A two-speed Rioja?

adult and childMy tastes in wine have changed over the years.  While I still enjoy a delicate, complex gran reserva once in a while, I feel more and more attracted to young reds because of the undisguised aromas of the grape varieties that they’re made from.  In Rioja, I especially enjoy a good carbonic maceration red, called cosechero here. Sadly I haven’t found many other young red Riojas that I like.  It’s too bad because if I can’t find them in Rioja, those of you who live in the USA, the UK or elsewhere outside of Spain will find it next to impossible.

Rioja produces over 120 million bottles of young red a year, about 40% of the total. My feeling, and I’m sorry to admit it, is that the wineries’ priority lies mainly with crianza and reserva, for several reasons.  First, because an oak-aged Rioja is more profitable than a young wine – the added cost of aging is more than made up for by a higher price.  Second, aged wines have a longer potential shelf life and will cellar better. Third, it’s where Rioja’s competitive advantage lies – not many other Spanish reds actually improve with oak aging. It’s true that some other regions in Spain’s north (especially Ribera del Duero and Toro) make great ageworthy reds, but most reds made here are cheap and cheerful young wines.

I think that  for most Rioja wineries, young reds are positioned to sell high volumes at low prices, trading on the name ‘Rioja’ and allowing the region to sell over 300 million bottles a year.  If Rioja tried to make most of these wines into crianzas and reservas,  our 63,000 hectares (about 155,000 acres) of vineyards would be woefully insufficient.  Why?  Because aged wines are kept in the winery to mature, wineries need an average inventory of three years of sales, given the actual breakdown of sales (45% young, 37% crianza , 16% reserva and 2% gran reserva).

A second reason is that in most cases, wines in each category are slotted into a defined range of prices, much like first, second and third growth Bordeaux, so a young Rioja coming from old vines is not likely to sell successfully at a higher price point.

In addition, the cards are stacked against young reds in the rule book.  Some reds in the ‘sin crianza’ (without oak aging) category are actually aged for a few months in oak to give them more complexity and ageworthiness, but they’re not allowed to mention this on the label.  Some say that this puts them at a disadvantage against ‘semi-crianza’ wines from other regions, especially from Ribera del Duero, whose ‘roble’ (oak) designation allows it to refer to aging for less than the 12 months that crianza requires.

Some winery representatives in the Regulatory Council have expressed an interest in promoting a “two-speed” Rioja, where some wines, presumably young reds, can be produced from higher-yielding vineyards with less stringent rules, while increasing the requirements for crianzas and above.

As I’ve said many times on these pages, there’s never a dull moment here.  The new Regulatory Council and Interprofessional Committee president and committee members that will take charge in March will put on the table this and other issues such as authorizing bag-in-box wines in Rioja, demanding higher prices for grapes, and maintaining the PR budget in the face of shrinking profits for wineries and farmers alike.

My wish for 2013 is for wineries to start producing really tasty young reds.  There’s a good market for them out there.






One thought on “A two-speed Rioja?

  1. Tempranillo wines may be consumed young, but the more expensive wines have been aged for several years in oak barrels. The Riojas produce elegant wines with strawberry and sour cherry flavours that combine in perfect harmony with the flavours of oak in the Reserva and Gran Reserva wines. Oak ageing is crucial to traditional Rioja, and the length of time spent in the cask or bottle is indicated on the label; Reserva indicates a minimum of three years ageing (of which at least one must be in oak), Crianza has aged for slightly less time yet a Gran Reserva has been oak-aged for much longer. In recent years modern producers have been tending to bottle their top wines earlier than in the past, giving birth to fruity Riojas labelled as joven (young) or sin crianza (unoaked).

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