Rioja: the difficult way to the top of the pyramid

by Peter Arijs, DipWSET

Rioja

source: Peter Arijs

New geographical indications in Rioja

Actually, my intention in this article was to give an overview of the recent changes in Rioja, with emphasis on the new geographical indications. But to be honest, there are already plenty of other publications on the subject. By the way, the information is also summarised in the new WSET Diploma syllabus (and it was even a recent exam question!).

  • Those who would like to see the information again in a nutshell: In Rioja there are now new geographical indications. For “village level wines”, 85% of the grapes must come from the village, the rest from neighbouring villages. For “single vineyard” (viñedo singular) wines, 100% of the grapes must come from a vineyard with demonstrably unique characteristics and quality. The age of the vines plays an important role here. The new regulations came in 2018 and today there are 103 approved vineyards and all 144 villages are entitled to the designation at village level.

In this article, therefore, I will not discuss the details of the new legislation, but
rather its practical implications.

The division of Rioja is rather administrative

We can certainly look at the new Rioja regulations with a critical eye. Why, for example, have all 144 villages in Rioja been given the same right to the denomination “vino de pueblo“? As if they were all equal before the law, but unique in expression? In Burgundy, surely not every village has the right to its own AOC? Only the best ones. Agreed, in Rioja the villages have not got their own DO. It is an additional “regional designation” (similar to the menzione geografica aggiuntiva or MGAs in Italy). Nevertheless, we can say that the new regulations are mainly an administrative division.

A politically charged debate

Insiders, of course, have long known the best zones in Rioja. The “Côte d’Or” is mainly in Rioja Alavesa on calcareous soils. And that is where the political debate begins. At the time of writing, the Basque government, supported by ABRA (Asociación de Bodegas de Rioja Alavesa), has registered a new DOP “Viñedos de Alava”. The next step is to submit this at national level to the Ministry of Agriculture and then to the European Commission. Of course, the DOCa Rioja is strongly opposed to this schism and the question is how many bodegas are really asking for this (few reputable ones, I think). Or is it rather an outburst of nationalism and a political provocation?

At first sight, the decision to give all 144 villages the same right to a municipal designation seems like a compromise à la Belge. It gives the impression of terroir without provoking controversy about which villages are really suitable. An often forgotten provision of the new legislation is that the bodega must also be located in the same village. This, of course, goes against the whole idea of terroir. Imagine if Marc Colin were only allowed to make a Saint-Aubin wine but had to sell his Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet wines as generic Burgundy because his winery is located in Saint-Aubin? This is a real problem for Telmo Rodriguez, among others: in Remelluri he produces two village wines of San Vicente and La Bastida. But only for the latter can he apply for the designation “vino de pueblo” because his bodega is located there.

Rioja

source: Peter Arijs

A pyramid of wines

This Telmo Rodriguez is one of the pioneers who lit the fire. At the end of 2015, he wrote his “Matador Manifesto”. More than 150 winemakers from all over Spain rallied behind it. Rodriguez argues that a pyramid structure is the best way to identify wines based on their origin, quality and authenticity.

  • Regional wines form the basis.
  • One step above that are the village wines.
  • At the top of the pyramid are the single-vineyard wines.

In his manifesto, Telmo Rodriguez calls on the regulatory bodies in Spain to be sensitive to the new wine reality: Quality must be the most important factor for the classification of terroir.

Rioja producers sceptical

Five years after Telmo Rodriguez, the DOs of Priorat, Bierzo, Cava and Rioja are still struggling with the same problem. Making a first geographical subdivision is not so difficult. But when it comes to identifying quality, the debate becomes much more difficult and politically charged. In the end, all these attempts are not really “classifications” but more “segmentations”. The same can be said of the new appellation “single vineyard” in Rioja. It is the winemaker who applies for this appellation. To get approval, he has to prove the uniqueness of his vineyard. But the quality is not determined by other factors.

Rioja

source: Peter Arijs

It is significant that many owners of the best vineyards in Rioja have not applied for single vineyard status. It may be tempting to compare again with Burgundy but the more recent Premier and Grand Cru vineyards there have also usually been approved thanks to the lobbying of winemakers or on their behalf. But in Burgundy the prestige of these classifications is accepted and widely known, while in Rioja the producers of top wines still view it with scepticism. In fact, all of Lopez de Heredia’s wines (such as Viña Tondonia) are wines from a single vineyard. But they do not apply for the appellation. Same for Contino or Pujanza: they produce fantastic single vineyard wines but do not apply. And we are not even talking about Artadi. This producer of El Pison, perhaps the most iconic single vineyard wine in Rioja, has even left the DOCa Rioja.

Rioja a region of excellence?

This could be the real crux of the problem. Rioja is still not regarded as a top quality region, either externally or internally. Yet the region has all the potential and quality for it. From the inside, this understanding is growing. This is also the point I wanted to make when I organised a big Rioja tasting for the Flemish Wine Guild in November 2019. I invited some of the highest quality projects in Rioja. Many attendees let me know they were amazed at the quality and diversity in Rioja. But to the outside world, it is not these quality wines but the many well-selling standardised wines (Telmo Rodriguez calls them “industrial Rioja“) that determine the image of Rioja.

Here, too, we could make comparisons with other regions. Most wines of AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are also fairly standardised basic wines. The difference is that Bordeaux has more than 50 other AOCs, many at municipal level, and a few real “classements”. These AOCs not only have their own rules and marketing bodies. Even the umbrella Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) knows how to find a perfect balance to give both the Grand Cru Classés and the drinkable Entre-deux-Mers wines an equal place in the spotlight. From a marketing point of view, Bordeaux has worked out its “personas” (different types of buyers at different quality and price levels) and corresponding positioning very well.

¿Y tú, Rioja?

Is this where Rioja goes wrong? Does it still let its image be defined by the big volumes and the big brands? Spoiler alert: yes! There is nothing wrong with producing wine for the mass market, as Bordeaux does with great success. But perhaps Rioja has closed its eyes for too long to the possibility of upselling? Not surprising when you consider the power and voting rights of the big bodegas within the consejo regulador and its associated organisations.

The new appellations of villages and individual vineyards are an admirable step in the right direction for a region that has stood still for so long. But when it is mostly unknown bodegas that register their single vineyards (an understandable move from a marketing perspective), while renowned producers do not (even though they make single vineyard wines), it is a sign of the times. When you define 144 appellations on village level, purely on an administrative basis, you do not make things more understandable for the consumer either.

Ultimately, a better delineation of terroir is needed. The recent book “Rioja: Vinos Silenciosos” (Alberto Gil and Antonio Remesal) approaches the terroir of Rioja in a more ambitious way. The authors define sub-zones on the basis of soil and climate, and not simply on an administrative basis. To do this work properly, however, much knowledge is undocumented or even lost, as Luis Guitterez (Spain correspondent for the Wine Advocate) claims. It will take someone with a good dose of courage and above all knowledge to put the idea of Telmo Rodriguez into practice. To define the “Pauillac” municipalities and “La Tache” vineyards of Rioja, because they certainly exist! Until then, we will have to make do with our knowledge of the best producers and wines. And there are plenty of them, that’s for sure!