Grape expectations: Madrid wines going for higher quality

Region's vineyards opting for superior product to combat smaller harvests

Two day laborers pick grapes at vineyards belonging to the Bodegas Ricardo Benito winery, close to El Álamo in the southwest of the capital.
Two day laborers pick grapes at vineyards belonging to the Bodegas Ricardo Benito winery, close to El Álamo in the southwest of the capital. Álvaro García (El País)

Wines from Madrid are shaping up to be a good bet. The Vinos de Madrid Denominación de Origen (DO) - or designation of origin, the government labels that guarantee the origin and quality of Spanish wines from different regions - is staking its future on increasing professionalization and quality to combat shrinking vineyards and falling wine and grape production.

The region has lost 2,300 hectares of vines in the past decade, and grape harvests and wine production are down by a quarter. "Outside of that, you're working at a loss," says Jesús Anchuelo of the UPA Madrid agricultural organization.

As in other Spanish wine-producing areas, sales of Madrid DO wine are improving, and with them, the price of grapes. Experts are also optimistic about the quality of this year's harvest, despite a reduced crop as a result of drought.

The number of bottles produced by the 46 wineries supervised by the Vinos de Madrid DO hovers around 3.5 million, about a million fewer than five years ago. But this is no bad thing, says Vinos de Madrid technical director Mario Barrera.

Hunt damage

El País

Madrid's vines, like other crops, have in recent years suffered problems related to damage caused by wild animals, such as wild boar, crows and, especially, rabbits. "It is a problem that has been occurring for a while, but in years of drought, like this one, it's worse because wild animals don't have anything to eat in the countryside and they pull out the crops," says Santiago Ballesteros of the Royal Hunting Federation, which has spent time analyzing the issue.

Rabbits are the worst pest for vine-growers because they gnaw at the trunks. "The wild boars eat the grapes, but the rabbits devastate the vines and can completely ruin them," say producers.

Hunters are opposed to bearing responsibility for damage done by animals from their reserves, as is fixed in law. "There may be farmers who blame poor production on the effects of hunting," says Nicanor Ascanio, president of the Madrileño Hunting Federation. Instead, he says, he favors dialogue between growers and the regional environment department.

"We don't really know what the fall is attributable to," he says. "But turnover is continuing to increase [in 2011 it reached 30.35 million euros, according to regional sources], so perhaps it is related to the quality."

Selecting the right time to harvest the grapes is of particular importance in achieving this utmost level. "We use representative plots from each subzone [the DO is divided into three: Arganda, Navalcarnero and San Martín] and we go around collecting samples of the grapes to analyze what stage they're at," explains Mario Bravo, Vinos de Madrid's head of vine-growing.

Among the producers to which he sends results is Fernando Benito, one of the owners of the family-run Bodegas Ricardo Benito winery in Navalcarnero, which has just started the harvest of its "jewel in the crown" - the thousand vines on the oldest hectare of his vineyard, close to El Álamo, 40 kilometers southwest of the capital.

"It is a high-quality tempranillo of old stock that doesn't produce much, around one to two kilos each," Benito explains. With the grapes, he prepares Divo, his most prestigious wine, which goes for around 140 euros a bottle.

The experts confirm Madrid wines are heading toward a positive time. "It has been a trend in Spain for the last 10 or 20 years, and the beginning for Madrid came around five years ago," says Cristina Alcalá, editor of wine magazine Mivino-Vinum . "I think the key is a few leading wineries with small, but very high-quality production, which works to drive the industry."

The situation has changed a lot since Madrid was first given DO status 14 years ago. "If you recommended a Madrid wine then, people would be surprised, even here. Now at last that mentality is changing," Alcalá says.

However, there are a few buts, such as that raised by EL PAÍS wine critic Carlos Delgado. "It is a bit ridiculous that areas as different as San Martín and Arganda form part of the same DO," he says.

Delgado is arguing for separate designations for San Martín, "with old vines in slate terrain and at altitude"; Navalcarnero - "intermediate," in his opinion - and Arganda "more suitable for white varieties, especially albillo."

What is true is that the number of internationally recognized Madrid wines continues to rise. Between 2009 and 2010, the DO boasted 26 national and international awards, including such prestigious prizes as the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles and several Bacchus awards.

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