Reinventing the grape at Spanish vineyards

MADRID -- With non-alcoholic wines and organic, low-cost vineyards, the Spanish wine industry is innovating to compete.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID--From the organic and recycled to the first completely dealcoholized high quality wine, the country known for its vino is leading the world in grape-innovation.

In Madrid this last October, wine conglomerate
the Matarromera Group was given Spanish business newspaper Cinco Dias' yearly award for the most innovative enterprise in the use of new technologies for their product "Emina Zer0.0." The Valladolid-based company also received a 95 on the Parker List, however it is not your typical Spanish wine. Available in red, white, rosé and sparkling,
Emina Zer0.0 is the European Union's first certified 0.0-percent alcohol wine. With marketing targets of the Middle East, India and the automobile industry, it is said to be one of, if not the first, "sin alcohol" wine to retain all the characteristics and attributes of a high-quality wine--taste, body, flavor, color--without a drop of alcohol.

After six years of research, the company became the first to "de-alcoholize" a high-quality wine to 0.0-percent, which is the only acceptable kind of wine to those following a strict Muslim faith. In July, Matarromera opened the world's largest molecular deconstruction plant for wine, located in Valbuena de Duero, Valladolid, in the north of Spain. They advertise on their Web site that moderate consumption of all wine is "considered healthy for the body," but, in particular, their non-alcoholic and calorie-free version, EminaSin and EminaZero, are even healthier. They have even branched out into grape-based cosmetics and anti-oxidant vitamin supplements.

The Matarromera Group is certainly a far cry from small bodegas in the Spanish countryside.

In an over-saturated market in a time of economic upheaval, Spanish vineyards are looking to innovate to survive. While some are expanding their own market base, others, like Vinos Ambiz, are simply going back to the basics, with an eco-friendly twist.

Fabio Bartolomei, of Vinos Ambiz, wants to make affordable, quality wine, once again, a commodity for the average person.

“I reject totally the image projected that you see of snobbery in magazines. I want wine for every day people. Wine as a pop culture, to accompany meals, not like a party at the Embassy of Sweden," he said.

Vinos Ambiz wines cost an affordable 4 euros a bottle for wine under a year old and 6 euros for a bottle of crianza, which has aged for over a year.

Bartolomei, a technical translator originally from Scotland with Italian parents, has been living in Madrid for more than 20 years now. He and his partner Juan Narbona Rodriguez started wine production eight years ago as a hobby, and, since then, their tiny vineyard of about 200 bottles has grown to producing 5,000 bottles a year. “It turned out people liked it (the wine quality,) and I did too,” he said. Vinos Ambiz has found an angel investor and expects to yield 20,000 bottles of wine from the 2012 harvest.

For a typical commercial bodega, 50,000 to 100,000 bottles a year is an average yield. This is a problem as the EU is offering grants for grape growers to uproot their vineyards. Bartolomei argues that the market is saturated with low quality table wine and the customer has changed.

"Wine is not a commodity anymore," he said. "It is a result of a change in consumer preference. Per capita consumption is falling, having competition from beers, Coca Cola and bottled water."

He said that good grapes can create both low and high quality wine. Vinos Ambiz is focusing on the latter. "The type of wine I want to make is a natural wine that people like,” he said, without exaggerated qualities like oak-flavor. They only use native Spanish grapes that grow on vines at least 40-years-old. They also only use an organic process.

“Organic because of respect for the environment because I don't use pesticides or chemicals at all.” Bartolomei says this limits growth in the short-term, but that chemicals ignore long-term growth, deteorating the vines and soil. “In the chemical, industrial vineyards, they have to wear masks” because it can be very dangerous to health and safety.

“I want to leave a better planet than what I found it, and I want better soil. After years of using chemicals, the soil dies,” he said.

Vino Ambiz also accepts donations of recycled wine bottles, which Bartolomei says saves the planet in the recycling process “because when you recycle it's only melted down.” It ends up being the same cost because it takes time to sanitize the bottle, but it is better for the environment. Similarly, the majority of small Spanish bars still use glass Coca Cola bottles, returning them to the manufacturer for a discount on price.

Running a small business and wanting to keep prices down, Fabio and Juan use volunteers at the peak times for pruning and during the “vendimia,” or grape harvest. They have informal agreements with “grupos de consumo,” similar to Community Supported Agriculture in the United States, in which volunteering is traded for discounted, organic wine. Bartolomei says this keeps prices down and that it makes for an “easy-ozzy harvest” that is more social. First, they harvest and stomp the grapes, then they have a celebration.

Bartolomei says that Madrid is not the best-known wine region in the world and most of the wines made in Madrid--about 40 to 45 bodegas in total--are table wines, with only about ten quality wine producers. "I want to be one of them," he said.

For now, the owners of Vinos Ambiz are not going to give up their day jobs, as their business “covers costs, but we don't have enough to pay ourselves with.”

It remains to be seen if attempting to reinvent one of Spain's best-known industries will be profitable, but certainly this kind of creativity is the only way Spain can try to beat the recession.

Photo: Vinos Ambiz

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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