It might have been a while coming, but Rioja is on the verge of an historic embrace of a single vineyard classification. Tom Perry takes a look at how the region got there and what it could mean
Rioja has enjoyed truly spectacular growth in the past 30 years. Sales have more than doubled – from 104m litres in 1986 to 283m litres in 2016. The area under vine has increased from 39,000 to 64,500 hectares and almost 500 new wineries have been created – most of them small, with a capacity of less than 150,000 litres.
But the past few years have seen another big change: Rioja has started to embrace the debate about terroir, with a rise in single-vineyard and village wines right at the forefront.
From blends to single varietals, Rioja’s traditional philosophy of blending different grape varieties, often coming from opposite corners of the region, is a consequence of differences in climate between the western half of the appellation (Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa) and the eastern half (Rioja Baja).
Historically, the cooler, wetter climate of the Alta and Alavesa produced lightly textured, Tempranillo-based wines with 9.5% abv, while the warmer, drier, mostly Garnacha-planted Baja produced fuller-bodied wines that often reached 14%.
Until the late 20th century, most of the players either owned or leased vineyards or bought grapes and wine from the Baja to flesh out their Alta and Alavesa wines, because autumn rains and cold weather often produced barely-ripe grapes in the western half of the region. But in recent years, warmer weather has made these differences less obvious.
Large wineries preferred this. It enabled them to create a consistent house style by choosing the grapes and wine best suited them, according to the characteristics of each harvest rather than having to maintain extensive vineyard holdings.
These big players generally demanded Tempranillo and were unwilling to pay more for grapes from older vineyards, especially old-vine Garnacha, so farmers pulled them up, replanting them with higher-yielding Tempranillo.
So, rather than becoming more differentiated, grapes and wines became more homogenised across Rioja.
The first inkling that change was in the making was the creation of a 100% Tempranillo in the mid-1980s. When launched, the media roundly criticised it for not including Garnacha.
However, once the single-varietal barrier was broken, other taboos were soon shattered. Wineries began using French and Eastern European oak as well as the more traditional American for ageing. In turn, single-varietal Gracianos and Mazuelos were launched.
Names for your notebook
Viñedos de Páganos (El Puntido, La Nieta)
A New World style of winemaking emerged, with intensely coloured, fruit-laden, new oak-aged, high alcohol wines that wine writers, especially in the US, applauded but that disappointed Rioja purists, who feared the loss of a recognisable Rioja character.
Markets, however, were demanding more, not less, variety. As the vineyard area grew, small wineries lobbied the DOC’s regulating council (Consejo Regulador) to grant the status of criador – or ageing winery – with the right to use the official Rioja seal on back labels.
Before 1991, only companies with 500 oak barrels and a total of 225,000 litres of wine in the winery were granted permission to use these seals. But when Rioja was granted Denominación de Origen Calificada status in 1991, the minimum number of barrels/volume of wine was reduced to a mere 100 and 45,000 litres respectively. In 1998, it was reduced to 50 barrels and 22,500 litres.
This was in response to small wineries demanding access to markets, but also because the region’s Consejo Regulador felt it was now able to adequately trace the flow of grapes and wine from each vintage, through the various phases of winemaking, ageing, bottling and release, from an ever-growing number of wineries.
Traceability in Rioja, in other words, was put into place years before the term became a buzzword in the wine trade. And it is one of the keys to the current debate about single vineyards in Rioja.
The new players in Rioja were growers whose business had previously been supplying grapes and young wine in bulk to criadores and who now decided to build small wineries and cellars to make, age and bottle their own wines.
A number of these newly founded wineries were in the Alavesa, part of the Rioja appellation that lies inside the Basque Country, and who lobbied for the right to use ‘Rioja Alavesa’ on their labels.
This was approved in 1998, provided that the grapes and wine came from the Alavesa region and the wine was aged and bottled in an Alavesa winery. This new rule also allowed for the use of ‘Rioja Alta’ and ‘Rioja Baja’ on labels.
Although regional differentiation had begun, it’s interesting to note that today, while a large number of wineries from the Alavesa print ‘Rioja Alavesa’ on their labels, only a handful of wineries use the ‘Rioja Alta’ subzone.
‘Rioja Baja’, meanwhile, has not been used by any winery to date, perhaps because of the negative connotation of Baja. Certainly, from the point of view of quality, such lack of take-up is absolutely unjustified. Some of Rioja’s most sought-after grapes are located in the Baja, on the slopes of Mount Yerga, near Alfaro.
An amendment in 1999 allowed smaller geographic areas within a subzone, such as villages, to be used on labels. The council is currently debating details about the ‘village wine’ implementation and it will probably be approved soon.
This sub-regional focus will allow producers to express the difference in the terroirs between villages in Rioja. Some forward-thinking winemakers such as Telmo Rodríguez are exploring these. For his Lindes de Remelluri brand, he vinifies wines from grapes from the village of Labastida for one bottling and grapes from Laguardia for another. Logically, a single vineyard expresses terroir more purely than a pan-regional blend.
The idea of making wines from single vineyards has been on the minds of Rioja wineries for years, but it wasn’t until 2003 that a new general Spanish wine law created the category of ‘vino de pago’ (the closest equivalent in English is ‘single vineyard wine’). This category was at the tip of Spain’s quality pyramid.
At this time, Rioja debated but ultimately discarded the idea of creating a full-on ‘single-vineyard wine’ category, because few Consejo Regulador members were willing to accept that a wine coming from a single vineyard was intrinsically better than a Rioja blend, a single varietal, a crianza, a reserva or a gran reserva. It had a point, but interest among smaller wineries remained strong.
The issue exploded into the open when Artadi, a winery whose wines had been lauded by wine writers and magazines, announced that it was leaving the Rioja appellation at the end of 2015, alleging that the Rioja name did not provide any added value to its brand.
A few months later, several members of the Rioja Alavesa Winery Association, made up of small properties emphasising ‘Rioja Alavesa’ on their labels, announced their intention to create a new appellation, Viñedos de Álava. These events made the council think seriously about the need to recognise terroir.
Single or singular?
There is certainly plenty of potential for creating a single-vineyard designation in Rioja. According to the Consejo, there are almost 119,000 individual vineyards within the appellation. As for old vines, around 25% of Rioja’s vineyards were planted before 1985 and 13% before 1975.
But wineries, pressed to create a niche for their (growing number of) brands, have already been printing ‘single vineyard’ on their labels. This has created a conflict with the Consejo, which hasn’t yet defined a certification procedure.
To make matters more complicated, many Rioja brands begin with ‘Viña’ (vineyard), ‘Finca’ (farm), ‘Solar’ and ‘Señorío (estate), among others. This is a perfectly legitimate practice if the brand is registered, but it could become confusing, not least because, with so many vineyards and brand names, there’s a possibility that labelling a wine as coming from a single vineyard could potentially have the opposite effect from denoting quality.
As one Rioja pundit says: ‘More than 100,000 individual vineyards in Rioja will eventually mean 100,000 single-vineyard brands. It could become a real mess.’
Nonetheless, under pressure from wineries, markets and wine writers, who accuse Rioja of being behind the times, the Consejo has found a solution that combines the rigour it requires with the possibility of traceability and control: the category of ‘singular vineyards’.
Taking into account the characteristics that make it unique, and with strict additional criteria, this is, if you like, a ‘single vineyard-plus’ classification.
The Consejo has built a broad consensus among the Rioja trade, the Ministry of Agriculture and agricultural engineers specialising in viticulture, in an attempt to define single characteristics. While this is not yet law, when interviewed, the Consejo said classification approval was ‘imminent’.
A Singular Achievement
Minimum vineyard age of about 35 years
Around 25% lower yields than for a general Rioja vineyard Sustainable, environmentally friendly vineyard husbandry
No machine harvesting
A thorough study of the geological and climatic characteristics of the vineyard, including, among others, the orientation, altitude, slope, type and depth of the different layers of soil, plus a physical and chemical analysis of the soil
Grape variety or varieties, clonal or massal selection, year planted, vine density, how the vines are trained, and other characteristics
The name of the singular vineyard must be registered as a brand
Wines must be vinified and aged separately from other wines
The wine requires exceptionally high marks from the official tasting committee for wine from a minimum of three prior vintages, or public recognition of the wine’s prestige and quality from wine experts for a period of no less than five years
The Consejo doesn’t yet seem inclined to give up Rioja’s traditional classifications. Wines that qualify in these categories will have the right to be labelled ‘joven from a singular vineyard’, and so on.
Some have already attacked the ‘sing-ular vineyard’ idea, calling it a toothless reform based on vineyard age and lower yields. They say that everyone already knows where the best vineyards are.
But certifying Rioja’s best terroirs is long overdue, and anything that encourages grape growers to pamper their best vine-yards is broadly to be welcomed.
In spite of the huge changes that are taking place, some still accuse the region of lethargy. Will wines from singular vineyards provide the impetus to up Rioja’s game? There is room for optimism. Grapes from great vineyards, up to now blended with other grapes, are likely to be certified and vinified on their own. Rioja’s 20,000 growers are eager to test the idea.
Carlos Echapresto, sommelier at the one-Michelin-star restaurant Venta Moncalvillo, warns: ‘Rioja is the sum of everything done so far and it would be a mistake to position single vineyard as “the best in Rioja”. Whether the new category will help sell more Rioja or not will depend on the sommelier’s ability to transmit his ideas clearly, without confusing or unduly influencing his customer,’ he adds.
For restaurants, these ‘singular vineyard’ wines – and the growth of regionality in general – could be a double-edged sword. Some customers will be confused by the new classification, not least because Rioja’s generic simplicity has been part of its appeal. On the other hand, for more wide-ranging lists, and with teams of well-informed sommeliers, these new wines can add real points of interest.
Rioja’s past success in creating a strong identity for an easily recognisable style – emphasising soft tannins and jammy red fruit from ageing in American oak –
has its advantages, but it clearly does not express the diversity found in the region.
The region has moved from ‘typicity’ to ‘the land of a thousand wines’. Recognising wines from single sub-zones, villages and outstanding vineyards in addition to traditional Rioja blends – and allowing consumers to discern the differences between them – can surely only enhance Rioja’s stature.