An Overview of Spain
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 that contrast against the natural landscape and in some cases sport the name of the bodega in enormous story high letters. 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, whilst the money could have maybe been better spent on ways to improve wine quality. For many producers, the manufacturing process is held in higher regards than say growing practices. Thus, more attention is paid to the “factory” instead of the vineyard.
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 that make 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:
– Lack of site designations on wine labels (technically illegal)
– Lack of actual quality indicators on wine labels (does not exist)
The lack of information on wine labels is misleading to the consumer and is holding back the best wines of Spain from advancing the reputation of Spain in the global marketplace. Spain has a good to very good reputation globally, but frankly, it should be better, especially in Rioja. 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 bottle before it is sold. In Rioja, this tells us nothing of where the grapes may have come from out of the 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 a worse 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.
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 within the rules and still legally use the DOCa as the 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 winemaking). While the 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? My opinion is that the current classification system is ingrained and not going anywhere. It does work just fine for some producers and helps foster a desired woody style of wine. The fastest and most meaningful impact would be to allow the option to add the village and/or vineyard. I also think that the time required to age the wines in oak should be lowered for each classification level. If the producer desires to age the wine longer in oak they are most certainly allowed to do so currently. For example, almost every wine that Lopez de Heredia makes can qualify as a Gran Reserva. Quality indicators would take decades of research by tasting the wines over years to obtain the specific consistency of character and quality to ascertain for sure which are the best and most consistent wines based on site and the allowed winemaking techniques.
From my talks with producers and what I noticed myself in my visits is that Rioja is lagging in some aspects that can be fixed in the short term. These are just some suggestions that are completely legal and will help improve the diversity and quality of the wines. Top producers already doest of these.
– If you buy grapes, pay your farmers more money in exchange for better, sustainable growing techniques.
– Encourage your viticulturists to work harvests in other regions and to learn more about sustainable viticulture.
– Educate your winemaking team on better techniques for things like gentle and natural fermentations or sensible oak vessel use.
– Buy the best examples of wines from around the world and share them with your teams to help them broaden their tasting experiences and palate knowledge.
Telmo asked me, “What is traditional Rioja? I don’t think we really know what traditional Rioja is.”. I agree with him, and believe that he and other like-minded producers are doing their best to take Rioja to the next level, it’s only been about 130 years or so.