Rioja’s next great leap

long_jumpI’m currently spending a few days in Jacksonville, Florida with my sister to catch up, play some golf and get away from winter in Spain.  Whenever I travel I try to learn about the local wine scene as well as to check out how much Rioja is available.  Sadly in Jacksonville, very little.

Shipments of Rioja to the USA have exploded over the last ten years, reaching about 11 million bottles in 2012.  While this figure pales in comparison to the 42 million bottles shipped to the UK, Rioja is now on the radar screen in major markets in the States.  However, in order to approach UK-like numbers, which our region desperately needs to offset the collapse of the Spanish market, Rioja not only needs to consolidate sales in major wine-drinking areas like metro New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and the like, but also pay more attention to smaller cities such as Jacksonville, Columbus, Denver and Phoenix.

The US wine market is still very much driven by varietals and a quick walk along a supermarket wine aisle here in Jacksonville reveals that Rioja’s major weakness is its placement on shelves.  Here, it’s usually hidden among the zinfandels or simply put randomly in the red wine section.  The other day my sister and I took a walk through a major supermarket to check out the wines.  We were disappointed of course to discover only four Rioja brands spread out in the red wine section.  While I walked away, muttering and grumbling about Rioja’s poor presence, my sister walked up to a  BIG distributor salesperson (discovered because he was wearing his company logo on his shirt) who happened to be checking stock and asked him why the store didn’t bring in more Rioja.  “If more people bought it, we would bring more in” was his reply.

Whoa.  “Well, if they don’t bring more in, how do they expect people to buy it?” is my reasoning.  For a supermarket, what’s the point in carrying 60 cabernets, 50 merlots, 300 chardonnays and 25 sauv blancs when most of them don’t move?  OK, they probably do, because supermarkets closely track the takeaway and profitability of stocked merchandise but also actively reward suppliers who put marketing and promotional dollars behind their brands, which shuts most of the small and medium sized wineries out. I think they could follow the lead of European supermarkets and retailers who give new brands a chance for exposure at wine fairs.  I know lots of brands that would succeed here if only given a chance.

In the meantime, given the scarcity of Riojas in the Jacksonville market, I’m busy trying out new things.  So far, my discovery of 2013 has been Ken Wright pinot noir from Oregon, thanks to a good friend who’s active in the wine scene in the southeast USA. I wish I could get it in Spain, but that’s another story.

(Photo credit:  vertical






Rioja’s rocking rosés

Even though Rioja primarily produces reds, it wasn’t always so. The Najerilla river valley, known for its pink wines, provides a fascinating glimpse of Rioja’s history and current winemaking techniques.

Rioja actually produces two styles of pink wines: rosado and clarete.  At first glance, the difference is merely color, with rosado a medium reddish pink and clarete a very pale orange.  However, the two styles are made differently. Rosados are vinified like whites, except for short contact with the skins to extract a little color, while clarets are vinified like reds, with red and white grapes fermented together with the skins. According to Ezequiel García, El Brujo , the legendary 82-year old former winemaker at CVNE and Bodegas Olarra, the name clarete comes from the fact that in Rioja Alta and Alavesa there were traditionally more white grapes than red and both colors were found in the same vineyard.  When a particular vineyard was harvested, both the red and white grapes were dumped into open lagos or closed vats and fermented with the skins.  The fermented juice was a pale red, called clarete.  CVNE used to label this red wine as clarete. I’m not sure, but perhaps the British term for red Bordeaux – claret – coming from the French clairet has a similar origin, although today, claret refers to red Bordeaux and clarete in Rioja, to a very pale, orange tinted rosé. This color is referred to as ‘ojo de gallo’ or rooster eye.

Ezequiel García 'El Brujo'

Ezequiel García ‘El Brujo’

While production of rosado is larger than clarete in Rioja, the latter has quite a following, especially in northern Spain.  In Bilbao, people often ask for ‘un cordovin’ referring to the village in the Najerilla valley where much of Rioja’s clarete is produced.  Other well-known clarete villages are Badarán, Cárdenas, Azofra and Hormilla.  San Asensio however is the best-known place for clarete and the town even celebrates a clarete battle near the end of July.

San Asensio's 'batalla del clarete'

San Asensio’s ‘batalla del clarete’

Clarete was traditionally made with the white varietal viura and the red garnacha, a variety that used to be abundant in the valley.  One of the claretes I saw in a wine shop, from Hormilla, had 70% viura, 20% tempranillo and 10% garnacha.  Rosado, on the other hand, is almost always a blend of red varietals: in Rioja, tempranillo and garnacha, or 100% tempranillo. The regulations of the Rioja DOC require that at least 25% of a rosé or clarete blend must be made from red grape varieties so a clarete could have as much as 75% white juice.

Left, a Rioja rosé.  Center and right, claretes.

Left, a Rioja rosé. Center and right, claretes.

The clarete style is gaining popularity. Several producers are labeling their wines as such, a surprise to me because I didn’t think the name was officially allowed by the Rioja Regulatory Council, but since the end of 2011, it is.

I was also surprised to see a bottle of Muga rosé with a much paler pink color than in the past.  Maybe clarete or at least pale orange-tinted rosés have an international future.

A Rioja labeled 'clarete'

A Rioja labeled ‘clarete’