Rioja finally comes to grips with single estates

“Rioja is like an ocean liner. It needs time to change course.” This comment from Ángel de Jaime, one of the Rioja Regulatory Council’s past presidents, is a good description of the consensus-building process that precedes important decisions taken by the Council.

With 14 organizations on the executive board, representing wineries, cooperatives and farmers’ unions, this process can take a long time and tends to generate plenty of coverage in the media.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 11.54.50(Photo credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

Previous decisions, such as the approval of new grape varieties, have often taken years to negotiate, so long in some cases that the delay has actually hurt Rioja.  The best example is the drawn-out debate about authorizing new white varietals.  While wineries and farmers fought in the Council, other DOs like Rueda and Rias Baixas took market share from white Rioja, even on our home turf.

However, the idea of accepting village and single estate grapes and wines in Rioja has been surprisingly well received by all sides and my feeling, after reading the proposals submitted to the Council, is that approval of rules to make these grapes and wines a reality won’t take long.

Fortunately, there are two precedents that make the process easier. Identifying and selling single subzone wines (from Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja) have been on the books since 1998. The only requirements for a subzone wine is for 100% of the grapes and wine to come from the subzone and that winemaking, ageing and bottling take place in the subzone.

The Council has already accepted concept of village wines, with requirements currently under discussion. It appears from the proposals that almost all parties are against making more restrictive requirements for yields, the minimum age of vineyards or a more rigorous tasting note for wines produced from grapes from a specific village except that the grapes and wine must demonstrably come from the village.

The organizations, however, seem inclined to be extremely rigorous with single estate grapes and wines.

The process involves a thorough examination of a number of specific qualities of both the vineyard and the wines produced from those grapes.

First of all, an ‘estate’ must have some singular qualities that set it apart from the surrounding area. One of the organizations has suggested following the OIV’s (International Office of Vine and Wine) recommendations about the methodology to be followed for defining parcels of vineyards, and the advice of international experts.

Among the requirements under discussion are: the minimum age of the vineyard; lower yields than for generic Rioja; no mechanical harvesting; estates cannot be located on fertile soil (a past error allowed by the Council); and that wines must receive a minimum point score (to be determined) in a tasting at the Council. This tasting is in addition to the general tasting to qualify the wine as generic Rioja.

The consensus is not to scrap the current system of ‘generic’, ‘crianza’, ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’, for village and single estate wines, with the subzone, village or single estate featured on the label.

A current critique of the process of buying grapes in Rioja is the accusation by farmers that all wineries tend to gravitate to a more or less equal price for all grapes and wine once a big buy is made public. I assume that farmers who own vineyards that they consider special will apply for single vineyard status to command higher prices for their grapes. It might also encourage them to vinify these grapes, and age, bottle and sell the wine provided that they have access to a winery, rather than selling them to someone else.

Some wineries and wine writers have suggested a pyramid structure, with single estate wines at the tip, implying that the best quality (and therefore the most expensive) wines come from these estates, such as in Burgundy. It’s certainly a fact that in Burgundy the system works that way. It appears, however, that the organizations in the Council prefer the market to determine which wines are ‘the best or most valued Riojas’. I agree.

Diapositiva1

Alberto Gil, the wine writer at our regional newspaper LA RIOJA, prefers concentric circles as a graphic representation of the future system, with more precise locations located closer to the center.

Diapositiva2Independently, one of Spain’s viticulture gurus, Pepe Hidalgo, created a zone map based on his research. He divides the DO Rioja into nine zones according to climate, altitude and soil types.

Hidalgo zone map(Map courtesy of LA RIOJA)

Hidalgo thinks that it would be confusing for consumers if Rioja ultimately decided to approve a village-based category (there are 76 villages in Rioja Alta, 52 in Rioja Baja and 18 in Rioja Alavesa) and feels that his categorization would be easier to manage.

I haven’t heard if the Council has debated his idea but it certainly merits consideration.

Time (hopefully, not too long) will tell how this debate will finally play out. Many of Rioja’s 600 wineries need a competitive advantage such as small, scarce amounts of wine to succeed. I think it’s to Rioja’s credit that the Council has collectively pulled hard on the wheel to turn the ship.

 

 

 

 

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?

Diapositiva2

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”.

lopezdelacalle

 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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

How important are vintage ratings?

From 2004 to 2012, the Rioja Regulatory Council rated four vintages ‘excellent’ and five ‘very good’. When 2013 was judged ‘good’, people here were surprised, because throughout the year conditions were so bad in the vineyards that we were expecting a much lower rating.

The Rioja Regulatory Council carries out an extremely rigorous tasting program of samples of wines from each new vintage. Winemakers from Rioja wineries are given anonymous samples to taste and grade. Some don’t make it – over 8 million liters in 2013. Once the samples have been tasted and accepted, their scores are plugged into a mathematical formula whose results determine whether the vintage is rated ‘excellent’, ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘standard’ and ‘average’.

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

Preparing samples to be tasted by the panel

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

The fact that the formula assigned ‘good’ to the 2013 vintage is undoubtedly a tribute to the skill of Rioja winemakers.

Since every vintage rating is the average rating of the sum of the individual wines, I feel that the current nomenclature leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the lowest two ratings are ‘standard’ and ‘average’. In the past, the terms were excelente (excellent), muy buena (very good), buena (good), regular (so-so) y deficiente (deficient). It makes more sense to use the downward sliding scale of the past, but the Regulatory Council explains that the tasting panels reject the substandard wines that are therefore not eligible to be called Rioja so it makes no sense to declare a so-so or a deficient vintage.

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

A member of the Rioja tasting panel evaluating a sample

(Photo credit:  DOCa Rioja)

Like many other aspects of the wine business, Bordeaux started the tradition of assigning ratings to vintages over a hundred years ago and was duly mimicked by other regions in France as well as wine producing regions throughout Europe, among them Rioja.

And, in keeping with its iconoclastic style, rating vintages has been mainly ignored by the New World.

To return to the question posed in the title of this article, in my opinion, vintage ratings are overrated. As a matter of fact, they can be downright misleading. I remember offering 1979 Rioja (‘normal’ i.e. not so good) to my European distributors in 1983 that bought it enthusiastically because it was a very good vintage in Bordeaux. We didn’t receive a single complaint about the wines from this vintage. However when we tried to sell 1980 (good), the same distributors asked for more 1979 because Bordeaux 1980 was so-so. Fortunately comparisons with Bordeaux are a thing of the past.

Wineries in Rioja treat vintage ratings like Parker scores. If they’re over 90, they advertise them. If not, they say nothing and nobody cares. And, because vintage ratings are by definition the average ratings of the individual wines, individual wineries can say that even though the vintage was only average, THEIR wine was excellent. Witness the recent press conference given by Alvaro Palacios in the UK who announced a ‘game changing’ 100% garnacha Rioja from 2013 from his family’s vineyard in Rioja Baja.

An agronomist engineer/winemaker has suggested a dual system of classification in our local newspaper: a rating of the harvest shortly following its conclusion which would include young wines, and a rating of the vintage, which would include the wines eligible for ‘crianza’ status after twelve months in oak. This would allow markets to understand the ageworthiness of very good and excellent vintages, the ones that would produce ‘reservas’ and ‘gran reservas’. It’s an interesting idea that in my opinion merits debate in the Regulatory Council.

Although most of the 2013 will be sold as young wine and crianza, Rioja can boast a run of very good and excellent vintages – crianzas, reservas and gran reservas from 2004 through 2011 that are currently in markets worldwide. Believe me, 2013 will not be a problem.

The long and winding road

long winding road

A few days ago I came across an interesting article about Spanish wines in the Wall Street Journal online (http://stream.wsj.com/story/latest-headlines/SS-2-63399/SS-2-248715/ ) that contained a number of true statements about the performance of Spanish wines in the USA as well as several really big boo-boos.  Unfortunately, the mistaken ideas came from the New York office of Wines from Spain, something I honestly don’t understand.  They said, “The domestic market has really dried up.  Winemakers are desperate to export.” Let me set the record straight.

 According to the market research company A.C. Nielsen, wine sales in Spain decreased by less than 1% in 2012.  The decrease since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2006 has been 8%.  This is an important drop, attributable mostly to the crisis but can hardly be described as ‘drying up’.  Two things are happening in the drinks market in Spain:  first, the share of sales to retail outlets, especially supermarkets, is rising, while sales to bars and restaurants are decreasing.  The increased share of sales to supermarkets means that prices and consequently winery profits are being squeezed to the max by voracious buyers.  Some of this has carried over to the traditional distribution network.  I heard the story of a big distributor who invited his suppliers to a meeting and proceeded to dictate to them the prices at which he was prepared to purchase their wines, with no guarantee of volume.

Most of the well-established wineries in Rioja that I’ve talked to are tired of this game.  They’d rather sell less and make a decent profit than sell practically at cost.  “Times will get better”, they tell me.

“Winemakers are desperate to export.”  I don’t sense any feelings of desperation from wineries here. What I do sense is a deeper understanding of positioning their products to make them more attractive to buyers. Figures from the Spanish Wine Market Observatory are positive, showing that bottled DOP (with denomination of origin) wines sold abroad increased by 10% both in volume and value while bottled table wine exports increased 6,4% in volume and 18,8% in value. Exports of wine in bulk are flat, but as everyone knows, bulk wine is a commodity whose sales go to the lowest bidder.

Exports of Rioja reached a record high of 96,9 million liters in 2012, a 5,5% increase over 2011. In the USA, Rioja’s third largest market, wineries sold almost 12 million bottles, a 9% increase over the previous year.

So, the situation isn’t so bad after all. In the wine business, you have to take the long view. It’s a long, winding road that fortunately, almost always goes up.

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 jumping.com)