Spanish wine thrives in global market
Story by Emily Pollak // Photos by Maria Amasanti
SALAMANCA- It was after business hours but before sunset on a Friday afternoon in late May and Hacienda Zorita, a small winery in the Douro Valley region of Salamanca, was still humming with activity.
A walking tour with about 20 people was under way through the vineyard and into a cavernous dark room where hundreds of chest-high barrels were stacked against ancient, damp stone walls. There were people settling down for an early meal at the winery’s restaurant. There were residents of the 192-acre estate – patrons of its five-star hotel – walking the grounds in the waning sunlight.
This celebration of wine and fascination of wine culture is what industry experts such as Jaime Boville García De Vinusa are banking on for the continued dominance of their industry. A vice president at Hacienda Zorita, Boville García De Vinusa is one of many vineyard operators who are capitalizing on a growing world-wide love of Spanish wines. Now the No. 2 exporter behind France globally, Spain is enjoying a production and export boom, and its beautiful vineyards are a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economy that has seen many other industries cutting staff and reducing services.
“[The exportation of wine] is amazingly important right now,” said Vasco Marinho Gomes, director of hospitality at Hacienda Zorita. “In north Europe, we are growing every year [by] 8 percent. We started exporting to China last year and in the last trimester, we grew 80 percent.”
He echoes what others are happily repeating everywhere in the industry.
“With no doubt, wine is one of the principal elements in the exportations of Spain,” said Juan Riber García, head of the department of market regulation at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
The wine industry in Spain has always been important to the country. The tradition of winemaking dates back as far as 2,000 years to the Roman Empire, where Spain was one of the main exporters of wine. But recently – and in the last two years specifically – it has expanded rapidly.
There are a number of factors that led to the jump in rankings, including recent ideal weather conditions, improvements in farming technology and an organized effort to develop more fertile land for growing grapes, said Boville García De Vinusa.
That last one has been key. The Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade, or ICEX, which is the Spanish government’s official marketing arm for the wine industry, notes in a recent report that the business structure for winemaking is undergoing serious modifications to accommodate the increasing production efforts across the country. Specifically, more than 320,000 acres of land will be uprooted and replanted with higher quality materials. The effort, which will cost 800 million euros or $1.1 billion, is funded by various sources including the European Commission, which oversees the strength and financial health of the European Union.
Also, across the nation, small wineries and co-operatives are actively negotiating cross-country partnerships throughout the EU to expand their variety of grapes as they also work to improve their facilities.
Isabel Bardají Azcárate, a professor in the department of economics and agricultural social sciences at Polytechnic University of Madrid, said, “the Spanish production is increasing because of the huge investments done in the last seven years with European support in plantations.”
Hacienda Zorita is an example of what she’s talking about. The vineyard, for example, is investing in more modern irrigation and drainage systems. The company also hired wine expert Richard Smart as an advisor to the vineyard to analyze its old system and implement new, more efficient ones. Now in place at Hacienda Zorita is what’s called Smart-Station, invented by Smart, who is a world-renown Australia-based expert on vineyard science. The innovative technique divides the plant in two, maximizing the sunlight, and ultimately the sugar, for the individual grapes. This enables uniform maturation. The result – consistency throughout the vine and, in turn the wine.
“You can make a bad wine with an excellent grape” said Boville García De Vinusa, commenting on his vineyard’s unrelenting pursuit of bigger, sweeter and better grapes, “but you cannot make an excellent wine with a bad grape.”
This emphasis on quality, perfection and modification is what growers across the Spanish wine sector are now working toward. Kym Anderson, executive director at the Wine Economics Research Center at the University of Adelaide in Australia, predicts continued growth in the Spanish wine sector as long as the country’s vineyard owners are able to produce better quality wines at the same pace as their production. And this is exactly what the industry is evolving to accomplish.
“If Spain is able to increase the quality of its exports so as to make them better value for the money,” there may be growth,” said Anderson.
Samir Mili, a senior analyst at the Madrid-based Spanish Council for Scientific Research, or CSIC, agrees that the desire for high-quality wines is increasingly more important to vineyard owners than volume of production. “In the last year, production became more important and was higher,” he said, but added: “Quality wine is in demand. It is important to improve the quality [and] to increase the added value.” Although growth is seen as positive attribute it can also come at the expense of quality, he said.
Marinho Gomes knows this well.
It was now later in the day at Hacienda Zorita vineyard and the sun was sitting just over the horizon. The vines, the buildings, the sandstone tiles on the ground were all gold in the waning light. Sitting in the patio outside Hacienda Zorita’s main cellar, Marinho Gomes spoke about the company´s Majester collection – which is its showcase wine at 70 to 80 euro, or $95 to $110 per bottle.
He explained that only 7,000 bottles a year are produced. The reason: five different grapes are needed – tempranillo, syrah, merlot, cabernet and malbec – to make it, and each one has to be in pristine condition. Regardless of demand, regardless of how much they could charge for each bottle, that will never change, he said.
“If it’s not perfect we won’t make it.”