Setting the record straight about Rioja Baja


When I moved to Rioja in the early 1980s, Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa were the darlings of the region, where ‘modern’ Rioja flourished starting in the last half of the 19th century and most of the wineries were located.  In contrast, Rioja Baja was fruit tree and vegetable country, roundly criticized for allowing the planting of grapevines in highly fertile alluvial soil near the Ebro that produced twice as much per vine as in the Alta and Alavesa.  Even the name Rioja BAJA (Lower Rioja) was an adjective reminiscent of inferiority, like Baja California or Outer Mongolia (my apologies to Mexico and Mongolia).

Nothing is farther from the truth, however.

In fact, without Rioja Baja, Rioja would not be what it is today.

First of all, Rioja was traditionally made by blending grapes from all over the region.  Because Rioja Baja is warmer and drier than the Alta or Alavesa, the harvest always begins here and the grapes almost always reach total ripeness, something that happens with less regularity in the other two subzones.  This is perhaps not as evident as it was in the past, before global warming, when, toward the end of October, plummeting temperatures and rainstorms often ruined the harvest or at best, produced thin wines with no more than 9 or 10% alcohol in the Alta and Alavesa.  Clearly these wines needed some muscle and it always came from Rioja Baja.  In fact, most of the wineries in Haro such as La Rioja Alta, CVNE and López de Heredia either owned or had long-term arrangements with growers in the Baja.  Most of these traditional wineries still own property there.

Secondly, Rioja Baja was garnacha land, adding character in blends to the predominant tempranillo of the Alta and Alavesa.  Sadly, most of the garnacha has been replaced with tempranillo since the late 1980s, but garnacha is still in demand, with wineries like El Coto de Rioja investing heavily in replanting it.

We also have to take into account the low-yielding, south-facing vineyards located at  high altitude on or near Mount Yerga, south of Alfaro, where well-known winemakers like Álvaro Palacios and his family have long recognized their potential for producing wines of great character, as well as vineyards planted in the gravelly soil around Mendavia on the north bank of the Ebro, home of Barón de Ley.

Then there’s Marqués de Murrieta, located at the western edge of Rioja Baja, near Logroño, that shares with Marqués de Riscal the honor of  ‘inventing’ modern Rioja in the mid-19th century, as well as Marqués de Vargas, located next door.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the potential of Rioja Baja, however, is the San Isidro Cooperative in Aldeanueva de Ebro, the largest in Rioja and the coop that has most successfully made the transition from supplying young wine to other wineries to making, aging, bottling and selling well-made, attractive wines throughout Spain and all over the world.

My only complaint with Rioja Baja is not keeping the old vine garnacha that predominated until the 1980s.  Given the success of old vine garnacha in the neighboring regions of Campo de Borja and Calatayud, Rioja could have benefited from these vines.  As a big fan of garnacha, I hope growers will start to plant it more widely again.

The economics of the 2009 harvest and its implications (3)

There’s a lot to write about here, but first I have to close the chapter on the 2009 harvest.

As I mentioned in my posts of November 16 and January 20, the Grupo Rioja, the largest winery association in the region, proposed that the maximum yield for grapes be reduced by 10% in the 2010 harvest to bring supply in line with demand. This would ‘eliminate’ about 42 million bottles from future inventories.

The problem in an appellation of origin is that the collective brand (Rioja) is half owned by wineries and half by farmers, with a majority of 75% needed in a vote.  In this case, the winery associations and the largest farmers’ union were in favor of the proposal, but not the cooperatives and the smaller farmers’ unions, who control more than 25% of the votes.  The pound of flesh that they demanded from the wineries in exchange for approving the reduction in yields and voting in favor of the 10 million euro advertising and promotion plan for Rioja in 2010 was to allow an extra 10% of grapes to be vinified in the 2009 harvest.  5% would be a reserve to allow wineries and coops to choose the ‘best’ wines made to be classified as Rioja, rejecting the worst 5%, which would be sent to a distillery to be made into alcohol. The remaining 5% could be sold as table wine (not Rioja).  This amounts to about 15 million liters, equivalent to 22,5 million bottles of wine.

This represents an unfortunate step backwards for Rioja, because before the crisis hit, wineries and growers had reached an agreement to progressively eliminate the excess production which was historically sold as table wine, which in recent years competed directly with young Rioja in the Spanish market.

It was, however, the best decision under the circumstances, because it was necessary to roll out 2010 advertising and promotional activities as soon as possible.

The doubt I have is where the 15 million liters of table wine will be sold.  There are plenty of emerging markets such as Russia and Eastern Europe where there’s demand for inexpensive table wines that won’t compete directly with Rioja.  What I’m afraid of however, is that most of it will find its way to supermarkets in Spain, as in the past.

Colección Vivanco garnacha 2007

In spite of the cold, it’s nice to be home after my escape to the relative warmth and sunlight of the southern USA, especially because I have easy access to Rioja.

 My experience with wine in the USA was not a total loss, however, as I had the chance to taste some really interesting wines at the 7th Street Wine Bar in Fort Lauderdale, in south Florida, where about 100 of my friends gathered for the annual Friends of Pamplona party.

7th Street has a great selection of wines from all over the world where customers can either order wine by the glass from the bar, purchase a card for $25 that allows one to taste wines from dispensers, or buy a bottle.  The dispenser idea is interesting because it allows you to try a small amount of wine without the risk of buying a bottle.  If you like the sample, buy the bottle. I haven’t seen a wine shop like this anywhere in Spain.  Maybe it’s because here, we think we already know everything about wine and unhesitatingly buy whole bottles.  That’s what my generation of Spaniards thinks, anyway.  In any case, the idea is a good one and I’m waiting for a young, entrepreneurial Spaniard to open a shop.  I’ll be the first person in line.

Back in Logroño, one of the first bottles we opened was the Colección Vivanco Parcelas de garnacha 2007.  It was a real treat.

As I’ve already explained, the garnacha grape is enjoying a resurgence after thousands of hectares were grubbed up in the 1980s and 90s when sales of Rioja began to grow and the high-yielding, easy to cultivate tempranillo replaced it.  Today, garnacha is still regarded by most growers and wineries as a grape that oxidizes easily and consequently is best for rosés and young reds, not for reds meant to age.  However, when not overfarmed, garnacha produces stunningly complex wines, as Rioja producers are beginning to rediscover.

Colección Vivanco 2007 garnacha has been made from vineyards owned by the Vivanco family in Tudelilla (one of the villages in Rioja Baja with the highest concentration of garnacha) and Villamediana, near Logroño.

It has a deep ruby color, with aromas of ripe red fruit (strawberries), spices and well-integrated oak.  On the palate, it shows high acidity, is unctuous and has a long finish.

As I’ve said before on these pages, I applaud the fact that Rioja is paying attention to garnacha, both in blends and by itself.  There seems to be a tendency here to dial back intensity in favor of balance and elegance, and pay more attention to blends as opposed to single varietals.  I’m going to look out for these blends in the future.  Stay tuned.  You have a ringside seat!

Outside Rioja (and off the radar)


For a wine lover like me, a trip to the USA always gives me the chance to taste wines from all over the world, something that’s practically impossible in Rioja, and only marginally more so in Spain.  The bad news is that I also get a glimpse of where Rioja stands among the huge selection available in supermarkets, wine shops, wine bars and restaurants.  The fact is that Rioja is on the very edge of most people’s radar here.

I’m currently spending a few day’s at my sister’s house in Jacksonville, Florida, not exactly the center of the wine world in the USA, so it’s a good place from which to observe where Rioja stands in middle America.

My first stop was at Publix, a large supermarket chain in the southeast.  The wide selection was huge, a good sign, with a whole aisle about 30 yards long, starting with 4-packs of airline-sized bottles of about 187 ml, jug wines, bag-in-box and other new packages, California andother US wines and at the other end of the aisle, the imported wines.

Nestled in a 12 inch space (fortunately at eye level) was a facing of one bottle each of Marqués de Riscal, Faustino, Campo Viejo and Ergo (the Rioja imported by Gallo), all red, while a bottle of Marqués de Cáceres rosé was on a lower shelf.  The wine section was organized by grape variety, with merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and zinfandel prominently featured.

With so many brands available, consumers are led first by color, then grape variety and finally, individual countries and brands.  In fact, many consumers think that ‘Rioja’ is a grape variety, not a wine region.

 Later, we went to a fantastic wine bar, The Grape, located in an upscale shopping center at the south end of town.  It was wine lovers’ nirvana, with a HUGE selection of wines by the glass and bottle.  You could get a ‘taste’ for $4 to 8 (a serving about the size of a glass of wine in a bar in Spain), a large ‘glass’ for $7 to 16, or a bottle for $24 to 150.  There’s an adjacent wine shop where you can buy most of the wines to drink at home as well as a good choice of food and  live entertainment. You could spend an entire evening, there and a lot of people do.

 Like at Publix, the selection was organized by color and grape variety: 


  • 10 sparkling and champagne (1 cava)
  • 7 rieslings
  • 5 sauvignon blancs
  • 11 interesting whites and blends (one from Spain – an albariño)
  • 6 pinot grigio/pinot gris
  • 11 chardonnays
  • 3 rosés
  • 8 dessert wines (no sherries)


  • 10 pinot noirs
  • 9 merlots
  • 4 zinfandels
  • 14 cabernet sauvignons
  • 16 interesting reds and blends (no Rioja)
  • 4 Spanish reds (1 Rioja, 1 Calatayud, 1 Priorat and 1 Montsant)
  • 11 Italian reds
  • 12 syrah and Rhône-style blends

So, out of a selection of 141 wines, there were only six from Spain (for the statistically inclined, 4,3%) and only one Rioja, a paltry 0,7% of the total.

This is a poor showing for acountry with the most acreage under vine of any wine-producing country in the world.

From my experience as a wine salesman, clearly what Spain and Rioja need are for export managers from the wineries to make the rounds of places like The Grape with their US distributors.

 This should be a no-brainer for Rioja wineries, whose reputation in Spain was built by a strong presence in restaurants and bars. Hand selling and word of mouth have been and will continue to be the primary drivers of wine sales in this, and most other countries.

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