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Spain – The New Frontier? (Part II)

An Overview of Spain

Part II

          In the vineyard at Bodega Contador in San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

As I wrote in my last article, some of the best producers in Spain have reached an inflection point in what they think Spanish wine should be.  Since Rioja is the epicenter of this movement it will be where I direct the focus of this article.

As we drove up and down Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, what amazed and boggled my mind was the sheer size and quantity of mega Bodega (Bodega = winery) that frequently dot the landscape with their 2-3 story glistening facilities contrasting against the natural landscape.  However, the enormity is the least puzzling part of my confusion as I know that most Rioja producers make oceans of wine and require a big facility.  It was the lack of recognition of these brands that surprised me.  It was as if all the investment went into making the facility look attractive, while the money could have been better spent improving wine quality through the vineyard.  Since for many producers the manufacturing process is held in higher regards than say growing practices, more attention is thus paid to the “factory” instead of the vineyard.

The courtyard at Lopez de Heredia in Haro, La Rioja, Spain

                      The courtyard at Lopez de Heredia in Haro, La Rioja, Spain

The establishment in Rioja that regulates wine production is the “Consejo Regulador del vino de Rioja” or “Consejo” for short.  Cune, Marques de Murrieta, Lopez de Heredia, and a handful more of the big names in Rioja make some very good wines under the regulations of this system.  However, this small handful of producers are a tiny fraction of Rioja wine producers making wine under the current systems exact rules.  The majority of the wines made strictly within the Consejo rules are similarly made but vary highly in quality with less focus on terroir and the expression of site.  While all Rioja wine producers have to operate within the Consejo rules in order to use the name Rioja on the label, these rules do nothing to guarantee quality or place of origin beyond the term “Rioja”.  This effectively dilutes the meaning of the term Rioja into a generic brand.

This leads us to the two most controversial issues in Rioja and Spain today:

1) Lack of site designations on wine labels (technically illegal)

2) Lack of quality indicators on wine labels (does not exist)

The lack of information on wine labels is misleading to the consumer and is preventing the best wines from advancing the reputation of Spain in the global marketplace.  Spain has a good to very good reputation globally, but it should be better.  Rioja is the most recognized wine region of Spain in the world, but how is it that Spain’s most iconic wine comes from Ribera del Duero (Vega Sicilia Unico)?

What is most commonly seen on a Rioja wine label is the designation from the Consejo that denotes either Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva classification.  The requirements are strictly enforced to ensure a wine spends a minimum amount of time in oak barrel and then bottle before it is sold.  In Rioja this tells us nothing of where the grapes come from as there are about 200 villages that vary in soils, altitudes and climates.  A wine can be labeled “Gran Reserva”, deemed the top designation in Spain, but can vary in quality and character drastically from another producer’s “Gran Reserva”.  The producer of an inferior wine can gain credence from these lax rules, while the hard-working producer who tends a magnificent piece of land and makes an incredible wine loses as he cannot separate his wine from the inferior wine since they are both eligible to use “Gran Reserva” so long as they follow the aging requirements.  By sticking to this rigid system, Spain has set anchors on their best wine producers by not allowing them to be able to legally separate themselves as higher quality or from a specific site.

High up over Rioja looking south in the village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

  High up over Rioja looking south in the village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra.

Since quality indicators are nowhere to be seen and the classification system is too rigid, producers are labeling their wine with the most basic classification (green Joven label) as this gives them the most flexibility while still being able to legally use the DOCa for origin in Rioja which is very important for marketing purposes.  Rioja is a brand unto itself.

So what are quality indicators?  The most famous quality indicators are from Burgundy where Premier and Grand Cru status at the very least guarantees the wine comes from high quality terroir (though says nothing about viticulture and wine making).  While producer is an important aspect of wine quality as it can transcend vintage conditions and recognize when not to do something, quality in most cases should start with good terroir.  Diversions from this are obvious and are similar to when someone you know well is not acting like themselves, the lack of authenticity sticks out.

So where will Spain and Rioja be in 5-10 years?  Something along the lines of “IGT” which opened the door for progressive wines in Italy might work in Spain, but I don’t think that alone is the best solution as Joven (green label) is where most of these wines reside.  My opinion is that the current classification system is ingrained and not going anywhere.  It works fine for some producers and a desired style, albeit they can be a little boring.  The fastest and most meaningful impact would be to allow the option to add the village and/or vineyard.  Additionally, I think the time required to age the wines should be adjusted for each classification level above Joven.  While these changes might make an impact in the short term, the reality is that it will take decades of proven consistency to get to that next level of quality, terroir driven wines.  While not an easy task, it is an endeavor that is worth.

100+ year old vine in the heart of the Vega-Sicilia vineyards in Ribera del Duero.

 100+ year old vine in the heart of the Vega-Sicilia vineyards in Ribera del Duero.

Some immediate action can be taken to improve quality and open the minds of those in the entire system of making wine in Spain, from grower to regulator.  Many of the best producers already do the following and should implore their counterparts to also do these where possible.  Producers that buy grapes should incentivize and teach farmers better sustainable growing techniques so that better grapes are farmed.  Encourage viticulturists to work harvests in other regions and to learn more about sustainable viticulture.  Buy the best examples of different wines from around the world and share them with your teams to help them broaden their tasting experience and palate knowledge.  If you have never tasted a great wine, how can one aspire to make a great wine?

Telmo asked me, “What is traditional Rioja?  I don’t think we really know what traditional Rioja is.”   His point being that there is not just one great classic example of what a Rioja wine is or should be.  I agree with him, and believe that he and other like-minded pioneers are doing their best to take Rioja to the next level, it’s only been about 130 years or so.  It will take a lot of hard work and time to get there but in the end everyone wins: Spain, the wine producers, the local economy, and wine consumers.  The only people to lose out will be those that can’t keep up or are revealed for what they are.

As much change as there is that still needs to occur, things are looking up in Rioja. The path is clear, just how many will go down it is real question. Looking up to the Sierra Cantabria mountains from Remelluri.

As much change as there is that still needs to occur, things are looking up in Rioja. The path is clear, just how many will go down it is real question. Looking up to the Sierra Cantabria mountains from Remelluri.

A bientoit!

-Tom

 

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