One name, two places

How would you feel if you bought a bottle of Rioja and discovered that it came from Argentina instead of Spain?  Deceived?  You bet!

I was reminded of this long-standing dispute between Spain and Argentina yesterday when I opened the Vibrant Rioja social media widget  on my computer.  This neat app, like a tweetdeck, lets me see on one page what’s happening in the world of Rioja as well as read feeds about other topics I’m interested in.

One topic really caught my eye:  ‘Argentina wins 12-year Rioja wine dispute’.  With a groan, I thought, “@#&!”, this problem will just not go away”! Even though I knew the details of the controversy inside out from my time as the director of the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association, I couldn’t help clicking on the link to read about it.

The story played out in three articles in (

The gist of the dispute is whether the Argentine province of La Rioja has the right to name, label, and market its wines as coming from La Rioja.

A few years ago, these Argentine Riojas made their first appearance in Europe via Denmark, and later Sweden, at the time, two of the biggest customers for Rioja.  I recall that the Commercial Attaché of the Spanish Embassy in Copenhagen called me to say that several containers of these wines had arrived at Danish customs, purchased by a Danish distributor of Rioja who was well-known for aggressive deals with Danish supermarkets. The embassy succeeded in having them turned away, claiming that under European Union law, Spanish Rioja was a protected appellation of origin and the wines had been fraudently labeled.

Soon, accusations were flying back and forth across the Atlantic.  From here, comments that the Argentines were taking unfair advantage of the growing popularity of Spanish Rioja.  From Argentina, claims that it was Spain’s fault because the province had been named after La Rioja in Spain and Spain had actually introduced grapevines to the region. Technically, the Argentines were right.  The Argentine province of La Rioja was indeed named by a colonial official from the SpanishLa Rioja in the late 16th century.

The Rioja Regulatory Council, incensed at what they interpreted as an attempt to intentionally confuse consumers, hired an Argentine lawyer to press its case and it began slowly creeping through the legal system.

According to the article in the Telegraph, an Argentine judge has just ruled against the (Spanish) Rioja Regulatory Council’s claim that two Rioja regions would confuse consumers.  She stated that there was no confusion because of the use of ‘La Rioja Argentina’ on the Argentine product as well as the fact that while the Spanish Rioja produces predominantly red wines, the Argentine Rioja produces mainly whites.

I haven’t read anything in the local press about this lately (but confess that I’ve been away a lot). I’m sure, however, that Spanish Rioja will appeal this decision loudly and vigorously.  The current President of La Rioja, who has made a name for himself locally and internationally for his staunch defense of Rioja wines, is standing for reelection this month and will undoubtedly make a lot of noise about the matter.

Using one region’s place name on another region’s labels is not new.  In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when France was the undisputed king of wine, Rioja wineries routinely labeled their wines with such descriptions as ‘Rioja cepa Medoc’, ‘Blanco cepa Graves’, ‘Viña Medokkia’ and the like. 

The Champagne region has been the most aggressive in defending its name against usurpation.  Others, notably the sherry and port appellations have fought battles with the UK and South Africa to forbid the use of the terms ‘British sherry’ or ‘South African port’, with great, but not complete, success.  While the European Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Champagne region, Sherry and Port ‘s protection came as the result of bilateral negotiations between the UK and Spain on one hand and the European Union and South Africa on the other, with lengthy phase-out periods.

If I remember correctly, even Champagne’s victory came with a price.  A very small wine region in Switzerland called Champagne also has the right to use the name.

To defend truth in labeling in the wine trade, an association has been set up to defend the use of place names (, to which Rioja has been the most recent subscriber, joining Napa, Jerez/Sherry/Xèrés, Champagne, Porto, Chianti Classico, Tokai and others.

Although the Declaration to Protect Place Names has a noble purpose, the ultimate arbiters in this issue are international trademark laws as well as bilateral agreements between the countries involved.  So here, we’re girding up for international trademark battles and a redefinition of an Argentina-European Union trade agreement in the foreseeable future.

I personally thought that the issue had been peacefully settled, with the Argentines agreeing to define their wines as coming from Valle de Famatina (FamatinaValley) but apparently the Argentines are emboldened by the fact that their province is indeed called La Rioja.

To show how confusing this can be, I recall being offered a bottle of wine in a restaurant in Madrid a few years ago.  The waiter told me it was from ‘La Ribera’.  Thinking that he meant ‘Ribera del Duero’, I agreed.  When the bottle arrived at the table, I discovered that it was really from ‘Ribera del Arlanza’.  Needless to say, I returned it.

This episode as well as the Argentine sentence has reminded me to look more carefully at the label on a bottle of wine before buying it.  Caveat emptor.