My discovery of organic wine from Spain
In the lush green Andalusian countryside, the vines stretch for miles. With France and Italy, Spain is one of the largest wine producers in Europe. The country itself outperforms its neighbors in organic wine production.
For many family wineries and large companies, switching to organic wine is a strategic decision because international demand for this type of drink is increasing.
I took a short drive to the magical city of Cordoba in southern Spain to visit the Robles family who, since 1927, have been cultivating vines for three generations. The flagship product of the family is the sweet and intensely fragrant white wine made from Pedro Ximenez grapes, a variety of fruits found mainly around Cordoba.
At the end of the 90s, Francisco JosÃ© Robles Rubio, who had taken over the management of the vineyard, after his father and his grandfather before him, made a decision that would definitively change the history of the family business: he decided to start producing organic wine.
At the time, this was a bold move, as the organic farming sector was not yet developed and did not receive as much support. There was not European rules for the production of organic wine. âSwitching to the organic sector was a strategic decision to offer consumers something new, to stand out from the crowd, but it was a challenge. It was not very well accepted by those around us and by the other wine producers in the market, and we were criticized. But we continued and I decided to take appropriate training on what organic farming entails, âexplains Francisco Robles.
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A symbiotic relationship with nature
Organic wines are also called ecological wines. Simply put, the concept means that they are made from grapes grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or weedkillers. In Europe, the production of these wines is now regulated by the European Commission Regulation 203/2012 which establishes the oenological processes and the authorized practices in organic winemaking.
These wines are not to be confused with “natural winesâ, Which are obtained with the minimum possible intervention in the cultivation, the harvest of the grapes and the process of elaboration in the cellar. However, grapes should not be grown ecologically.
At bodegas Robles, not using chemicals means relying on the natural environment to help the grapes grow healthily and protect them from external threats. On the grounds of Robles, a small vineyard serves as a testing ground to discover how best to cultivate grapes naturally, without any additional substances, and which varieties of grapes do best. In close collaboration with local universities, the family has developed a method based on the observation, analysis and experimentation of the entire ecosystem in which the grapes grow.
âThe first step was to analyze the composition of the soil, looking for the compounds of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus it contains. Then we studied what type of vegetation can capture these nutrients, placing these plants near the vines, providing them with what they need to grow, âexplains Francisco Robles.
The idea behind this strategy is therefore to create an optimal vegetation cover including native wild species. They release the nutrients needed to ensure healthy vine growth, attract beneficial insects that control pests and improve soil fertility.
Instead of using insecticides, a lot of work is done to build an ecosystem with a strong food chain. By planting trees and other vegetation all around the vineyard to attract insects that would otherwise cause problems, they are turned away from the vines.
âTo create the right ecosystem, with the right trophic interactions, which allow our vines to grow without chemical intervention, we have to spend a lot of time observing nature, looking at the interactions between flora and fauna. It is about rediscovering the symbiotic relationship we have with nature, the natural methods we have to cultivate the grapes that make our wine. Sometimes progress consists of regressing, âexplains Francisco Robles.
âFollowing the cultivation process, the main priority is to produce wine from indigenous yeasts. The fermentation of our wines is done with indigenous yeasts present in the terroir of the vineyard.
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At the same time, many other projects have been launched to make production in the vineyard more sustainable and reduce its ecological footprint. A precise analysis of the carbon footprint was carried out to obtain a diagnosis of the problem. Solar panels have recently been installed on the buildings to allow Bodegas Robles to become self-sufficient in terms of energy production. Since 2012, a project known as âlabotelladelvinoâ has been started: people who want to buy Robles wine can get a reusable glass bottle that they can fill with their favorite wine.
If there is one thing that stands out from a visit to the Domaine des Robles, it is that organic winemaking goes far beyond the use of specific production methods. Rather, it is a global way of cultivating grapes and making wine, it is a philosophy that respects the earth, is dedicated to its products and has sustainability at the heart.
As more and more vineyards follow in these footsteps, the organic wine sector in Spain is expected to continue to grow. âOur big advantage is the climate. This has played a huge role in explaining why the country is doing so well when it comes to organic wine. There is little rain compared to other regions of the world, so there is less need to use substances like copper as a fungicide to treat the vines â, explains Francesc Suriol, owner of the CAN SURIOL bodegas, near Barcelona. .
There remains one problem: wine consumption is still quite low in Spain compared to neighboring countries. It means that most organic wines produced in the country are destined for other markets and exported. Thinking about solutions to attract Spanish consumers to this incredible variety of wines will be the main challenge in the years to come, if producers want these organic drinks to be consumed in a more local and sustainable way.
Francisco Robles is optimistic, however. âAs people realize the quality of organic wine and its value to our environment, these wines are becoming the norm,â he says.
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Words: LÃ©a Surugue