Bagged grapes. Spain’s sparkling wine producers seek new ways to fight climate change

Some of the leading wineries in Catalonia are experimenting into how to make better wine in more environmentally friendly – and sometimes surprising – ways. Barnaby Eales reports.

Recaredo's use of bagged grapes has slowed down the maturity of grapes and prolonged harvest by two months this year.
Recaredo's use of bagged grapes has slowed down the maturity of grapes and prolonged harvest by two months this year.

Climate change means the Mediterranean basin faces the prospect of losing 17% of agriculture production with water levels falling to 20% below those of the pre-industrial age, according to Robert Savé, an Emeritus Researcher in viticulture & oenology and climate change at Spain’s IRTA (Institute of Agri-food Research and Technology).

Illustrating this point, in what Ton Mata, its director describes as “this particularly dry year” Recaredo, one of Spain’s and the Penedes’s leading sparkling wine producers, picked just 4,700 kgs of grapes per hectare in 2021– compared to an average yield in recent years of  6,000kg.

Responding to all of the challenges brought by climate-change, and alongside a number of other wineries and academic bodies in Catalonia, Mata has been conducting some very interesting and in some cases surprising experiments.
Among these, one of the most visually arresting has been the placing of paper bags on bunches of Xarello grapes grown on vines at an altitude of 280 metres in July of this year.

The trial was inspired by Spain’s Vinalopó valley, a unique table grape PDO (Denominacion de Origen) to the west of Alicante, in the region of Valencia. Bags were first used in this region over a century ago to protect grapes from pests, before the existence of pesticides. 

Each year, for at least 60 days, about 11 million, glossy, paper bags cover around 50 million kilos of eating grapes.

Recaredo’s trials are understood to be the first to use Vitis vinifera. The bags apparently slowed the grapes’ maturation and delayed their harvest by two months. The bagged grapes were picked on 4th November, while conventionally grown fruit in the same vineyards were harvested on September 7th.

Mata says that the bagged grapes had comparatively higher sugar levels, while acknowledging, however, that 5% of them had to be discarded.

Even so, the results are encouraging and the Vinalopó model shows that the bagged-grapes procedure could be massively scaled up, potentially providing thousands of jobs each year if willing employees can be recruited.
Beatriz Rocamora, director of the Vinalopó PDO, also that says bagged grapes present environmental solutions as growers using them don’t need to resort to pesticides.

 

This summer Recaredo launched trials with nets to provide grapes with shade during the highest temperatures of the year.

 

Differing views

The readiness of Recaredo, a biodynamic, sparkling and still wine producer, and member of the breakaway quality-focused Corpinnat group, to experiment in this way is striking. But at least one of his fellow biodynamic sparkling producers in Catalonia prefers alternative solutions. 

Pepe Raventós, of the similarly highly-regarded Raventós, I Blanc sparking and Can Sumoll still natural wines, has ruled out using bags. 

“We don’t need to bag grapes to get more maturity, with hotter summers which have impacted the growing cycle, we’ve picked earlier.”

He says he has revived the use of goblet-trained vines to reduce the impact of direct sunlight on grapes and their skins.

“Moreover, leaves of vines are less exposed to sunlight, so we have less photosynthesis and thus a slower maturity of grapes.”

Raventos and Mata may disagree on bags, but they share the same views on the benefits of goblet training. Mata also readily acknowledges that bags are not a panacea and that their usage has varying results according to grape varieties and location. 

 

Shady alternative

Familia Torres – always noted for its openness to innovation and its commitment to environmentalism, is using its one-hectare ‘Climate Change’ vineyard to experiment with a scheme that combines a way of shading vines with producing green energy. The canopy of small solar panels it has installed is similar to, but not entirely like, the ones pioneered by the French specialists sun’agri. 

For those who are not ready to invest in large areas of solar panels to shade their vines, this year, in conjunction with Incavi, Catalonia’s vine and wine institute, Recaredo has also experimented with a far cheaper option. Ton Mata has used nets on six rows of vertical shoot positioned vines in attempt to reduce the evaporation of water from the plants and soil. 

He says initial results show that the nets increased the shade on grapes by 30%. Again, however, this is seen as just one of a number of tools. Xoan Elorduy, head of viticulture and enology at Incavi, points out that initial results from net trials show them to have been less effective than targeted site-specific canopy management.

Elorduy says that Catalonia’s diversity of microclimates, soils, and grape varieties and varied water levels - from the plains of Terra Alta to the heights of Cerdanya in the Pyrenees – call for a range of regionally-tailored solutions. 

 

Sharing technology:  Familia Torres has developed an innovative Co2 capture and reuse system which it is sharing with other producers in Spain and partners around the world 

 

Sensors and old vines

Eighteen months ago, working with Incavi, two other top sparkling producers, Gramona and Juve i Camps, launched Hydrovinya, a project that uses 22 sensors to accumulate data on the hydric state of vines and soils in the Penedes and Costes de Segre wine regions to facilitate site-specific viticulture decision-making for producers.

Incavi is also undertaking tests with producers to pursue massal selection from older vineyards to find the best clones of several local grape varieties that seem to be well suited to cope with water deficit.

Gramona is working with Incavi in Cerdanya to recover indigenous varieties including Neral, Fina de Pedralba and Pirineus 1, as well joining the move by several producers to plant vines in some of the highest elevation points in Europe, where it believes naturally balanced wines with lower alcohol levels can be made.

Evidence for this is provided by four new Gramona wines from the 2019 vintage, made from Pinot Noir, Montonec, and Muscat grapes grown on steeply inclined slopes of between 1,180 and 1,270 metres in altitude in Rui de Cerdanya in the Pyrenees.

 

Hello Xarello

Recaredo’s own experiments with grape varieties and altitude in the Penedes have been focused on planting indigenous Xarello vines, massal selection obtained from old vineyards, rather than commercial clones, in sites at up to 500m. The grape variety now accounts for 70% of Recaredo’s vines.

Parellada, one of the trio of grapes used to make Cava and sparkling wine in Catalonia, has, in recent years, lost its ability to reach sufficient acidity and sugar levels. Xarello, however, is showing resistance to global warming.

“When grown in higher altitudes, Xarello reveals complex aromatic characteristics, whilst maintaining an optimal balance between acidity and sugar levels,” says Mata.

 

Recaredo has planted Xarello vines at higher altitudes.  Xarello, a grape variety increasing used in still and sparkling wines, is better suited to climate change conditions than Parellada

 

Not all of the Catalan efforts to counter climate change have been in the vineyards. This week, Familia Torres announced that its new Co2 capture, and reuse system (CCR) will be able to reuse around 20 tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to one-third of the gas the winery purchases. 

The company put the system to the test during this year’s vintage, installing three balloons connected to seven vertical fermentation tanks filled with white grape must. 

It intends to expand the installation for next year’s vintage and has already shared the technology with several Spanish Wine Federation producers. The information will also be available to with all IWCA wineries.

Since the Torres & Earth programme was launched in 2008, Familia Torres has reduced CO2 emissions per bottle by 34%. It aims to achieve a reduction of at least 60% by 2030.

 

Simply must

Finally, Recaredo has joined 30 Cava and sparkling wine producers in using late-picked grapes to tap into a new Catalan government million-euro subsidy available for the production of organic must or organic rectified concentrated must – RCGM - for use in tirage and dosage, instead of imported organic refined cane sugar. 

As well as reducing producers’ carbon footprint, the increased use of local grapes should help to reduce stocks in generous vintages and establish a further point of difference from other traditional method sparkling wines like Champagne and Prosecco.

Of course, if bagging grapes and vineyard solar panels really take off, Spain’s sparkling winemakers have created a vinous landscape that’s quite unique.

 

Barnaby Eales

 

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