Last week, the Rioja Regulatory Council officially declared the end of the 2009 harvest. The Council wasn’t in a position to estimate the total size of the harvest yet, but has confidently stated that the maximum size of the harvest subject to protection as D.O. Ca. Rioja will be about 410 million kilograms of grapes. This is easy to calculate:
56.825 hectares of red grapes x 6.500 kgs/hectare (maximum allowable yield) plus 4.057 hectares of white grapes x 9.000 kgs/hectare = 406 million kg. of grapes.
What will be even more difficult to predict is the actual number of liters allowed to be aged, bottled and sold as Rioja, because once malolactic fermentation has taken place, wineries have to submit samples to a tasting committee where they will likely, but not necessarily, be accepted.
This procedure illustrates a big difference in grape growing between Europe and the rest of the world. Outside Europe, viticulture is a business where there’s no guarantee that your grapes will be bought. In Europe, however, within the Appellation Contrôlée system (Denominación de Origen in Spain or in the case of Rioja, Denominación de Origen Calificada), owning a vineyard and growing grapes is a privilege granted by the AC and at least in Rioja, farmers know that someone will buy their grapes, although price is subject to supply and demand as well as quality.
Over the years, the Council has tried to encourage price stability by balancing the supply of grapes and wine with market demand with the help of European Union wine laws, that formally don’t allow total production of wine to increase but do permit the transfer of planting rights between regions. In this way, the vineyard area has increased more or less in step with the increase in demand for our wines. Yields, however, have also increased and this is the source of the problem today.
It’s impossible for farmers to produce exactly 6.500 kg. of red grapes per hectare. Older vines produce much lower yields while young vines planted with high-yielding clones produce a lot more. As long as average grape prices were high (between 0,80 and 1 euro a kilo), farmers didn’t mind doing a green harvest (culling the vines to reduce production). This year, however, because demand has weakened due to the economy, the prospect of a big harvest has pushed grape prices down. Consequently, farmers are interested in selling everything they’ve produced. Traditionally the Council let growers deliver up to 25% more than the maximum allowed production to wineries and coops, so that these could choose the best wines for the tasting committee and sell the extra 25% outside Rioja as table wine. Unfortunately, this policy created a large inventory of bottled table wine that competed directly with the most inexpensive Riojas at a time when sales in Spain began to slide. Alarmed, in 2007 the wineries, coops and one of the farmer’s associations voted to gradually reduce the extra 25% in 2007 to zero in 2010. Now, the individual members of the coops have pressured their boards into attempting to cancel the agreement in the Council to allow them to make some money from the surplus grapes and wine. The issue will be discussed at the end of the week in the Council.
To satisfy your curiosity, I have to say that most winemakers are pleased with the quality of this year’s harvest. Although Rioja was plagued by a drought all summer, the subsoil in the vineyards had accumulated enough water throughout the winter and no rain fell during picking. In addition, throughout September and the first three weeks of October, warm days and cool nights allowed the grapes to ripen with no risk of rot. However, as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
More about the economics of the 2009 harvest in my next post.