Marketing, key to the future of minority grape varieties

These are the conclusions of the I Conference on the recovery of minority varieties of Castilla y León held in our winery Territorio Luthier on June 24, 2020.

The event was attended by: José Antonio Rubio Cano and Enrique Barajas from the Instituto Tecnológico Agrario de Castilla y León, César Arranz Hernández and Silvia Fernández from Bodega 3 Ases DO Ribera del Duero, Juan Carlos Sancha from Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha DOC Rioja, Jesús Madrazo and Fernando Ortiz from Bodega Territorio Luthier DO Ribera del Duero, Liliana Fernández and José Manuel Benéitez from the winery el Hato y el Garabato from Arribes del Duero and Aurora Lázaro from Scribo Comunicación who is the author of this article.

Territorio Luthier would like to thank all of them for their time and their willingness to share their experience.

Aurora Lázaro, August 3, 2020

The wines that have been produced in recent years in various parts of Spain with some minority varieties are surprising winemakers and sommeliers favorably in the tastings that are organized; in addition, the wineries that have begun to sell them say that they detect great interest in the market. Despite these optimistic impressions, the recovery and cultivation of minority grape varieties in Spain is developing too slowly, especially for those who are investing in these projects.

According to the OIV, there are 6,154 wine grape varieties in the world, but only about 40 account for 80% of the world’s bottled wines. In other words, there are many varieties but the same ones are always marketed.

In Spain, the interest of researchers and technicians in minority grapes did not become generalized until well into the 1990s, when various autonomous communities began to worry about preserving the genetic heritage in general of almost all crops, including grapevines, which are very widespread and quite important in this country.

Private initiatives existed before, but they developed very slowly due to the absence of a legal framework to support them. This is the case of the Riojan winegrower and winemaker Juan Carlos Sancha (Bodegas Sancha, Rioja) who obtained approval to market his first wines with minority varieties in 2008, twenty years after starting to grow them and requesting their recognition.

Today there are several projects, institutional and private, generally driven by people convinced of their interest or in opening new commercial lines; but they continue to suffer from a too slow process of recognition of these minority varieties.

They must be included in a list of the Ministry of Agriculture, after a study of at least five years per grape variety. They must then be recognized by each autonomous community. However, the most complicated aspect, especially when it comes to marketing the wines, is their approval by the appellations of origin.

“The DOs are usually not very permeable when it comes to making changes, wineries go faster,” says César Arranz, winemaker at Bodega 3 Ases, which is developing a project with Bruñal in Ribera del Duero. “Denominations of origin usually have a flagship variety and this is the one they promote and support”, says Enrique Barajas, from ITACYL.

Open debate

Both Juan Carlos Sancha and César Arranz participated in the first Technical Conference on Minority Varieties held in Aranda de Duero (Burgos) on June 24, 2020, developing an interesting debate in which were also present José Antonio Rubio and Enrique Barajas, researchers from the Instituto Tecnológico Agrario de Castilla y León, Fernando Ortiz and Jesús Madrazo, winemakers from the winery Territorio Luthier, and Liliana Fernández and José Manuel Benéitez, winemakers from the winery el Hato y el Garabato de Arribes del Duero.

In Castilla y León, the ITACYL, an agency under the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of the Regional Government, began to make clone selections in 1990 and to collect minority vines in the vineyards it owned in Valladolid a little later. However, it was not until 2002 that they began marking vines with the winegrowers; it was in the Arribes, a winegrowing area where the cultivation of these grapes, which have practically disappeared, has been maintained.

“We explored all the areas, but where we found great variety was in the most isolated, rugged and difficult to maintain viticulture, that is, in the least exploited,” says José Antonio Rubio, head of the Woody and Horticultural Crops Unit at ITACYL.

They managed to locate and characterize 130 different accessions and have decided to disseminate those that have more possibilities of development and that provide interesting characteristics in agronomic and oenological aspects: Bruñal, Mandón, Gajo Arroba, Tinto Jeromo, Rufete Serrano Blanco, Puesta en Cruz, Cenicienta…

Amazing wines

The experimental elaborations that have been carried out with 100% single varietals have pleasantly surprised technicians and winemakers. Those in charge of the Woody Crops Unit and the Oenological Station of the ITACYL see great possibilities especially for Bruñal, Rufete Serrano Blanco and Cenicienta.

But this opens up another broad field, also the subject of debate among specialists: to what extent can they add richness, complexity or personality to other more commercial or already established varieties?

The experience of winemaker Jesús Madrazo with the Graciano grape in Rioja, as a complement to Tempranillo in this appellation, is largely positive, as he assures that it enhances the color, structure and acidity of the wines. Sancha has also experimented in this sense.

Both agree that Graciano is interesting vinified as a single varietal and has a small market niche, “but as an integral part of a blend, in my opinion it has greater potential, oenologically and commercially,” says Madrazo.

An interested market

However, the real test for the success of minority grape varieties is perhaps in their commercialization possibilities, that is, in the reception that the wines made with them may have in the market. “The market demands new products and, of course, of a remarkable quality”, says Rubio. This argument is also supported by the winegrowers and winemakers who have embarked on these projects. They say that minority varieties are an opportunity to diversify business and that the resulting wines currently offer “more discourse”.

The experience of those who are already commercializing, such as Bodega El Hato and El Garabato, is very positive for the moment: “we are at a time when the market is hungry for new things; there are few of these wines on the market and people want to try wines made from unknown grapes”, say Liliana Fernández and José Manuel Benéitez.

It’s an unknown quantity,” admits Hato. Although they are convinced that this “very positive” first hit will continue, they do not yet dare to set a deadline. Everything will depend on whether these wines find their place in the market. The winemakers who are already working with unknown varieties assure that they fit very well in high-end restaurants, in wine lovers who are looking for novelties and at the international level in Europe, in countries such as the UK, Belgium or Holland. “The development of minority varieties allows us to innovate from our roots and contributes to the increase of genetic diversity and to the sustainability of the vineyard”, defend those convinced of their conservation.

Article published in the SeVi on August 3, 2020

This conference was held to give continuity to the work started by Territorio Luthier with the experience #pontunombreaunacepa.