Rías Baixas’ Monovarietal Albariño to Have Banner Year

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O Rosal, Pontevedra, Spain- Laborers reached up to contend with leaves, branches and stinging avispa wasps for the perfect golden cluster, a little juice running down their arms leaving a sticky trail upon drying. The Atlantic Ocean fog that rolls in nightly to settle on the terraced vineyards in the Miño river valley was just beginning to burn off as well-oiled clippers initiated the 2011 Albariño harvest on a late-August morning. After an unusually dry, hot spring in this maritime climate followed by an even drier, warm summer, growers decided not to wait any longer.  It was one of the earliest start dates ever for the region that boasts the only exclusively white wine appellation of origin in Spain, Rías Baixas.

Spring temperatures an average of three degrees higher than normal encouraged a rapid overall maturation from bud break to veraison that caused the grape to accumulate massive amounts of sugar. At first, growers hailed the sugar development that the Albariño grown in this cool, windy climate often lacks. It is needed to balance what would otherwise be a very tart wine with too much cut-grass herbaceousness. But soon growers became concerned that too much warm weather would threaten the crisp, zesty acidity that rounds out the glycerol. Without the chilly low-hanging coastal clouds to maintain an even day-to-night temperature, the acidity could have been lost on the vintage forever.

Contrary to the run of dry months, it is an area the has long suffered attacks from moisture-born funguses like Botrytis cinerea and so cultivators have affixed entire vineyards to elevated trellises meant to keep the low-hanging humidity circulating with rising warmer air. Yet, this summer the drone of a helicopter patrolling for flash forest fires was as commonplace as a Cristiano Ronaldo controversy. Neighbors convened emergency meetings to deal with unprecedented water shortages. Rationing eventually took effect and residential plumbing went silent between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.

Finally, a series of storms in mid-August allayed some fears. Thunder and lightning jolted growers with a sense of urgency not usually felt in the dog days of a Spanish summer. The buzz across the countryside was not only the precociousness of the fruit, but also what to do with it all.

Despite respectable yields in the past few years, the robustness of this year’s crop still surprises. Around the first of August, the appellation announced that the maximum yields per hectare would be raised from 2010’s 12,000 kilos to a prolific 13,900 kilos per hectare. By comparison, one of Spain’s lowest-yielding wine regions, and most highly concentrated wines, Toro perennially sets its performance at about 6,000 kilos per hectare.

The latest harvest information, published September 9th, by the appellation’s certifying body, the Órgano de Control y Certificación, describes the 2011 crop as “exceptional”. According to the brief, nearly 17 million kilos of grapes had been admitted to all certified wineries in two of the five sub zones O Rosal and Condado do Tea. The other three, Val do Salnés, Soutomaior and Ribeira do Ulla had yet to begin their harvests.

The two reporting sub zones have consistently contributed about 33% to Rías Baixas every year for the past 10 years. This means that this year Rías Baixas could potentially be dealing with over 51 million kilos of grape, a one-year increase of nearly 20 million grapes. A good crop is one thing, but having the capacity to deal with such volume is quite another.

Most wineries are managing a surplus from the 2010 vintage. Winemaker at Bodegas Castro Martín writes on his harvest blog, “…Obviously we have to ensure that we have enough space in our tanks to receive the new wine, and this usually involves a programme of bottling to create a bit of spare capacity.” It is normal to retain wine in the containers until market conditions demand a higher price. But it seemed an elusive higher price could not come soon enough to empty out all the deposits, making room for the record-breaking 2011 harvest. At all five of the Albariño wineries visited just before and during harvest, the situation was increasingly precarious.

Too Much Albariño?

Demand for Albariño is growing. In 2010, Americans alone consumed more than 1.9 million liters of the total 3.5 million exported worldwide. Exports to Asia remain comparatively small with 12,465 liters shipping to China and 2,994 liters going to Singapore. But with respective increases of 279% and 306% from 2009, the easy-to-drink white that also pairs well with Asian cuisine may have found a new market. So why is Rías Baixas holding surplus inventory?

As worldwide consumption increases, the grape’s elaboration is moving out of the family-run bodega to potentially greater price controlling at larger facilities. In 2000, there were 144 wineries in the appellation of which 58 distributed less than 5,000 liters, 20 handled 10,000-20,000 liters, and 13 distributed 20,000-50,000. Only two wineries distributed more than 500,000 liters of the fermented juice. Ten years later, the number of wineries handling more than 500,000 liters has quadrupled. 27 distribute 10,000-20,000 liters, 38 manage 20,000-50,000 and those with 5,000 liter capacity or less have fallen to 19 wineries bringing the total number of wineries to 170.

Still, it may not be a case of withholding supply until prices rise, but that traditional Galician viticulture has not consolidated. Spain as a whole and Galicia in particular have especially fragmented vineyards. Although the wineries are consolidating, there is not as much movement in the vineyard. For generations individual families tended to the terraced vines treating the grape as any other aliment. In 2000, each grower controlled a plot of about two square hectares. Now that grapes are a cash crop, families have replanted plots previously left fallow. In 2010, even after adjusting for an increased number of growers and cultivated vineyard, each grower’s average plot only fell to 1.7 hectares. This might assure that even as the winery scene shifts, the vineyards will still be worked in small plots. It does not solve the problem of potential overproduction, but it does put certain quality checks in place.

Although the region has embraced modern, temperature-controlled stainless steel containers and top-of-the line pneumatic presses, manual harvesting is still the law of the land. And so they continue the yearly ritual. Fifty or so laborers worked in pairs over one nine-hectare plot, one of the biggest in the region, making their way slowly down each row under the shade of the criss-crossing overhead vines. They scoot 20-kilo boxes along the ground until they are filled with golden, transparent berries, which are left for the tractor team to come pick up and haul away to the winery down the road.

More than half of the growers in Rías Baixas are women. Harvest is a good reason for the neighbors from other parishes who do not normally see each to meet and gossip about the year’s events. A couple of matronly voices rise over the soft murmur of local Gallego, which if you dare to call a dialect of Spanish you would be swiftly corrected; it may borrow sounds from Spanish and words from Portuguese but according to natives, it is a unique language. If either of these two matrons is on a terrace above or below, your ears were safe. But if their squawking made its way toward you inspecting selected clusters and shouting instructions, it sounded like an ambulance that gets closer and closer and then, thankfully, falls into the background as it passes. It was one very noisy, but highly successful system of quality control.

As the ambulances pass, the rest of the group resumes conversation with their pair, clipping all the while and chatting about what the wineries will do with all these grapes.

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