex wines capable of ageing, but these are perhaps of minority interest.
The traditionally permitted blending partners for Viura have been Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. Together these account for less than 100 ha of vineyards, so supply is very limited. The Consejo Regulador revisions of 2007 permitted the use of three native white varietals, namely Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca and Turruntes. More controversial was the decision to allow plantings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo, which are neither native nor traditional varietals. To date growers have tended to opt for the non-native varietals, with Tempranillo Blanco being the only new native varietal to be taken up to any significant extent. Verdejo is now the most planted secondary white grape varietal in Rioja.
The recent release by the Instituto Regionale Vini e Oli (IRVV) of data concerning the area of grape varietals in Sicily in 2012 provides an opportunity to take a look at one aspect of how the Sicilian vineyard has restructured during the 21st century.
In 1987 Sicily had 202,000 ha of wine vineyards. The following year the EU introduced a vine pull scheme in response to its structural problem of wine overproduction. This resulted in the uprooting of many Sicilian vineyards, so that by the beginning of the 21st century the Sicilian wine vineyard totalled ca. 138,000 ha. White varietals then occupied 78% of the vineyard area. During the early 21st century the total vineyard area has continued to decrease and had declined to 108,595 ha by 2012. Initially decreases were primarily due to the loss of white varietals, but more recently the overall ratio of black to white varietals has remained roughly constant at approximately 36% to 64%. There is though considerable regional variation. Western Sicily (provinces of Trapani, Palermo and Agrigento) contains 90% of the Sicilian vineyard, of which 71% is white. By contrast, in eastern Sicily (provinces of Catania, Messina, Siracusa and Ragusa), which contains only 6% of the Sicilian vineyard, 90% of the vines are black varietals.
The removal of white varietals from the Sicilian vineyard has disproportionately affected native varietals and, in particular, Catarratto. Used mainly to produce grape concentrate, or sent for distillation, Catarratto has often been thought of as an inferior varietal. Renewed interest for use in table wines has seen the vineyard area of the biotype Catarratto Bianco lucido increase at the expense of the less well regarded Catarratto Bianco comune. Neither Inzolia nor Trebbiano are commonly used to produce quality table wines and both have been major casualties of the continued Sicilian vineyard restructuring.
Chardonnay is the most notable white international varietal in Sicily and is used to produce table wine, sparkling wine and even desert wine. Its growth pattern appears to have leveled off, as does that of the more recently introduced Viognier. Grillo has traditionally been used as a component for high quality Marsala. Increased recognition of its potential as a table wine has come about as clonal selections have helped reduce problems of coulure. Grillo’s presence in the Sicilian vineyard has shown impressive growth during the 21st century.
Compared with their white counterparts, black indigenous varietals have fared rather better in terms of retaining their place in the Sicilian vineyard. The most import black varietal, and the second most planted varietal in Sicily, is Nero d’Avola. Its area peaked in 2008 at 19,304 ha. Although this area had declined to 17,580 ha by 2012, this figure is still well above its area at the beginning of the centruy. Nerrelo mascalese and Narello cappuccio are both natives of Etna. Despite increased interest in table wines from Etna, both varietals have been in decline this century.
The black internataional varietals Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were first introduced to Sicily in the 19th century. Their more recent history and reintroduction followed work by the IRVV in the 1990s. The IRVV also trialled and recommended the planting of Syrah. These three varietals showed rapid growth off a small base in the early part of the 2000s, but since about 2005 their areas have levelled off and are currently showing small declines.