More than satellite imaging, we need systems that can anticipate events.

A talk with… Roberto Frías, Viticulture Director of the La Rioja Alta, S.A. group



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“During the week, I am an agronomist, and then, when Saturday comes, I become a viticulturist,” says Roberto Frías.

Because, in addition to his work as head of viticulture at La Rioja Alta, S.A., he takes care of the family vineyards in Cenicero, a small Rioja town with a great winemaking tradition. These vineyards have been the setting for the lives of the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of the Frías family. With this family tree, one would think that Roberto’s dedication to the world of vines was a matter of destiny. Still, the reality is quite different: “I studied Agricultural Engineering and always thought that I would dedicate myself to drafting projects or something like that.” It was only later, after studying for a Master’s Degree in Oenology and Viticulture, that he set his professional path. In 2021, he will celebrate twenty-four years of work in the sector and expresses the desire to conclude his working life in his current winery, where he has been working for eight years.

In a way, his story is a return to his family and winemaking roots. Because Cenicero, the town of barely two thousand inhabitants where he lives, is the last station of a journey that has taken him to different countries and regions: “I started in Berberana in 1997. A year later, I was sent to Mendoza (Argentina). I have worked in many Spanish wine regions, such as Ribera del Duero, Arribes del Duero, Serranía de Ronda, Somontano, Rías Baixas, Penedés, and Rioja. I also lived in Madrid for six years when I was a student, but it seemed like a cage to me”. Today, he defines happiness as “working in viticulture, my true passion, and being able to return home every day to be with my family.”

Despite his studies in oenology, his true passion is viticulture. Indeed, in La Rioja Alta, S.A., which owns around seven hundred hectares of vineyards, work is not lacking. The objective? Continuous improvement in the grapes’ quality so that this is reflected in the wines they produce, with references such as Viña Ardanza, Finca Martelo, Lagar de Cervera, or Áster. “We follow a lot of the great wineries of the world, including some Spanish ones, from which we learn continuously, as we also learn from the small winegrowers in love with their plots.” They are currently working with grapes such as Garnacha Tinta, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Albariño, although Tempranillo takes up most production. We asked him about some of the challenges he faces as Technical Director, and global warming soon comes into the picture.  

The challenges of climate change      

“For now, I can say that, in my opinion, the impact is being positive on grape ripening in the areas where we work, although medium-term forecasts may not be so rosy.” We have to manage the vineyard differently, trying to protect the grapes from excessive solar radiation; introduce and manage irrigation techniques to deal rationally with dry periods; work with plant covers to protect the soil from erosion caused by high intensity storm events; and resort to clones or ecotypes with a longer cycle that allow delaying the harvest date”.  In this regard, he cites the example of the ICVV of La Rioja, which has an experimental field with some five hundred ecotypes of Tempranillo. Some of them ripen twenty or even twenty-five days later than others.

Apart from the plant material, he recognizes that they are lucky since a large part of the vineyards of La Rioja Alta, S.A. are located at more than six hundred meters above sea level. Some of them in areas that forty years ago were almost unfeasible for cultivation. Also, all the new vineyards they are planting have drip irrigation. “Many years we didn’t even use it; right now, it’s more of a tool that allows us to withstand warm years like 2017 or 2019.”

In short, the winery is committed to an evolutionary approach in interventions and more sustainable viticulture. Currently, they experimentally manage twenty hectares of their vineyards in Rioja Baja and Ribera del Duero following organic viticulture practices. They are also committed to plant vines better suited to climatic conditions. “There is talk of looking for new locations for vineyards, but I give you the case of Cenicero, which is an area of vine monoculture. Where are all these people going to go if there is no more land available for planting vineyards? More than a professional challenge, climate change is a human challenge. We will have to work with what we have and adapt”. And, he adds, re-educate consumers so that they get used to the profile of the new wines.  

The coronavirus crisis

“Look, if, as our President says, La Rioja Alta, S.A. is the result of the greatest crisis in the history of viticulture, phylloxera…” he remarks to put things into perspective when asked about the pandemic. After all, the winery based in Haro’s neighborhood of La Estación has been there since 1890. Fortunately, the economic impact for them has been small and, also, they have been able to weather the problem in sanitary terms. “We only had one positive case at the beginning of it all, which I think helped the rest of us to become aware of the seriousness of the issue.” And so much: in the last harvest, they bought more than ten thousand masks and “cisterns” of hydroalcoholic gel. They also resorted to a curious system for identifying the different bubble groups in which they distributed the more than 200 people who worked in the manual harvest. The members of each group wore a visor of the same color to prevent them from mixing. He explains, however, that the real secret of prevention is the very nature of working in the vineyard. “There is no more natural safety distance than that imposed by the rows of vines themselves and working outdoors where there is a continuous renewal of air,” he says.

Boots in the field better than gowns in the lab

When it comes to new technologies, Roberto considers himself an old-school technician. “I’ve been working with satellite technology for sixteen years now and have yet to find anything that brings me value beyond what I can see with my own eyes or can know from previous experience. It’s good that remote sensing maps show the different vigor classes in the same vineyard in different colors, but there is a need for greater diagnostic capabilities. They need to be able to predict and give you an early recommendation instead of just a visualization”. However, despite his skepticism, he is aware of precision viticulture’s usefulness and works with weather stations, dendrometers, and other types of sensors.  Everything provides information.

In any case, he considers that the real leap is yet to come: “For example, I think that a pruning robot would be revolutionary because today you can teach twenty people, but each one is going to do it differently.” Another field in which he believes there is room for improvement is harvest estimation: “It would be beneficial to develop new methods that allow an early qualitative and quantitative estimation, before veraison, to know in time what kind of grapes we can aspire to or if we will have to go out to buy grapes on the market or if, on the contrary, it will be necessary to carry out cluster thinning work to unload production.”