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Spain’s urban vineyards: Hidden corners in a vast wine land

A far cry from its expansive vineyards spread across the countryside, Spain has another story to tell. We explore some of the country’s smaller vineyards hidden away among urban jungles.

Spain may be the world’s 51st largest country in geographic size, but it’s very much #1 when it comes to total area planted to vine, with just under one million hectares according to figures from 2022.

Anyone who’s driven through the interior of Spain will have seen what appear to be endless rows of vines, stretching to the horizon in certain regions of the country. Despite this vastness however, there is still smallness – tiny little plots spread about, clinging to existence in the urban areas of the country. They offer a window into stories and traditions of another time, decades if not centuries ago – and more than anything they’re exciting discoveries in our urban world.

Can Calopa, Barcelona, Catalunya

The 16th century masia of Can Calopa sits in the Serra de Collserola, just at the back of Barcelona proper – but very much within the city limits. This old farmstead is one of about 200 in the area – traditionally a large farming region prior to the massive growth of the city and designated as a natural park in order to halt development, or at least slow it.

Back in 2000, then-mayor of Barcelona, Joan Clos became enamoured with the idea of planting an urban vineyard after visiting those that exist in Paris. This idea came to be at city-owned Can Calopa. A 2ha smattering of Mediterranean varieties was planted there, including Sangiovese, Agiorgitiko, Aglianico, Syrah and Grenache.

The city initially managed the vineyard, but in 2006 the cooperative of L’Olivera (whose main winery is in the interior Lleida province) took charge of overseeing the vines as well as making the wines. Additionally, as per the cooperative’s social mandate, it built a residence to house people at risk of social exclusion who are employed to work in the vineyard and cellar, and who are also involved in the enotourism offering which began in 2019.

Currently, this vineyard, along with the one in Sabadell, facilitates the production of 15,000 bottles a year and Can Calopa has also just joined UVA, the Urban Vineyards Association.

Parc Agrari, Sabadell, Catalunya

Sharing much in common with Can Calopa, this 1.8ha-vineyard was planted in 2007 and is planted to Xarel·lo, Chardonnary, Grenache and Merlot. It’s but a three-minute drive from the centre of Sabadell, one of Barcelona’s large neighbouring cities with a population of over 200,000, but this large park area has been designated by the city for urban agriculture.

Given its proximity to Can Calopa and urban scope, it should come as no surprise that l’Olivera also took over management of this vineyard. The grapes are used for the Can Calopa’s ‘Arraona’ label, which is a reference to the original, Iberian name of Sabadell. And despite sitting right between three highways, including the very busy C-58, I can attest that there are no hints of exhaust fumes in the final wines – just two very fresh, lively wines of white and red.

L’Hospital de Sitges, Catalunya

There are several small vineyards within the city limits of Sitges which have a curious owner in common: the Hospital de Sant Joan Baptista. Centuries ago, it was a refuge for religious pilgrims who would pass through the town. It moved from its smaller premises at the shoreline in the early 20th century thanks to a benevolent American. It then came into possession of these vineyards (as well as making wine from them) due to a Sitges local named Manuel Llopis, who died in Bulgaria while serving as a diplomat.

In his will, Llopis stated that the hospital would receive his lands, with the stipulation that it continue to cultivate them as vineyards and with the variety Malvasia de Sitges, which he had a fondness for, but could see was disappearing. The name may be unique, but it’s a grape found in many coastal regions under many different names, including Malvasia di Lipari in Italy as well as the much more famous Malmsey in Madeira.

Today the hospital is a retirement home and is in charge of three vineyards: one of 0.7ha and another of 2.5ha right next to its premises and then a third of 1.5ha just outside the city centre.

Over the years, the hospital found that there is one main danger of the vineyards being in town which necessitated the construction of a fence around them. While one might think of drunken stag parties on summer weekends, it was actually some of the home’s residents wanting to tend the vineyards – many of them remember doing so as children.

Jardines del Generalife, Granada, Andalucía

While the Islamic palace of the Alhambra is a well known and very popular destination in southern Spain, few may be aware that there is a vineyard tucked away in its grounds.

Planted between 2007 and 2008, the vines were established as bush vines within the gardens of the Generalife summer palace. The idea – according to José Carlos Ávila from the department managing the gardens – was to create a living vineyard within the confines of the fortress as was originally the case centuries ago. While consumption of alcohol is forbidden according to the Koran, they would still use the grapes to make vinegar and various syrups.

There is a small-yet-thriving 0.1ha vineyard that was originally comprised of the Jerezana and Teta de Vaca (yes, ‘cow teat’) varieties, and now incorporates eight more wine as well as five more table grape varieties, with the aim of mirroring the original vineyard as much as possible.

No wine has been made from the grapes, but this has less to do with the quantity and more to do with birds eating all of them before harvest.

Vigo, Galicia

It’s possible to meander down streets in Vigo such as Rúa das Fontáns, Travesía Silvana and Camiño dos Muiños and see slivers of urban vineyards tumbling down from the roads running through Galicia’s largest city.

While not abundant, there are a great many of them – of the 88ha of ‘cultivable’ land throughout the city’s various terraces and large yards, a massive 83% is dedicated to vines.

There are no urban wineries to speak of and the grapes are generally table grapes for eating. But it’s here on Spain’s far-western Atlantic coast that you find the true capital of urban vineyards.

The reason for this has more to do with how vines are cultivated in this region. Vine trellises form pergolas (or parrals) which are typical even in the commercial vineyards of DO Rías Baixas. These pergolas allow air circulation to thwart fungal issues, while also enabling the cultivation of other crops below them, making for generous use of space in people’s small, private vineyards. If you talk to anyone from the region, they’ll always mention how people everywhere in Galicia have always had some number of vines in their gardens and yards that formed mini ecosystems.

Vines amongst man

These are but a few of the very rare and harder-to-find success stories. Countless locations and towns such as Blanes in Catalunya used to be awash in hundreds of hectares of vines. Today not even one remains as everything has been developed in this coastal town and it’s a scenario that’s played out on the mainland but especially on the islands.

There have been attempts to plant new vineyards within the constraints of urban life as well. A prime example was the micro-vineyard on the roof of the Wellington Hotel in Madrid, which unfortunately had to be torn out in early 2023 due to issues with the roots.

It will be interesting to see how many of these urban vineyards across Spain manage to survive. Pressure to tear them out is great given the price and development of cities as well as threats to grapes such as birds, retired citizens wanting to ‘help’, and others.

But much like when it rains and the mud seeps up from the cracks in the pavement, our agricultural past is much closer than we think it is and hopefully these small corners of viticulture will stay with us.

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