Social Distancing in the Good Old Days

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.20.37

Almost everyone who visits Spain for the first time talks about how sociable Spaniards are. We love to mingle with our friends at restaurants, bars and on sidewalk terraces. Bars are our social clubs, where we have breakfast, read the newspaper, meet with our cuadrilla (group of friends) to have a few drinks and some tapas before lunch and/or dinner, have an after dinner drink, gossip, talk politics, soccer, the economy or any other topic. And we don’t mind if our friends get up close and personal when we’re together – with lots of touching, handshakes, hugs and air kisses. In fact, when we see an empty bar, we usually don’t go inside. In short, keeping our distance from others is not part of our DNA.

But that was in the good old days.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.32.02

I’ve always thought that Spain was one of the countries where one’s personal space was small until I read an article in the Washington Post about a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in 2017 that analyzed a sample of almost 9,000 people from 42 countries.

The authors of the study showed subjects a card with the outline of two people (A and B) facing each other with a scale underneath ranging from zero to 220cm for reference. The subjects were asked if they were A, how close in centimeters they would be comfortable with B as a stranger, an acquaintance or a close friend. The results were surprising.

Screenshot 2020-05-14 at 18.57.09

(Credit above and below: Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology via the Washington Post)

Screenshot 2020-05-14 at 18.50.04

Argentines were the most comfortable at close range with strangers, acquaintances and close friends, while Romanians, the most standoffish in the study with strangers, were comfortable with close friends at a distance of about 45cm.

Spaniards kept strangers at about 90cm, acquaintances at about 75cm and close friends at about 60cm.

Curiously, the study showed that citizens of the USA were comfortable with good friends at a closer range than Spaniards (45 vs. 60cm) while Norwegians didn’t feel uncomfortable standing about 35cm away from a close friend.

Unfortunately, there was no evidence about Swedes and their much-celebrated penchant for keeping their distance from everyone. That might explain why Sweden and Norway have chosen to deal with the coronavirus in widely differing ways.

This academic experiment, while undoubtedly carried out with the strictest scientific rigor, offers different results from my own empirical experience. One instance was at a cocktail party at the US Embassy in Madrid in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Latin American diplomats and Spanish businessmen tried to talk practically nose-to-nose with US Embassy personnel while the Americans moved backwards to give themselves space. It was obvious that neither side realized that diplomacy also means consciously respecting others’ personal space.

Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned about personal space is many years attending some of Spain’s most popular festivals like San Fermín in Pamplona, San Mateo in Logroño and Aste Nagusia in Bilbao and San Sebastian. When you’re surrounded by thousands of others while watching fireworks or the chupinazo (the firing of the rocket signaling the opening of the festival), defending your personal space, whether you’re from Argentina, Chicago or Madrid, is impossible. The best way to handle it is to go with the flow and have fun.

Let’s hope that soon we’ll be able to return to the good old days.

(Photos:  Tom Perry)

 

 

 

 

How Rioja Wineries are Preparing for the Wine Tourist of the Future

 

Winds of change

the cork in a bottle of Rioja from Bodegas Patrocinio (Photo:  Tom Perry)

“We will soon be able to welcome you again with open arms.
You’ll soon be able to marvel at our landscapes,
feel our sun on your face and share in our lifestyle.
Until then, look after yourselves and those around you.
Thank you for your support.”

This quote from the Spanish National Tourist Office on its US website tries to convey an upbeat attitude toward the reopening of the Spanish economy after a seven-week lockdown. The stark reality facing Spain’s tourism sector however, is a lot less optimistic, at least in the short term. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism accounts for 14.3 per cent of Spain’s GDP, the largest percentage in Europe, with most travel taking place between April and September.

Spain’s administrative division into seventeen autonomous regions is currently a hindrance for attracting tourists. Travel from May 11 (stage 1 of the loosening of restrictions) will only be allowed within one’s home province. Because the Rioja wine district is located in three provinces (La Rioja, Álava and Navarra), a wine tourist living in La Rioja is today unable to visit a Rioja winery in the province of Álava just across the Ebro river. Today, government plans indicate that interprovincial travel (stage 3 or 4, depending on the province) will probably be allowed towards the end of June, but these plans, dictated by politics as much as scientific evidence, change on a daily basis.

There is no timetable for opening international borders, so wineries plan to cater to local, and eventually national tourists for the foreseeable future.

This somber picture has not deterred Rioja wineries from staying close to their customers, selling their products online, educating consumers, carrying out extraordinary acts of solidarity and preparing for the “new normalcy”.

Before COVID-19, online sales directly from wineries to consumers took place mostly in winery tasting rooms. Today online sales are part of the “new normal”. This new sales channel is especially helpful to small and medium sized wineries whose business to the hotel, restaurant and bar trade has dried up. Great deals abound and shipping is free or subject to a small minimum purchase.

The Rioja Regulatory Board has created a website www.temerecesunrioja.com (You deserve a Rioja) that offers 15,000 free visits to 70 wineries as well as an interactive buying guide for direct purchases from wineries or from online wine merchants.

Wine tourism before coronavirus 2

Wine tourism before coronavirus…Will it ever be the same? (Photo: Tom Perry)

Rioja wineries have taken advantage of Spain’s prolonged confinement to produce videochats featuring winemakers, media personalities, virtual tours and online tastings. Among the most interesting is a lecture series on Instagram Live about grapevine maladies created by the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture and Bodegas Valdemar’s wine tasting and wine and food matching course that includes access to a video and six bottles of wine designed to be enjoyed at home. Valdemar has created Momentos Valdemar, a project designed to make wine culture easy to understand and enjoy. The company philosophy is summed up on the Momentos website: “We’ve been made to believe that to drink wine you almost have to be a sommelier, but that’s not true.”

Wineries have quickly understood that in times of crisis, unselfish acts are of vital importance. Bodegas Marqués del Atrio and Viñedos de Aldeanueva were among the first companies here to use their connections in China to import and distribute personal protective equipment for healthcare workers in hospitals. The Osborne group, parent company of Rioja wineries Bodegas Montecillo, as well as Pernod-Ricard are using their distilling facilities to make sanitizing gel.

Bodegas Lecea and Bodegas Murua are two of the Rioja wineries offering free visits to healthcare workers once wineries are allowed to open. José Masaveu, general manager of Masaveu Bodegas, owner of Murua explains, “When you’re up against this situation you can do one of two things. Be a spectator or act, within your possibilities, getting involved in the fight against the coronavirus.” Murua, along with other wineries, restaurants, chefs and wine personalities, has donated bottles of its high-end wines to a charity auction to benefit activities organized by the Spanish Red Cross.

How are Rioja wineries preparing for the “new normal”? The clear consensus among those consulted is that they will learn as the situation evolves, and that wine tourism activities will be adapted to smaller groups with an emphasis on providing a safe experience.

Cristina Pérez, PR manager of Marqués de Riscal explains, “When faced with the uncertainty we’re experiencing, we’re forced to reinvent ourselves and learn on our own” and adds, “we have to be able to receive visitors in a safe environment”.

Luis Alberto Lecea of Bodegas Lecea brings up the interesting point that even though wineries can prepare for wine tourism under the new normal, they can’t be sure about the expectations of the “new” wine tourist. Consequently the winery is preparing several scenarios.

Natalia Bermejo, the wine tourism manager for the CVNE group that includes CVNE, Viña Real and Contino emphasizes that their wineries have a number of different spaces and activities geared to visitors with diverse interests, so there is no need to “change the script”.   However, a major responsibility for the group is making sure that their visitors feel safe by pursuing certification of their properties as Covid-free, by providing sanitized glassware and snacks wrapped in individual packages and using disinfection methods to assure that visitors aren’t carriers of the virus.

Blanca Baños, managing director of Bodegas Bohedal recently announced that the winery will open its outside terrace on May 11, provided that La Rioja is authorized to go to stage 1 of the unlocking protocol. Even though the terrace is large enough to accommodate groups of visitors at the maximum 50% capacity dictated by the protocol, she expects that arrivals will initially be from the winery’s hometown of Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, mostly to provide a place to meet for the small businesses in this village that relies almost exclusively on tourism.

Marta Gómez, the PR manager for the Pernod Ricard Winemakers Spain – owner of Campo Viejo, AGE and Ysios – sums up the group’s philosophy in one word: resilience. “We’ve been working hard from the very beginning of the crisis for that great day when we can once again open our wineries to visitors.” “…very well-thought out plans and sanitary measures so that each visitor to our wineries will be safe and protected, and be absolutely sure that we’ve thought about each and every detail to protect their health”.

María José López de Heredia, managing director and member of the fourth generation of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, offers a sober reflection about the current situation, in keeping with her family philosophy, in place since the company’s founding in 1877:

“…At the present time, and out of respect for the innumerable amount of people who are suffering, our plan is “Patience”, respect, prayers for those who have died and efforts to responsibly protect our families, our employees and our potential visitors as well. We cannot encourage them to visit us when we cannot guarantee their safety, our attention and therefore, their enjoyment.”

“…But from now on we believe that all of us have learned another lesson and this is that in addition to developing ‘wine tourism’ from a strictly economic point of view, we winery owners have the moral obligation to contribute improvements and worthwhile thoughts to society. Nature, on which we all depend so much and wineries even more for obvious reasons…has taught us a huge lesson about humility; it has proved to humans that we don’t control it. We must love it, take care of it, understand it and we have to do it not only with words but with commitment and with action.”

 

 

 

 

 

Rioja Copes with the ‘C’ word

Rioja, like every other wine region in the world, is suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. If we can find one positive aspect in the terms of the two Spanish government-mandated lockdowns on March 13 with a tightening of conditions on March 28, it’s the fact that agriculture-related activities are considered essential and remain ‘open’. Consequently, farmers continue to tend their vines, winemakers and winery workers are moving wine around wineries, administrative staff is working from home and a few wineries are even shipping orders, almost exclusively to international customers.

lUidu7oXTbmW2k596Ke+JA

(Photo credit:  Tom Perry, Note on door:  daughter Martha)

However, winery doors are shut for tourists. Worse still, the on-trade (bars, cafes and restaurants), are locked down. Rioja’s most recent annual report (2018) emphasizes the importance this channel:

“Nielsen highlights the positive performance of Rioja in the on-trade channel, where the highest added value can be found, and where Rioja has an overwhelming 60% market share, climbing to 80% for aged wines.”

Shuttering the on-trade has hurt all of our wineries even though the off-trade  (hyper-and supermarkets and wine shops) are still open. A recent study by an ‘app’ that promotes money-back deals reports that since the beginning of the crisis, wine sales are up 42% in the chains that work with them. Well, maybe, but I’m sure it’s because of the anxiety produced by the lockdown. These big stores stock almost exclusively wines from large and some medium-sized wineries. Smaller wineries and those selling wines from singular vineyards, winemaker’s selections and other small volume products have three options: wine shops, online retailers and direct sales from the winery via internet. Sales here are faltering in spite of substantial discounting.

We will deal in greater depth with the economic consequences for the Rioja wine trade and wine tourism in an upcoming article. Today we want to emphasize:

  • how wineries are giving back to the community;
  • how wineries are continuing to educate and entertain current and potential customers;
  • how English-speakers can learn more about Rioja.

8a496a6d-4fac-44fa-8b76-b935c288340a

(Credit:  Who knows? It was sent to me via WhatsApp.  Sorry.)

First of all, our gratitude to Alberto Gil, wine columnist at our regional newspaper La Rioja  and Javier Pascual, founder and editor of La Prensa del Rioja for publishing information in their respective media about Rioja’s current situation, some of which I have reproduced here to complement my own research. Both write extensively about Rioja and are great sources of up-to-date information provided you speak Spanish.

I want to send a huge ‘¡Muy bien!’ to our Great Wine Capitals Global Network colleagues Visit Napa Valley for their extensive coverage of the solidarity shown by this premier wine region’s wineries during the coronavirus pandemic.

They also feature special offers for online shipments. I hope readers of Inside Rioja in the USA will take advantage of them. VNV – you are truly inspiring!

We hope to hear from the rest of our GWC colleagues and will share their initiatives here.

Riojan winery solidarity

There is a chronic shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals. Two wineries (that I am aware of) with customers in China have ordered, received and distributed masks to these beleaguered workers. A big shoutout goes out to Bodegas Marqués del Atrio and Viñedos de Aldeanueva.

Bodegas Lecea, one of the most visited in the region, has offered healthcare workers free tastings and visits to its network of underground cellars for a year.

The Osborne group, owners of Bodegas Montecillo, as well as Campo Viejo, AGE and Ysios’ parent company Pernod-Ricard are using their distillation facilities to make sanitizing gel.

Bodegas Gómez Cruzado in Haro is selling its wines online with a discount, using the proceeds to pay the wages of its workers, avoiding layoffs.

Virtual tours (either produced by the winery or by roving wine writers)

Some well-known wineries featured are:

 Two of the best interviews given by María José López de Heredia from Viña Tondonia are available in a two-part series shot in 2010 with Gary Vaynerchuk in his groundbreaking series wine library tv. The normally loquacious Gary was mostly silent, letting MJ do all the talking. Priceless!

Vaynerchuk interviewed other Rioja personalities for his show. We assume you’re interested, so use the search function in Wine Library TV and the keyword ‘Rioja’.

  • Telmo Rodríguez talks about his single vineyard ‘Las Beatas’ (in English)

Virtual tastings and wine knowledge

The problem here is the almost total absence on the web and social media of Rioja tastings in good English (here I detect an opportunity for a wine-savvy native speaker to give classes to winemakers). Note: Not me, thank you!

  • Viñedos y Bodegas de La Marquesa Valserrano has produced two good ones with English subtitles, both recently posted on the winery’s IGTV site.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has begun to produce materials to supplement their PR campaigns in major markets. A number of short interviews, subtitled in English, are available.

The Regulatory Council has recently launched a fantastic initiative: The Rioja Wine Academy. Here anyone can study three, free online courses:

  • Rioja Wine Diploma
  • Diploma in Rioja Wine Tourism
  • Diploma for Trade and Distribution

A fourth course, geared to people interested in teaching others about Rioja is the Rioja Certified Educator Program, subject to application and acceptance of the candidate by the Regulatory Council. There is an online module as well as a series of seminars, tastings and visits to Rioja wineries. Three classes of Certified Rioja Educators, whose mission is to be ambassadors for Rioja in their markets, have already graduated.

Inside Rioja hopes that you enjoy exploring the wonderful world of Rioja from the safety and comfort of your homes!

 

 

 

Cut-rate Rioja: Can it be avoided?

Screenshot 2019-07-24 at 20.16.13

The other day I read an interesting thread on the internet about a Rioja reserva 2015 selling for 4.09€ in a hypermarket in Catalonia in northeastern Spain. The debate centered on whether a Rioja winery make a profit producing a 2015 reserva that a hypermarket can sell for 4,09€, whether this kind of offer is good for Rioja and what, if anything, can be done to avoid it.

Let’s tackle the problem one question at a time.

First, can a winery make a profit at that price? Probably not, but with a cut-rate product like this one, the issue is primarily not about making a profit, but rather covering the product’s contribution margin (the selling price less variable costs; in other words, contributing to cover fixed costs).

A big hypermarket chain’s buyers are considerably more talented than winery sales personnel. Chain buyers know the prices of the competition, they know who is willing to play the volume game and they know exactly how much pressure to apply to the seller. The price calculation of a big winery specializing in high volume sales based on a second or third label with no advertising or promotional allowance, known in wine jargon as “net-net” is just a few cents above cost for a very large volume order.

A second possibility is that the winery is in need of cash. No further explanation required.

The question of whether the hypermarket can make any money on the deal is clear: yes, and potentially a lot of money.

Big retailers base their profits on three factors:

  • selling large quantities
  • selling to a lot of different customers
  • having an efficient cost structure

In Spain, the law prohibits sales below cost, so the hypermarket chain must pay at least 3.38€ (4.09 less 21% value added tax on the purchase price). If the hypermarket sets its margin for a big promotional deal like this one anywhere between 10 and 15 euro cents per bottle and orders ten truckloads of wine (150,000 bottles), it can invoice about 500,000 € and have a gross profit of between 15,000 and 22,500 €. Doesn’t seem like much? Understand that a hypermarket will typically carry 200,000 SKUS (stock keeping units or individual brands). It’s also important to understand that the hypermarket will penalize the supplier for late deliveries – to compensate for the loss of profit for out-of-stock situations.

A Rioja reserva offered at a little over 4 euros a bottle is a powerful tool to attract consumers to the wine aisle.

Screenshot 2019-07-24 at 20.16.47

Photo credit:  Pablo Orío

Offers like this one appear on supermarket shelves all the time. In fact, supermarkets create and register brands that they use to sell at aggressive prices to promote the image of the supermarket. They offer their most important suppliers the possibility of supplying products under the supermarket’s label. It’s a win-win for the supermarket because a supplier who raises their prices too much can be replaced with another.

In the case of Rioja, the supermarket brand has to be registered in the name of the current supplier. It’s a small bit of bureaucracy, but assures that all brands sold as Rioja actually are owned by a Rioja winery.

A second alternative is for a winery to sell the supermarket a second or third label.

Is this kind of deal good for Rioja’s image? I think not. First of all, consumers who see a reserva selling for 4 euros a bottle are going to wonder why they should buy others selling for 10 euros and higher. After all, the 4 euro wine carries the same guarantee label on the bottle as more expensive ones. Wineries that spend considerable amounts on developing their brand image throw up their hands in despair. The Regulatory Board, that invests over ten million euros of the wineries’ and grapegrowers’ money on advertising, promotion and public relations to elevate the image of brand Rioja, wonders if this huge investment is worth the effort.

What can be done? Sadly, nothing, until these large-volume, low margin wineries begin to understand that they can’t win long term with this strategy, usually based on buying and holding large stocks of wine, perhaps more than they need.

I have always been a great admirer of the Napa Valley. There, wineries compete in markets at much higher price points than those of Rioja and seem to agree on an image of quality and prestige for the Napa Valley brand. Coincidentally, the Napa Valley is universally recognized as the world’s most popular wine tourism destination.

Rioja has made enormous progress over the years to improve its image. The wineries agreed in the early 1990s to stop selling bulk wine outside the borders of the Rioja appellation. Recognizing wines from each of the three zones (Alta, Alavesa and Baja (currently ‘Oriental’) has been a reality for years. Wineries have created wines with strong individuality from specific areas of the appellation and the Regulatory Board, recognizing the huge diversity of terroirs in the region, recently approved the categories of singular vineyards and single village wines.

Still missing in my opinion is a greater sense of ‘Rioja patriotism’ and the need for stronger brands from all wineries with less low-price wheeling and dealing. A little more Napa in Rioja would be a good thing.

 

 

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.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 19.31.11

(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/

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 20.10.46

 

 

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.