Students of wine discover quickly that trying to learn about the world’s wine regions is a daunting task. Bordeaux for example has 60 appellations and Burgundy 84. I could go on and on about Italy, Germany, the USA and other countries but you get the idea.
Until a short time ago, Rioja was easy – one appellation for the entire region. However, the Rioja Regulatory Council recently approved the official division of the Rioja appellation into zones, a further division into villages and even gives vineyards that meet strict criteria the status of “singular” from which, hopefully, singular wines will be made. Currently, wineries are now allowed to label their wines with a zone name as long as they meet certain criteria.
Traditionally, these zones within the Rioja DO were called:
- Rioja Alta for the area west of Logroño on the south bank of the Ebro river and for a small area on the north bank around the villages of Ábalos and San Vicente de la Sonsierra;
- Rioja Alavesa for the area on the north bank of the Ebro that lie within the province of Álava in the Basque Country;
- Rioja Baja for the area east of Logroño on both banks of the Ebro.
The only complication from the wine educator’s point of view was that most of the vineyards on the north side of Rioja Baja lie within the province of Navarra. Rioja Alta vineyards are exclusively within the province of La Rioja. The only coincidence was that Rioja Alavesa lay entirely within the Basque province of Álava.
(Rioja Alta is dark green, Rioja Alavesa light green and Rioja Baja orange).
In 1998 Rioja Alavesa successfully lobbied the Council to allow wines made entirely from grapes from Alavesa vineyards and bottled in wineries in the Alavesa to be labeled ‘Rioja Alavesa’.
‘Rioja Baja’ however, has caused an uproar because a few producers, notably the grape cooperatives in the Baja feel that ‘baja’ (lower) denigrates the image of their wines. As early as 2004 a few wineries proposed changing the name to “Rioja Milenaria” in clear reference to the historical presence of Roman settlements there. The idea didn’t gain much traction, however.
Official approval for zoning the DOCa Rioja in 2017 revived the movement to dignify the name of the region. After what I understand was a fairly short debate, the Council unanimously approved the term ‘Rioja Oriental’ and submitted the change to European Union authorities to make it official.
What the Council and wineries weren’t expecting was intense criticism from both inside Spain and the USA. Both Luis Gutierrez, Robert Parker’s Spanish taster and Helio San Miguel, a Spanish wine educator living in New York, writing in Spain’s Gourmets magazine slammed the change because they felt that ‘oriental’ had a negative connotation in English. One Rioja importer even refused to accept a batch of wine labeled ‘Rioja Oriental’.
According to our regional newspaper La Rioja, the agency managing the Rioja PR campaign in the USA isn’t too enthusiastic about the name change either. That should have been a warning sign.
Incidently, a large Chinese wine producer Changyu recently purchased a 75% stake in the large Marqués del Atrio winery located in the Baja. No kidding. Is this the real force behind the change from ‘Baja’ to ‘Oriental’?
Today (April 12), the Regulatory Council announced that ‘Rioja Oriental’ is once and for all the new name of the former zone known as ‘Rioja Baja’.
Getting back to wine educators in English speaking countries, the challenge from now on is how to translate ‘Rioja Oriental’ into English. The way I see it, there are three alternatives:
- say ‘Oriental Rioja’;
- say ‘Rioja Oriental’ with an English accent;
- say ‘Eastern Rioja’.
What do you think?
My favorite wine this week: Lecea crianza 2014 (San Asensio). 100% tempranillo from vines over 20 years old. Rich black fruit on the nose with a touch of oak; full bodied. Lipsmackingly good.