Sep 24 2018

Heroic Harvests, the Super Powers of Spanish Wine Growers

The wine harvest is upon us, bringing with it the tantalizing promise of new vintages of wine to discover and savor. But while the diversity and excellence of Spanish wines might be old news by now, international wine drinkers will certainly be surprised to learn about the story behind some of these harvests which, carried out under extreme conditions, can surely be considered no less than heroic.

Text: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX

Heroic harvest in Spain

It is established fact that heroic efforts come in many forms. In terms of Spanish wines, they also occur in many places. Spain, the world’s most prolific wine producing country, boasts more than a hundred different wine regions and as many, if not more, diverse landscapes. Steep cliffs, roaring rivers, high winds and volcanoes are just a few of the natural obstacles that some Spanish viticulturists must face year after year, all in the name of heroic harvests. Among the most famous of these is that of Ribeira Sacra in Galicia. But there are many more, each of which bears its own challenges and yields its own rewards in the form of excellent Spanish wines.

The steep banks of Ribera Sacra

A wine region that dates back at least to Roman times, Designation of Origin Ribera Sacra is located along the banks of the Cabe, Sil and Miño rivers in the provinces of Lugo and Ourense, in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia. Here, native grape varieties like red Mencía and white Godello thrive in the particular microclimate of these lush river valleys, presenting picturesque scenes that are unlike any other – as precarious as they are beautiful. Here, grape growers undertake heroic feats of viticulture that include manual harvesting the terraced vines that are located on steep hillsides with nearly vertical slopes. The grapes are typically carted out by hand, or on the occasional systems of crudely-mounted rails that line the hillsides. Such is the effort required and the risk undertaken that Ribeira Sacra is only one of a few designations of origin in Europe that has access to the special CERVIM (the Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture) seal for “heroic viticulture.”

The licorelles of Priorat

Located in southwestern Catalonia, Quality Designation of Origin DOCa Priorat is characterized by its elegant and full-bodied red wines (and some whites), hilly terrain and black slate and quartz soils, known locally as licorelles. Like Ribeira Sacra, the terraced slopes can be quite steep – requiring painstaking hand-harvesting – a challenge that is compounded by the looseness of this rocky soil. In spite of (or because of) poor soils and low yield, the resulting wines are both singular and excellent.

Volcanic vineyards of the Canary Islands

The seven main islands that make up the Canary Islands archipelago are extremely diverse in terms of landscapes, which can range from green and lush to desertic. Six of the islands produce wine, which is classified into nearly a dozen designations of origin. But when it comes to heroic harvests, the two islands that come to mind are both dominated by volcanoes: Tenerife and Lanzarote. On Tenerife, the volcano in question is the active El Teide, which also happens to be Spain’s tallest mountain. Nestled between two of the five designations of origin found on this island (DO Valle de Orotava and DO Ycoden Daute Isora), the mountain’s fertile slopes are as ideal for wine grapes as they are arduous to harvest. All of it must be done by hand.

Lanzarote’s grape harvest is equally as challenging, not due to the altitude or steepness of the slopes, but rather because the vines on this windy and arid volcanic island are cultivated in soil that is covered by a blanket of volcanic ash that was released by the last major eruption of Mount Timanfaya in the 1730s. Each vine is planted in an individual, funnel-shaped pit, which is hand-carved out of the lapilli (volcanic rock fragments) and surrounded by semi-circular stone walls called zocos. In addition to the planting, pruning and other care, picking the grapes must be done completely by hand (at one time assisted by camels) in this, the earliest grape harvest in Europe.

Plenty of heroics to go around

Heroic harvest in Spain

Not to be outdone, the tiny island of La Palma also requires hand harvesting for its local star red grape Negramoll, thanks to its irregular topography. In mainland Spain, it is joined by other wine regions that boast challenging circumstances in terms of cultivating and harvesting grapes. For its part, the area known as Axarquía in DO Málaga-Sierras de Málaga has a steep and mountainous terrain which relies on the hand harvesting of the grapes that are often loaded onto donkeys. And wind is the principal challenge in the DO Empordà in Girona (Catalonia), where the fearsome Tratamuntana wind has been known to ravage the picturesque coastal vineyards and toss boxes of freshly harvested grapes into the sky. Despite all these challenges, the wine makers in these areas continue to bring us excellent wines; something that is nothing short of heroic.