For all the gains made by regions elsewhere in the country, Ribera del Duero and Rioja remain Spain’s most recognised wine regions.
David Williams explores the latest developments in both places and picks out some of his favourite wines and producers
The past five years have been transformative for Rioja. The era starts in 2017 when, after years of discussion – of lobbying and counter-lobbying – the Rioja Consejo approved two new categories, both of which acknowledged the changing realities and fashions in the region and the wider winemaking world.
The first, and most important, of those categories, Viñedo Singular, was all about acknowledging the thirst of both winemakers and high-end wine consumers for wines with a sense of place by officially recognising some of Rioja’s best vineyards and the wines that come from them.
VS was about terroir. But it was about quality, too, and the barrier for entry for qualifying as a single vineyard was set high: the vineyard had to be more than 35 years old, to have yields that are naturally low (less than 5,000kg per hectare for reds and 6,922kg per hectare for whites), to be farmed with “environmentally friendly” growing practices, and to be harvested by hand.
The wines from those vineyards, meanwhile, had to go through a two-stage evaluation by a panel of tasters – once just after they’d been made and once as they were about to go on sale – to earn the official Viñedo Singular stamp. With 84 sites initially approved (and a further 20 since, taking the number of Viñedo Singular sites above 100), the category was met with the approval of Rioja’s terroiristes, albeit not without the odd grumble and caveat (shouldn’t the regulations be more prescriptive about what kind of wine – what colour and style – could be produced in a classified vineyard? Should there be still more emphasis on quality?).
Five years down the line, the changes are starting to bed in, however, and over the past 18 months, the first VS wines have started to emerge to generally enthusiastic reviews.
After a slightly slower than hoped for take-up initially, the category looks set to take its place as a quality cue alongside, rather than in opposition to, the region’s traditionally temporal approach to ranking by time spent in the bottle and barrel, from Crianza to Gran Reserva.
Also just starting to gain traction are the first wines of the other category first given the nod in 2017: Rioja DOCa Quality Sparkling Wine. Few in Rioja would argue that its sparkling wines are ever likely to be more than a niche concern. But their official acceptance – including as part of the selection of wines used in the Consejo’s own marketing at events around the world – is an important part of Rioja’s efforts to emphasise the diversity now available in the region, as enshrined in the strategic plan published earlier this year.
The plan ushers in another five-year period and is highly ambitious in scope, with a headline target according to the Consejo of “bringing total commercialisation to 312 million litres by 2025” with “exports to account for 44% at 137 million litres”. There are also plans to increase “turnover of the Rioja brand by 25%” and – coming back to that idea of diversity – to grow the share of the white and rosé categories significantly so that they account for respectively 12% and 5% of Rioja’s production.
As the Consejo plan points out, that would be in line with recent developments in Rioja’s performance in what remains its most significant export market: the UK.
British drinkers account for slightly more than a third of all Rioja’s exports, and the most recent full-year sales figures published by Nielsen show a jump of 19% in volume sales of white Rioja and a whopping 35% for rosé. That’s against a backdrop of a generally healthy outlook for Rioja in the UK, with double-digit growth in value over the past two years.
Improvements in the UK and other export markets have to be seen in the context of what has been a very difficult pandemic period for Rioja producers’ domestic market. With sales of Rioja in Spain heavily skewed towards the on-trade, the complete closure and subsequent restrictions on opening hours imposed by national and regional governments have left a lot of Rioja producers with significant stocks on their hands – and that in turn has allowed UK supermarkets to snap up some knockdown prices for own-label.
The presence of cheap Rioja in the market will likely put pressure, too, on the fault lines within Rioja itself. A certain amount of tension has always existed between Rioja’s smaller, often family-owned producers, many of them owning their own vineyards, and the bigger companies with their vast output and their network of partner growers. Some of the former periodically threaten to boycott (or, in the case of Artadi in the mid-2010s, have actually left) the official appellation in protest at what they see as a tendency to favour the brute commercial imperatives of the bigger firms which they believe devalue the Rioja brand.
This dispute over Rioja’s priorities and positioning has been exacerbated recently by moves by a group of more than 96 producers in Rioja Alavesa looking to quit the Rioja DOCa for their own, exclusively Basque DO, Viñedos de Alava.
The group cites issues with Rioja’s image as part of its motivation. But there’s a powerful political element, too – the move is favoured by local Basque nationalist politicians with a seat in Spain’s fragile socialist-led coalition.
Optimistic but realistic
For now, however, the mood that comes across in the strategic plan is upbeat: optimistic while remaining realistic.
Among other things, the DOCa has made important progress on its bid to establish Rioja as a “leader in sustainability” with targets of reducing the region’s net carbon footprint by 10%, and its use of pesticides by 50%, in the next five years.
There are also bold plans to build on Rioja’s growing status as a wine-tourism hotspot, with support (in the form of ad campaigns and other promotional initiatives) for the more than 250 wineries (a third of Rioja’s total) now welcoming wine tourists to the region. And the Consejo has said it’s looking to quadruple Rioja’s online sales in the next five years, as part of a wider campaign to grow Rioja’s space in the online world.
All of which feeds into the UK activity. Many independents cite Rioja Wine UK near the top of their lists of supportive and effective generic offices. With a now familiar round of activity including Rioja Wine Month in October, the Ultimate Rioja blind tasting (in which leading industry experts pick out the region’s best bottles), and the ever-informative Rioja Bootcamp training sessions, Rioja continues to dominate Spanish wine sales in the UK, accounting for 46% of total Spanish value, and 37% of volume.
Ribera del Duero: A region that’s come a long way since the days of Parkerised excess
A similar sense of possibility and optimism can be sensed in the British marketing plans organised by PR firm Cube Communications for the Ribera del Duero Consejo.
The centrepiece of the region’s 2021 activity is a selection of 100 wines from the region by Tim Atkin MW, with the latest list released at a tasting for the trade in London in November.
As Atkin himself says, the list, which was drawn from tastings of more than 500 Ribera wines, is remarkable for the consistent quality it represents: all of the wines scored 94 points and above.
It also seems to reflect a consensus that Ribera del Duero has come a long way from the time when it had become all but synonymous with a kind of internationalised, Parkerised excess, with wines that had become rather lifeless: too extracted, too alcoholic, too oaky … too much.
As Atkin’s list – and my own extensive recent tasting of Ribera wines – confirms, while the region specialises in a single grape variety in Tempranillo, it is capable of a remarkable range of styles. That’s a reflection of the Burgundian variety of terroirs found across the region (more than 30 soil types), as well as its incredible wealth of old-vine material. A third of the region’s 22,000ha of vineyard is bush vines of more than 35 years old; more than 800ha were planted before 1920.
All the same, the best Ribera wines do share a common trait, no matter where they’re sourced or how they’re made. Whether the winemaker is going for a more traditionally Spanish approach involving long ageing in barrel, or a natural, low-intervention joven style, Ribera’s top bottles all have the seam of freshness that comes from exploiting the cool night time temperatures across this high-altitude plateau, and a diurnal variation that can be as pronounced as 28°C in the growing season.
Improving understanding of all these factors is very much a part of the Ribera del Duero strategy under Cube, with independents a key target for a region that remains focused on the premium end of the market.
Like Rioja, Ribera wines saw a rise in interest in the UK over the pandemic with double-digit sales growth helping to offset some of the domestic difficulties.
As the shape of the post-Covid world begins to take shape, the consejo’s target is to add 60 new producers to the UK market. It’s testament to the changes in Ribera over the past decade that a goal that would once have seemed ludicrously ambitious now seems eminently achievable.