Special end of year double issue: Artadi threatens to leave the Rioja appellation and My favorite wines from 2014

December 28 is Spain’s April Fools’ Day so when I opened the local newspaper and read that Artadi, one of Rioja’s most prestigious wineries, was planning to leave the Rioja DOCa, I immediately thought it was a joke. But when I read the editorial on page two explaining that the current president of La Rioja wasn’t going to run for office in the upcoming elections I realized that this piece of news was the joke and the story about Artadi was on the level.

Behind Artadi’s interest in creating a new appellation for wineries in and around the village of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa is the belief that the umbrella brand ‘Rioja’ and its claim ‘the land of a thousand wines’ attempts to express the huge diversity of styles of wine that exists in our region but lumps them all together under one appellation. Put bluntly, Artadi feels that the current rules of the Rioja DOCa don’t allow wineries to talk about the specific characteristics of microclimates, soil types and the grapes and wine produced in individual vineyards and villages.

The reaction of the wine and growers’ groups in the Regulatory Council was immediate and can be summed up by “Bring your proposal to the Council and we’ll talk about it”.

Only time will tell whether Artadi’s proposal to leave Rioja is real or is a gambit meant to accelerate the debate leading to simplifying the procedure for recognizing single vineyard, single village, and single subzone wines within Rioja. Whatever the outcome, there are a number of reasons to put the issue at the top of the agenda.

Juan Carlos López de La Calle (MD of Artadi) (Photo cred:  elsibaritaurbano.com)

Juan Carlos López de Lacalle (MD of Artadi)
(Photo cred: elsibaritaurbano.com)

First, today there are over 600 wineries in Rioja. Wineries have always realized that to succeed they need a competitive advantage to convince the wine trade’s gatekeepers (distributors and retailers) to offer them to consumers. When there were fewer wineries in Rioja, fewer Spanish appellations, the New World wasn’t a force yet, and superstores hadn’t overpowered distributors, it was a plus for a winery to say it was from Rioja. Today, being a Rioja winery just isn’t enough.

In the 32 years I’ve been in the Rioja wine business I’ve witnessed the development of numerous differentiation strategies to help wineries to get a leg up on their competitors: ‘experimental’ grapes, high volume and huge PR budgets to cozy up to supermarkets, sweet-talking winemakers, single varietal wines, different kinds of oak, traditional Rioja/modern Rioja/avant-garde Rioja, high scores from Parker and the Wine Spectator, scarcity, wineries designed by internationally famous architects, unorthodox winemaking techniques, underwater ageing, collaboration with famous foreign flying winemakers, striking labels, striking brand names, unusual bottles, ecological and biodynamic wines, natural wines (no added SO2 – the latest trend)  and of course, rock-bottom prices.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of pressure in Rioja to allow wineries to express themselves in new ways. What I wonder is “Why Artadi?” They’ve successfully exploited their competitive advantages and are at the top of the heap.

I can think of several reasons.

First, the Rioja Regulatory Council has been slow to discuss the demands of smaller properties to certify single vineyard, single village and single vineyard wines. When the Spanish Agriculture Ministry created the current wine law, it created a hierarchy starting with table wines at the bottom with few or no quality demands, appellations of origin and ‘qualified appellations like Rioja with strict control procedures and ‘vinos de pago’ or single estate wines at the top, with very strict requirements. The Rioja Council found a number of reasons to criticize the rules and their possible application in Rioja, starting with “what is the maximum size for a single estate?” citing examples of single estates in central Spain with almost 1000 hectares. If 1000 hectares seems like a lot of hallowed ground for a single vineyard, Is five OK? Or ten? Is a single estate wine inherently better than a blended reserva or a single varietal? Why should single estates be at the top of the hierarchy? How will the Council guarantee that the wine comes from the single estate? After a couple of meetings, the discussion became so complicated that the matter was shelved.

What’s the problem?  If the Council allows wineries to say that they sell single varietal wines, why not single estates? Hmmm.

Given the drawn-out decision making and consensus building process within the Council, I can imagine that Artadi figured it would be easier to withdraw its vineyards from the Rioja appellation and create its own mini-appellation where the rules are clear from the outset and membership is exclusive.

A second possible reason could be to add other grape varieties to the current ones allowed in Rioja. If these vineyards are exclusively in Álava, the Basque government could petition the European Union to authorize new varieties. The head of the agriculture department of the government of La Rioja hinted in a followup article that the Basque government might be behind the whole affaire in an attempt to create an exclusively Basque denomination of quality wine, an issue that has always been on the political agenda in the Basque Country.

I’d like to think that the threat by a top winery to leave Rioja will push the Council into rethinking its policy of single vineyard, single village and single subzone wines to allow not only Artadi but many other wineries to express what they perceive as unique attributes of their properties and wines. But for the sake of keeping things simple for consumers, let’s keep calling them all ‘Rioja’.  Do we want lots of sub-appellations like Bordeaux or an almost inscrutable mish-mash of vineyards-within-villages like Burgundy that only Masters of Wine understand?  Maybe the MWs don’t either!

Time will tell if clear heads prevail.

PART TWO: MY FAVORITE WINES IN 2014

Spanish newspapers are fond of making end-of-the-year lists about just about everything: best box office hits, most titles won by a football team, celebrities in jail for tax evasion, politicians in jail for influence peddling, regional governments with the highest debt per capita and others.

In keeping with this list-making tradition, here are the Riojas I liked the most in 2014 (in no particular order of preference):

  • Campillo reserva selecta 2007 (Bodegas Campillo)
  • Bodegas Bilbainas garnacha 2010
  • Contino reserva 2007
  • CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2007
  • Viña Ardanza 2004 (La Rioja Alta)
  • Punto red 2013 (Fernando Remírez de Ganuza)
  • Lorea reserva 2008 (CVNE) – the wine the bodega offers to wine tourists
  • Marqués de Teran 2009 selección especial (Bodegas Regalía de Ollauri)
  • Finca Torrea 2010 (Marqués de Riscal)
  • Viña Tondonia reserva 2002 (served from a 1,5 liter bottle)
  • Viña Pomal Alto de la Caseta 2007 (Bodegas Bilbainas)
  • Tobía gran reserva 2009 (Bodegas Tobía)
  • A Codo (sparkling wine from Rioja grapes made by Basilio Izquierdo)

I also really liked the following wines from other appellations and countries:

  • Catalpa malbec (Bodegas Atamisque – Mendoza, Argentina)
  • Salentein reserve pinot noir 2013 (Bodegas Salentein – Mendoza)
  • Catena Zapata St. Felicien cabernet-merlot 2010 (Mendoza)
  • Carmelo Patti malbec 2009 (Mendoza)
  • Dalva Golden White Porto 1963 (C. da Silva)
  • Momentos reserva carmenere 2013 (Chile)
  • Auratus 2013 white (Vinho Regional Minho – Portugal)

Of course I tasted and enjoyed lots of other wines but these were my absolute favorites.

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Special end of year double issue: Artadi threatens to leave the Rioja appellation and My favorite wines from 2014

  1. Hi Tom. As a new subscriber to your blog, I was very interested to read your newest piece; it touches exactly on a subject that has been on my mind for a while now and I would love to weigh in on the conversation with my thoughts.

    Despite its possible once-upon-a-time historical justification, I have come around to the conclusion that the Denominación system in Rioja may no longer be adapted to contemporary needs. So, the fact that Artadi is making a hoo-hah about possibly pulling out of the Rioja Denominación system doesn’t come entirely as a surprise to me and I expect, other producers, may have similar sympathies. I know that if I were a small producer in Rioja, I would be pretty bummed also.

    So what irks me about the current Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva system ? Simply put, it offers no guarantee of quality or identity; it just informs us on how long a particular wine has spent in barrel and bottle, but that could apply to a bad wine just as equally as a good one.

    In real terms, this system gives us no information about the sub-region, micro-climate or Terroir where the grapes came from; we don’t have the possibility to identify the geological influences that differentiate one wine from another. And, why should it matter how long a wine has spent in barrel anyway ? There is no credible argument to suggest that a wine that has spent 4 years in barrel is any better in quality than a wine that spent only 2 years in barrel. It is solely the quality of the grapes that counts.

    I don’t know if my opinions mesh entirely with that of Artadi’s, but I for one would be in favour of an overhaul of the Rioja denominación system. I would like to see a categorization that is more based on “where” the wine is produced, over “how” the wine was produced. If my experiences with Burgundy, for example, has taught me anything, it has taught me that Terroir is the only true and absolute criteria for quality where wine is concerned, soil and sub-soil content, micro-climatic influences are what gives a wine its inherent DNA and more importantly, its soul.

    So, why indeed, couldn’t we consider that it may be more informative to the consumer to know if the wine is a generic Rioja blend from any part of the DOC, or if it is a sub-regional Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja or Rioja Alavesa denominación, or why not indeed Laguardia or Elciego DO Rioja Alavesa Controlada etc.?

    I think the Rioja regulatory council is perhaps over complicating the issue of new rules. What does it matter if a single estate is 1 hectare or 1000 ? That is for the consumer to decide if it is good or bad, but what is true with the current system, is that there is almost no room for the small owner / producer to differentiate himself from the big houses that purchase grapes and bottle under their name ? Perhaps we should abandon the use of the ubiquitous all encapsulating term “Bodega” so that it doesn’t apply necessarily to small grower / producer / bottlers who could adopt a different term that would better describe their status, such as “Productor”, reserving “Bodega” for those companies who buy grapes, blend and bottle under their own particular brand. In France, Domaine and Maison clearly identifies this difference.

    If I’m not mistaken, the DOCa system of the wines of the Rioja only exists officially since 1991, but it was almost entirely based on previous notions that were initiated in 1926 and subsequently the DO regulation of 1970, but these were based on attitudes of a different time, when we were perhaps over influenced by the Bordeaux big business concept. Pre Spanish democracy, there were virtually no small grower bottlers selling wine commercially; the industry was the reserve of big well-established Bodegas who bought wine or grapes from individual or cooperative producers and the rules worked well enough. In those days, small producers just produced, and then restricted themselves to selling their grapes to the big Bodegas. But today, this is no longer the case, and small producers want to market their own wines, not for their “sameness”, but for their “difference”, wines that express the personality and philosophy of the man, or woman, who cares for the vines, makes and raises their wine in their cellar, and bottles the wine under their own name from the village they come from. I agree with Artadi, I think the time is right to review the rules, not for political reasons, but to give all producers a fair chance to market their wines in equal measure, and above all, to give consumers a better, more transparent, appreciation for all facets of Rioja wines as they go about choosing a bottle in their wine shop.

  2. Hi Alex, With regard to your interesting comment, I agree that given the many different ‘terroirs’ in our region, wineries should be able to make clear to consumers at the point of sale (ie on the label/back label a more precise definition of where particular wine comes from.

    Moreover, it would add to Rioja’s prestige to do so.

    However, allow me to insist that IMHO, creating a number of subappellations within Rioja following the French system (i.e. DOCa Laguardia, DOCa Briones or dividing Rioja into a zillion individual vineyard designations – which is incomprehensible to all but a few very devoted geeks) would be hopelessly confusing, rather than easier to understand, for most consumers. Besides, if you look at terroir-driven Rioja wineries’ websites, they explain very clearly the characteristics of the specific vineyard(s). So they CAN talk about it, but it takes some digging.

    Perhaps a fairly simple solution would be for a hypothetical front label to say:

    Brand
    Vintage
    RIOJA
    Denominación de Origen Calificada
    Producer name “X”
    Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa)
    Pago/Vineyard… etc. “La Pepita”

    Let the producer be as specific as they want on the back label and the website but keep “Rioja” in a prominent place on the front label.

    Wineries who want to de-emphasize the idea of ‘crianza’, ‘reserva’ or ‘gran reserva’ can always use the generic green ‘Rioja’ ‘guarantee of origin’ (which an ever-larger number of wineries are doing anyway). The green label really means that the wine has been guaranteed as Rioja, with no allusion to oak and bottle age but most people associate it with young wine. So, in Rioja’s effort to create an ostensibly easy-to-understand-by-consumers classification according to age they have actually contributed to confusing consumers.

    When you have a region with over a million barrels (of all ages, but with an average age that is dropping year by year) in its wineries, the idea of throwing out the current back label idea isn’t something done overnight.

    I think that in time, due to what markets tell wineries, the system will be revamped, but how much and how fast is anyone’s guess.

  3. Pingback: Artadi says ‘adios’ to Rioja | Inside Rioja

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