Wine Harvest in Spain's Rioja Region


Photo by Juan Alcón

The wine harvest ended just in time. This week the Rioja region of Spain has been dense with fog and rain, which would have been a disaster for the harvest. But it finished last week, under brilliant clear skies, hauling in an extraordinarily abundant crop of very high quality grape. But that's not the whole story.

The wine business is a gamble. I know virtually nothing about it, but even an innocent passerby can perceive the tension and anticipation in the last weeks before the harvest. The old guys in the villages look up to the heavens and sniff the air. The grand doyens of the wine world make their prognostications, more oracular than scientific, setting in motion the wheels of international opinion and marketing. Skinny tractors (which fit between the rows of vines) are oiled and polished, beds are set up for the hired hands. Farmers anxiously wonder what the big bodegas will pay per ton of grape. Laboratories fill with white-coated technicians, gauging just the right moment to harvest. Everyone watches the weather and talks about levels of sugar and acidity, color and pH.

In the Rioja, that vast sea of grapevines, everything is staked on the harvest, for big businessmen and small farmers alike.

This year, the winter was rainy and cold and the summer exceptionally hot and dry. By late summer, the grapes in many fields were lagging, not growing full enough for lack of water. Then in mid-September it rained, a mixed blessing: on the one hand it helped the fruit swell, but on the other it created anxieties that, if the rains were to continue, the grapes would lose their concentration or molder on the vine. I do not doubt that many candles were lighted in many families' niches to the various saints of weather and mercy. The last week of September was perfect, bright days and cool nights, and in the first days of October the harvest season was ushered in under the most auspicious of conditions. But good weather and quality grapes are not enough to guarantee that farms flourish.

In the Rioja, that vast sea of grapevines, everything is staked on the harvest, for big businessmen and small farmers alike. While the clay banks of the Ebro River have created wealth for centuries, the economic downturn has the whole area feeling very nervous. People are not buying wine like they used to, or if they are it is cheap wine usually from other regions. If the wine isn't selling, the bodegas lower their price for grapes; if the price goes down, the farmers can't afford to harvest. This year, sales of Rioja wine is down by 10 percent and it is estimated that the bodegas, hedging their bets, will pay some 50 percent less per kilo of grape (although prices are not announced until several months after the harvest). Thus many farmers are cultivating their product at a loss. Already they've cut back expenses, and without some kind of guarantee that they will get a decent price for the grapes, many of them are doubting the sustainability of their farms.

Many farmers, as well as a few political parties, are demanding that a minimum price be set for grapes. Others claim that in a free market it is impossible to set minimum prices, that prices must depend upon demand and competition. The "Interprofessional Board," which mediates all the sectors of the wine industry, has been summoned for an emergency session to confront the matter, but so far it is locked in dispute.

One of the major bones of contention derives from just how good this year has been. The Rioja is the only wine-producing region in Spain that bears the label DOC (denominación de origen de calidad), and therefore is subject to especially stringent controls regarding quantity and quality of production. Each farmer may sell a certain amount of grapes, no more, depending on the amount of land under cultivation.

This year the grapes have been wildly abundant, and it is estimated that some 80 million kilograms have been left on the vine because they exceeded the quotas permitted for sale. Indeed, due to the weather conditions during harvest week, the grapes left on the vine are probably the very finest quality ones. For economically-pinched farmers, it is a blow to the heart to see those grapes left for the birds, and many demand to be allowed to sell the surplus as well, despite DOC regulations. Others claim this would flood the market and imperil the status of the DOC product.

What is certain is that much of the abandoned grapes will be harvested clandestinely and used to make home-brew in the basements and garages of farmers all over the region, for their own consumption and for sharing with family and friends. A delightful solution, but not an economical one: they are strictly prohibited from selling this wine in order to protect the status of DOC-regulated wines from the region.

The home-brew is, however, appreciated by the harvest workers, who receive both housing and house wine as part of their contract for the season. In recent years, most of the harvest workers have come from Morocco, Senegal, and Romania, but this year due to increased unemployment in Spain, Spanish workers have also shown up in droves hoping for work. While many (both from within Spain and from other countries) arrive with a contract for work in a certain farm, thousands more come without a contract, hoping that there will be additional work for them. Municipalities, churches and non-profits hustle to provide shelter and emergency services for the estimated 10 to 15 thousand temporary laborers who pour into the area to work for 10 days against the clock, the heavens, and the global economy.

So it is that even the idyllic world of the vineyards, with its tiny stone villages and rolling waves of vine, is caught up in the convulsions of crisis and change. It must be said they are well equipped for it: their gardens are replete with vegetables, their stills overflowing with contraband Rioja, and frankly I suspect they'll weather it better than the rest of us.

NOTE: Serious wine-heads may find it amusing to check out Gran Reserva, the new television drama which will air on Spanish public television in January. It pits an opportunistic and business-savvy wine entrepreneur against an honorable family of traditional vintners in the stunning landscape of the Rioja. I can't wait. Nothing like a good Manichean story with a pretty backdrop!