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Javier and Francisco Trujillo harvesting the black grapes in Mollina in inland Malaga province. Marilú Báez
Local grape harvest brought forward due to lack of rainfall

Local grape harvest brought forward due to lack of rainfall

Two weeks ahead of schedule, on expert advice, the Trujillo family is picking Syrah grapes from their vines in Mollina

Alba Tenza

Mollina

Friday, 11 August 2023

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The sun has not yet risen but the wheels of a tractor can already be heard approaching the fields. More than 1,100 vines are getting ready to welcome the new day. This is clear to see as the first rays of the sun settle on the blueish colour of these small grapes. The clock is ticking and the trailer, with capacity for 4,000 kilos of grapes, awaits to be filled on this August morning.

Mollina might be basking in a cool 16C right now, but the high temperatures and drought have forced this inland Malaga province community to bring the harvest forward. The time for picking those inky reds has arrived. The green John Deere tractor has now come to a halt between the first rows of the vineyard. Javier Trujillo, a viticulturist, steps off the tractor and, despite it being only seven in the morning, looks ready for the day ahead. "Let's get started," he declared, while looking at his father, Francisco, who is also ready with his gloves on to start picking for yet another year.

The only sound that can be heard is that of father and son tugging at the vines to release the bunches of grapes. All done by hand.

"Fifteen years ago seven million kilos of grapes were harvested and now only one million are," said Trujillo Jr about the decline in grape production around Mollina

"In spite of seeing black grapes from other plots being harvested last night with specialised, automated pickers, we prefer to do it manually, since this way there is less damage to the vine," said the son.

Degrees of sweetness

The ideal moment to pick this grape variety is usually in two weeks' time. However, low rainfall in the spring, which is the most important period for grape development, has meant that harvesting has been brought forward to early August. What happens if the grapes are left on their vines for longer?

"The grapes would dry up," said Francisco while tasting one of them. The decision to start picking on the first Friday of August at seven in the morning was made by the wine-growing experts of the Virgen de la Oliva Andalusian Agricultural Cooperative Society (SCAAVO), to which this winegrower belongs.

"The most important thing for the quality of the wine is that the vineyard is capable of getting the required amount of sweetness into the grapes," explained Javier.

The Trujillo family rents two plots of land for growing vines. The first of them occupies a Spanish 'fanega', (6,440 square metres of land), and is dedicated to the cultivation of Syrah grapes planted some 15 years ago.

Moving along the path that runs along the lower part of this land, and passing an olive grove to the left, can be found the second plot of land rented by the family. Here there are 14 fanegas of Pedro Ximénez grapes, planted in 1986, which still have another two weeks before being picked.

Francisco carries the bucket full of the bunches of inky black grapes on his shoulder at all times and father and son move perfectly in sync. Each time they dump a bucket-load into the trailer they move the tractor a little further on to the next vines, and so on.

"I started picking grapes at the age of 16 when I left school, there have always been grapes here," said the son, as he stands looking over the vineyard with all its trellises.

By 9am the temperature is already making us aware that it is summer in Malaga. The youngest generation in this family, Javier and Carmen, also talk of the heat. Their summer morning has a mission: to support the family tradition even though it is not what they want as a career.

"We do it of our own free will," stated Javier, the eldest at 15. The girl (13), for her part, looks at once to her father to lend her his grape cutters to speed up her picking. From two rows away their father observes them: "I would prefer that my children do not follow in my path, working the land is increasingly difficult, especially thanks to the weather conditions because fertiliser can be tweaked, but the weather cannot."

The decline in grape production in Mollina is something mentioned repeatedly by the family, despite the fact that grape production has greatly benefitted the local economy.

"Fifteen years ago, seven million kilos were collected and now only one million are picked, the vineyard is a crop that is labour-intensive; if the prices are not competitive, people choose to pull out and plant other crops," said Trujillo Jr.

Father and son explain that the Syrah grape can only yield around 4,000 kilos per hectare, unlike other grapes native to the Malaga area, such as Doradilla, which yields around 15,000 kilos per hectare.

Grape prices are not known until the following year when the market closes, although they estimate it will be around 40 cents per kilo. This particular year they expect to harvest 3,000 kilos of Syrah and 60,000 of Pedro Ximénez.

"It is vital the fruit spends as little time as possible from being pulled off the vine to reaching the winery," said the son as he dumped another bucket into the trailer, which has a blue awning over it so that the grapes do not oxidise en-route.

This process is repeated until one o'clock in the afternoon, clocking-off time for harvesting - until the next morning - as now it's time to take the grapes to the cooperative so they can start the process of turning them into wine.

The forecast by the Andalusian Agricultural Cooperative Society "Virgen de la Oliva" (Scaavo) in Mollina, regarding the Syrah harvest there, is 20,000 bottles produced this year.

This organisation, which has more than 1,200 members, bottled a total of 70,000 bottles in 2022. "This morning we took delivery of around 4,000 kilos of Syrah grapes and a week ago we began the harvest of the white muscat grapes, which today are already in the fermentation vats," the manager of SCAAVO, Germán Luna, told SUR.

Since the beginning of July, they have been taking samples to determine when each type of grape should be harvested.

Once fermented, which involves spending half a year in barrels, the wine is then bottled and laid down for another six months.

In the warehouse where these large wooden barrels full of wine are stored, Luna cannot help but show us one barrel in particular, the oldest at the cooperative, dating from 1807, whose aroma is evidence of a long life.

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