Gender wars – ‘El’ Rioja and ‘La’ Rioja

Tom and sister Fran ca. 1953

The recent ruling by an Argentine judge affirming that wines from the Argentine province of La Rioja don’t cause confusion with Spanish Rioja reminded me that even here in Spain, the use of ‘Rioja’ can be confusing.

First of all a short Spanish lesson: ‘el’ and ‘la’ are the masculine and feminine singular definite articles in Spanish.  Both mean ‘the’ in English.

‘El Rioja’ means ‘Rioja wine’ as does ‘el vino de Rioja’, while ‘La Rioja’ is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, comparable to ‘states’ in the USA or ‘länder’ in Germany.  ‘Rioja’ without the article refers to the Rioja denomination of origin (denominación de origen calificada Rioja), or Rioja wine region.  The D.O. Ca. Rioja is located in three of Spain’s states: La Rioja(68,2% of the total area), Álava in the Basque Country (21,1%) and Navarra (10,7%).

This fact has a number of consequences for Rioja wine.  First, it means that ‘el Rioja’s’ wine rules have to be approved by the Spanish ministry of agriculture, while for practically all of Spain’s DOs, located within one region, the regional government has the power.  There are only three exceptions:  Rioja, Cava and Jumilla.

Three states, three governments and therefore three groups of elected officials, from three different political parties, are represented in the Rioja Regulatory Council, the organization made up of farmers and wineries, where the development of Rioja grapes and wines is debated. So politics often interferes with the running of the wine district. In addition, several organizations vie to promote Rioja wines:  three Chambers of Commerce, regional and city government promotion boards, ICEX (the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade) and the Rioja Regulatory Council itself. I once counted 17 of them.

It would be great if these organizations put their money into a common pot.  However, with the exception of the Regulatory Council and ICEX, for whom ‘El Rioja’ is a whole, each of these local and regional organizations promote ‘their’ Rioja, which means that promotion, PR and advertising often resembles shoppers fighting over a piece of clothing at a fire sale.  Distributors, wine writers and journalists are often bewildered by the conflicting messages they hear.

I remember talking to a Dutch journalist several years ago about attending a series of wine tastings in Logroño called ‘Grandes de La Rioja’, organized by the government of La Rioja.  He asked me whether he would be able to taste the Riojas produced in the other two regions.  ‘Sadly, no’, I replied.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has jumped through a lot of hoops to get everyone in the boat to row in the same direction and promote Rioja wines in general, with some success. For several years, elected officials from the three ‘states’ have provided a small amount of money for promotion, but it’s peanuts compared to the funds they devote to ‘their’ Rioja.

It’s ironic that the growers and wineries themselves don’t feel as attached to their subzone as their elected officials.  Many farmers sell their grapes to wineries in other parts of the region, wineries do the same with bulk wine and some companies located in one part of Rioja have vineyards and even wineries in more than one subzone. They recognize that the strength of the word RIOJA transcends these regional differences.

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