Losses are expected in the wine sector this year. The Catalan government?s decision to guarantee maintenance aid for regulatory council bodies in the Catalan DO (Designation of Origin) regions and for farmers affected by the mildew plague, and the agreements over distillation and the green harvest give a hint of the situation facing the sector after the Covid-19 crisis and a harvest marked by the persistent rains of spring and early summer.
While the declaration of the state of alarm and the lockdown from March to May did not prevent life in the vineyards from continuing and farmers from working at their usual pace, it did halt activity in the hospitality sector in Catalonia, Spain and the rest of Europe. Wineries found themselves with full vats and no demand at a key time for wine sales in both the domestic and export markets.
Mildew in El Penedès
Everything pointed to an excess of grapes being a problem this year and that the wineries would not want to buy them in order to be able to use up the surpluses stemming from the health crisis. But the rains of April (it was the rainiest April in the last 50 years) along with the high temperatures and heavy rains of June (it was the rainiest June in the last 40 years) caused the unstoppable spread of the mildew plague (a fungus that infiltrates the plant and dries the grain), especially in El Penedès, the most productive wine region in Catalonia.
According to the director of the DO Penedès Regulatory Council, Francesc Olivella, the impact of the plague has varied by area. In the high areas, where the parellada variety of grape is mostly grown (used mainly in the blending of traditional sparkling wines), there has been less of an impact, and the rains coming when the early (mainly foreign) varieties had already flowered mainly affected the crops of merlot, tempranillo and macabeo on the plain.
Olivella believes that this year has seen the perfect storm, especially in El Penedès. He estimates that the plague has caused the loss of 50% of the organic and 15% of the conventional harvest, in a region where 40% of vineyards are organic. Neither he nor the president of the DO Penedès, Joan Huguet, dare to attribute the situation to climate change, although Olivella highlights the inherent difficulties in managing the current uncertainty. “We’ve gone from the drought of the past years to the spring rains, the concentrated moisture in the clay soils and now an unusual drought that is causing the grapes to wilt,” he says. However, in the DO Penedès they think twice before attributing the situation to global factors, since there will be wineries and farmers who will not reap anything this harvest and others who will experience minimal damage.
Others who have also described the situation as critical are the cooperatives, which have had to plan a significant reduction in grape purchasing. Currently, the main business of cooperatives is the sale of base wine. And the context, with wineries full of surpluses and a scarce harvest on the horizon, does not help a sector that comprises around 50% of Catalan wine growers.
The other DO regions
In the rest of the Catalan DO regions, the situation is better with regard to the health and quality of the grapes, although it will still be an extraordinary harvest due to the preventive measures that will have to be applied with Covid-19. Acceptable harvests are expected in both L’Empordà and Lleida.
Raimat?s technical director, Joan Esteve, told the Catalan News Agency that he is optimistic about both the yield and the quality of the grapes in this year’s harvest. And in L?Empordà, the president of the Regulatory Council, Xavier Albertí, is sure that this year’s will not be a disastrous harvest. He says that although the spring rains have had their effects on the vines, the most important grape diseases have been avoided. The winds of L’Empordà have helped dry out the damp and guaranteed acceptable minimum levels in terms of quantity and quality.
The eternal price debate
The debate over the price of grapes, which mainly affects cava grape producers, enters unknown territory in the current context, this year extending to other DO regions, such as Terra Alta. At the end of July, most wineries said they wanted to keep last year’s prices. The president of the employer’s association Aecava (Association of Cava Producers), Damià Deàs, called for protection for farmers to ensure the sector’s minimum needs are met and to avoid it dying at the hands of an unprecedented crisis.
But if last year the prices already hit a low and provoked protests by farmers in front of the headquarters of the Regulatory Cava Council and at the gates of Freixenet and Codorníu, they may fall even lower this year. Some wine sellers say they will maintain the prices agreed for five-year contracts for organic grapes, while others with fewer ties to the growers are weighing the possibility of keeping last year’s prices but reducing the volume of grapes bought from producers by way of compensation.
And there is still a third case, that of those who had already committed to maintaining prices and who in recent days have begun to insinuate that they could pay even less for certain varieties.
Large-scale PCR testing on seasonal workers arriving for the harvest, permanent controls and careful health monitoring and strict hygiene, distancing and body temperature checks are some of the measures to begin this year?s campaign provided for in the protocol agreed between the Catalan government and the wine sector, through the Harvest Commission. The Protocol also provides for the creation of stable groups once they have arrived at the vineyard. In the case of El Penedès, these measures have already come into operation, with the opening of a humanitarian hostel managed by the Red Cross in the Vilafranca trade fair pavilion. The aim of the Catalan government is for the plan agreed for El Penedès to be replicated in all of the other wine regions.
In El Baix Llobregat, a hotel has been set up to accommodate workers who have been diagnosed as positive during the harvest and have nowhere to self-quarantine; and on the outskirts of Vilafranca there will be a third facility that will provide isolation for workers who have come into contact with those who have tested positive, but who have themselves tested negative in the PCR.