Did you know that grapes bursting in foggy conditions sound like crickets? That was one of the things I discovered during a visit to the Peloponnesian region of Corinthia during the harvest season, which runs from August to October.
The seedless grapes of the Thomson and Crimson varieties, especially those cultivated in the ideal climatic conditions of Corinthia, are considered of excellent quality around the world.
Suntip is a company based in the area which focuses mainly on table grape production and wholesale. At its new packaging unit employees in the grape selection department pay special attention to each and every grape. The members of staff – about 150 in total – check each grape’s size (Asda, for instance, a Suntip client and British subsidiary of US giant Walmart, refuses grapes with a circumference of less than 17 millimeters), the state of the petioles and so on.
Working with producers in the region, Suntip executives visit the vineyards to check on sugar levels, pesticide residue and acidity, among other factors, before the grapes are transported to the packaging unit.
“About 15 percent of production is used for vinegar,” Evangelos Evangelaras, manager of marketing, sales and quality control, told Kathimerini, pointing out the metal container where the rejected fruit is placed.
“If the product reaches the client and is not up to standard, not only do you not get paid but you must also cover the cost of destroying it,” he added.
The markets that Greek grape producers and exporters have succeeded in penetrating are particularly demanding, with top destinations including the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.
Consignments of Suntip grapes – 15 to 20 tons at a time – travel to Northern Europe in refrigerated trucks which maintain the exact same temperature right up to delivery.
Greece, whose main production areas are Corinthia, Crete (Iraklio) and the northern city of Kavala, produced 292,700 tons of table grapes in 2012; among European countries only Italy topped Greece’s production figures. Last year, some 89,100 tons were exported, generating 124.7 million euros in revenues.
In order to strike deals with leading foreign buyers, companies like Suntip need a top-quality product. This is possible through collaborations with people like Panayiotis and Roula Giannakopoulos, whose 6-hectare vineyard is situated just a few kilometers away from Suntip’s packaging unit.
Nine months per year the husband-and-wife team ensure that each step is executed to perfection, from pruning in winter to spraying a few weeks before the harvest.
“Everything has become so expensive in the last few years – fertilizers, fuel,” noted 45-year-old Panayiotis, while his spouse compared grape production to pregnancy.
The size of the couple’s vineyard is considered large for the region. Among the principal structural disadvantages of the majority of Greek producers compared to their international counterparts is the relatively small size of the vineyards, which make production less competitive in terms of cost.
Corinthia vineyards cover 2.5 hectares on average, compared to 24 hectares in France and even larger areas in California. Large vineyards allow for economies of scale – ranging from the cost of labor to machinery and negotiations with suppliers – which are not an option for Corinthia producers. Meanwhile, efforts to develop synergies between small producers in the region have yet to bear fruit.
The lack of support from the state is another factor. While local grape production has long suffered from water shortages, the construction of a dam that could solve this problem has been a pending issue over the last 12 years – its completion is expected in 2016. Inefficient infrastructure – in this case the road to the western port city of Patra – also adds to transportation costs.
The recent Russian embargo is one more issue. While Greece exports relatively small quantities of table grapes to Russia, out of the 142,800 tons of table grapes exported by the European Union to third countries in 2013, some 43,000 tons (31 percent) were destined for the Russian market. As a result of the embargo, EU countries exporting to Russia will now try to channel a large portion of their produce to the European market, a move which will weigh on prices.
“For the time being demand is strong and there have been no instances of oversupply in the markets that we’re interested in,” noted Evangelaras. “Nevertheless, recent developments have been a cause of major concern.”