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The Four Black Bulls of the Spanish Wine Apocalypse: Severe Weather Hits Numerous Spanish Wine Regions Causing Potentially Catastrophic Losses in Several Regions

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For the past several weeks, The Four Black Bulls of the Spanish Wine Apocalypse have been raging through the vineyards of Northern Spain wreaking havoc.  Their names are Helada (Frost), Lluvia Torrencial (Torrential Rain), Pedrisco (Hail), and Viento Fuerte (High Wind)  have caused dim prospects for the 2017 wine grape harvest in areas such as La Rioja Alta, La Rioja Alavesa, Ribera del Duero, Bierzo, Ribeiro, Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and Monterrei and some losses in the Albariño vineyards of Rías Baixas.  

The Black Bull of Spain looms over one of Luís Alberto Lecea´s freeze-damaged vineyards around the Rioja Alta village of San Asensio, May 7, 2017.  The leaves on the vines nine days later are secondary growth that will produce little and are, under normal conditions, usually stripped off the vines by the grape farmers.  All photo by Gerry Dawes©2017.

And in their wake, they have brought a great wave of demoralization, one which the brave men and women who farm the vineyards of Atlantic Spain will no doubt overcome.  Still, at this point, many predict crop losses of from 70-90 percent.

Then on the night of April 28 a late freeze that will go down in the history of the viticulture of this region hit La Rioja during the night of April 28 devastated much of La Rioja Alta and La Rioja Alavesa, causing 90% to 100% damage to this year’s grape crop prospects.  Luis Albert Lecea, owner of Bodegas Lecea in San Asensio, told me, “I have bad news.  There will be no wine next year.”  


Luis took me on a tour of his devastated vineyards.  Lecea and his crew laboriously laid water lines into his vineyards and spent 800 Euros on gasoil (diesel) to run the pumps, trying to irrigate the vines, which had also been suffering from drought, hoping that the water would provoke the growth of more leaves to replace those shriveled by the freeze. 

The irony of Lecea´s  freeze-damaged vines, with no leaves left, surrounded by the dried-up remains of once perfectly healthy ripe grapes (the now dried-up dark bunches on the ground) that had to be cut off and left to dry up on the ground to meet the Rioja D.O. yield require- ments during the 2016 harvest.  Had the producers been able to use these perfectly good grapes to lay in more stocks, they would have been compensated for the big losses they will suffer from this freeze in 2017 and maybe beyond.  The new grape leaves are secondary shoots that will produce little or no grapes and are under normal conditions are usually stripped off the vine.   All photos by Gerry Dawes©2017.

 Rows of vines belonging to Bodegas Lecea in San Asensio where leaves should be beginning to flourish by May 7, 2017, when this picture was taken, are almost bare, their leaves frozen and withered by the cold wave on the night of August 28, 2017.  All photos by Gerry Dawes©2017.

Three days later, I arrived in Villafranca del Bierzo and found roads still being cleared from mud slides, the Camino de Santiago in front of La Puerta del Perdón strewn with rocks washed down by the torrential rains, and mud across many roads, plus reports of hail and freeze that, especially in lower lying vineyards, will mean a very short crop in 2017.

 AVE FENIX: Mural on a wall just beyond the famous La Puerta del Perdón in Villafranca del Bierzo on the Camino de Santiago.   One hope that Spain´s grape farmer - winemakers will rise like the Phoenix from the devastation of the weather this Spring.  All photos by Gerry Dawes©2017.

Later the same day, I visited Hacienda Ucediños in O Barco de Valdeorras, whose owners Eladio and Marcos Santalla Freile reported that one of their prime Godello Vineyards was hard hit by the freeze and will produce little or no wine and they were also hit by torrential rains, but even at that they were luckier than many.  

Eladio Santalla Freile and Marcos Santalla Freile with a bottle of their truly stunning Hacienda Ucediños Valdeorras Godello 2016, which was a great match for a dozen remarkably good zamburiñas, or baby scallops, a cazuela or two of gambas al ajillo and a wooden plate of exceptional pulpo a feira, steamed octopus dressed with olive oil, Spanish pimentón (paprika) and sea salt. At Pulperia El Dorado in O Barco de Valdeorras, May 10, 2017.

At D’Berna in Córgomo in Valdeorras, higher up than some of their neighbors, escaped the freeze, but were hit with mudslides during a downpour in which three inches of rain fell in just a couple of hours and brought tons of topsoil down from the vineyards that surround the winery and deposited several feet of mud and rocks in the parking lot at the side of the winery, buried their cooling unit and knocked out their water.  

When I arrived at D'Berna, several members of the family were hand shoveling the mud into wheel barrows and taking it away, while a front loader Caterpillar plowed mud out of the parking lot and road leading into the winery. 

And, in Ribeira Sacra, where I was last week, more reports of hail and torrential rains.  José Manuel Rodríguez, President of the Ribeira Sacra D. O. and producer of the superb Décima Mencía, suffered damage to one of his prime vineyards to add to the loss of much of his crop last year to a powerful hail storm.   Here there were also reports of freeze and more damage from hail and torrential rains. 


Undamaged vineyards of Manuel Rodríguez, President of the Ribeira Sacra D. O. and producer of the superb Décima Mencía, who lost much of his crop to a severe hailstorm last year.

In mid-April, high winds in Galicia ripped off branches of vines in Rías Baixas according to Manolo Dovalo, owner of Adegas Rozas, who produces one of Galicia’s greatest artisan Albariños.   I spent an afternoon with my Bodegas Artesanas Albariño producers in Rías Baixas, where though Dovalo of Adegas Rozas reported some wind damage in his vineyards, all six of my producers seemed to have escaped serious crop-crippling damage. 
Manolo Dovalo, producer of Rozas (third from left), with the Bodegas Artesanas Albariño producers' wines, which are some of the greatest Grand Cru quality white wines produced in Galicia.



Not so in Ribeiro, to the east and inland, where Manolo Formigo (pictured above) showed me freeze damage and estimated that he may lose as much as 80% of 2017’s expected production.

In Monterrei, one of the last regions I visited Antonio Triay, his wife Puri García and their son Ivan showed me their freeze-damaged vines and were very demoralized.  They are small very high quality producers of Triay Godello and Mencía and they believe that 85-90% of their 2017 crop was wiped out in the late April freeze that hit the Monterrei D.O. particularly hard. 

 Antonio Triay and his son Ivan showed me their freeze-damaged vines and were very demoralized.
All photos by Gerry Dawes©2017.

Of all the regions I have visited so far, Viña Catajarros in Cigales and José Pariente in Rueda reported to me when I visited those area that they suffered little or no damage and, early in my trip, southern Navarra seems to have escaped damage.  In Corella (Navarra) Carlos Aliaga at Bodega Aliaga reported no damage.  

All photos by Gerry Dawes©2017.

About Gerry Dawes

 Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
Pilot for a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.
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