Same same…but Different

On August 8, Spain’s Official Journal published the authorization of 20 projects of viñedos singulares (singular vineyards or VS) in the DOCa. Rioja, bringing the total to 104.

Yesterday however I read an article in an online magazine about the launch of a terroir-focused wine brand created by a well-known Rioja winery. What caught my eye was a comment about the coincidence of the creation of this brand three years after the creation of the viñedos singulares (singular vineyard) category in Rioja. The article gave the impression that the wines from this particular winery were part of the viñedos singulares project. This is a bit misleading, so I think it’s time to set the record straight about the differences between Rioja’s singular vineyard category and single vineyard wine projects in Rioja.

As they say in Thailand, “Same same…but different.”

Rioja Alavesa vineyards

Rioja Alavesa vineyards with the Sierra Cantabria mountains behind (T. Perry)

Singular vineyards

A project sanctioned by the Rioja Regulatory Board whose purpose is to protect vineyards with certifiably old vines by encouraging the owners not to pull them up but instead aspire to make singular wine from them.

Inside Rioja has already published detailed information about the viñedos singulares project that you can read here.

VS in Rioja is similar to South Africa’s Certified Heritage Vineyard project and I know that the promoters of each project are following the other’s progress, so Rioja’s VS project is not just a shot in the dark.


A future singular vineyard owned by Bodegas Ontañón in Quel  (Photo: T. Perry)

 Single vineyard wines

Single vineyard designations are also a part of Rioja’s DNA. Many of Rioja’s historic names reflect the concept of single vineyards such as Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Viña Pomal, Viña Zaco, Viña Ardanza, Viña Alberdi, Viña Albina and others. These places have existed for more than a century in some cases but I believe that because the wines produced in these wineries in western Rioja Alta are blends, some of them with garnacha from Rioja Oriental, they have come to be identified as winery brands rather than coming specifically from the so-called vineyard. It is interesting to note however that Viña Zaco from Bodegas Bilbaínas was one of the first applicants to receive VS status in 2019.

Viña Tondonia

Viña Tondonia during a snowstorm in 2005 (Credit:  Tondonia website)

In addition, newer wineries have registered names containing the terms ‘Viña’, ‘Finca’, ‘Propiedad’, ‘Heredad’ and others alluding to place and the ensuing confusion about brand versus origin is perhaps why, at least today, they do not enjoy the protection given to VS. They are, instead, the affirmation by the grower and winery that the vineyard in question and the wines produced there are special, and have demonstrably terroir-linked characteristics, which in most cases they certainly show in tastings.

The increased focus on terroir in the wine world gives these single vineyard wines a legitimate place in the market and they deserve recognition.

Why haven’t more growers and wineries applied for VS status? One reason, perhaps rooted in the Riojan mindset, is the unwillingness of a well-established single vineyard-advertised brand owner to submit to a yearly tasting and the possibility of losing VS status for a certain vintage,  while a magazine or favorite wine writer can give the brand a perpetually high score just by looking at the label or hearing the producer’s name.

Or maybe it’s just being cautious until the VS category is better established. However one marketing executive I asked stated categorically, “VS is a stillbirth”. Well, we all know where he stands! I certainly disagree.

Will these two categories converge? I’m not sure today but it would be beneficial to Rioja if they did.












Well-trained Sommeliers Add Value to the Restaurant Experience


Bilbao-Rioja Venta Moncalvillo Carlos Echapresto

Photo:  Venta Moncalvillo. Carlos Echapresto is the co-owner of the restaurant along with his brother Ignacio.  Carlos holds Spain’s National Gastronomic Award and was Spain’s Best Sommelier of the Year in 2016.

About twenty years ago I led a group of sommeliers from the USA on a tour of Rioja wineries and restaurants. During a visit to one of the area’s top restaurants, I asked the head waiter, who was also the sommelier, how diners chose which wines to order with their meal. He replied, “Older locals always choose their favorite Rioja before ordering the meal. Younger locals and visitors from other parts of Spain and those from abroad choose the food first and then ask for recommendations about pairings. The older locals will always choose a Rioja but the others are willing to experiment, even with wines from other parts of Spain.”

Both are legitimate strategies, but obviously only the latter warrants the intervention of a sommelier or a qualified head waiter for guidance. This almost invariably leads to some pleasant surprises. With the growth in international tourism to our region, the increasing number of Michelin-starred restaurants in La Rioja, Alava and Vizcaya (16 restaurants with a total of 19 stars) and the inclusion of a dizzying number of wines from other Spanish regions and from abroad on our wine lists, the need for a well-versed maître d’ or a sommelier is a necessity, especially if a guest is from outside the region.

A good example is at Remenetxe in Gernika, near Bilbao. Sommelier Jon Andoni Rementería’s wine list has 1400 wines, of which 550 are from Rioja and of these, 290 from Rioja Alavesa alone. Unless you’re a Rioja wine connoisseur, Jon Andoni is there to help.

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego is the maître and head sommelier at the two Michelin-starred Echaurren in Ezcaray in La Rioja as well as the president of the Association of Sommeliers of La Rioja. He talks about his wine list like a philosopher as “…more than a menu. It is a book of sincere reflections that speak of wines through those who make them. (Each winemaker) describes his way of understanding the vineyard, his way of working, his life, in short”.

Chefe Paniego

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego, maître and head sommelier at Echaurren

Félix Jiménez, the owner of Kiro Sushi (1 Michelin star) in Logroño, makes choosing a wine easy because he only serves one. To accompany his sushi menu he serves Akemi (‘bright, beauty’ in Japanese), a white Rioja chosen specifically by Jiménez after tasting a huge number of samples to find the perfect taste.

Félix Jiménez

Félix Jiménez, alma mater of Logroño’s Kiro Sushi (Photo: Kiro Sushi)

Carlos Echapresto, the co-owner with his brother Ignacio of the one Michelin starred Venta Moncalvillo in Daroca de Rioja doesn’t use “maître” or “sommelier”, on his business card, but rather “host”. In a 2017 interview on the Spanish Wine Lover website, he explains that before his guests are seated he offers them an aperitif and tries to discern their food and wine tastes to make the food/wine pairing experience more enjoyable. He is a big fan of wine by the glass, offering more than 70, which is fantastic if you are ordering the tasting menu.

Some of his guests will tell him, “I have a budget of X, make some suggestions.” Echapresto says, “If there’s a good vibe in the restaurant and I have the opportunity to offer something really special, I’ll open it.“

The wine by the glass strategy is a must with a tasting menu, but it works best if the customer is given the chance to choose. I discovered this the hard way recently when my wife and I went to a well-known restaurant with a Michelin star in Cantabria to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We decided to try the tasting menu with the wine pairings recommended by the restaurant. The pairings were not specified on the menu but we trusted the sommelier’s decision.

It turned out that three of the pairings on the nine-course menu were from the same winery – a ‘cava’, a white and a red, and two others were a wacky red and white from new appellations in Cantabria. A furmint from Tokay saved the day. We concluded that most of the wines in question were good deals from a local distributor who in turn passed them on to the restaurant. A consequence of COVID-19 and a three-month forced closing? The meal was delicious but most of the pairings a little forced. We felt that it would have been more honest if the pairings had been written out on the tasting menu. After all, how much does it cost to print a page on a laser printer? Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware!

Josep Roca

‘Pitu’ Roca (Photo Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Has the pandemic caused by the covid-19 virus changed the role of the sommelier? Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, maître and sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, voted #1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015, is sure that it has. He recently told La Verdad that his dining room staff has gone from one day to the next from being purveyors of happiness to superfluous. “COVID-19 has mandated social distancing, requiring us to reduce contact with customers to a minimum”.

Among the ideas that have occurred to him are “emphasizing movements more than words, using gestures like they do in the Far East, cultivating the poetry of rituals or the eloquence of silence. In short, employing new ways of transmitting safety, good taste and happiness.”

Roca also suggests modifying wine lists, not by removing wines, something he considers a travesty, but rather by using graphic elements and simplifying choice for guests. Roca suggests printing out a shorter list on recyclable paper in accordance with guests’ choices of food items, a wise suggestion that our restaurant in Cantabria would be smart to consider.

My takeaway is that the adventurous food and wine lover can learn a lot from a sommelier if she’s willing to experiment. Wines by the glass are a great way to discover new things, especially with a tasting menu. Most top restaurants understand this but even more modest restaurants could increase their offer of wine by the glass, especially in today’s difficult economic climate. Even though a restaurant can’t afford a sommelier, the maître or the chef can be a reliable guide.


Social Distancing in the Good Old Days

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.20.37

Almost everyone who visits Spain for the first time talks about how sociable Spaniards are. We love to mingle with our friends at restaurants, bars and on sidewalk terraces. Bars are our social clubs, where we have breakfast, read the newspaper, meet with our cuadrilla (group of friends) to have a few drinks and some tapas before lunch and/or dinner, have an after dinner drink, gossip, talk politics, soccer, the economy or any other topic. And we don’t mind if our friends get up close and personal when we’re together – with lots of touching, handshakes, hugs and air kisses. In fact, when we see an empty bar, we usually don’t go inside. In short, keeping our distance from others is not part of our DNA.

But that was in the good old days.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.32.02

I’ve always thought that Spain was one of the countries where one’s personal space was small until I read an article in the Washington Post about a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in 2017 that analyzed a sample of almost 9,000 people from 42 countries.

The authors of the study showed subjects a card with the outline of two people (A and B) facing each other with a scale underneath ranging from zero to 220cm for reference. The subjects were asked if they were A, how close in centimeters they would be comfortable with B as a stranger, an acquaintance or a close friend. The results were surprising.

Screenshot 2020-05-14 at 18.57.09

(Credit above and below: Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology via the Washington Post)

Screenshot 2020-05-14 at 18.50.04

Argentines were the most comfortable at close range with strangers, acquaintances and close friends, while Romanians, the most standoffish in the study with strangers, were comfortable with close friends at a distance of about 45cm.

Spaniards kept strangers at about 90cm, acquaintances at about 75cm and close friends at about 60cm.

Curiously, the study showed that citizens of the USA were comfortable with good friends at a closer range than Spaniards (45 vs. 60cm) while Norwegians didn’t feel uncomfortable standing about 35cm away from a close friend.

Unfortunately, there was no evidence about Swedes and their much-celebrated penchant for keeping their distance from everyone. That might explain why Sweden and Norway have chosen to deal with the coronavirus in widely differing ways.

This academic experiment, while undoubtedly carried out with the strictest scientific rigor, offers different results from my own empirical experience. One instance was at a cocktail party at the US Embassy in Madrid in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Latin American diplomats and Spanish businessmen tried to talk practically nose-to-nose with US Embassy personnel while the Americans moved backwards to give themselves space. It was obvious that neither side realized that diplomacy also means consciously respecting others’ personal space.

Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned about personal space is many years attending some of Spain’s most popular festivals like San Fermín in Pamplona, San Mateo in Logroño and Aste Nagusia in Bilbao and San Sebastian. When you’re surrounded by thousands of others while watching fireworks or the chupinazo (the firing of the rocket signaling the opening of the festival), defending your personal space, whether you’re from Argentina, Chicago or Madrid, is impossible. The best way to handle it is to go with the flow and have fun.

Let’s hope that soon we’ll be able to return to the good old days.

(Photos:  Tom Perry)





How Rioja Wineries are Preparing for the Wine Tourist of the Future


Winds of change

the cork in a bottle of Rioja from Bodegas Patrocinio (Photo:  Tom Perry)

“We will soon be able to welcome you again with open arms.
You’ll soon be able to marvel at our landscapes,
feel our sun on your face and share in our lifestyle.
Until then, look after yourselves and those around you.
Thank you for your support.”

This quote from the Spanish National Tourist Office on its US website tries to convey an upbeat attitude toward the reopening of the Spanish economy after a seven-week lockdown. The stark reality facing Spain’s tourism sector however, is a lot less optimistic, at least in the short term. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism accounts for 14.3 per cent of Spain’s GDP, the largest percentage in Europe, with most travel taking place between April and September.

Spain’s administrative division into seventeen autonomous regions is currently a hindrance for attracting tourists. Travel from May 11 (stage 1 of the loosening of restrictions) will only be allowed within one’s home province. Because the Rioja wine district is located in three provinces (La Rioja, Álava and Navarra), a wine tourist living in La Rioja is today unable to visit a Rioja winery in the province of Álava just across the Ebro river. Today, government plans indicate that interprovincial travel (stage 3 or 4, depending on the province) will probably be allowed towards the end of June, but these plans, dictated by politics as much as scientific evidence, change on a daily basis.

There is no timetable for opening international borders, so wineries plan to cater to local, and eventually national tourists for the foreseeable future.

This somber picture has not deterred Rioja wineries from staying close to their customers, selling their products online, educating consumers, carrying out extraordinary acts of solidarity and preparing for the “new normalcy”.

Before COVID-19, online sales directly from wineries to consumers took place mostly in winery tasting rooms. Today online sales are part of the “new normal”. This new sales channel is especially helpful to small and medium sized wineries whose business to the hotel, restaurant and bar trade has dried up. Great deals abound and shipping is free or subject to a small minimum purchase.

The Rioja Regulatory Board has created a website (You deserve a Rioja) that offers 15,000 free visits to 70 wineries as well as an interactive buying guide for direct purchases from wineries or from online wine merchants.

Wine tourism before coronavirus 2

Wine tourism before coronavirus…Will it ever be the same? (Photo: Tom Perry)

Rioja wineries have taken advantage of Spain’s prolonged confinement to produce videochats featuring winemakers, media personalities, virtual tours and online tastings. Among the most interesting is a lecture series on Instagram Live about grapevine maladies created by the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture and Bodegas Valdemar’s wine tasting and wine and food matching course that includes access to a video and six bottles of wine designed to be enjoyed at home. Valdemar has created Momentos Valdemar, a project designed to make wine culture easy to understand and enjoy. The company philosophy is summed up on the Momentos website: “We’ve been made to believe that to drink wine you almost have to be a sommelier, but that’s not true.”

Wineries have quickly understood that in times of crisis, unselfish acts are of vital importance. Bodegas Marqués del Atrio and Viñedos de Aldeanueva were among the first companies here to use their connections in China to import and distribute personal protective equipment for healthcare workers in hospitals. The Osborne group, parent company of Rioja wineries Bodegas Montecillo, as well as Pernod-Ricard are using their distilling facilities to make sanitizing gel.

Bodegas Lecea and Bodegas Murua are two of the Rioja wineries offering free visits to healthcare workers once wineries are allowed to open. José Masaveu, general manager of Masaveu Bodegas, owner of Murua explains, “When you’re up against this situation you can do one of two things. Be a spectator or act, within your possibilities, getting involved in the fight against the coronavirus.” Murua, along with other wineries, restaurants, chefs and wine personalities, has donated bottles of its high-end wines to a charity auction to benefit activities organized by the Spanish Red Cross.

How are Rioja wineries preparing for the “new normal”? The clear consensus among those consulted is that they will learn as the situation evolves, and that wine tourism activities will be adapted to smaller groups with an emphasis on providing a safe experience.

Cristina Pérez, PR manager of Marqués de Riscal explains, “When faced with the uncertainty we’re experiencing, we’re forced to reinvent ourselves and learn on our own” and adds, “we have to be able to receive visitors in a safe environment”.

Luis Alberto Lecea of Bodegas Lecea brings up the interesting point that even though wineries can prepare for wine tourism under the new normal, they can’t be sure about the expectations of the “new” wine tourist. Consequently the winery is preparing several scenarios.

Natalia Bermejo, the wine tourism manager for the CVNE group that includes CVNE, Viña Real and Contino emphasizes that their wineries have a number of different spaces and activities geared to visitors with diverse interests, so there is no need to “change the script”.   However, a major responsibility for the group is making sure that their visitors feel safe by pursuing certification of their properties as Covid-free, by providing sanitized glassware and snacks wrapped in individual packages and using disinfection methods to assure that visitors aren’t carriers of the virus.

Blanca Baños, managing director of Bodegas Bohedal recently announced that the winery will open its outside terrace on May 11, provided that La Rioja is authorized to go to stage 1 of the unlocking protocol. Even though the terrace is large enough to accommodate groups of visitors at the maximum 50% capacity dictated by the protocol, she expects that arrivals will initially be from the winery’s hometown of Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, mostly to provide a place to meet for the small businesses in this village that relies almost exclusively on tourism.

Marta Gómez, the PR manager for the Pernod Ricard Winemakers Spain – owner of Campo Viejo, AGE and Ysios – sums up the group’s philosophy in one word: resilience. “We’ve been working hard from the very beginning of the crisis for that great day when we can once again open our wineries to visitors.” “…very well-thought out plans and sanitary measures so that each visitor to our wineries will be safe and protected, and be absolutely sure that we’ve thought about each and every detail to protect their health”.

María José López de Heredia, managing director and member of the fourth generation of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, offers a sober reflection about the current situation, in keeping with her family philosophy, in place since the company’s founding in 1877:

“…At the present time, and out of respect for the innumerable amount of people who are suffering, our plan is “Patience”, respect, prayers for those who have died and efforts to responsibly protect our families, our employees and our potential visitors as well. We cannot encourage them to visit us when we cannot guarantee their safety, our attention and therefore, their enjoyment.”

“…But from now on we believe that all of us have learned another lesson and this is that in addition to developing ‘wine tourism’ from a strictly economic point of view, we winery owners have the moral obligation to contribute improvements and worthwhile thoughts to society. Nature, on which we all depend so much and wineries even more for obvious reasons…has taught us a huge lesson about humility; it has proved to humans that we don’t control it. We must love it, take care of it, understand it and we have to do it not only with words but with commitment and with action.”






Rioja Copes with the ‘C’ word

Rioja, like every other wine region in the world, is suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. If we can find one positive aspect in the terms of the two Spanish government-mandated lockdowns on March 13 with a tightening of conditions on March 28, it’s the fact that agriculture-related activities are considered essential and remain ‘open’. Consequently, farmers continue to tend their vines, winemakers and winery workers are moving wine around wineries, administrative staff is working from home and a few wineries are even shipping orders, almost exclusively to international customers.


(Photo credit:  Tom Perry, Note on door:  daughter Martha)

However, winery doors are shut for tourists. Worse still, the on-trade (bars, cafes and restaurants), are locked down. Rioja’s most recent annual report (2018) emphasizes the importance this channel:

“Nielsen highlights the positive performance of Rioja in the on-trade channel, where the highest added value can be found, and where Rioja has an overwhelming 60% market share, climbing to 80% for aged wines.”

Shuttering the on-trade has hurt all of our wineries even though the off-trade  (hyper-and supermarkets and wine shops) are still open. A recent study by an ‘app’ that promotes money-back deals reports that since the beginning of the crisis, wine sales are up 42% in the chains that work with them. Well, maybe, but I’m sure it’s because of the anxiety produced by the lockdown. These big stores stock almost exclusively wines from large and some medium-sized wineries. Smaller wineries and those selling wines from singular vineyards, winemaker’s selections and other small volume products have three options: wine shops, online retailers and direct sales from the winery via internet. Sales here are faltering in spite of substantial discounting.

We will deal in greater depth with the economic consequences for the Rioja wine trade and wine tourism in an upcoming article. Today we want to emphasize:

  • how wineries are giving back to the community;
  • how wineries are continuing to educate and entertain current and potential customers;
  • how English-speakers can learn more about Rioja.


(Credit:  Who knows? It was sent to me via WhatsApp.  Sorry.)

First of all, our gratitude to Alberto Gil, wine columnist at our regional newspaper La Rioja  and Javier Pascual, founder and editor of La Prensa del Rioja for publishing information in their respective media about Rioja’s current situation, some of which I have reproduced here to complement my own research. Both write extensively about Rioja and are great sources of up-to-date information provided you speak Spanish.

I want to send a huge ‘¡Muy bien!’ to our Great Wine Capitals Global Network colleagues Visit Napa Valley for their extensive coverage of the solidarity shown by this premier wine region’s wineries during the coronavirus pandemic.

They also feature special offers for online shipments. I hope readers of Inside Rioja in the USA will take advantage of them. VNV – you are truly inspiring!

We hope to hear from the rest of our GWC colleagues and will share their initiatives here.

Riojan winery solidarity

There is a chronic shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals. Two wineries (that I am aware of) with customers in China have ordered, received and distributed masks to these beleaguered workers. A big shoutout goes out to Bodegas Marqués del Atrio and Viñedos de Aldeanueva.

Bodegas Lecea, one of the most visited in the region, has offered healthcare workers free tastings and visits to its network of underground cellars for a year.

The Osborne group, owners of Bodegas Montecillo, as well as Campo Viejo, AGE and Ysios’ parent company Pernod-Ricard are using their distillation facilities to make sanitizing gel.

Bodegas Gómez Cruzado in Haro is selling its wines online with a discount, using the proceeds to pay the wages of its workers, avoiding layoffs.

Virtual tours (either produced by the winery or by roving wine writers)

Some well-known wineries featured are:

 Two of the best interviews given by María José López de Heredia from Viña Tondonia are available in a two-part series shot in 2010 with Gary Vaynerchuk in his groundbreaking series wine library tv. The normally loquacious Gary was mostly silent, letting MJ do all the talking. Priceless!

Vaynerchuk interviewed other Rioja personalities for his show. We assume you’re interested, so use the search function in Wine Library TV and the keyword ‘Rioja’.

  • Telmo Rodríguez talks about his single vineyard ‘Las Beatas’ (in English)

Virtual tastings and wine knowledge

The problem here is the almost total absence on the web and social media of Rioja tastings in good English (here I detect an opportunity for a wine-savvy native speaker to give classes to winemakers). Note: Not me, thank you!

  • Viñedos y Bodegas de La Marquesa Valserrano has produced two good ones with English subtitles, both recently posted on the winery’s IGTV site.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has begun to produce materials to supplement their PR campaigns in major markets. A number of short interviews, subtitled in English, are available.

The Regulatory Council has recently launched a fantastic initiative: The Rioja Wine Academy. Here anyone can study three, free online courses:

  • Rioja Wine Diploma
  • Diploma in Rioja Wine Tourism
  • Diploma for Trade and Distribution

A fourth course, geared to people interested in teaching others about Rioja is the Rioja Certified Educator Program, subject to application and acceptance of the candidate by the Regulatory Council. There is an online module as well as a series of seminars, tastings and visits to Rioja wineries. Three classes of Certified Rioja Educators, whose mission is to be ambassadors for Rioja in their markets, have already graduated.

Inside Rioja hopes that you enjoy exploring the wonderful world of Rioja from the safety and comfort of your homes!




Bodegas LAN: Getting Wine Tourism Right – including suggestions about how Rioja wineries can improve wine tourism

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Viña Lanciano (Credit:  Bodegas LAN)

Bodegas LAN is a newcomer to the wine tourism scene in Rioja, having only opened their tasting room in May. According to Alejandro Ruiz, the winery’s wine tourism host, “LAN is either the 186th or 187th Rioja winery to open its doors to wine tourists”.

Before deciding on a wine tourism strategy, LAN did its homework, visiting over 60 wineries. Their decision has been based on “less is more”, beginning with Alejandro Ruiz’s role in the winery. “My official title is ‘host’. I didn’t want to be the guide whose job is to say the same things to each group and wait for the next bus to arrive.”

It seems clear from Ruiz’s comment that LAN understands that a lot of wine tourism guides suffer from burnout from repeating the same story day after day and that different wine tourists want different experiences. More about this follows.

With the empirical evidence learned from many winery visits, LAN has devised three experiences.

The first experience is based on the acronym of the winery’s name. LAN was named after the first letters of the three Spanish provinces that house the Rioja wine district:

L for Logroño (now called La Rioja)

A for Álava

N for Navarra

This experience is a variation of the name, ‘LAN in Three Letters’. It’s a visit to the winery and a tasting, built around

L for Legend, based on the famous Roman bridge at Mantible which originally crossed the Ebro river to the area inside an oxbow where Lan’s signature vineyard Viña Lanciano is located.

A for Architecture, featuring LAN’s spectacular barrel aging cellar and the winery’s participation in the “Concéntrico” architecture fair featuring an original sculpture every year in the Viña Lanciano vineyard.

N for Numbers and Names, featuring the winery’s brand D-12, named after the winemaker’s favorite fermentation tank number 12 and the names of the winery personnel that contribute to the success of the winery and its brands.

This visit lasts 90 minutes followed by a tasting of D-12, LAN crianza and Viña Lanciano.

The second experience takes 45 minutes and centers on the barrel aging cellar. Here, visitors learn about the beneficial effects of oak aging to increase the longevity of the wine, followed by a tasting of two oak aged reds.

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LAN’s barrel aging cellar (Credit:  Bodegas LAN)

The third experience is a tasting in the tasting room. Visitors can taste as many wines as they want, paying by the glass.

In the future LAN will launch a fourth option: a visit to Viña Lanciano.

Wines are also available for purchase, both by the glass, bottle and case.

Alejandro Ruiz explained that most Spanish visitors request the full winery tour. Foreign visitors, especially those from the USA, preferred the tasting option.

LAN’s visitors’ reception area reminded me of Scandinavia – low key, featuring furniture with a contemporary design, blond wood shelves, bar, and stools with comfortable armchairs and sofas and two wood-burning fireplaces. It’s a place to relax, chat and enjoy a few glasses of wine.




LAN’s visitors’ center (Credit:  Tom Perry)

I think LAN has got its wine tourism philosophy right by offering visitors several options rather than the sole possibility of shepherding groups through the winery like cattle before providing a tasting at the end of the visit. This avoids what I call “bodega burnout”, an affliction that affects wine tourism staff and wine tourists alike.

In my former life as the point person for the international promotion of Rioja wines for fifteen years, one of my responsibilities was to lead at least 20 groups of wine, food and lifestyle writers around Rioja every year. These visits usually lasted a week with three wineries a day, so I reckon I’ve visited Rioja wineries at least 4,500 times. A lot of these visits took place before wine tourism became popular, but I was witness to the high turnover of wine tourism staff, who either left the industry or moved to other wineries because they were tired of giving the same spiel 15 to 20 times a week. I think there must be a better way. I remember a visit to Voyager Estate in Margaret River in Western Australia where the tasting room employee explained that the winery avoids burnout by rotating the staff between the tasting room, the winery and the restaurant. Might this be a lesson for Rioja wineries?

I learned about creating valuable wine tourism experiences from these trips with journalists. Visiting wineries with wine writers is an art form because the writers almost invariably know more about wine and the winemaking process than the winery staff itself, so a standardized tour would inevitably lead to boredom. I tried to maximize interest by requesting that for each visit, the winery concentrate on one aspect of the process from vineyard to aging. One winery would talk about how their vineyards are planted (for example to a specific varietal or to field blends of various varietals); stainless steel fermentation vats versus cement, both lined and unlined, eggs, or wooden vats; the effects of ageing in French, American, Slovenian, Russian and Spanish oak; single varietals versus blending; single vineyards versus sourcing grapes from different parts of Rioja; new oak vs. old oak and so on. By the end of the week, the journalists would have a good overview of the different ways wine is made in Rioja. This almost always produced lots of articles because the writers had plenty of angles to write about.

Ideally, I think Rioja wineries should replicate these fascinating differences by concentrating on unique experiences that don’t necessarily include visiting the whole winery. And of course they should pay more attention to opportunities to taste and purchase. A weekend visit to Rioja doesn’t have to mean being forced to see interminable stainless steel tanks and oak casks. If everyone showed visitors what’s unique about their property, Rioja’s value as a wine tourism destination would increase exponentially.

Bodegas LAN; Paraje Buicio s/n; 26360 Fuenmayor (La Rioja);

Reservations: +34 676 569 115 (Alejandro Ruiz)




Five Great Bars off the Beaten Track in Logroño

Most tourists who visit Logroño, the Rioja region’s largest city, never leave the old town – calle Laurel, calle San Juan and adjacent streets – because of this area’s tapas bars, restaurants and the vibrant atmosphere. Plus, as one of my friends says, “It’s just a short stagger home or to your hotel.”

Another part of town slightly off the beaten track – a ten minute walk from calle Laurel – is quickly becoming an interesting alternative to the old town for great wines and tapas without huge crowds. The L-shaped area is bordered by the Gran Vía, República Argentina, Menéndez Pelayo, Somosierra, Huesca and María Teresa Gil de Gárate.

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This area used to be on the other side of the railroad tracks that marked the edge of town (today the Gran Vía) until the tracks were moved about half a mile south in the 1960s. Now it’s practically in the middle of town.

The following places are among Inside Rioja’s favorite spots:

El Lagar, calle Huesca 13; +34 941 588054

Owner Carlos Martínez Bujanda belongs to one of Rioja’s foremost families of vintners that own Bodegas Valdemar and Finca Valpiedra. At El Lagar you can enjoy a wide range of wines by the glass with a tapa, a larger plate to share at the bar or have a sit-down meal in the restaurant in the rear of the building.



With his family connections, Martínez Bujanda is of course a wine lover. He has amassed an impressive collection of fine wines, mostly from small wineries in Rioja and the rest of Spain but also some carefully curated wines from large wineries in Rioja. These wines are showcased in a large glass-fronted fridge located between the bar and the restaurant.

Barrio Bar, calle Menéndez Pelayo 10; +34 941 570162

Barrio Bar is ‘the neighborhood bar’ in Spanish. It’s a combination bar/art gallery/advertising space for alternative activities in Logroño. Want to learn how to dance the swing, take a yoga class or practice transcendental meditation? You can find out at here.

Tapas and shared plates emphasize vegetarian and vegan offerings as well as typical Spanish tapas including potato omelets and gildas.


Vermouth is the house specialty at Barrio Bar

Barrio Bar specializes in vermouth, with local and Spanish brands that compete with the ubiquitous Martini. When you visit, try a ‘marianito’, a small glass of vermouth on the rocks with a slice of orange or a ‘vermú preparado’ – a Marianito with a splash of gin, kind of a reverse Martini cocktail.

Odisea, calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate 15; +34 666451193

Susana Miranda, the former marketing director of our regional newspaper La Rioja and a partner recently opened Odisea. The bar offerings feature small tins of anchovies, mussels, sardines and the like that you eat straight from the tin as well as a vermouth blended by the owners. Some of the products are presented very imaginatively.


A gourmet pack of mussels


Susana Miranda shows off her vermouth

The back of the space is a design studio that houses the partners’ office as well as an area where you can buy original gifts.


La Carbonera, calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate 18; +34 941 700125

This bar/restaurant used to be a coal warehouse, one of many small businesses located on calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate. Urban renewal has pushed these businesses to industrial sites outside of town, with bars and restaurants opening in their place. The street has been closed off to traffic so it’s the perfect place for a stroll, a few glasses of wine and some tapas.

La Carbonera features one of the best selections of wine by the glass in Logroño thanks to Juan Marcos Gutiérrez, the first Riojan to receive a sommelier certification. When we visit, our routine is always the same – “What’s new on your list?” Juan takes out his Coravin and serves a sample, after which we usually open the bottle to drink with one of their small shared dishes – fried pork belly, a French omelet with small pieces of potato or a croquette.


Juan Marcos Gutiérrez with his wine selections

La Carbonera is also a restaurant specializing in aged beef from Galicia. The owners have opened a second location- La Sucursal de Luismi – downtown on Avenida de Portugal (an area that we’ll cover in a future article about Logroño’s Golden Mile of hamburger joints).

Beitia, calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate 35; +34 697 486323

Beitia recently moved to a bigger space. They needed it because both the bar and the outside terrace are always busy. Beitia specializes in typical Riojan tapas and shared dishes – leeks in vinaigrette, snails, deep-fried sheep’s intestines, garlic soup, lamb’s livers, potatoes with spicy sausage and freshly picked white beans (pochas).


Iberian pork ‘secreto’ with green peppers and home fries

Do the above dishes turn you off? Take a walk on the wild side and try one! Riojans have been eating them for hundreds of years and our life expectancy is one of the highest in Spain!

Still fainthearted? Beitia also offers slices of grilled filet mignon and pork tenderloin from Iberian pork (called ‘secreto’ in Spanish) with grilled red and green peppers as well as other dishes for the unadventurous palate.

There are lots of other interesting places in this area, including El Tirador and Vinos Murillo that we have already profiled in Inside Rioja.

The next time you’re in Logroño, visit some of the bars and restaurants away from the tourist areas. You’ll save money and enjoy really good food and wine.




Baby Lamb Chops Grilled and Logroño’s Mayor Roasted at the Annual Celebration of the Lamb Chop


Who doesn’t like an outdoor cookout? Whether it’s a South African braai, throwing some shrimp on the barbie in Australia, smoking ribs or grilling hamburgers in the back yard in the USA, making a meal outside is a great way to entertain friends and families.

In the Rioja region, our version of the cookout is grilling baby lamb chops over coals from vine cuttings, and the traditionally accepted way to eat them is with your hands, even in restaurants. Once at a large event at a Rioja winery, the chefs grilled lamb chops for guests that included Spain’s King Juan Carlos. When the king received his plate, everyone in the room held their breath to see how he was going to eat them. When he picked up his chop with his hands, the guests breathed a sigh of relief and picked theirs up, too!

One of the most popular events during the wine festival in Logroño in late September is the “celebration of the lamb chop”. According to two of my friends who grew up in the neighborhood, this tradition started in the 1970s when a local bar organized a contest to see who could eat the most lamb chops. Participants came from all over Spain and the winner was determined by weighing the bones.


Turning vine cuttings into coals

This contest no longer takes place, but to commemorate it, the Riojan Social Club Federation, with the blessing of the city hall, closes off four blocks of one of Logroño’s main streets on the last Saturday morning of the wine festival. Groups of friends sign up to participate and for a fee of 80 euros, each group is provided with a table, four chairs, a big plate of lamb chops, a large steel plate on the street, a special lamb chop grill and several big bunches of grapevine cuttings. This year there were 125 tables. The groups always bring thick slices of bacon and other pork products to grill, sliced tomatoes, olives, spicy green peppers, chorizo and of course, plenty of bottles of Rioja and cans of beer. Friends and passers-by are encouraged to enjoy the atmosphere.


A grillmeister with a sense of humor

At the table I visited, everyone was talking about two anecdotes. The first was about two tourists who happened to walk by during the cookout and were invited to have a few lamb chops and drink some wine. They readily accepted the invitation and then asked what for them was a logical question: “How much do we owe you?” Our group roared with laughter and told them that it was free. The tourists walked away dazed. Such is Riojan hospitality!


Dead soldiers in the gutter

The second anecdote was the previous night’s controversy about Logroño’s new mayor saving the traditional ‘burning of the wine barrel’, the event marking the end of the wine festival. The mayor’s reasoning was to participate in the World Climate Strike to help save the environment. Everyone looked at the dense smoke rising from the hundreds of smoking grills in the street and wondered how much heat the mayor was going to get on social media and at the next city council meeting. He was appropriately roasted!


Smoking grills with lamb chops – Notice the grill-it can be flipped over to cook the chops on both sides.


Photos:  Tom Perry


Spanish Ministry of Agriculture Gives Green Light to 84 Singular Vineyards in Rioja

July 30, 2019 marks the beginning of a new era in the DOCa Rioja.

The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture approved the regulations proposed by Rioja wineries and grape growers that designate 84 vineyards covering 154 hectares as “Viñedos Singulares” (singular vineyards).

43 vineyards are in Rioja Alavesa, 31 in Rioja Alta and 10 in Rioja Oriental.

The process to guarantee the traceability of the grapes from these vineyards through vinification, barrel and bottle aging was approved internally by the Rioja Regulatory Council starting with the 2017 vintage but final Agriculture Ministry approval was required. As of July 30, wines made from these grapes can carry a specific guarantee label if they receive an “excellent” rating from a tasting panel both immediately after vinification and before the wine is released from the winery, and to state on the front label that the wine comes from a singular vineyard.

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How does a vineyard become “singular”? The most important requirements are:

  • The vineyard must be at least 35 years old;
  • A report must show that it has agro-geological conditions differentiating it from others in the area;
  • Maximum yields must be no higher than 5000 kg/ha for red grapes and 6922 kg/ha for whites (23% lower than those required for other Rioja grapes)
  • A maximum of 65 liters of wine can be produced for every 100 kg of grapes (for ‘regular’ Rioja, the allowed ratio is 72% and for certain vintages up to 75%);
  • No machine picking is allowed;
  • The grapes must be vinified, and the wine aged, stored and shipped from the same winery;
  • No contract bottling is allowed.

The approval of singular vineyards in Rioja culminates a process of recognition of wines from specific areas in our region. Zone wines (from the Alavesa, Alta and Oriental) have been a possibility since the 1990s. More recent has been the approval of village wines.


(Credit:  Tom Perry)

According to the 2018 annual report of the Regulatory Council there are more than 114,026 individual plots of vineyards in Rioja. 15,069 hectares of vineyards were planted before 1985. Wineries have been marketing wines coming from single vineyards for at least ten years without official recognition. However, because of the rigorous certification process, wines from singular vineyards are a big step beyond the idea of a single vineyard wine.

As I mentioned in a previous article, ( both single vineyard wines and wines from singular vineyards are essential for the preservation of old vines in Rioja. Many growers pulled up their old vines because they weren’t able to find a buyer at a worthwhile price. It took the efforts of a group of pioneering young winemakers ( to give well-deserved recognition to these grapes and the wines they made and gave other owners of old vineyard a reason to hang on to them.

Wines from singular vineyards can be ´generic’, crianza, reserva or gran reserva.

The 1999 Spanish wine law created a quality pyramid structure for Spanish wines, with table wines at the base and single vineyard wines at the top. The Ministry of Agriculture’s idea was:


(Credit:  Tom Perry)

At the time, the Rioja Regulatory Council rejected the idea of creating a single vineyard wine category for Rioja, arguing (correctly in my opinion), that a single vineyard wine wasn’t intrinsically of higher quality than a Rioja blend,  a single varietal, a crianza, reserva or a gran reserva. The Council worked on its own singular vineyard concept for several years until wineries and growers agreed on the terms.

Now that the Ministry has approved the certification process, consumers can look forward to tasting the first Riojas made from singular vineyards. Inside Rioja will do our best to let you know when they are released and where you can buy them.





Cut-rate Rioja: Can it be avoided?

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The other day I read an interesting thread on the internet about a Rioja reserva 2015 selling for 4.09€ in a hypermarket in Catalonia in northeastern Spain. The debate centered on whether a Rioja winery make a profit producing a 2015 reserva that a hypermarket can sell for 4,09€, whether this kind of offer is good for Rioja and what, if anything, can be done to avoid it.

Let’s tackle the problem one question at a time.

First, can a winery make a profit at that price? Probably not, but with a cut-rate product like this one, the issue is primarily not about making a profit, but rather covering the product’s contribution margin (the selling price less variable costs; in other words, contributing to cover fixed costs).

A big hypermarket chain’s buyers are considerably more talented than winery sales personnel. Chain buyers know the prices of the competition, they know who is willing to play the volume game and they know exactly how much pressure to apply to the seller. The price calculation of a big winery specializing in high volume sales based on a second or third label with no advertising or promotional allowance, known in wine jargon as “net-net” is just a few cents above cost for a very large volume order.

A second possibility is that the winery is in need of cash. No further explanation required.

The question of whether the hypermarket can make any money on the deal is clear: yes, and potentially a lot of money.

Big retailers base their profits on three factors:

  • selling large quantities
  • selling to a lot of different customers
  • having an efficient cost structure

In Spain, the law prohibits sales below cost, so the hypermarket chain must pay at least 3.38€ (4.09 less 21% value added tax on the purchase price). If the hypermarket sets its margin for a big promotional deal like this one anywhere between 10 and 15 euro cents per bottle and orders ten truckloads of wine (150,000 bottles), it can invoice about 500,000 € and have a gross profit of between 15,000 and 22,500 €. Doesn’t seem like much? Understand that a hypermarket will typically carry 200,000 SKUS (stock keeping units or individual brands). It’s also important to understand that the hypermarket will penalize the supplier for late deliveries – to compensate for the loss of profit for out-of-stock situations.

A Rioja reserva offered at a little over 4 euros a bottle is a powerful tool to attract consumers to the wine aisle.

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Photo credit:  Pablo Orío

Offers like this one appear on supermarket shelves all the time. In fact, supermarkets create and register brands that they use to sell at aggressive prices to promote the image of the supermarket. They offer their most important suppliers the possibility of supplying products under the supermarket’s label. It’s a win-win for the supermarket because a supplier who raises their prices too much can be replaced with another.

In the case of Rioja, the supermarket brand has to be registered in the name of the current supplier. It’s a small bit of bureaucracy, but assures that all brands sold as Rioja actually are owned by a Rioja winery.

A second alternative is for a winery to sell the supermarket a second or third label.

Is this kind of deal good for Rioja’s image? I think not. First of all, consumers who see a reserva selling for 4 euros a bottle are going to wonder why they should buy others selling for 10 euros and higher. After all, the 4 euro wine carries the same guarantee label on the bottle as more expensive ones. Wineries that spend considerable amounts on developing their brand image throw up their hands in despair. The Regulatory Board, that invests over ten million euros of the wineries’ and grapegrowers’ money on advertising, promotion and public relations to elevate the image of brand Rioja, wonders if this huge investment is worth the effort.

What can be done? Sadly, nothing, until these large-volume, low margin wineries begin to understand that they can’t win long term with this strategy, usually based on buying and holding large stocks of wine, perhaps more than they need.

I have always been a great admirer of the Napa Valley. There, wineries compete in markets at much higher price points than those of Rioja and seem to agree on an image of quality and prestige for the Napa Valley brand. Coincidentally, the Napa Valley is universally recognized as the world’s most popular wine tourism destination.

Rioja has made enormous progress over the years to improve its image. The wineries agreed in the early 1990s to stop selling bulk wine outside the borders of the Rioja appellation. Recognizing wines from each of the three zones (Alta, Alavesa and Baja (currently ‘Oriental’) has been a reality for years. Wineries have created wines with strong individuality from specific areas of the appellation and the Regulatory Board, recognizing the huge diversity of terroirs in the region, recently approved the categories of singular vineyards and single village wines.

Still missing in my opinion is a greater sense of ‘Rioja patriotism’ and the need for stronger brands from all wineries with less low-price wheeling and dealing. A little more Napa in Rioja would be a good thing.