Earlier this year, COVID-19 swept across Spain, with confirmed cases increasing from fewer than 500 on March 7 to more than 85,000 by March 30. To date, the country has suffered more than 29,000 deaths from the virus, with total cases approaching half a million. And since August, the number of coronavirus infections has again been escalating at an alarming rate.
For the country's wine industry, with the 2020 harvest now underway, the timing of the COVID resurgence couldn't be worse.
"Everything is very complicated," said Guillermo de Aranzabal, president of La Rioja Alta, a group that oversees wineries in Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Rias Baixas. According to Aranzabal, harvest was recently set to begin in Galicia, and Rioja is anticipated to start Sept. 25.
"We are hiring as few people from outside Rioja as possible. In the last few years, we bought two small hotels to host the harvesters, but this year, because of COVID-19, the capacity has been reduced in half," explained Aranzabal. "For this reason, we need to hire as many people as possible who already live in Rioja in their own homes. They will be organized in small groups with no contact among them."
Cristina Forner, CEO of Rioja's Marqués de Cáceres, stressed the importance of safety protocols as harvest work gets underway. "We have adopted all protocols decreed by the health authorities that are in charge, to prevent COVID infections and more specifically the measures that must be taken for safe harvest work," explained Forner. "We can guarantee that our internal operating measures are faithfully adapted to the requirements of the health authorities. At the same time, we have reinforced hygiene, cleaning and disinfection measures in all our facilities."
For wineries in more remote areas, finding harvest workers is less extreme. "We don’t have problems with it for the moment, as the second wave in Spain is still under control in the small villages where our vineyards are located," said Rafael Cañizares, founder of Bodegas Volver, which makes wines in southern Spain's La Mancha, Alicante, Jumilla and Almansa appellations.
Quality is not a concern
Despite Spain's health and economic crises, grape quality across the country looks good. In Rioja, drier weather and milder temperatures over the past month have mitigated mildew issues triggered by heavy rains and high temperatures earlier in the summer.
Forner reports that Tempranillo in the Rioja Alta and Maturana in Rioja Alavesa are the standout varieties, but that none are experiencing major problems. "We still have the month of September, which always determines the quality of the vintage," she cautioned.
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José Moro, president of Bodegas Emilio Moro, which makes wine in both Ribera del Duero and Bierzo, is pleased with grape quality despite some extreme weather conditions. "Overall it looks good. It was a rainy spring, so we expected an outstanding harvest in terms of quantity but the high temperatures in summer slowed it down a bit," Moro said. "Our varieties, Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero and Godello in El Bierzo, require major attention as they are not the most [mildew] resistant varieties." Harvest in Bierzo began Aug. 29; Ribera del Duero will start picking later this month, according to Moro.
In the south, Cañizares anticipates that harvest will begin in late September and continue through October. He says his old-vine Tempranillo and Monastrell are especially adapted to extreme weather conditions and provide consistent quality. "However, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Verdejo had more difficulty and needed attention," he noted.
In Catalonia, the growing season wasn't optimal. "In Priorat, we did suffer with mildew in some vineyards," said Raul Bobet of Ferrer Bobet. They started harvest Aug. 28. He says Garnacha yields will be down by 30 percent, but that the Garnacha that has been picked, as well as Carignan, aka Samsó, both show good quality.
The first wave of coronavirus triggered a state of emergency in Spain, resulting in a months-long shutdown of its hospitality industry. The elimination of on-premise wine consumption and tourism was a huge hit to domestic wineries. And as soon as some restaurants and bars began to reopen, the second wave of the virus emerged.
"We hoped the restaurant business was going to recover in a stronger way but the resurgence of COVID has kept some closed and many running at 50 to 70 percent capacity," said Aranzabal. "This, of course, directly affects sales. Also, consumers don't feel like going to restaurants as much as before. It's more uncomfortable and some people are scared."
With the domestic market in disarray, wineries are focusing on international markets, new projects and a greater retail presence.
"The high-end Spanish restaurants will suffer quite a bit, so export will be a must for lots of wineries," said Bobet. "We do have a long-term view in this business that requires lots of patience and passion. We are trying, more than ever, to be closer to our clients."
For Aranzabal, the strong international market is helping his wineries recover their losses. "Direct sales are very strong, and the export market is behaving great. Overall, as of yesterday, sales are down (both in volume and in value) 6 percent [this year] versus 2019."
Diversification is now the focus for many wineries. "With quarantine and the closing of restaurants, sales suffered considerable loss," said Moro. "But our vision, reinforced by COVID, is to balance out more channels by developing e-commerce and increasing our presence in high-quality retail."
Against all the challenges, vintners are trying to keep a positive outlook toward the future. "Despite all these difficulties," said Forner, "we are working enthusiastically and developing new projects to support our development at the commercial level."