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Will the new regulations make Rioja more "market-driven"?

Published:  20 June, 2017

Two weeks ago, Rioja’s D.O.Ca. control board announced two major changes for Spain’s heartland wine region.

The first was to pave the way for the identification of single vineyard wines.

The other, to greenlight the production of sparkling wine bearing the region’s name.

The changes are major for Rioja, but look sideways to the sparkling revolution marching out of Italy and elsewhere, and also the single plot classifications of places like Italy and Burgundy which give far greater flexibility to producers around how they make and classify wine, then the changes begin to seem far more familiar.

For producers wishing to include information about individual plots of land on their labels, they will have to adhere to many different stipulations including a minimum age for vines (in this case, 35 years) and specified yields (5,000 kilos per hectare), all of which will bear yet-to-be-specified trademark(s). 

José Luis Lapuente, the director general of the Consejo, told Harpers that the decision had grown from a desire to show that Rioja is “market-driven”, and open to making the most of terroir–specific opportunities while still staying true to Rioja’s traditional categories of Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

The line from the Consejo is that these changes come from the wishes of consumers and the market itself.

Others are more skeptical about their usefulness, such as Richard Cochrane, head of the UK office of leading Spanish producer Felix Solis, who is keen to stress that the new regulations are not necessarily a new benchmark for quality.

“These are for a small number of producers who want to be seen and heard,” he told Harpers, pointing to the vast majority of value sales (47%), which come from wine produced under the bread-and-butter DO classification.

“Adhering to these requirements doesn’t necessarily mean better wine. You can produce delicious Rioja without them. They are not in themselves a guarantee of excellence.”

Sitting alongside the long-running review of Rioja’s classification system is also the discussion around municipalities and enabling greater geographical specification.

Talks have reached a state of maturity around bringing more regionality to the area, beyond the existing sub-zones of Alaversa, Alta and Baja.

Like other municipalities around Europe, these municipalities have already making wine for a long while, but in their case they have so far been excluded from labels.

If changes to these regulations go ahead, which it is looking likely that they will, it will being greater flexibility to the region, bringing it in line with others across Europe.

Again however, apart from the Consejo attempting to keep its producers on side, what are the real benefits to the market?

“Rioja is not widely crying out for this,” Cochrane believes. “With Rioja, consumers don’t need great wine knowledge to access it, and that’s [the region’s] great niche.

“Similar single vineyard and municipality rules exist in Italy and Burgundy, but you have to ask, who is that there to serve and protect? You can argue it’s to give shoppers clarity. But mainly, it means that you can deliver and serve on a higher price. At the top is not where everyone can afford to be or want to be.”

Despite this, he says that roping off the top part of the pyramid is a “good solution” for those producers who want to be able to specify things like single plots, although once again, it should not be considered or confused with a set-in-stone progression of quality.

“A great example is Italy, where some of the most expensive and best wines fall outside of the regulations,” he observes. “The idea of the Super Tuscan falls outside of it. Often winemakers believe they can make better wine by not adhering to particular regulations, such as the top Antinori wines from Italy.”

David Gleave MW, MD at Italian specialists Liberty Wines, concurs that Italian producers have more freedom to pick and choose from a list of classifications systems which fit them and their wine best – including ones for tighter geographical areas – and have also benefited from this freedom.

“In Chianti, if you want to make a reserva there is some restriction. But winemakers can step outside of reserva can use DOC, DOCG or IGT. In the 1970s, things were more restrictive. The increased flexibility has resulted in greater innovation. On the IGT, that has fed into the DOC and so on.”

Some regions will be more interested in reaching the top of the specificity pyramid than others, Cochrane says, predicting that Rioja Alavesa and also Rioja Alta will want to drive this agenda.

While these decisions weren’t made overnight – it took two years for a plenary agreement to be made at the beginning of June – the changes can only be viewed in context of the recent permutations travelling through Europe.

An increased focus on terroir is one, but even more relevant is the sparkling revolution which shows no signs of slowing.

Rioja is hoping to jump on board with the new regulations which will allow rosé and white sparkers to be produced.

While Lapuente says the Consejo is “conscious about our brand identity” others are concerned that Rioja is moving too far from its niche.

Gleave is urging Rioja to play to its strengths.

“Rioja has had a huge success story with its reds. They do well with white and not bad with rosé. But they’ve got to be careful and need to continue to build on their reds. They shouldn’t try and become all things to all people,” he advised.

Cochrane equally sees opportunity elsewhere for Rioja, particularly in its whites.

“You’ve got to think of the reputation of the region and what it’s based on. It’s not that it can’t evolve…Rioja has a great reputation globally, especially for its red wines.

“It’s great to see so many crisp, dry mineral, whites made from Viura with a bit of Tempranillo taking off. One example is the Arnegui we have in Waitrose. It’s made from Virua, stainless steel, at the heart of what’s doing well in white Rioja. It’s possible that that could be extended into sparkling, but white and sparkling are different markets.”

For Lapuente, there is no conflict between the worlds of white, red, and sparking.

“We are conscious about our brand identity and see diversification as a means to open up new opportunities. For example, our sparkling wines are going to be top quality and will complement our portfolio,” he says.