Covid-19 hotspots flare in Rioja

Spain’s tourism sector has been hit hard by Covid-19 and now Rioja has another problem on its hands. James Lawrence reports.

Victor Urrutia, CEO, Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España
Victor Urrutia, CEO, Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España

Winemakers in Spain’s Rioja region are facing a dramatic loss of tourism income in 2020, as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise.

According to Spanish publication ‘La Rioja’, there have been six new outbreaks of Covid-19 over the past two weeks, with infections detected in several winemaking villages and cities.

These include Briones, San Vicente de la Sonsierra and the regional capital Logrono.

The most recent outbreak occurred in the village of Alesanco, with five recorded cases detected on 5 August. The total population of the village is approximately 500.

“We couldn’t open our visitor centre until July – we normally get about 30,000 guests each year,” said Victor Urrutia, CEO of Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (CVNE). “We have implemented all the prescribed health and safety measures, but of course it won’t be the same. It will be an underwhelming year, like going back in time 15 years.”

He added that the global hospitality shutdown had hit their business hard; however, it had somewhat been offset by growing online retail sales in Japan, China, and the US.

However, Urrutia also said that he believed his company had enough safety measures in place to protect employees from further risk.

“We disinfect every day after work all internal spaces at all our buildings using the ozone generating equipment from our barrel racking machinery. We were lucky to have this equipment already at the wineries,” said Urrutia. “I hesitate to say this but we’ve had a good record so far in terms of contagion. Touch wood.”

The Rioja region has been a major centre of Covid-19 deaths in Spain since the pandemic arrived in Europe. One village, Santo Domingo de La Calzada, suffered a particularly deadly outbreak and boasts the unfortunate distinction of having the worst death rate from coronavirus in Spain.

Another challenge about to face Rioja’s producers will be the 2020 harvest. Many firms typically rely on an influx of imported pickers to harvest the grapes – a workforce that may not wish to travel.

“We own over 600 hectares across several Spanish regions; we did have some logistical trouble moving [Spanish] workers around for the green harvest some weeks ago,” said Urrutia. “The challenge is maintaining social distancing and testing for Covid-19. If we found any positive cases then we’d have to isolate our crews. So we enforce constant use of disinfectant gel and maintain separate areas in our facilities.”

Reasonably sanguine about the prospect of the upcoming harvest, Urrutia conceded that his firm “had to hope for best.”

James Lawrence



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