Sustainability in Spain: Preserving the old & embracing the new

We talk to some of our Spanish producers about how they tackle sustainability issues, both global and local. Many are committed to saving ancient vineyards from extinction, and, in doing so, are rediscovering the merits of forgotten farming practices.

Aerial view of Vintae’s Viñedos el Pacto
Aerial view of some of the small-scale plots of vineyards that Vintae’s Viñedos el Pacto is committed to preserving for the long-term benefit of the communities that farm them and the pleasure they bring for wine drinkers

Richi Arambarri of Vintae, the people behind Viñedos el Pacto tells us that they aim to preserve, not just old vineyards, but viticultural traditions that all but disappeared in the second half of the 20th century as well. ‘We do not plough but keep a green cover between the vines,’ he explains. ‘Ploughing can lead to soil erosion which is a real problem for us. We use natural fertilisers and work hard at maintaining biodiversity and microbial life in the soil. For example, we use smashed-up vine cuttings as a natural fertiliser and to improve the texture of the soil. We don’t want to force the vines to produce large yields so we dry-farm (no irrigation) and prune sensitively. This kind of non-interventional grape growing leads to better fruit and vines that live longer.’

El Pacto’s vineyards were planted before the 1970s and the advent of genetically cloned plant material, developed to promote consistency and disease resistance. The benefits of greater genetic diversity have prompted them to reintroduce these old traditions for their new vineyards, co-planting different varieties and even red and white grapes together and interspersing them with other crops. In the winery, certification under ‘Wineries for Climate Protection’ is well underway, with the installation of solar panels, the use of renewable energy only and a reduction both in water use and the weight of glass bottles.

One cannot be green if one is in the red’ – the economics of sustainability

Like Vintae, Península Wine are also on a mission to preserve Spain’s older vineyards. Their practical and cross-functional approach is also highly pragmatic: ‘One cannot be green if one is in the red,’ observes director-general Andreas Kubach MW, highlighting that social and environmental sustainability rest on economic viability. Cebreros, is part of the Vino de Montaña project that aims to develop markets for some of Spain’s historic vineyards in the Sistema Central – the mountain range that divides northern Iberia from the south.

View of Cebreros vineyard
Cebreros is just one of the mountain wines that are being preserved by Península Wine’s Vino de Montaña project

There’s a disconnect here between small, low-yielding, high-altitude vineyards that are costly to farm, and the low price paid for fruit by co-operatives and local wineries, which makes them unworkable. But Península Wine see the potential for making wines of real personality and want to preserve them, both as an important part of cultural heritage and a reservoir of genetic diversity. They also see the pivotal role they play in protecting the landscape and ecosystems of the Sistema Central, in marked contrast to the industrialised monoculture of vineyards found elsewhere.

Kubach goes on to explain how they have worked with individual growers and co-ops to establish fair, longterm prices for grapes and wine, maintaining low yields and preserving traditional farming practices. There follows the application of ‘a very lean and efficient winemaking protocol to make wines that truly reflect the personality of the area.’ He describes it as an honest approach to winemaking, without artifice or unnecessary marketing spend, geared to produce not expensive bottles in tiny quantities, but wines of real character at moderate prices for true wine lovers to enjoy on a regular basis. In fact, just the sort of wines that resonate with Society members!

High altitude vineyard
Small, steep, high-altitude vineyards are costly to farm and the low price paid for the grapes historically has led to them being abandoned

As one of Península’s ‘village wines’, Cebreros pioneers the notion that establishing a recognisable local personality is also important for sustainability: ‘It gives a cultural dimension and something for wine lovers to engage with on a deeper level,’ Kubach explains. Excitingly, Península Wine are looking at other mountain vineyards in the Sistema Central, where there are vines planted at 600-1,000 metres, some parcels planted a century ago. Garnacha is prevalent, making delicate, floral wines, but there are many other varieties to be found (rufete or piñuela, anyone?) and more of those field blends referenced by Vintae as well.

Back to the future

Alta pago casa gran vineyard

South of Valencia, Pago Casa Gran, (see Casa Benasal Gewürztraminer-Moscatel) also farm vines at altitude – 110 hectares in Les Alcusses, a protected valley in the foothills of the Batida mountains. Not only is this an area of special natural interest but the original winery dates back over 300 years and excavated remains are evidence of winemaking activity here as early as the fourth century BC. Founder and manager Carlos Laso sees himself and his team as artisanal producers and, as locals, deeply invested in preserving their surroundings. Not only are the vineyards farmed to the highest organic principles in Europe following the Delinat Institute guidelines (a Swiss-based certification system endorsed by the World Wide Fund for Nature), but some innovative techniques have been incorporated in the design of the new winery to make that as sustainable as possible too.

Pago Casa Gran’s new energy-efficient winery
Though it might not look as romantic as the old building above, Pago Casa Gran’s new winery has been constructed to be as energy-efficient as possible

Water management in this arid region is crucial and they have constructed 15 retention areas on the property to limit erosion from run-off and encourage better penetration; rainwater from the house and winery is also collected. Within the winery, a cooling system operates at lower night temperatures, boosting efficiency by 40-60%. They produce a proportion of their energy from renewable sources, including solar panels. The winery is thoughtfully engineered, with a gravity-flow system rather than pumps, good thermal insulation and no windows on the south and west walls, where climbing plants add extra protection.

Harvesting at Bodegas Palacio
Harvesting at Bodegas Palacio (the source of The Society’s Rioja) in days gone by. The company has employed state-of-the-art practices to become Spain’s first wine producer to be carbon-neutral

Big is beautiful

Finally, on a completely different scale, Entrecanales Domecq e Hijos (of which Bodegas Palacio, the source of The Society’s Rioja is part), is one of Spain’s leading wine producers with over 400 hectares of vines and the first to be certified carbon-neutral, with all its energy coming from renewable sources. This considerable achievement is perhaps not surprising, given that CEO Gonzalo Entrecanales comes from a family that owns a renewable energy business as well as having roots in wine. They have increased the size of their dedicated sustainability team and are committed to continuing to work accredited certification schemes like Wineries for Climate Protection and Global Nature Foundation and are in the process of converting all their sizable vineyard holdings to organic viticulture. Their head winemaker Almudena Alberca MW is spearheading a regenerative viticulture project to increase biodiversity within the vineyards too. Already recognised as one of Spain’s most sustainable growers, their long-term plans to improve yet further are surely good news both for wine lovers and for the planet.

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Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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