RONDA, Spain (AFP) — When young German Friedrich Schatz turned up in 1982 to grow grapes in a part of southern Spain which hadn’t produced wine in 100 years, they thought he was crazy.
But nearly four decades on, Schatz is still tending his vines in the Andalusian hilltop town of Ronda.
And despite the fact that sales have been battered by the coronavirus crisis, the harvest must go on because the land “just won’t wait.”
Located inland from the Costa del Sol, the Ronda highlands today boast more than 20 wineries and experts view it as one of the most promising regions in Spain, the world’s third-largest wine producer by value after France and Italy.
Winemaking here dates back to Roman times, but it disappeared following a phylloxera epidemic, which hit Ronda in 1878, with the aphid devastating 32,123 acres of vines.
And it would take the arrival, more than 100 years later, of a teenager from a family of German winegrowers to turn things around.
Schatz, who goes by the name of Federico, was barely 18 when he arrived in Ronda and fell in love with the Finca Sanguijuela, a beguiling property on three hectares of land on a gentle slope “with soil which is vibrant and very well-aerated.”
There he planted classical varieties, such as pinot noir, merlot, petit verdot and chardonnay, and today he counts some 15,000 vines, producing premium bottles of red, white and rose from nine varieties of grape.
The harvest is all done by hand, with Schatz working alongside his mum, wife, daughter and three employees.
Vines need tending
So far, 2020 has been a difficult year, with bars and restaurants badly hit by the crisis and Schatz expecting sales to fall by up to 80 percent.
But the vines still need tending.
“Even if you were to tell me that tomorrow we’ll all die of the virus, we’d carry on the same, because you can’t stop working the fields,” says Schatz, 57.
“You can’t just abandon a vineyard like shutting down a factory.”
For those harvesting the grapes, the pandemic hasn’t changed much.
“Working in the fields is just the same,” shrugs Francisco Sanchez Campanario, as he cuts bunches of merlot grapes in the brilliant morning sunshine.
“The good thing about working in the fields is that we have a lot of space,” says Schatz’s wife Raquel Elia.
“We work quite far away from each other and inside the winery we all wear masks.”
These days, they don’t let visitors into the winery because they would “constantly have to disinfect it” and all tastings are held outside, Schatz says.
The crisis has also dealt a blow to wine tourism, which has really taken off in recent years, bringing in considerable funds for many wineries.
Gema Perez Barea, of Milamores wine tours, whose business is almost entirely dependent on foreign tourism, says she earned “nothing” for four months although things have started to ease.
“The pandemic has changed everything, now all the tourists we have are from Spain,” she says, adding that there are “far fewer visitors” however.
Globally, Spanish wine exports fell by 7.1% in value and 11.6% in volume during the first half of the year, the Spanish Wine Market Observatory (OEMV) says.
“This is a considerable and painful loss but not as serious as we had expected and we hope the market will recover in the second half,” said OEMV head Rafael del Rey.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” admits wine expert and blogger Yolanda Hidalgo, who is based in the country’s south west.
But she believes the industry is at a moment when it could “reinvent itself”: with many hotels, bars and restaurants closed or operating with limited capacity, people are “drinking more at home and buying online” which will trigger some form of “natural selection.”
This situation will play into the hands of “reputable brands with a faithful clientele” at the expense of “emerging projects which have yet to be established” and can’t rely on trade shows and fairs to build recognition.
Coming from a family that has been making wine since 1641, Schatz is optimistic about the future, knowing he’s in for the long-haul.
“Making good wine is easy, the difficult part is the first 200 years,” he grins.
by Álvaro Villalobos
© Agence France-Presse