Ringing in the New Year with Spanish grapes!
Spain is the fourth largest producer of grapes in the world. And while it’s no secret that Spanish grapes make world-renowned Spanish wines, fewer people may realize that they are also formidable players in the international table grape market, where innovation and tradition have joined forces to bring this outstanding Spanish product to the rest of the world in ever increasing amounts.
Text: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX.
Every year on New Year’s Eve, in sync with the chiming of the clock tower in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, millions of people all over Spain madly scramble to gulp down twelve grapes, one at a time, on the countdown to midnight. This tradition, which at first might seem perplexing to foreign visitors, is as contagious and appealing as tapas or siestas, and will undoubtedly travel home with them to their respective countries. After all, this Spanish custom has already spread to some countries in South America and even Italy, and I know for sure about a small population in Boulder, Colorado that also rings in the new, Spanish-style.
The custom of eating of twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve in Spain is a blessing for the New Year that dates back to the end of the 19th century in Madrid. In later years, this ritual was reinforced by surplus crops of the fruit and by the marketing savvy of farmers in the areas of Murcia and Alicante (Community of Valencia), who were able to consolidate this tradition throughout the rest of Spain. Over a century later, these two regions continue to be the undisputed leaders in the production of table grapes in Spain. Having so resolutely conquered this country, they have now set their sights on the international marketplace with ever increasing success.
Rulers of the table
In general, table grape varieties differ from those used for wine in that they have lower sugar and acidity levels, thinner skins, and tend to grow in looser, larger bunches. To find the leaders of table grape production in Spain, one need look no further than the southeastern Region of Murcia. Here, the cultivation of table grapes has grown into one of the area’s most important trades. Murcia now dominates this sector on a national level in terms of both production and export, the latter accounting for 90% of the national total.
Depending on the year, production levels range from around 120,000 to 140,000 tons of table grapes. Despite a healthy national market for this fruit, it is interesting to note that more than 70% of table grape production in Murcia is currently exported. This extremely high level of export is significant in that it’s directly linked to the region’s steadfast dedication to innovation, and to the significant role played by tiny things called seeds.
The Spanish table grape market is almost entirely based on the consumption of grape varieties that contain seeds, something that never fails to surprise me as I crunch down on grapes during the last seconds of each year. Traditional Spanish table grape varieties such as Aledo, Ideal, Dominga, Ohanes and Moscatel all have seeds in them, and until now, at least, this is the way that Spaniards liked it. However, they are somewhat unusual in this preference, since the majority of consumers in rest of the world have gone seedless.
Therefore, in 2002, eighteen local producers/exporters created ITUM (an organization focused on Table Grape Research and Technology), to develop new varieties of seedless grapes that were better adapted to this production area and could compete with other important producers like California and Israel. According to Joaquín Gómez, the president of APOEXPA (Association for Fruit, Table Grape and Other Agricultural Products based in Murcia), this institute has become a resource for table grape investigation and advances throughout the world, and is currently working on ways to lengthen the grape harvest.
These efforts have more than paid off, and Murcia now produces around 100,000 tons, or 90%, of all seedless table grapes in Spain, 90% of which the region exports to markets like the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Portugal and the Netherlands. Besides these European destinations, APOEXPA has encouraged a growing Spanish market in places like South Africa, and new markets in China, India and Taiwan.
Although table grapes are also grown in Andalusia and other areas of Spain, the two focal points for this market are undoubtedly Murcia and Alicante. While Murcia’s strengths are in crop yields and innovation, the area in known as the Vinalopó Valley in Alicante excels in traditional methods and unique production techniques. Their specialized products are protected by a Designation of Origin status – DOP Uvas de Mesa Embolsada de Vinalopó – and are making a name for themselves in the rest of the world.
The Vinalopó Valley is nestled between the mountains and the sea, providing it with a microclimate ideally suited to table grapes. According to José Enrique Sanchéz García,head of his own company, Rosendo (Betisan S.L.), different grape varieties do better in distinct areas of the valley, where sun and soil variations result in harvest dates that begin in July for some varieties, and last until January for others. This is extremely unusual, given that table grapes in this hemisphere are usually harvested only until mid-November.
The real secret lies in the cultivation method that has been followed here since the turn of the last century, when a local farmer started hand wrapping each bunch of grapes in newspaper, while still on the vine, to protect them from birds and diseases. This unusual technique has continued to this day, though now the bunches are wrapped in humidity-resistant cellulose paper. This takes place in early June and July, when the grapes first start ripening on the vine, and it serves a variety of functions, all of which make the product exceptional. According to José Enrique, not only does the wrapping protect the grapes from infestations, it also shields them from any chemical sprays that might be used on the crop. An even more important function of this tradition is that it produces grapes with a thinner skin, more uniform size and color, and an exquisite and delicate flavor. This layer of protection also leads to a slower ripening period that is not “forced by the sun, but only by the passage of time”. This is key to the prominence of this area, which produces the latest harvested grapes found in this part of the world.
The two main grape varieties grown here are Ideal (also called Italia) and Aledo. Ideal is a pale, yellow-green grape that is harvested from mid September to mid November and develops a smoothly perfect, soft skin and a delicately perfumed flavor. Aledo, in contrast, is a heartier white grape variety that ripens more slowly and is therefore harvested from November to the end of January. And the fact that it transports extremely well and can last around sixty days after being cut means that these are the grapes that often make it onto the Christmas tables of Spain, Italy and France – countries where consumption of this fruit is a holiday tradition. Of course, they are also gobbled down by the millions on New Year’s Eve.
The Ideal and Aledo grapes comprise an ever-growing segment of the export market, despite the fact that both varieties have seeds. Of the approximately 42-44 thousand tons of grapes that are produced each year in the valley – more than 50% of which are commercialized under the seal of DOP Uvas de Mesa Embolsada de Vinalopó (bagged table grapes from Vinalopó) – the majority of these certified grapes are then exported. His company, Rosendo, like practically all of the other companies in this area, is a family-owned business that produces around 1,500 tons of Aledo grapes annually. They export 80% of this crop mainly to France and Italy, and smaller amounts to Eastern European countries and Russia. Another family company, Aracil Martínez y Morillo, S.L., markets under the brand name, El Reclot. According to Estrella Morillo, of the 1,000-1,500 tons of table grapes that the company produces each year, more than half are shipped to Italy and France where, “(Italians) really appreciate how special this cultivation technique is, and associate Spanish Aledo table grapes with Christmas”.
While this enduring tradition dominates table grape cultivation in the Vinalopó Valley, that doesn’t mean the producers here have turned their backs on innovation and ways to increase their share of the export market. The DOP has recently authorized the incorporation of three new grape varieties (Red globe, Doña María and Victoria), all of which have been found to perform well with these climatic and cultivation conditions. Other area companies as well are making forays into new territories. Uvasdoce is one such company, managed by siblings Estrella, María Dolores and Alfredo Miralles. While it produces the area’s traditional seeded grape varieties, several years ago it also became the only local company to start cultivating seedless varieties such as White Superior and Red Crimson. Around 40% of its annual production of 7,000 tons is protected by D.O.P. status, and exports have been steadily increasing to account for over half of production. Interestingly, the traditional grapes are exported to Italy and France, while the seedless varieties go to Scandinavia, England and Ireland.
Despite this trend of adapting to the demands of the international marketplace, the traditional varieties and cultivation techniques of the Vinalopó Valley are by no means on their way out. These unique practices continue to be valued at home and overseas, where they are directly associated with Spain’s famous gastronomic wealth. Uvadoce’s marketing manager Miriam Cutillas, provided a perfect example of this when she spoke of recent negotiations between the company and a supermarket chain in Canada, which is looking for a traditional, unique and special type of table grape for its shelves. There can be no doubt they’ve come to the right place.
Although table grapes are also grown in Andalusia and other areas of Spain, the two focal points for this market are undoubtedly Murcia and Alicante.