About insiderioja

I'm a 40-year veteran of the wine business, recently retired. My blog is about the Rioja wine business and the food scene in Rioja.

Blues to cure the September blues – Rioja and the Five Senses

 

IMG_2797It’s the beginning of September. Vacation’s over but you still have to endure a flight delay or a monumental traffic jam most of the way from the coast back to your house. The kids are complaining because they have to go back to school. You have to go back to work. You’ve gained five pounds in three weeks. You’re irritable and can’t sleep. Sound familiar? It’s what Spaniards call ‘el síndrome posvacacional’ or post-vacation stress.

Fortunately in Rioja, The ‘Rioja and the Five Senses’ program has the cure. Throughout September, your sense of hearing is stimulated by a range of musical activities around the world of Rioja wine. It puts you in a good mood and gets you thinking about wine again after a summer of drinking beer.

Inside Rioja attended two of these activities recently: a concert of popular music from the ‘30s and ‘40s held at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the small village of Baños del Río Tobía in the southwestern corner of the Rioja wine district, and a rock/blues/pop combo at Bodegas La Emperatriz a few miles north.

Round One – Swing

Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats, a four person combo made up of a tenor sax/clarinet, an upright bass and a guitar, led by a talented young singer, Saphie Wells. The band played songs made popular by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and others, including ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’, ‘All of me’ and ‘C’est si bon’. Ms. Wells really put her heart into the songs, and her audience responded by snapping fingers and clapping in time with the music.

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One of the buildings in the winery was converted into a nightclub for the event, with soft lighting, and tables for two or four with candles scattered in front of the stage. During the concert, the winery served one of its red wines with glasses frequently topped up. Fortunately most people came and went on a bus provided by the organizers! https://swingcatsbarcelona.com/

The winery

Juan Carlos Sancha is not only a winery owner but also holds a Ph.D in viticulture. A professor at the University of La Rioja, he is one of Rioja’s foremost experts on local grapes. In the 1990s he led a movement to rescue little-known grape varietals from extinction and then fought to get the best ones approved for use in Rioja wines. You can thank him and his colleague Fernando Martínez de Toda for the addition of red and white maturana and turruntés (no relation to the torrontés grown in Argentina) and helping to develop white tempranillo, a natural mutation of the red variety, discovered in 1988.

Sancha has also fought hard to develop the concept of singular vineyards in Rioja and old vine garnacha at high altitude above the Najerilla river valley near Baños. https://juancarlossancha.com/

Round Two – rock and roll

The following Saturday we traveled to Bodegas La Emperatriz, a winery surrounded by over 200 hectares of vineyards divided into 22 plots. Some of these are in the process of being certified as singular vineyards. The property used to belong to Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of France’s Napoleon III, with grape and wine production dating from the mid-19th century. The property’s current owners are Eduardo and Víctor Hernáiz.

Both Juan Carlos Sancha and La Emperatriz are members of Provir, an association of family-owned wineries in Rioja. Eduardo Hernáiz is the association’s current president.

http://www.bodegaslaemperatriz.com/en/

The musical date was with Confluence, from Bilbao, a band made up of weekend musicians who in “real” life are lawyers, statisticians, civil servants and members of other professions. ‘Confluence’, as the name suggests, specializes in a combination of rock, pop, country, jazz, blues and spirituals.

Led by the inimitable Irrintzi Ibarrola on vocals and acoustic guitar, the band is made up of a Hammond organ, electric bass, drums, electric guitar, and harmonica with an occasional riff from an alto sax.

If Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats reminded me of the music my parents used to listen to, Irrintzi Ibarrola and Confluence was my music – the USA and UK from the 1960s and early 70s, with songs from Ben E. King (Stand by Me), Otis Redding (Sitting on the Dock of the Bay), the Beatles (I’ll Get by with a Little Help from my Friends) – although sung in the lusty Joe Cocker version, Johnny Cash and of course, Bob Dylan.

Hearing the Cocker song took me back to 1970 when some friends and I jumped a curfew imposed  because of the riots caused by the Kent State murders to go to a Cocker concert in downtown Columbus, Ohio.  It was well worth risking getting arrested!

The band also played some of Ibarrola’s original songs. My favorite was ‘Mitad hombre, mitad sardina’ (Half man, half sardine) inspired by the moment Ibarrola looked at himself in the mirror wearing a wet suit.

Clearly, Ibarrola’s inspirations are Cocker, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Cash and Motown (Ibarrola introduced himself as a native of Detroit). His number one hero, however is Bob Dylan. For the group’s second encore, Ibarrola sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as Dylan in the 60s, 80s and the 21st century.  Pure genius!

It was a swingin’, swayin’, foot stomping performance.

After the concert I introduced myself as a real native of Detroit. Ibarrola laughed and asked me if I had understood his singing. “Every word”, I replied, although I have to agree with Ibarrola’s statement from a recent article in Bilbao’s El Correo: “You can perform rock and roll in any language”!

Right on, brother!

 

 

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Taking Wine Education Home – Bodegas Paco García’s ‘Experiences’

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An increasing number of Rioja wineries have embraced receiving visitors but only a few have made a visit to the winery an experience rather than just a tour. Bodegas Paco García, a small, family-owned winery in Murillo del Río Leza in Rioja Oriental has gone a step further by offering consumers experiences that they can enjoy at home with their friends.

To date, the winery has launched three experiences. The first was to discover the garnacha grape. The second was a crianza (≥ 12 months aging in oak casks) made exclusively from graciano grapes.

The third experience, called duelo de robles (duel of oaks) offers consumers a box with two bottles of Paco Garcia crianza 2014, one aged in American oak and the other in French oak, but you don’t know which is which. Before opening each bottle for tasting, there’s a detailed explanation on the inside of the box explaining the differences between each type of oak.

According to the winery:

American oak (Quercus alba)

  • Indigenous to the East Coast of North America;
  • The trunk is cut with a saw, not split. The entire trunk can be used.
  • Extremely hard wood, almost impermeable, making it difficult for air to pass through the staves, making for slower evolution of the wine;
  • Wine aged in American oak is powerful on the palate;
  • Typical aromas include vanilla, coconut, coffee, cocoa and tobacco.

French oak (Quercus petraea)

  • Found in western, central and southern Europe, mainly in France)
  • The trunk is split, not sawn. Consequently a lot of wood is wasted.
  • Wine aged in French oak has a silkier texture. The most characteristic aromas are honey, vanilla, dried nuts and sweet spices.

Following this explanation, the experience suggests opening each bottle, asking consumers to guess which wine is aged in French and which in American oak.

After everyone guesses, participants peel back a corner of the back label on each bottle to discover the secret.

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What an idea! We tried it at home with friends a week ago and had a great time! I’ve tasted other Rioja brands aged in both types of oak but none of the wineries have made the comparison so much fun.

I’m looking forward to the next Paco García Experience and am sure it will be both entertaining and instructive.

Bodegas Paco García www.bodegaspacogarcia.com

Rioja ‘rosados’ and ‘claretes’ are taking markets by storm

Summer is just around the corner, so it’s time to stop thinking about red wines for a few months and begin to savor whites and rosés.

Given the explosion of sales of red Rioja it can be easy to overlook what’s happening with white and especially, rosé. In the short time since Inside Rioja last explored rosé in Rioja, a lot has happened.

At that time I wrote:

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.

 At the end of the article was a comment about some possible changes:

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.

 

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Benchmarks-the old (Mateus rosé from Portugal) and the new (Pure from Provence)

 There have indeed been changes here, but first, let’s review how pink wines in Rioja have traditionally been made. One style, called rosado, is vinified with tempranillo and/or garnacha with skins in contact with the juice for a few hours to extract color but no skin contact during fermentation. The other is clarete, where both red and white grapes are fermented with the skins, producing a very pale pink wine. The regulations of the Rioja DOC require that at least 25% of a clarete blend must be made from red grape varieties so a clarete could have as much as 75% of white grapes.

Originally, claretes were made mainly in the upper valley of the Najerilla river in Rioja Alta around the villages of San Asensio, Cordovin, Badarán, Azofra and Alesanco. This style has become so popular in northern Spain that clarete lovers just ask for “un Cordovin”. The area around the Najerilla valley celebrates its relationship with clarete by organizing a ‘Batalla del clarete’ that takes place on a Sunday in the second half of July in San Asensio.

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A clarete from Bodegas Ontañón (Photo: Tom Perry)

Today we can say that pale orange tinted rosés and clarete are gaining in popularity both in Spain and internationally. Probably the first sign of change came as a consequence of the increase in worldwide sales of rosés from Provence with their characteristic pale pink color.

Sales of Provence rosé (Source:  Wine Market Review based on statistics from French Customs)

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Rioja wineries wanted to take advantage of this increase in demand for very pale rosés but were forbidden from doing so because the Rioja Regulatory Board defined rosé as having higher color intensity. It took some time before wineries were able to get the definition changed. Today, the rule for the minimum color intensity of a Rioja rosé is .1UA/cm, measured as the sum of A420+A520+A620. This allows very pale rosés to be made.

For the non-tech minded, basically it’s using photospectrometry to measure the wine’s capacity to absorb light at three wave levels: 420, 520 and 620 nanometers. A lighter intensity will have a lower number and vice-versa. For example, in Rioja, the minimum color intensity for a red is 3.5 UA.

Now, Rioja rosés are available from very pale pink to light red to meet demand in different markets. Some wineries like CVNE and Barón de Ley make more than one style.

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(Photo:  Tom Perry)

There’s a huge range of rosados and clarets from Rioja in the marketplace. Try a pale rosé, a clarete and a darker-hued rosé. I’m sure you’ll love the comparison!

 

 

 

 

 

Bars, bars, bars

There are 985 bars in Logroño, according to Jorge Alacid, author of the blog Logroño en sus bares. Alacid cites data from the division of analysis of the Spanish bank La Caixa revealing that there are 6.4 bars per 1,000 residents of our fair city. The highest density in Spain? Not according to the study. Santander has 7.5 and Bilbao 7.3. San Sebastian, famous for its tapas scene, has 6.6, the same as Barcelona. Madrid comes in at a relatively paltry 5.3.

The fact that ‘density of bars per capita’ is included in studies of Spanish lifestyle habits is a testimony to the importance of bars in our country. Bars are where we have breakfast, our midmorning snack, wine, beer or a cocktail at all times of the day. It’s where we watch soccer matches and read the newspapers. And most important of all, it’s where we catch up on gossip and argue about politics.

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Bars, like every other densely populated sector of an economy, need to have a competitive advantage to survive. Most attempt this with their selection of wines and innovative or traditional tapas. Others put on events to attract customers. Still others have positioned themselves as places Logroño’s beautiful people go after work to see and be seen.

My favorite bar stands out for entertainment. It’s Vinos Murillo, about halfway between our house and downtown, so we often stop there on our way to and from the old town. From the outside, it’s pretty nondescript. It has a narrow frontage, a weatherbeaten door, and a picture window filled with a huge sign that says “For sale: anisette for making pacharan”. When you go inside you find a bar running from the front door back to the kitchen, stacks of cases of wine on the floor, old bottles of Rioja on the back bar, posters plastered haphazardly on the walls, several plates of quail egg, olive and hot green pepper tapas, a karaoke box and microphone sitting on a table in a corner, a tiny barking chihuahua running in and out and two very outgoing brothers running the place.

In other words, it has everything going for it.

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Owners José Mari and Carlos (nicknamed the Dalton brothers after the bandits in the French comic Lucky Luke) try to encourage the different groups of customers clustered at the bar to engage with one another. Sometimes to get people to drink a certain bottle of wine, they will sometimes yell out to my embarrassment, “Try this Tobía garnacha. That’s what Tom is drinking!” Or they will tell you, “Hey, come and meet so-and-so’s brother. He’s in the Spanish Secret Service!”

The other day the brothers tried to train their chihuahua to climb over a maze of wine boxes to reach a plate of food. Of course the whole bar was watching.

Besides this crazy atmosphere, the bar is known for one of Logroño’s most original tapas: a baked potato. It’s delivered to you on a piece of newspaper with a spoon, a bottle of spicy olive oil, salt, pepper and paprika. The only drawback is that José Mari only makes them in the wintertime and only when he feels like it. So the first question most people ask when they walk in on a cold evening is “Hay patatas?” (Are there potatoes tonight?)

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Vinos Murillo is much more than a bar. It’s theater, with an original act every night. The next time you’re in Logroño, check it out. If you’re lucky, José Mari might sing for you.

Vinos Murillo

Avenida de la República Argentina 26

26002 Logroño (La Rioja)

 

 

 

Inside Rioja Visits the Navarra Vinofest

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Navarra holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of Spain’s most beautiful regions, from the rolling green hills of the pre-Pyrenees in the north to valleys carved by rushing rivers and dotted with picturesque villages and the muted green and ochre landscape on the banks of the Ebro river.

My love for the place is enhanced by the magic of the “fiesta” of San Fermín in Pamplona from July 6 through the 14th that I first experienced in 1971 and have been returning to almost every year.

No one can say they’ve experienced Navarra without tasting the wines produced there. For many years Navarra wines lived in the shadow of their southerly neighbor Rioja and sales stagnated. The Navarrese took a bold step a few years ago by approving the use of several international grape varieties – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah for reds and chardonnay, muscatel and sauvignon blanc for whites to differentiate themselves from Rioja. Another smart move was to keep the old vine garnacha that grew in the Ebro valley while Rioja pulled theirs up to plant more tempranillo.

Several weeks ago, the DO Navarra organized a wine festival in Pamplona to highlight the wines from 29 producers. It was a great chance to see what Navarra was up to wine-wise.

It would have been impossible to taste everything so I concentrated on whites made from “international” varietals and garnacha-based reds (plus a few others that caught my eye – or should I say, nose).

These are the wines I enjoyed most:

Bodega Inurrieta

For me, the clear winner of the day.

  • Inurrieta Orchidea sauvignon blanc 2017
  • Inurrieta Mimao garnacha 2016
  • Altos de Inurrieta reserve 2013

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Finca Albret

  • Albret La Viña de Mi Madre 2013

Bodegas La Casa de Lúculo

  • Lúculo Origen crianza 2016

Bodegas Lezaun

  • Lezaun tempranillo 2107 (carbonic maceration)

Bodegas Ochoa

MDO Moscato frizzante (a slightly sparkling moscato – a category that’s taking Spain by storm!)

Bodegas San Martín

  • Señorío de Unx garnacha blanca 2017

Tándem

  • Inmune tinto 2017

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Bodegas Castillo de Monjardín

  • Castillo Monjardín chardonnay 2017
  • Castillo Monjardín chardonnay reserva 2015

Bodegas Máximo Abete

  • Guerinda La Abejera tinto madera 2014

Bodegas Nekeas

  • El Chaparral tinto 2016

Bodegas Pagos de Aráiz

  • Pagos de Aráiz roble 2015

After the tasting we had a pintxo at the Café Roch (Pamplona’s oldest bar), lunch around the corner at Catachu and a gin & tonic (the best ones in town!) at the Bar Baviera. We slept on the bus back to Logroño. It was a perfect day!

I urge you to take a look around your favorite wine shop or check out Wine Searcher for wines from Navarra. They deserve wider recognition.

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos García-Ogara and the road toward brand recognition for Rioja

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Carlos García-Ogara (right) with Tom Perry at Bodegas Campo Viejo, 1984

Today Rioja boasts over 600 wineries that sell over 400 million bottles around the world, all of them bottled in a Rioja winery. Fifty years ago the scene was very different. Rioja wineries sold both Rioja bottled in the winery and in bulk to be bottled in the importing country. To use official Rioja guarantee labels, a winery was required to have at least 500 oak barriques and at least 337,500 liters of wine in the winery. It was a business for big wineries.

Rioja didn’t have a bad image. It had no image at all.

One of the people instrumental in developing Rioja’s image internationally was Carlos García-Ogara, a man largely unknown today in the wine business except for a few elderly veterans of the Rioja wine scene. Carlos and his mission is a story that needs to be told.

BACKGROUND

In the mid-1960s, the Spanish Ministry of Commerce passed a series of laws to encourage companies in certain key sectors of the economy (including wine) to export. It was not strictly a tax rebate. Taxes were levied and paid. It was the return to exporting companies of a percentage of Spanish taxes paid on the price of their goods sold outside Spain.

The government required exporting companies from a given sector to form an association – in Rioja it was called the ‘Grupo de Exportadores de Vinos de Rioja’ (Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association) – and hire a small staff to process each company’s declarations from Spanish customs as well as assure that the disbursement of the funds due to each company was correct.

The law also provided for 1.5% of the funds to be put into a separate account so that associations could carry out collective image-building activities. If the association was not interested in these activities, the 1.5% would be returned to the individual winery. The Ministry of Commerce contributed funds to help the effort.

In Rioja, the 34 “exporting” wineries in 1968 as well as others who joined the export drive in the following years decided to use the 1.5% for promotions and to hire a multilingual manager to devise, negotiate and carry out the plans. The first target markets were the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland and the USA. Shortly afterwards Canada joined them.

The manager hired to carry out these plans was Carlos García-Ogara.

His primary responsibility was to develop an image-building strategy for Rioja wine, that involved

  • analyzing which countries showed strong demand for wine and were potential targets for a PR campaign;
  • creating, with the assistance of the owners and export managers of the wineries, a public relations and promotional strategy suited to each target market;
  • hiring a local PR agency to develop tactics to carry out the strategic objectives.

In practice, this meant:

  • setting up Rioja tastings for journalists to generate news in the media;
  • identifying potential distributors (most of the wineries did not have distributors in the target markets so this was a main objective);
  • using the agency to distribute press releases and newsletters;
  • attending trade fairs with a Rioja stand;
  • inviting journalists to visit the Rioja region and wineries;
  • inserting generic advertising about Rioja in the trade press.

Practically all of the activities were generic, that is, to develop the image of brand Rioja.

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Generic Rioja ad (Decanter Magazine Wine Guide to Rioja, 1985)

As time passed and wineries began selling their brands in these markets, advertising and PR became more brand-specific while maintaining a strong generic message.

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Ad for Campo Viejo with the generic tag line ‘Unmistakably Rioja’ (Note the Rioja guarantee stamp and the Rioja logo in the upper left corner) Decanter, 1987

As long as the “1.5%” funds lasted, they were used to finance the above activities with the help of funds from the recently created INFE (Spanish Institute for the Development of Exports), later renamed ICEX (Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade). It is interesting to note that Rioja’s PR agencies were the inspiration for Wines of Spain offices created in these and later, other target markets.

When the tax rebate scheme expired and the “1.5%” funds were depleted, Rioja wineries were called on to devote a greater share of investments in generic/brand specific PR and other image-building activities with the financial support of ICEX, and co-managed by the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association.

It was not until 2008 that the Rioja Control Board assumed responsibility for international PR for Rioja with funds from both wineries and grape growers. It was an important achievement that significantly increased investment. Today the Control Board’s PR budget is 16.5 million euros (USD 20.16 million), partially co-financed with funds from the European Union.

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Rioja’s current international brand image ‘Saber quien eres’ – (Knowing who you are) (Courtesy of La Prensa del Rioja)

For almost half a century, Rioja has engaged in promoting the umbrella brand RIOJA under which wineries can take advantage of the generic traction created to promote their own brands. This has been decisive in giving the Rioja brand a strong international identity.

Carlos García-Ogara died a few weeks ago.  At his funeral old Rioja hands gathered to reminisce about those early days when Carlos led wineries on the road towards the adventure of selling internationally.

We hope the current generation of Rioja managers will recognize and appreciate the ground breaking efforts of Carlos and the wineries on that a rough but exciting trip that paved the way for Rioja’s strong brand image today.

Wines of the week:

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Enate 234 chardonnay (DO Somontano) Enjoyed at a bar in San Sebastian. (Note that 2 3 4 has also been translated into Basque (Bi Hiru Lau)

Not from Rioja (but that doesn’t mean it’s not good!) Lively acidity, ripe stone fruit notes.  Great for a meal of grilled fish – something readily available on the north coast of Spain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oriental Rioja

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.

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(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.

http://www.bodegaslecea.com/

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