“Do you know the taste of Labastida?” asks Telmo Rodriguez. The same question from a Burgundian or a Bordelais about one of their villages would be far easier to answer. Coming from Rodriguez, as he stands amongst the tiny, ancient plots of his Las Beatas vineyards in Rioja Alavesa, it’s rhetorical. His point is that for a region so varied in terroir, in topography, in soils, elevation and orientation (in their few hectares, the vineyards of Las Beatas face half a dozen points of the compass), it’s astonishing how unsophisticated is the popular perception of Rioja. As he puts it, with a note of regret, “We’re happy to be generic.”
|From the garden at Remelluri|
Rodriguez, who makes wine in nine regions of Spain, from his family estate of Remelluri in Labastida and the ancient vineyards he has revived in the region, to Ribera del Duero, Toro, Galicia and as far south as Malaga, is one of a disparate group of producers becoming increasingly vocal about the limitations of the Rioja DOC. They have different ways of expressing themselves but their point is simple: the official classification of Rioja into the three levels of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva is an instrument too blunt to do justice to the complexity of what is popularly known as “the region of 1000 wines”.
The man who set the whole thing off is Juan Carlos de Lacalle of Artadi, whose Viña el Pisón has the distinction of being one of Spain’s most expensive wines. Indeed, at a little under €500, the 2007 is one of the world’s priciest bottles. Early in 2015 the Rioja press reported he would be leaving the DO. From the 2014 vintage all Artadi wines will be labelled Vino de Mesa, and will not carry the Rioja name or official back label stamp.
“We need different tools to express the thousands of different styles of Rioja,” de Lacalle says. As an illustration of what he’s talking about he takes me to his vineyards on the San Ginés river (a tributary of the Ebro) outside the town of Laguardia. On the eastern bank, west facing, is La Poza, and opposite is Valdegines, looking east. The difference is the orientation and the depth of soil. The winemaker suggests La Poza – warmer, with deeper soils – “is more Mediterranean.” The wines are markedly different, the one with red fruit, the other with riper tannins and a rounder profile. “This is the kind of terroir we want to focus on,” de Lacalle says. “Why should we put it all in the same tank and label it Gran Reserva?”
|"Do you know the taste of Labastida?"Telmo Rodriguez|
The singularity of Rioja’s classification goes back to the 19th century. Historically, Rioja’s bodegas have been master blenders, sourcing grapes from all over the region, developing a distinctive house style. The classification is geared to wine age: DO regulations state that Crianza wines must spend a year in oak and a year in bottle, Reserva for a year in oak and two years in bottle, Gran Reserva two years in oak and three years in bottle. Village names are not allowed on bottles. No notice is taken of place – for most consumers it is irrelevant that Marques de Murrieta’s Castillo Ygay comes from one of the most famous single vineyards in Rioja Alta. “The system implies that everything starts when the wine is in barrel or bottle. There’s no emphasis on the vineyard,” Murrieta’s owner Vicente Cebrian says.
The land is pushed further into the background by the fact that only a handful of bodegas own their vineyards. Almost all (Murrieta is a rare exception) source their wines from multiple growers, all over Rioja, working very small plots: the average size of vineyard in Rioja Alavesa is one third of a hectare. The concentration on blending, Rodriguez says, means that “we forget the Grands Crus”. Terroir is lost in favour of process.
Las Beatas is a vineyard paradise, with medieval abandoned terraces, and the remains of an 800-year-old stone press hewn into a house-sized rock. For Rodriguez (who studies the old ways, a process he likens to pulling on a rope to bring the past into focus) it is essential to re-discover respect for the land. For most people, he says, Rioja is reduced to a simple duality, traditional and modern, where “Traditional means American oak and modern means French oak. But it’s far more complicated than that.”
|"The man who set the whole thing off..." Delacalle of Artadi|
The idea of Rioja as homogenous is quickly exploded by a visit to the eastern tip of Rioja Baja, the biggest but least-celebrated of the three sub-regions of this sprawling appellation.
Baja’s main town of Alfaro has the greatest vineyard acreage of any town of Rioja. All the great producers source tonnes of grapes from here. But despite the efforts of the bullish and charismatic Alvaro Palacios (Decanter’s Man of the Year 2015), whose family winery, Palacios Remondo, is in Alfaro, Baja struggles for recognition. There are many reasons for this, the main one being the craze for Tempranillo in the 1980s, which is fine up north but can get overripe if it’s too warm. Palacios is busily regrafting back to Garnacha.
While to the north the valleys are narrow and steep, Baja is more open, flatland leading to humpbacked hills. The soil is stony – in some places it resembles Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It is Mediterranean-influenced, the warmth (and the pudding stones) ideal for Garnacha. Palacios’ dream is to gain recognition for the region. “I don’t want to dedicate my life to the vineyard and in 50 years not know where the wine comes from. The worst thing that has happened in Rioja is that when you taste Viña Real 1954, you don’t know any of the vineyards. It wasn’t the winemaker, it was the vineyard, it was those old vines from a special area.” Palacios was instrumental in getting village designations recognised in Priorat, and he would like to do the same here. “We have to have a pyramid of quality, with country wine at the bottom, then regional, then the villages, then specific plots within the villages.”
|Las Beatas: note Roman stone press in fore, ancient terraces at back|
The “reformers” are voluble, passionate, dynamic – and inchoate. They agree a quality level should be added to the DO, but they haven’t put together any sort of proposal. Rodriguez believes his terroir among the best in the world but says he doesn’t want to get bogged down in bureaucracy; Palacios reckons change will come, “but not until my grandchildren’s time”. Cebrian is adamant they should “reform the DO but not break it.” Even a bodega as conservative as Marques de Caceres agrees some sort of reform would be welcome. Cristina Forner, its president, sees no reason to leave the DO, though she agrees a way should be found of moving “towards models focussed on quality with future potential.” Caceres has already launched its own “estate” range, Excellens, five wines sourced from high-altitude vineyards with all the emphasis on vine age, reduced yields and limited production.
Others agree that the DO needs to be improved, but are ambivalent about how it should be achieved. At Bodegas Roda, founded in 1987 and one of the most renowned of the Rioja modernists, export manager Victor Charcán says, “Yes, the classification should include vineyards. Some sites are better than others.” But he adds, Roda is a blending house, so village designations would be irrelevant to them. “Any reform must be handled with great care,” he cautions.
For its part, Rioja’s regulatory body the Consejo Regulador, while often derided for being reactionary, says it is open to suggestions. The problem, general manager José-Luis Lapuente told me, is politics. “They’re talking to the media but they have made no formal application to us. Certain political issues have blocked the debate.” But reforms are being tabled, and “certainly the name of a village on the label could add value.”
Bear in mind we are talking about adding value to one of the world’s most recognised, and loved, wine brands. Rioja sells 400 million bottles a year; eight out of ten bottles opened in Spain are from Rioja. The top bodegas have markets in 120 countries; the UK market alone is worth £220m. With sales like this, it’s not surprising the majority of producers don’t see any need for change.
But it’s happening anyway. Those who know Rioja have long understood the stylistic difference between modern, terroir-driven wines and those that are more traditional and oak-dominant. “What’s really exciting for Rioja lovers is that you now have the choice between traditional and modern,” says Pierre Mansour of the Wine Society.
And people like “geekery”, as Jean-Remi Barris of the independent importer Indigo Wines calls it. “Rioja is not seen on a par with the best appellations because there is not enough geekery for people to sink their teeth into.” The more information you can give a wine lover, the more they will want. “It’s a bit like Champagne. For a long time it was very hard to talk about terroir, but it’s all changing with grower Champagnes.”
Bureaucratic change will neither help nor hinder this thirst for knowledge of terroir. Artadi, Palacios, Rodriguez and other pioneers will carry on as they are, and their village lands will gradually come to the notice of those keen to delve deeper into Rioja. More and more bodegas will follow suit as they see the value such cuvées bring – and more and more of Rioja’s 17,000 growers, like Pedro Balda, who labels himself “viticultor” and produces 1200 bottles, will release fascinating artisanal wines.
“My family have been "cosecheros" (growers) in San Vicente for six generations,” Balda told me in an email. “We know there are lots of terroirs that produce a huge range of wines and qualities. So, in the same village, there are many different things you can find.”
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This article first appeared in Decanter magazine September 2015