A new structure for Spanish wine?

(Or ‘Let the consumers do the talking’)

Artadi’s decision to leave the Rioja appellation is just one example of a movement among Spanish winemakers and wine writers to promote recognition of single vineyard sites and village terroirs and the wines produced on them as a means of showing the huge diversity of soils and landscapes in Spain. The movement’s leaders are convinced that it’s necessary for Spain’s appellations to go one step further than merely certifying general origin within the appellation.

Here’s the manifesto (my translation):

 

     Exceptional Vineyards

 Spain is the richest European country for its biodiversity and landscapes but at the same time it is one of those in which the respect and preservation of its surroundings is most questioned. The world of wine is no exception.

 The appellation of origin system has been an efficient means of ordering the wine world as far as origin is concerned but its objective has not been to differentiate soils and landscapes nor has it led to a policy of quality. In Spain policies have been developed to convert our vineyards into the largest in the world but no action has been taken to convert them into the best in the world.

 Nonetheless, we have history, places and the necessary passion to put the best plots and the most exceptional places at the forefront.

 For this reason, we believe that sweeping changes must take place and a new path opened that allows giving value to our unquestionable wine patrimony. It must be a global change affecting each and every layer of the wine sector from grapegrowers to public administration.

 All great wines in the world are a reflection of exceptional vineyards. For that reason, the most prestigious wine regions have always made laws based on those extraordinary vineyards for the purpose of defending and protecting them.

 We are convinced that the best way to identify wines in relation to their origin, quality, identity and authenticity is to create a pyramid structure. At its base would be wines made from grapes from any place in appellations of origin, then, wines from villages and at the tip of the pyramid, wines from single plots.

 All producers would win. We believe that raising the bar and demanding more of ourselves we will improve, we will be capable of better explaining the reality of our country’s wines, and we would help to sell the rest of our wines more effectively.

 For the above reasons we ask the Regulatory Councils to understand the new reality of the wine sector that is blossoming in Spain and to help show the differentiation that exists within each and every appellation of origin in our country. We know that this differentiation is the beginning of exceptionality and because the single vineyard wine movement is unstoppable and is, moreover, the best way to accomplish the goal of Spain’s wines becoming better and more prized.

 About 200 winemakers, practically all of whom are already making single vineyard wines, journalists, sommeliers, distributors and wine shop owners signed it.

Giving official status to single vineyard and village wines is absolutely necessary to provide small and medium-sized wineries a competitive advantage and positioning in markets where there is an increasing number of suppliers and a decreasing number of distributors and small retailers to offer them to consumers. If a wine comes from a single vineyard, why shouldn’t the winery have the right to say so?

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Having said that, I’m not convinced that the best way to tackle this problem is to lobby the Ministry of Agriculture to establish a pyramid structure, defining that single vineyard wines at the tip of the pyramid are intrinsically better and more authentic than wines coming from a single village or wines that are blended.

To me it makes more sense to lobby the appellations of origin to create a procedure to certify the specific origin of a single vineyard or village wine and let gatekeepers (distributors, retailers, supermarkets, wine writers) and ultimately, consumers decide which wine they prefer.

I can’t speak with authority about the rest of Spain, but in Rioja there are a number of highly successful wines that come from separate vineyards, villages and even the opposite ends of the region (from Rioja Baja as well as Rioja Alta) that would almost surely not accept the idea of being lower on a ‘quality/authenticity’ scale than a wine from a single vineyard or village. The attempt to create ‘vinos de pago’ or single vineyard wines in Rioja based on a quality pyramid set up in the latest Spanish wine law was rejected a few years ago in the Regulatory Council by wineries that refused to accept that a single vineyard wine was, a priori, higher on the quality scale than a blend. For the sake of clarity, let me say that most of the wineries on that committee were making single vineyard wines!

It makes no sense to me at all to create a Médoc or Burgundy-like hierarchy for Spanish wines. It’s common knowledge that the Médoc classification has only been changed once since 1855 (when Mouton-Rothschild moved from third growth status to first following years of intense lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild). In any case, this classification was based on retail prices, not on any intrinsic characteristics of one terroir over another. The courts are still hearing cases from disgruntled chateau owners in Saint-Émilion when the classification was reshuffled several years ago. I could go on and on about Pomerol and the crus bourgeois in Bordeaux but the point is, the appelations should give the wineries and winemakers the flexibility to create the best wines for their markets and let the wineries extol the virtues of their products to the gatekeepers. Doing this on a yearly basis rather than creating a hierarchy is the best way to keep wineries on their toes and quality high. The greatest benefit is greatly raising the prestige of Spanish wines around the world, exactly the signers of the manifesto request.

The Regulatory Councils have the statutory obligation to certify the origin of the wines in their appellation. The wineries aren’t asking too much to take this certification to the next level.

 

 

Artadi says ‘adios’ to Rioja

About a year ago I wrote here that Artadi had threatened to leave the DOCa Rioja and explained what might have moved the winery to take this step. I expressed my hope that the threat would push the Rioja Regulatory Council into speeding up its decision to recognize wines from single vineyards, a demand widely shared by small and medium-sized wineries here.

Sadly, this has not happened and on December 29, Artadi officially withdrew from the Rioja appellation. The Regulatory Council’s only moves so far have been to visit the winery to confiscate Artadi’s stock of official Rioja back labels and to issue a press release stating

“It’s surprising that after having gained notoriety both through its own efforts and also undoubtedly because of belonging to the Rioja appellation, the same project (Rioja) is suddenly no longer suitable for its (Artadi’s) interests, especially when we have not heard directly the real reasons that have led to this decision”.

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 Juan Carlos López de Lacalle (photo by baskoniacultura.com)

Even though Artadi never visited the Council to explain why it was leaving Rioja, the winery’s president, Juan Carlos López de Lacalle made it clear that his winery no longer wanted to belong to an appellation where wines selling for two euros a bottle carried the same official back labels as his.

He has a point. The Rioja Council has been dragging its feet in recognizing that there are currently about 600 wineries in the appellation, of which over 400 sell fewer than 500,000 liters (if the sales breakdown of these 400 wineries were more detailed I’m sure we would discover that many of them sell fewer than 50,000 bottles). The competitive advantage of these small wineries is promoting a high quality, single vineyard image but according to the rules as they stand today, a winery can register a brand name alluding to a vineyard or a specific place such as ‘Viña…, Finca…, Tierra…, Prado…, Hacienda…, Alto…, Granja…, Dominio and the like but they can’t say on the back label or any written literature, under the threat of a fine from the Council, that the wine comes from that specific place. ‘Pagos’ isn’t allowed because a specific category of ‘vinos de pago’ was created in the most recent Spanish wine law but wineries that had registered a brand prior to the new law, including Artadi’s ‘Pagos Viejos’, were grandfathered in.

Why can’t these terms be used to describe the place the grapes come from? Because the Regulatory Council doesn’t have the means to certify that a given wine comes from grapes from a specific vineyard. Currently, the smallest area allowed is a village designation, but under the generic umbrella of the Rioja appellation. One could say that the Council is a victim of its own policy of meticulously certifying the origin of grapes. They simply don’t have enough inspectors and they refuse to take the winery’s word for it. (Wineries from the New World: now is the time to laugh!) It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the larger wineries were less than enthusiastic about the idea.

artadi-pagos-viejos

 (Photo credit:  Artadi website)

For Artadi, a village designation under the Rioja umbrella is unacceptable. Mr. López de Lacalle, with a dash of messianic fervor, recently said in an interview on Radio Euskadi (the Basque government’s public radio station), published on January 5 in our local newspaper LA RIOJA:

“What will we gain (by leaving Rioja)? That consumers will have enough information so that they know that our wines come from natural surroundings, from a specific vineyard, from a specific area and from a region like Álava that is longing to express itself and where everything tastes of wine…. We’re going to show consumers the greatness of an area that seems to be created by the hand of God with the optimum conditions to make one of the best wines in the world.”

 The most recent development is that sixty small wineries in Rioja Alavesa – more than half of the members of the Rioja Alavesa Winery Association (representing small wineries in the region with strong financial support from the Basque Government) – indicated in a survey that they were willing to leave Rioja and create a specific appellation based in Rioja Alavesa.

It’s interesting to note that although Artadi has said that their decision is irrevocable and that they will never return to Rioja, a friend who works for the agriculture department of the Riojan government told me yesterday that if Artadi’s experiment doesn’t work and they want to return to the fold, the Council will have no choice but to take them back.

López de la Calle remarked, “Rioja for the Riojans and Álava for the people from Álava”. A noble sentiment indeed, but I’m sure that the large wineries in Rioja Alavesa like Marqués de Riscal, Faustino, El Coto and Bodegas Valdemar want to remain in the Rioja appellation.

As I’ve said many times, if there’s no controversy in Rioja, we’ll have to create it. An apocryphal Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times”. This is certainly the case in Rioja today.