Rioja recognises need for change

Regional & Country Focuses

Terroir-specific wines, a modernised approach to white production and a new sparkling wine designation have given Spain’s oldest DO a new lease of life, reports David Williams


What makes a wine region thrive from one generation to the next? Despite what some marketing consultants may claim, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works in, say, Mendoza may be entirely wrong for Alsace. The conditions – social, historic, geographic, structural, political, economic, aesthetic – are simply too diverse for meaningful comparisons to stand up.

Still, we can say with a fair degree of certainty what a successful wine region shouldn’t do if it wants its success to endure beyond the current generation. Complacency, entitlement, divisiveness and an unwillingness to plan for the future have been the common recipe for crises in regions as diverse as Beaujolais, Jerez and Germany at various points in the recent past.

None of the above flaws can be said to apply to Rioja. Even if it would be wrong to cast this diverse region – which, with its 600 registered (500 active) producers and 65,000+ha of vineyard is one of the largest premium producing regions in Europe – as homogenous, or play down the many differences of opinion that exist there, the past 15 years have shown once again how good Rioja’s various stakeholders are at compromising and putting their region first. Just as it has done throughout its history, the oldest DO in Spain (established in 1925) has found ways of avoiding complacency and responding as a collective to evolving markets and consumer tastes.

The 2020 plan

That 15-year figure hasn’t been plucked out of the air at random. In 2005, Rioja’s Consejo Regulador published a strategic plan that explicitly set out the region’s stall for the period until 2020. The plan for Spain’s most successful wine region was to “obtain and sell quality wines that are market-oriented and constantly adapting to that market, creating an overall trademark with its own identity that generates added value and profits and contributes to the development of the region as a result of the co-operation and collaboration of public and private agents that interact in the sector”.

Beyond the bland ambition and vague corporate speak, however, the plan provided the philosophical basis for a period of quiet, behind-the-scenes, carefully managed, but nonetheless genuine, change – a series of shifts in emphasis and regulation that are, as the report’s timeframe promised, now bearing fruit.

You can see the effects across Rioja’s contemporary offer. Take the region’s white wines. For all the cult success of ultra-traditional, long-oak-aged classics from the likes of Lopéz de Heredia and Marqués de Murrieta, by 2005 Rioja’s white wines had a reputation for being tired, stale and out of step with contemporary fashions for bright, fresh, fruit-driven styles.

The Consejo’s decision to permit the planting of six white grape varieties, including three natives (Matruana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Monastel) and, more controversially, three newcomers (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo), was taken up enthusiastically by growers, with a total of 1,450ha planted, meaning white varieties have grown from 5% to 8% of the total vineyard. Since 2016, the generic body has also put some marketing muscle behind Rioja’s new wave of white winemaking. Sure enough, in the UK, growth of white wines has doubled in five years to December 2019 (Nielsen).

Rioja’s insistence on market adaptability also comes through in its work with those two 21st-century success-story categories, rosé and sparkling wine. In 2019, the Consejo approved a change in the law regarding the colour of rosé, to try to help producers involved with a category that currently takes up 5% of Rioja’s total production to compete with pale, Provence-inspired rivals. The lower limit for colour density has been switched to 0.10uA/cm from 0.20 uA/cm, allowing for much paler rosés (although fans of the darker, more traditionally Spanish rosados will be pleased to hear that the upper limit of 1.8uA/cm remains unchanged).

Rioja’s sparkling wine changes are rather more radical. Whereas once quality sparkling Rioja producers would have had to work within the Cava DO (although 95% of Cava is from Penedès in Catalonia, Rioja is one of seven regions around Spain also included in the DO), they now have the choice to bottle their wines with Rioja’s own sparkling wine category – Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja.

Arranged into three age categories – Crianza (aged for a minimum of 15 months); Reserva (24 months); and Gran Añada (36 months) – and three levels of dosage (Brut Nature, Extra Brut and Brut), Rioja’s white and rosé sparkling wines can be made from any of Rioja’s permitted grape varieties, with rosés using a minimum of 25% red grapes. Although some of the region’s most famous sparkling names have so far continued to market wines in the more recognised Cava DO, the Rioja DO says there are 16 “projects” working in the new category, with the first of the younger wines trickling into Spanish markets in 2019.

The new Rioja terroirism

As significant as the changes to white, rosé and sparkling wines are, the most eye-catching and widely discussed changes to Rioja regulation are those that have caused the most debate internally.

The debate will be familiar to lovers of Champagne, a region with which, structurally speaking, Rioja has much in common. Like Champagne, Rioja has traditionally been a place where the art of élevage – the blending of grapes from a variety of sources and the skill of careful ageing – has taken precedence, at least when it comes to the marketing and presentation of the wines, to the source material (no matter how good that source material may often be).

Also like Champagne, that emphasis reflects and reinforces the practices of the dominant players in the region: since the region first came to international prominence as a fine-wine centre in the late 19th century, the big names in Rioja, at all levels of the market, have largely taken their fruit from long-term partner growers, supplemented to a greater or lesser extent with the fruit from their own vineyards.

Arguably the biggest story of the past 20 years in both regions, however – and certainly, in Rioja, once the somewhat artificial debate around “modernist” and “traditionalist” winemaking had died down – has been the rise of the grower-producer making wines with a real sense of place. The problem, for the Rioja Consejo, has been how to accommodate these terroiristes with the traditional blending producers.

It took years of not always good-natured debate and behind-the-scenes diplomacy, during which, as in Champagne, many of the bigger houses lobbied hard to protect the image of Rioja as an intra-regional blended wine, while an association of more than 150 producers argued the DO was “oblivious to soil differentiation and levels of quality. But in 2017 the Rioja DO finally announced its plans for a Burgundy-like, terroir-based re-jig of the Rioja system.

Or, perhaps, Germany is a better point of comparison, since the terroir system, much like the VDP’s ranking of vineyards, has been conceived to sit alongside a quality ranking based purely on production [the amount of sugar in Germany, the time in oak and bottle before release in Rioja].

Indeed, as the general director of Rioja’s Consejo Regulador, José Luis Lapuente, was at pains to point out when I spoke to him last year, “The main priority is the aged wine categories – what we’re trying to do is support our blending wines with this additional information.”

Subject to checks and a range of quality-based criteria (from yields to vine age), Rioja producers can now bottle their wines as a Vino de Zona (with the sub-region, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta or Rioja Oriental, on the front label; previously this was only allowed on the back label), Vino de Municipio (effectively a village wine from one of 145 municipalities) or Viñedo Singular (single, unique vineyard).

It is the last of those categories that has caused the most excitement, with the DO announcing a list of the first 84 classified vineyards from 50 producers last summer, featuring 43 sites in Rioja Alavesa, 31 in Rioja Alta and 10 in Rioja Oriental. Each vineyard has to satisfy stringent conditions to qualify: the rules state that the vineyard must be a minimum of 35 years old, be hand-harvested with yields at least 20% lower than the DO standard and have, in the words of the DO, a “natural delimitation”.

The quality of the fruit and wine from the vineyard also has to pass a “double evaluation” of quality (the wine must exceed 93 points in a panel tasting), and the producers using the vineyard have to prove they have ownership or a minimum 10-year lease on the fruit as well as provide a dossier making the case for the distinctiveness of the site.

The first half-dozen wines to emerge from the newly classified sites, all of them from the 2017 vintage, were announced at the end of last year, and include Marqués de Riscal’s Las Tapias, Bodegas Palacios Cosme Palacios White and a red and white from terroiriste prime-mover Juan Carlos Sancha’s 100-year-old Cerro La Isa. In a context in which producers from across Spain are creating increasingly fine, vineyard-specific wines, the hope is that they will help Rioja to remain relevant and thrive for generations to come.

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