According to the AEMET (Spanish State Metereological Agency), April 2021 was, on the whole, a normal month in terms of both rainfall and temperature. The tenth warmest April of the 21st century, the twenty-ninth driest April since 1961, and the eleventh of the 21st century.

The average temperature in peninsular Spain was 12.0 ºC, which is 0.6 ºC above the average for this month (reference period: 1981-2010). The temperature anomaly in La Rioja was almost negligible.

In terms of rainfall, the average rainfall over peninsular Spain was 63.4 mm, which represents 99% of the normal value for the month (reference period: 1981-2010). Although it should be noted that it was very dry on the Cantabrian coast and Navarre and disproportionately wet in the Valencian Community and Murcia region. Consequently, it was also dry in the Rioja region, with the percentage of rainfall standing at approximately 75% of the average for that period.

 

 

(Although it is also noted in the report that the change in measurement methodology initiated in September 2020 may imply significant differences in the results with respect to those obtained with the previous method).

It is obvious that when we divide the year into months to tell you about the work we do in the vineyards during those months, we are not setting peremptory and inexcusable dates. It is nature that sets the calendar to which we must adapt.

Once the vines have been prepared by pruning and the land has been cleared and cleaned, which as you know has kept us busy for the past few months, it is time to wait for life (the vineyard) to mysteriously make its way once again. This is our essential work for the month of April.

Autumn and winter leave the vines in an initial state of dormancy. This is known as endo-dormancy. Shorter days and colder temperatures inhibit bud growth, ensuring a hormonal balance. The buds become dormant. But internally they prepare for what is called “bud break”, which is essentially the swelling of the buds, preluding the return of life and the annual repetition of the whole vegetative cycle that will culminate in the bunches. When the bud has acquired this faculty, it enters the second period, which is called eco-dormancy; the vines are now ready to bud. Whether this budding occurs depends on the activity of the roots, which in turn depends on the air and soil temperatures, as well as on the water present.

 

 

In the end, it is the heat or rather, not to exaggerate, the absence of cold what brings the vine back to life. And like all life, this is a risky business. Basically, in these early stages, the risk lies in the possibility of frost, so much so that naturally the earlier the “bud break” takes place, the greater the risk of low temperatures.

This year, with the warm temperatures in February, the vines came out of eco-dormancy earlier than usual, the roots started to activate earlier than usual, taking up water and nutrients which then led to an increase in turgor pressure in the buds, resulting in earlier bud break. These tender shoots are very sensitive to freezing water temperatures, below which (that is, zero degrees Celsius), they will die, and with it obviously whatever fruit there might have been.  It is not uncommon for a vineyard that has suffered frost to produce only 10-15% of its expected production, which is a major economic risk.

 

Thus, during April we kept a constant eye on the temperatures, and we were aware of the need to take measures to reduce the risk of frost. Fortunately, this did not occur. However, our work was not only about our inner suffering, we also began the so-called work of espergura, a special type of pruning. The DRAE attributes the Spanish verb espergurar to Rioja and defines it as follows: To clean the vine of all the stems and shoots that it puts out on the trunk and wood, which are not from the previous year, so that they do not suck the sap from those that come out of the buds of the new vine shoot, which are the fruit-bearing ones.

This marks the beginning of the so-called “green work”, which will keep us busy for the next few months as long as the grapes do not change colour. We will keep you updated.

According to the usual summary of the month’s weather published by the AEMET, (State Meteorological Agency), March 2021 was the fourth driest March since the beginning of the series in 1961 and the driest of the 21st century, with the aggravating factor that the month was wet or very wet in the southeast of the peninsula and in the Balearic Islands, so that the dryness was proportionally more intense in the rest of the peninsular territory and in the Canary Islands. In the Rioja region, the average rainfall was 50% higher than in the reference period 1981 – 2010.

AEMET MARZO

In terms of temperatures, March was on the whole a normal month, with an average temperature in mainland Spain of 9.9 degrees Celsius, 0.1 above the average for the month for that period. From the 23rd to the end of the month a particularly warm spell was observed with temperatures well above normal, reaching, on the last day of the month, over 30 degrees Celsius in areas of Extremadura and Andalusia and in some parts of the Cantabrian Sea. Overall, this was the 22nd warmest March since the series began in 1961 and the 11th warmest of the 21st century. However, except for this final period, it was cold or very cold in the southeast quadrant of the peninsula, and normal or warm in the rest of the Spanish peninsula. In the Rioja region, depending on the area, it could even reach an increase of 0.2 degrees Celsius.

In March we completed the work we had started in previous months.

 

 

On the one hand, once the vine shoots had been saved for gastronomic use, we proceeded to burn the remains of the wood left by the winter pruning. This is the most effective way to disinfect the vineyards and reduce (drastically) the number of spores of various micro-organisms that live in the dead wood and can infect the vines during the growing season. We like to do this work towards the end of winter and just before spring, when the days have already started to warm up and dry out the wood. (This work is also subject to administrative control).

The second major task to be completed was the clearing of weeds and weed control. You already know that we opt for exclusively mechanical means for this work in our vineyards, without the use of herbicides, and you know the advantages of all kinds that this entails, both from a health and ecological point of view and in terms of improving the quality of the vine and its product.

Since most of the work was done in February, we can now complete the information with data that may be of interest to you.

First of all, a plough called a “forcate” in the land of the Rioja is used, which is recognised as such in the DRAE (Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary): “A plough with two shafts to be pulled by a single horse”. By means of this plough, which contains a pointed plane about 30 cm long and 15 cm wide capable of greater pressure when introduced into the soil, we make criss-cross furrows in the soil, to eliminate weeds and facilitate water penetration with minimum erosion.

 

Arado llamado forcate

 

This prepares the soil for the subsequent use of a special mouldboard plough. A mouldboard plough is any plough that allows the furrowed soil to be turned over by “pouring” it to one side or the other. This peculiar plough, known as “borracho” (drunkard) in the land of the Rioja, has a sort of step on one side or the other that allows the operator to wind between the vines, moving towards and away from them, uncovering the base of the soil and throwing it towards the centre of the so-called renque, i.e. the space between the rows. Bryan suggests that its name comes from the zigzagging movement that the plough has to make around the vines. Then we see that WikiRioja defines it as follows: “Two-handled mouldboard plough with a guide wheel, which was used to dig around (“desacollar”) the vines without damaging the trunk, the name comes from the difficulty the vine grower has in handling it, as it goes all over the place, like a drunkard, and can break many vines”.

 

Arado vertedera

 

(“Desacollar”, in case you are fond of the Alphabet Game –TV contest known as Pasapalabra, in Spain-, is also a local word accepted by the DRAE: “To dig around the vines, leaving them a hole in which the water stops”).

And so the soil is finally prepared for what has been the real work of March. The cleaning around the trunk of the vine, which the ‘borracho’ obviously cannot complete with total cleanliness. For this purpose, the hoe that everyone knows is used, obviously a small hoe adapted to the task. Hoeing is a manual job that few farmers do, as it is exhausting; one person can cover little more than 1000 m2 of vineyard in a day. Another advantage of clearing the trunk of soil and preventing water from reaching it is that it stops the formation of fine hairy roots at the junction of the graft and the base of the vine. In this way the vine is forced to send its roots downwards in search of water and nutrients. We are now entering spring, therefore in the phase of root growth, and it is very beneficial for the roots to go deeper, considering the time when, due to the lack of rain, there is a shortage of surface water resources.

 

According to the monthly report of the AEMET, February was very warm overall, with an average temperature in mainland Spain of 9.5ºC; About 2.5ºC above the monthly average for the month with respect to the reference period 1981-2010. In Rioja we even surpassed in 3.0ºC. It has been the third warmest February since the beginning of the records in 1961 falling behind the months of February 2020 and 1990, and therefore the second warmest of the 21st century. The minimum temperatures were particularly high, which were 3.1ºC above the normal average for the month, the highest recorded minimum temperatures in February since the beginning of the record.

Three particularly warm episodes were identified within the month, the first lasted between days 1 and 6, the second from 8 to 21, and the third between 23 and 27.

 

In terms of rainfall, it has been described as a wet month, with an average rainfall of 71 mm over mainland Spain, a value that reaches 35% above the normal value for the month. It was the 22nd wettest February since the records began in 1961 and the 8th wettest of the 21st century. In the land of Rioja this increase has been proportionally higher when we are further west. Which naturally corresponds to the different basins: more humid in the Atlantic slope, drier in the Mediterranean, being able to estimate the increases with respect to its average value in 153% and 83% respectively.

On the other hand, the accumulated insolation throughout the month of February was lower than the normal value by more than 10%, and as for the wind, the Karim squall that gave rise to very strong winds in the northern half of the peninsula deserves to be highlighted. Between days 16 to 21.

In such circumstances we were able to finish removing the vine shoots from the vineyards in bundles called ¨gavillas¨ and make our first ploughing of the season.

 

 

The ¨gavillas¨ will be used to grill lamb chops later in the spring and summer months. It is perhaps the most important gastronomic specialty of the Rioja, and a reason for a family party.

The ploughing of the vineyard at this time has several reasons. It is used to eliminate weeds mechanically, without the use of herbicides, the weeds would later compete with the vines for nutrients and for water in the growing season. Ploughing aerates the soil and helps to allow the spring rains to penetrate the land without running off or causing erosion. The aeration and tilling of the soil helps to start the nitrogen cycle and improves the structure of the soil if executed in the correct manner and at the correct time.

Again this year we have chosen to use draft animals in the old vineyards. These vineyards were planted in the 1920s, 1930s and 1935s in a square pattern, with a high density of vines and with narrow spacing between rows. It was the way vineyards were planted in those days, when ploughing was only conceived with such animals. Mechanization did not even exist as a concept. Such a planting pattern allows for the criss-crossing of the plough passes, top to bottom and bottom to top, side to side and back, and last diagonally. This is very effective to eliminate, without chemical herbicides, the weeds around the trunk of the vine, to ensure the respiration of the soil and to reduce the risk of erosion, since the furrows not only go up and down the slope, but also perpendicular to it and also diagonally. The water does not find paths by which to run wild, dragging the earth in its path. It is thus the most respectful way with the environment to avoid weeds in the vineyard, at the same time as ensuring the conservation of the surface layer of the soil where the microorganisms that contribute to preserving it live. It is this layer of about thirty centimetres thick that houses the living microorganisms that represent no less than 80% of the living biomass of the planet, and it is they that contribute to the greatest extent to the quality and personality of the result of the strains that welcome.

Working with animals in the vineyard has, in addition to all that has been said, the great advantage that the soil is not compacted as heavy machinery does. This allows for further root development and ultimately healthier vines and better quality grapes.

 

Working with draft animals is an art. Luckily we still have some people in Spain and specifically in the land of Rioja who keep it as a profession. They preserve a culture in the process of extinction. There are different types of ploughs in different shapes and different materials, some made entirely of wood, others combine it with steel and others are made of pure steel or wrought iron. The diversity allows to attend to different types of soil depending on its texture, humidity and structure, its different types of cultivation and the different tasks that proceed depending on the time of year or crop. There are also different ways of fixing the bridle, of attaching the plough to the animal, types of drawbars, pulling heights…, many variables from which the most subtle differences will be felt. As you can imagine, when working with one horsepower, the smallest setting can determine the most significant differences. Quite an art we have already said.

The work with manual plough allows to feel the earth; you are in direct contact with it, which means perceiving the different types of soil and working them in the most delicate or rigorous way that helps to maintain and improve its structure. Mechanization inevitably implies the loss of this intimate connection with the soil; Today most tractors and mechanical ploughs have enough power and steel to destroy the soil structure without the operator being aware of it.

Other years we have worked with horses and mares. This year it has been with a mule. There is a long tradition of working in agriculture in Spain with mules; arguably the preferred draft animal. The mule is a sterile hybrid, the result of a cross between a donkey and a horse. It has generally been a preferred option over the donkey, as it is larger and stronger, allowing it to pull a plough or cart with less effort and at a better pace. The mule is said to be much more resistant and tenacious than a horse – more stubborn than a mule is a common phrase – being able to work for long periods without rest pulling the plough through uneven terrain, feeding on what the farmer has available. They are also said to be more docile than a horse and less nervous, good traits when working between otherwise narrow crops.

January 2021 was colder and wetter than usual. According to the website www.meteosojuela.es, the thermal anomaly was minus 0,3º and the water anomaly was 166%. It started with the Filomena squall that brought very low temperatures and snow during the first and second week. After the passage of this now legendary squall, we had eight days without rainfall and with even lower temperatures, which contributed to the formation of ice and allowed us to work on pruning the vines. The month ended with four consecutive days of high winds and rainfall that left the soil waterlogged, forcing a break. At least the wind is not damaging the vines at the moment.

 

Low temperatures and snow are very beneficial for vines. They slowly increase water reserves and protect plants from diseases, as well as healing pruning wounds. You can find out more at: https://quienariojavino.com/2021/01/07/los-beneficios-de-la-nieve-en-el-vinedo/

 

Thus, during that month Bryan was able to finish the pruning work. He also took advantage of the low temperatures to trim the wood and branches on the old vines in order to reduce them; this ensures that the sap, when it flows, reaches the buds with a shorter run. At a certain age you need any help you can get. It is a task that involves deep cuts in the plants, so it is better to do it when it is very cold, which avoids the movement of the sap and possible infections. The wood and vine shoots cut from the vines are also piled up to be burnt when the weather improves.