Spanish vintner reaps seeds of good ethics

Spanish vintner reaps seeds of good ethics

29th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

Josep Maria Albet i Noya's green beliefs made him go organic with his wine in 1970s. Now he is one of the biggest winemakers in Spain and produces one million bottles of organic wine annually.

As a vegetarian and an environmentalist, vintner Josep Maria Albet i Noya decided in the late 1970s that going organic matched his green principles.

But he quickly discovered that good ethics also means good business. Thirty years on, he has gone from being a pioneer to being one of the biggest organic winemakers in Spain.

He said he now produces around a million bottles annually and exports to some 30 countries, profiting from the world's growing environmental awareness.

"First of all, it was philosophic but later I saw that there was a bigger market, more options for us," he said. "Thirty years ago nobody knew what organic wine was ... We started slowly. The first year we did 4,000 bottles for this company in Denmark and then step by step we started to sell to other countries, to other importers."

His wines have also drawn high praise from critics, winning 26 gold medals in international competitions, including six for the 2004 vintage of its flagship Reserva Marti red, a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petite Syrah grapes.

"Our first obsession has always been quality," he said in an interview on the terrace of his 13th century farmhouse in the 122-hectare vineyard in the lush green hills of the Penedes region of northeast Spain.

To cope with increased demand, a vast three-floor processing plant was built a few years ago, with 80 stainless steel tanks capable of holding 10,000 litres each and 800 wooden barrels in the cellar where the wine is aged.

A growing business

Spain's hot, dry climate and high altitude is particularly well-suited to growing grapes that are free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and fungicides, which Albet i Noya said affect the natural growth and ripening of the grapes.

The total crop area devoted to organic wine in Spain almost doubled between 1999 and 2007, according to the European Union's statistics office Eurostat. Production has also surged in the two other leading producer countries: France and Italy.

"Organic is associated more with respect to nature, and people are looking for these values in wine," said Albet i Noya. "The Western world is going in this direction, especially young people who are the future market. Everybody is becoming more sensitive to organic and environmental problems and climate change."

He also thinks wine contamination scandals have boosted sales.

"Each time there is a scandal about preservatives, about chemical contamination, it helps people go organic, because they are afraid about their health," he said.

He explained that making organic wines "requires a lot of care," more than when producing conventional wines. This applies not just to growing the grapes but also to the whole process – to keeping the wine clean and non-contaminated.

But "when you produce organically and in high quality your vineyards become more resistant," he said.

The balance sheet

And then there's the cost.

AFP PHOTO / JOSEP LAGOJuan Carlos Sancha, a professor of viticulture at the University of Rioja and himself a producer of organic wine in the Rioja region, said organic wine costs on average 18 percent more to produce, which is inevitably passed on to the consumer.

He believes the market is growing but very slowly. “It's a good sign that supermarkets are now offering organic sections," he said.

He emphasised that aside from containing less pesticide residue, it also has higher levels of reservatrol, which some scientists believe may have anti-ageing and cancer-fighting properties.

Organic wine also contains less sulfites, to which some people are allergic.

Despite the health benefits, some vineyards that use organic techniques hesitate to label their wines as such.

"They do organic because they know that organically they have less problems and a greater guarantee of quality," said Albert i Noya. But "sometimes they are afraid that by adding an (organic) label it is perceived as being of lower quality."

Sancha also admitted that organic wine suffers from a "poor image" among consumers.

One leading French vineyard, Chateau Pontet-Canet in the Bordeaux region, is in the process of switching to organic as well as biodynamic -- an advanced form of organic farming whose methods include following the lunar cycle.

Although it cannot yet legally label its wines as organic or biodynamic, estate manager Jean-Michel Comme explained that it was not so much a marketing decision as a question of improving quality and for the health benefits – for employees working with pesticides, as well as consumers.

"Along with other things, we think it helps us to improve the quality of our wines,” he said in a telephone interview. “If, due to biodynamics, the wine is better, people will know it, will realise and will be willing to buy it."
Albet i Noya also launched a research project in 2000 to develop new techniques.

Spanish vintner Josep Maria Albet i Noya walks through his vineyard
in Sant Pau d'Ordal, near Barcelona

But he believes organic is not just the future, it's also the past – a return to traditional methods that were common in Spain for centuries.

Said Albet i Noya: "Some people remember that their father wasn't using any chemicals, and think, 'if my father can do it, then I can do it.'"

Denholm Barnetson /AFP/ Expatica

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