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Friday Read: Why we shouldn’t be grubbing up bush vines

Published:  07 February, 2020

“Don’t grub up bush vines!” was the resounding advice from Pedro Ballesteros MW at the new Barcelona Wine Week this week, where he cited Catalan Garnatxa producers as examples to follow in the need for a new approach in viticulture to tackle climate change.

Climate change means that the policy of grubbing up vines and converting and replanting them to increase yields at lower costs in Spain is no longer paying off, Ballesteros says.

Over the past 40 years, at least 550,000 hectares of vines have either been grubbed up or converted to VSP (vertical shoot positioning) viticulture, which now requires increasing more irrigation, at a time when less water is available.

Chemicals used are damaging microbes

Compared to VSP, bush vines withhold more humidity and have lower sugar levels as they are less exposed to the sun. Deeper roots of old vines are less impacted by climate change and global warming. 

“There is no quality advantage in using VSP when compared to keeping bush vines,” Ballesteros says. VSP has provided greater yields and at a lower cost, but only in the short term. In a nutshell, VSP viticulture is being hard hit by climate change.

If hundreds of millions of euros of public and EU funds have been spent, notably in Castilla La Mancha on VSP, is it now time to reverse this approach?

Ballesteros however argues that there is always been a dichotomy in wine between the mass market cheap wine that many people can afford and the fine wines made for example by the Terra de Garnatxes producers association of Catalonia. Somewhere in the middle (in terms of prices and quality) there are now hundreds of smaller producers making organic wines.

Ballesteros says Vinyes Domenech and Edetaria are prime examples of serious producers who are taking the right approach to climate change, by helping each other and sharing information. These producers and fellow association members are increasingly holding talks with their counterparts in France to address approaches to climate change.

Edetaria’s efforts in using old vines to produce outstanding wines in Catalonia’s Terra Alta was rewarded this week with the announcement from Catalan authorities that its wine El Mas D'Edetaria Seleccio had obtained the prestigious and extremely strict Vi de Finca classification – the highest accolade in Catalan wines. Only 12 Catalan wines have reached this achievement.

Ballesteros warns that producers must also take a holistic approach. When dealing with climate change, it is not just about the vineyard, but surrounding areas and the winery.

Crucially, he also points out that there is too much romanticism in the world of wine. Producers need to use technology and AI, in order to combat climate change.


Nod to technology 

“When producers talk of using horses and cows in the vineyard, it’s nonsense! We will need a new approach and the use of technology and artificial intelligence to combat climate change. There is now technology available which needs adapting to bush vine viticulture,” he says.

Rigorous planning is coming from some of Spain’s new generation of organic, biodynamic and natural wine producers.

One of them is Bodegas Ribas of Mallorca, run by siblings Araceli and Javier Servera Ribas.

Ribas, a certified organic estate, which has replanted with local varieties and is increasing production by 20% to 200,000 bottles, has become a pioneer in R&D in climate change on the Mediterranean island.

It has a full-time employee dedicated to the subject.

Global warming and climate change has led to milder winters in Mallorca giving rise to an increasing and devastating presence of green mosquitos on vine leaves.

Bodegas Ribas is carrying precision trials on the dosages of organically certified insecticides. It now uses satellite images, which show the impact of the minimal use of products. 

Araceli Servera Ribas agrees with Ballesteros on the excessive romanticism of wine, but adds:

“There is a need to combine the use of manual labour with the use of technology and artificial intelligence to combat climate change.”