The Council explained in a press release that 273,3 million liters of wine from the 2009 harvest were approved by tasting panels in Rioja and consequently granted ‘Denominación de Origen Calificada’ status. 1,8 million liters were rejected by the tasting panels.
How does this procedure work? After the wineries have vinified grapes from the harvest, samples are collected by the Council’s inspectors, normally after malolactic fermentation is complete. Each sample represents a batch of no more than 100.000 liters of wine. The samples are tasted blind by a rotating panel of winemakers and other expert tasters from the region and are also analyzed by one of the three official laboratories in Haro, Laguardia and Olite.
If a sample is judged to be of inferior quality, the producer is allowed to appeal and the sample retasted. If accepted after the second tasting, it officially becomes Rioja. If not, it has to be sold off as table wine.
Among others, the parameters measured by chemical analysis are
- Tartaric acid
- Volatile acidity
- Total SO2 (sulphur dioxide)
- Color index
- Total polyphenol index
This is probably Greek to most people, so I’ll try to provide some insights about the most significant data.
First of all, the average level of alcohol in the wines analyzed from the 2009 harvest was 13,8% and the total polyphenol index was 59,71. Both of these values are the highest of any vintage in the last ten years. In the case of alcohol level, it indicates that grapes were very ripe when picked (the more sugar in the grape, the higher the potential alcohol in the wine) and confirms a trend toward ‘bigger’ wines. It will probably be hard to find any Rioja from 2009 with less than 13,5% alcohol, a controversial state of affairs at a time when the market seems to be evolving toward elegance rather than power.
The total polyphenol index of almost 60 is a good sign, as it can vary from 36 to 80, and the higher the number, the better. Polyphenols such as resveratrol in red wines have been touted for their antioxidative (anti-aging) properties in cells. It might be worthwhile for wineries to advertise the fact that their red wines are high in polyphenols, and although the anti-drinks lobby will probably not allow them to say anything about this on the label, talking about it on the winery’s website is probably OK. Any help a brand can get in these tough economic times is bound to be good.
The average pH of the 2009 wines was 3,72 – also the highest in the last ten years. Because wine is acidic, (i.e. with a pH of less than 7, with 7 the pH of water, and more than 7 alcaline, in principle, a pH of 4 or more is a sign of a flabby wine. A pH of around 3,60 for a red is probably better.
For a Rioja vintage to be classified ‘very good’, the sum of the samples analyzed and tasted as ‘excellent’+‘very good’ + ‘good’ must be equal to or greater than 70% and the sum of ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’, equal to or greater than 35%.
The Council also has a downstream process where samples are taken from the market, that is, from wine shops and supermarkets around the world, which are analyzed.
I believe that this rigorous analytical and blind tasting process as well as consistently high quality has given Rioja enormous credibility as a wine region.
For your information, the ratings since 1998 have been:
1998: very good 2004: excellent
1999: good 2005: excellent
2000: good 2006: very good
2001: excellent 2007: very good
2002: good 2008: very good
2003: good 2009: very good
Photo credit: Rioja Regulatory Council