Rioja celebrates a 100-point white while ‘Riexit’ looms

Not much happens in Rioja in August. Winery workers are on vacation except for a few people in the biggest companies in case of an emergency. Most small and medium-sized properties close for the month. I stop writing to concentrate on my golf game. The only things happening are the steady ripening of the grapes and my lack of improvement at golf.

This year, September brings good news and not-so-good news. First, the good news:

  • According to reports from the Rioja Regulatory Council and ASAJA (the young farmers’ association), the probable size of the 2016 harvest will be between 430.000 and 450.000 metric tons, which is roughly equivalent to 430-450 million 75 cl. bottles. These sources agree that this will cover existing demand. Included in the projected harvest are just over 1000 hectares (2470 acres) of red grapes planted in 2014 and 1200 new hectares (about 3000 acres) of white grapes. While it’s too early to make a prediction about the quality of the harvest, so far, so good, although the vines are stressed due to lack of rain in August.



  • For those who pay attention to wine writers’ ratings, Luis Gutiérrez, taster for Spain for has released his latest scores for rioja (source LA RIOJA). Wines scoring 93 points and higher are:

100     Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Ygay gran reserva white 1986

98     Telmo Rodríguez Las Beatas 2013

97     Artadi Viña El Pisón 2013

96     Artadi Viña El Pisón 2014 (96-98)

Benjamín Romero Carmen gran reserva 2010 (96+)

Viñedos de Páganos La Nieta 2013 (96+)

Álvaro Palacios Alfaro Quiñón de Valmira 2014

Muga Prado Enea gran reserva 2009

95     Abel Mendoza graciano grano a grano 2013

Sierra Cantabria Amancio 2012

La Rioja Alta gran reserva 904 2007

Remírez de Ganuza Trasnocho 2010

Olivier Rivière Losares 2013

Sierra Cantabria El Bosque 2013

Remelluri Granja Remelluri gran reserva 2010

Telmo Rodríguez Altos Lanzaga 2012

94      Artadi El Carretil 2014 (94-96)

Pujanza Norte 2014 (94+)

Artadi El Carretil 2013 (94?)

Abel Mendoza 5V white 2015

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia blanco reserva 2004

Pujanza Norte 2013

Marqués de Murrieta Dalmau reserva 2010

Sierra Cantabria Amancio 2013

López de Heredia Viña Bosconia reserva 2005

Roda Cirsión 2012

Finca Allende Mártires white 2014

Contino gran reserva 2010

Olivier Rivière Ganko 2014

CVNE Viña Real gran reserva 2010

CVNE Imperial gran reserva 2010

Pujanza Añadas Frías white 2013

La Rioja Alta gran reserva 890 2004 (94+)

Hermanos Peciña Señorío de P. Peciña gran reserva 2009

Valenciso reserva 10 años después 2005

Remírez de Ganuza gran reserva 2008

Abel Mendoza tempranillo grano a grano 2013

Benjamín Romeo La Cueva del Contador 2013

Palacios Remondo Plácet Valtomelloso white 2013

93       Tentenublo Escondite del Ardacho (El Abundillano) 2014 (93+)

Marqués de Murrieta gran reserva limited edition 2010 (93+)

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia white 2005

Olivier Rivière Mirando al Sur white 2014

Olivier Rivière Las Viñas de Eusebio Vendimia Seleccionada 2014

Pujanza Finca Valdepoleo 2013

La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza reserva 2008

Finca Allende Calvario 2012

La Emperatriz Finca La Emperatriz garnacha cepas Viejas 2014

Roda I 2009

Basilio Izquierdo B de Basilio 2010

Contino reserva 2010

Abel Mendoza Selección Personal 2013

López de Heredia Viña Gravonia blanco 2007

Contino reserva 2010

Señorío de San Vicente San Vicente 2013

Benjamin de Rothschild &Vega Sicilia Macán 2013

Telmo Rodríguez Lanzaga 2012

Oxer Bastegieta Kalamity 2014

Viñedos de Páganos El Puntido 2013

Artadi Valdeginés 2013

Remelluri white 2013

Remelluri Lindes de Remelluri Viñedos de Labastida 2012

Benjamín Romeo Qué Bonito Cacareaba white 2014

Abel Mendoza garnacha blanca 2015

Remírez de Ganuza reserva 2009

Olivier Rivière Las Viñas de Eusebio Vendimia Seleccionada 2013

Basilio Izquierdo B de Basilio white 2012

Marqués de Murrieta Dalmau reserva 2012

Artuke La Condenada 2014

Vallobera Terran 2012

Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Altos de la Caseta 2012

Bilbaínas Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares white tempranillo reserva 2013

Palacio Glorioso gran reserva 1978

Honorio Rubio Villar Añadas (white) NV

This list says a lot about the current state of rioja. First, many of the brands describe specific places or single vineyards, even though this designation isn’t officially recognized yet. Reality, as usual, is moving ahead of the rulebook.

The increased presence of whites stands out, and surprisingly the top scoring wine for Gutiérrez was the very traditonally made Castillo Ygay white gran reserva 1986. In a separate interview in LA RIOJA, winery owner Vicente Cebrián explained that this wine spent 21 years in barrel, six years in a cement tank and was bottled in January 2014. It will be presented in a series of tastings in the USA starting in New York on October 21. Cebrián says that the wine will be sold at 700 dollars a bottle. Why not?


(Source:  Marqués de Murrieta website)

Not surprisingly, other traditional rioja whites such as Viña Tondonia and Viña Gravonia made Gutiérrez’s list. In fact, as I observed during a recent tour around our region with a group of Rioja Educators, other wineries like Bodegas Ontañón and Barón de Ley are trying to replicate this style of long ageing in older barrels to capitalize on demand, especially in the US market.

While these traditional whites have found a niche at the mid-and high end of the market, we need to develop whites to compete at more competitive price points because young viura by itself simply doesn’t have the intense aromatic profile demanded by consumers today. Gutiérrez recognizes that rioja is moving in the right direction with blends of viura and recently approved varieties. Consolidating these new styles of rioja white will take time however as Rias Baixas and Rueda are strongly entrenched in markets. Conscious of this, the Rioja Council is launching a PR campaign to promote white.

  • Another development that could be construed as either good or bad news is that following intense discussions in the Council, the ‘single estate’ concept has been renamed ‘viñedos singulares’ (singular vineyards). This is probably to reflect the fact that “any old” single estate shouldn’t be considered prestigious a priori. Experts in viticulture and rioja’s most prestigious producers are formulating criteria to determine what makes a singular vineyard.

The Council says it will decide in November, although it might take longer than expected as prestigious single estate producers will want to assure that their own vineyards are included and there will undoubtedly be pushback from prestigious producers of blended rioja to level the playing field.

The not-so-good news centers around 42 wineries from ABRA (the Rioja Alavesa Winery Association that represents most of the small wineries in the Alavesa sub-region) petitioning the Basque government to approve a new designation called ‘Viñedos de Álava separate from rioja. What have local pundits called this movement? You guessed it: ‘Riexit’. The official reason is that the Rioja Regulatory Council hasn’t done enough to recognize the specificity of wines from the Alavesa. It is most certainly politically motivated, however, as the Basque government has historically demanded a greater control over Alavesa wines.

The director of the Council said earlier this week that his wish was to keep regional politics out of the rioja wine business and to discuss Alavesa claims inside the Council. Currently the Council is studying a labeling rules change to allow the term ‘Rioja Alavesa’ to be the same size as ‘Rioja’. Will this be enough? I hope so. It would be suicidal for 42 relatively unknown wineries to go it alone or under a new umbrella brand in today’s ultracompetitive wine market.





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?


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”.


 Juan Carlos López de Lacalle (photo by

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.


 (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.



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.

Grape growers on the warpath

When you open a bottle of wine, you probably read the information on the back label to get a feel for what the winery is trying to accomplish.  What you don’t see, however, is the politics at work in the wine region. I’ve been involved with Rioja wine for almost 30 years.  Most of the time, things have gone remarkably well. With the exception of some intermittent dips in sales, full recovery always came a year or so later.  One thing has remained constant, however:  the bickering between the wineries and the grape growers.  Practically all of it has been politically motivated, with the fighting taking place between the winery and growers’ associations in the Rioja Regulatory Council.

On a one-on-one basis – growers and wineries – things work pretty well, because the growers and wineries have a symbiotic relationship – in a denominación de orígen  Rioja wineries can only buy grapes from growers in Rioja, so they have to get along.  But when it comes to discussing industry issues, not only are the winery associations in constant disagreement with the growers, but often the different associations on the same side disagree.

The most recent spat is about the process for renewing the seats on the Rioja Regulatory Council and Interprofessional Committee. These bodies’ members total 200 votes – 100 for the wineries and 100 for the growers. 150 votes are needed to approve measures proposed in these bodies. This 75% majority was created to make sure that policies were approved with a broad consensus. As we shall, see, it can backfire, too.

The election rules changed in 2004 from a one winery (or grower), one vote system with the same weight given to each of the players to one based on the number of liters of sales of Rioja wine made by wineries in each winery association and the number of hectares of vineyards represented by each grower’s association. This happened because the independent wineries (those not belonging to any association) threatened to band together, shaking up the status quo– the power of the association (that I happened to be the managing director of) made up of the biggest wineries that held the most seats in the Council.

The new system has its problems, however. Determining seats on the Council is easy for the winery associations.  For the growers’ associations it’s more complicated, because some of them are farmers’ unions whose members also belong to cooperatives.  The coops can show how many hectares of vineyards their members have, but some members of unions also belong to coops so the union can’t count their hectares.  The unions feel that they are underrepresented, which, as we will see, is not true.  

In 2004, the problem was avoided by negotiations between unions and the coops to avoid the burden of proof of hectares, with the coops agreeing to 45% and the farmers’ unions, 55%. In 2008, this agreement held up.  In 2012, however, the coops want more power and the unions consequently feel that they will lose seats.

Another bone of contention is the process of election of the president of the Council and the Committee.  It was agreed in 2004 that the presidency would rotate on a two-year basis between wineries and growers, with the wineries leading off.  When 2006 rolled around, the growers couldn’t come up with a suitable candidate, so the winery candidate remained president.

In 2008, the growers found a highly regarded candidate but he was rejected by the wineries.  The result:  the winery president stayed on.  By 2010, the process was so poisoned that the growers didn’t even propose a candidate.

Now it’s time for a new election.  The growers aren’t about to be hoodwinked again.  In addition, they’re angry about low grape prices (they say the average price in 2011 was 47 euro cents a kilo of grapes, below their cost of production).  They are also angry about the president’s decision to once again demand that both coops and farmers’ unions show the hectares each represents, rather than negotiate the percentages. In this, they are right because the decision to initiate the renewal process must be taken by the Council as a whole, not the president. This time, however, the coops and unions both feel that they will lose representation, so negotiations, if allowed to take place, are sure to founder.

The unions decided that their best show of force was to use their 55 votes to block approval of the Council’s 2012 operating and promotion budget (remember that 150 votes out of 200 are needed).  Last Friday, they partially relented and allowed part of each budget to be approved, but have refused to budge unless an agreement is made to increase 2012 grape prices.

This is impossible because any agreement to fix prices is illegal and would incur the wrath of the anti-monopoly authorities in the government.  The unions know it.

I suspect the real problem has more to do with negotiating representation and assuring that the next president of the Council is a nominee of the growers than the price of grapes and wine.

Until these issues are resolved, I’m afraid that Rioja will have a very small promotion budget.  That’s too bad because we risk wasting over thirty years of hard work and money invested to put our region on the map.

What’s really sad is that until 2002, the promotion budget was funded exclusively by the wineries.  When the growers were convinced to participate, it was seen as a great leap forward. In retrospect, however, it was a leap off a cliff.


(Photo of tomahawk:


Gender wars – ‘El’ Rioja and ‘La’ Rioja

Tom and sister Fran ca. 1953

The recent ruling by an Argentine judge affirming that wines from the Argentine province of La Rioja don’t cause confusion with Spanish Rioja reminded me that even here in Spain, the use of ‘Rioja’ can be confusing.

First of all a short Spanish lesson: ‘el’ and ‘la’ are the masculine and feminine singular definite articles in Spanish.  Both mean ‘the’ in English.

‘El Rioja’ means ‘Rioja wine’ as does ‘el vino de Rioja’, while ‘La Rioja’ is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, comparable to ‘states’ in the USA or ‘länder’ in Germany.  ‘Rioja’ without the article refers to the Rioja denomination of origin (denominación de origen calificada Rioja), or Rioja wine region.  The D.O. Ca. Rioja is located in three of Spain’s states: La Rioja(68,2% of the total area), Álava in the Basque Country (21,1%) and Navarra (10,7%).

This fact has a number of consequences for Rioja wine.  First, it means that ‘el Rioja’s’ wine rules have to be approved by the Spanish ministry of agriculture, while for practically all of Spain’s DOs, located within one region, the regional government has the power.  There are only three exceptions:  Rioja, Cava and Jumilla.

Three states, three governments and therefore three groups of elected officials, from three different political parties, are represented in the Rioja Regulatory Council, the organization made up of farmers and wineries, where the development of Rioja grapes and wines is debated. So politics often interferes with the running of the wine district. In addition, several organizations vie to promote Rioja wines:  three Chambers of Commerce, regional and city government promotion boards, ICEX (the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade) and the Rioja Regulatory Council itself. I once counted 17 of them.

It would be great if these organizations put their money into a common pot.  However, with the exception of the Regulatory Council and ICEX, for whom ‘El Rioja’ is a whole, each of these local and regional organizations promote ‘their’ Rioja, which means that promotion, PR and advertising often resembles shoppers fighting over a piece of clothing at a fire sale.  Distributors, wine writers and journalists are often bewildered by the conflicting messages they hear.

I remember talking to a Dutch journalist several years ago about attending a series of wine tastings in Logroño called ‘Grandes de La Rioja’, organized by the government of La Rioja.  He asked me whether he would be able to taste the Riojas produced in the other two regions.  ‘Sadly, no’, I replied.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has jumped through a lot of hoops to get everyone in the boat to row in the same direction and promote Rioja wines in general, with some success. For several years, elected officials from the three ‘states’ have provided a small amount of money for promotion, but it’s peanuts compared to the funds they devote to ‘their’ Rioja.

It’s ironic that the growers and wineries themselves don’t feel as attached to their subzone as their elected officials.  Many farmers sell their grapes to wineries in other parts of the region, wineries do the same with bulk wine and some companies located in one part of Rioja have vineyards and even wineries in more than one subzone. They recognize that the strength of the word RIOJA transcends these regional differences.

2009 Rioja harvest ‘very good’

 The Rioja Regulatory Council has just announced that it has given a ‘very good’ rating to the 2009 harvest.

The Council explained in a press release that 273,3 million liters of wine from the 2009 harvest were approved by tasting panels in Rioja and consequently granted ‘Denominación de Origen Calificada’ status.  1,8 million liters were rejected by the tasting panels.

How does this procedure work?  After the wineries have vinified grapes from the harvest, samples are collected by the Council’s inspectors, normally after malolactic fermentation is complete.  Each sample represents a batch of no more than 100.000 liters of wine.  The samples are tasted blind by a rotating panel of winemakers and other expert tasters from the region and are also analyzed by one of the three official laboratories in Haro, Laguardia and Olite.

If a sample is judged to be of inferior quality, the producer is allowed to appeal and the sample retasted.  If accepted after the second tasting, it officially becomes Rioja.  If not, it has to be sold off as table wine.

Among others, the parameters measured by chemical analysis are

  • Alcohol
  • Tartaric acid
  • pH
  • Volatile acidity
  • Total SO2 (sulphur dioxide)
  • Color index
  • Total polyphenol index

This is probably Greek to most people, so I’ll try to provide some insights about the most significant data.

First of all, the average level of alcohol in the wines analyzed from the 2009 harvest was 13,8% and the total polyphenol index was 59,71.  Both of these values are the highest of any vintage in the last ten years.  In the case of alcohol level, it indicates that grapes were very ripe when picked (the more sugar in the grape, the higher the potential alcohol in the wine) and confirms a trend toward ‘bigger’ wines.  It will probably be hard to find any Rioja from 2009 with less than 13,5% alcohol, a controversial state of affairs at a time when the market seems to be evolving toward elegance rather than power.

The total polyphenol index of almost 60 is a good sign, as it can vary from 36 to 80, and the higher the number, the better.  Polyphenols such as resveratrol in red wines have been touted for their antioxidative (anti-aging) properties in cells.  It might be worthwhile for wineries to advertise the fact that their red wines are high in polyphenols, and although the anti-drinks lobby will probably not allow them to say anything about this on the label, talking about it on the winery’s website is probably OK.  Any help a brand can get in these tough economic times is bound to be good.

The average pH of the 2009 wines was 3,72 – also the highest in the last ten years.  Because wine is acidic, (i.e. with a pH of less than 7, with 7 the pH of water, and more than 7 alcaline, in principle, a pH of 4 or more is a sign of a flabby wine. A pH of around 3,60 for a red is probably better.

 For a Rioja vintage to be classified ‘very good’, the sum of the samples analyzed and tasted as ‘excellent’+‘very good’ + ‘good’ must be equal to or greater than 70% and the sum of ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’, equal to or greater than 35%.

The Council also has a downstream process where samples are taken from the market, that is, from wine shops and supermarkets around the world, which are analyzed.

I believe that this rigorous analytical and blind tasting process as well as consistently high quality has given Rioja enormous credibility as a wine region.

For your information, the ratings since 1998 have been:

 1998:  very good                  2004:  excellent

1999:  good                          2005:  excellent

2000:  good                          2006:  very good

2001:  excellent                    2007:  very good

2002:  good                          2008:  very good

2003:  good                          2009:  very good

Photo credit:  Rioja Regulatory Council

The economics of the 2009 harvest and its implications (2)

After almost one month of celebrating Christmas, New Year’s and Epiphany, January is usually a pretty dead month in Rioja.  Except in the Rioja wine business.

 As I mentioned in my post on November 16, sales of Rioja have dropped dramatically due to the economic crisis, which has hit Spain especially hard.  Shipments from January through November are down almost 6% in Spain and over 11% internationally, prompting the president of the Rioja Regulatory Council to predict that shipments in 2009 will decrease by 8% (the numbers won’t be published until the middle of February).  This means that Rioja wineries have shipped 30 million fewer bottles than in 2008.

Ex-cellars prices have decreased, too, with the average price of a young Rioja dropping 4%, crianza 2.8%, reserva 7.7% and gran reserva 9.2%.  This follows a trend going back to 2000, mainly the consequence of a crowded marketplace and pressure from big retailers to meet price points.

These numbers have had a huge impact on grape prices, as wineries, faced with razor thin profits, are pressuring their grape suppliers, who have found that they have produced more grapes than the wineries are willing to buy.  The result:  grape prices have plunged and the growers are complaining that current prices don’t cover their production costs and some wineries haven’t paid for grapes from the 2008 harvest.  The wineries counter that grape prices were high for ten years and if wineries have had to tighten their belts, the growers have to, as well.

Back in November, I explained that an inventory-to-sales ratio of 3 is ideal in Rioja.  Now, a large harvest in 2009 as well as decreased sales has pushed the ratio well over 3. At that time, the largest winery association, the Grupo Rioja,  proposed that maximum yields be reduced by 10% for 2010, 2011 and 2012 to bring supply of grapes back into line with demand until sales of wine pick up again.

 This situation came to a head at last Friday’s meeting of the Rioja Regulatory Council when the growers’ representatives refused to support the Council management’s request to approve the 2010 advertising and promotion budget.  The growers have convened meetings this week to decide a course of action.

 From the growers’ point of view:

  • Grape prices are at their lowest since 2001 – an 8% drop in sales doesn’t justify a 50% reduction of grape prices
  • Some haven’t been paid for their grapes from 2008, let alone 2009
  • Reducing production takes money from their pockets, as they could sell excess grapes to make table wine.

However, the European Union doesn’t allow minimum price fixing, so the matter of renegotiating prices is strictly between wineries and growers, outside the scope of the Council.

 The president of the Council has stated that the growers’ refusal is temporary and the problem will be solved.

The Council has proposed a 10 million euro (14.3 million USD) advertising and promotional budget for 2010 that is on hold until financing is secured.

As Spaniards like to say, ‘las espadas están en alto’ (the swords have been drawn!).

The economics of the 2009 harvest and its implications

wine barrelsThe Rioja Regulatory Council recently announced that the harvest subject to protection in 2009 was 397,42 million kilograms of grapes and 5,15 million kilos for the quality reserve.  This is less than the 410 million kilos that I mentioned in my post of October 27.

What do these numbers mean? I think it’s interesting to see how the Council calculates them as grapes become wine and are aged in barrel and bottle before release from Rioja wineries.

Every fall, just before the harvest begins, vineyard owners receive a card with a microchip.  The chip contains data about each owner’s  holdings of red and white grapes. It works like a credit card.  During the harvest, each time the grower delivers a load of grapes to a winery, an inspector subtracts the amount of red and white grapes from the total in the chip.  Once the balance  reaches zero, the grower is not allowed to deliver any more grapes.  A little wheeling and dealing takes place, however, as some growers, due to drought, hail or other reasons produce a little less than their cards indicate, so a grower with a little more than allowed often ‘borrows’  a card with a balance to be able to deliver more grapes.

At wineries, a sample of each load of grapes is analyzed and the potential alcohol, color, tannins, amount of botrytized grapes, age of the vineyard and other parameters determine the price the winery is willing to pay.

Once the harvest ends, each winery sends a harvest report to the Council, and the Council in turn informs the winery how much wine can be vinified and subject to protection as Rioja wine.  Ususlly the conversion factor is 72 liters of wine for every 100 kilos of grapes, but it can be as low as 70 or as high as 74 depending on the harvest and the state of the Rioja business.

After alcoholic and malolactic fermentation take place, the wineries prepare samples for blind tasting by the Council’s tasting committees, made up of winemakers from Rioja wineries.  It’s like a peer review. At the same time, each batch of wine is chemically analyzed. Wines that pass the tasting and chemical analysis are then certified as Rioja.

At this stage, some wines are bottled and sold as ‘sin crianza’ or young Rioja.  The Council issues back labels and subtracts the corresponding amount of wine in their books from that winery’s total for that year.  In the same way, when wine is put into barrels for ageing, the Council records the amount of wine being aged.  At the ‘crianza’, ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’ stages, the same procedure is followed, with the Council issuing only as many back labels as the balance of wine from that vintage in the winery, according to the Council’s accounting.  Note that the correct figure is the Council’s, not the winery’s.

Once the winery has asked for all the back labels it’s entitled to from a given vintage, it can’t sell any more wine from that year.  This system has been in place for all vintages since 1980.

Another interesting feature is the quality reserve as mentioned above.  Wineries are allowed to petition the Council to vinify up to 5% more than the maximum allowed to compensate for potential shortfalls in small harvests.  There’s a catch, though.  If there’s no shortfall, the winery has to send the wine to the distillery.

For the last week or so, the Council has been debating what should be done in 2010 if sales remain stagnant.  Traditionally, a reliable measurement of the ‘health’ of the Rioja business is the inventory to sales ratio.  If the ratio is about 3 (years of sales as inventory of wine), both wineries and growers are comfortable with the state of affairs.  If, however, the ratio dips below 3, it indicates a shortage of wine and the quality reserve program kicks in to alleviate it.  If, on the other hand, the ratio is over 3,5 either sales are stagnant, too much wine has been made, or in this year’s case, both).  Under debate at present is the possibility of only allowing 90% of the maximum allowable yield (5.850 kgs/hectare for red grapes and 8.100 Kgs/ha. for white) in the 2010 harvest.  This will bring the ratio back to about 3.  This seems to satisfy the wineries but the counteroffer made by representatives of the growers remains to be seen!

This may sound complicated, but it shows how committed the wineries and growers are to stability.  As you can see, there’s a lot more to a Rioja harvest than meets the eye!


The 2009 harvest – promising quality, uncertainty about quantity

tempranillo_editLast week, the Rioja Regulatory Council officially declared the end of the 2009 harvest.  The Council wasn’t in a position to estimate the total size of the harvest yet, but has confidently stated that the maximum size of the harvest subject to protection as D.O. Ca. Rioja will be about 410 million kilograms of grapes.  This is easy to calculate:

56.825 hectares of red grapes x 6.500 kgs/hectare (maximum allowable yield) plus 4.057 hectares of white grapes x 9.000 kgs/hectare = 406 million kg. of grapes.

What will be even more difficult to predict is the actual number of liters allowed to be aged, bottled and sold as Rioja, because once malolactic fermentation has taken place, wineries have to submit samples to a tasting committee where they will likely, but not necessarily, be accepted.

This procedure illustrates a big difference in grape growing between Europe and the rest of the world.  Outside Europe, viticulture is a business where there’s no guarantee that your grapes will be bought.  In Europe, however, within the Appellation Contrôlée system (Denominación de Origen in Spain or in the case of Rioja, Denominación de Origen Calificada), owning a vineyard and growing grapes is a privilege granted by the AC and at least in Rioja, farmers know that someone will buy their grapes, although price is subject to supply and demand as well as quality.

Over the years, the Council has tried to encourage price stability by balancing the supply of grapes and wine with market demand with the help of European Union wine laws, that formally don’t allow total production of wine to increase but do permit the transfer of planting rights between regions.  In this way, the vineyard area has increased more or less in step with the increase in demand for our wines. Yields, however, have also increased and this is the source of the problem today.

It’s impossible for farmers to produce exactly 6.500 kg. of red grapes per hectare.  Older vines produce much lower yields while young vines planted with high-yielding clones produce a lot more.  As long as average grape prices were high (between 0,80 and 1 euro a kilo), farmers didn’t mind doing a green harvest (culling the vines to reduce production).  This year, however, because demand has weakened due to the economy, the prospect of a big harvest  has pushed grape prices down. Consequently, farmers are interested in selling everything they’ve produced.  Traditionally the Council let growers  deliver up to 25% more than  the maximum  allowed production to wineries and coops, so that these could choose the best wines for the tasting committee and sell the extra 25% outside Rioja as table wine. Unfortunately, this policy created a large inventory of bottled table wine that competed directly with the most inexpensive Riojas at a time when sales in Spain began to slide. Alarmed, in 2007 the wineries, coops and one of the farmer’s associations voted to gradually reduce the extra 25% in 2007 to zero in 2010.  Now, the individual members of the coops have pressured their boards into attempting to cancel the agreement in the Council to allow them to make some money from the surplus grapes and wine.  The issue will be discussed at the end of the week in the Council.

To satisfy your curiosity, I have to say that most winemakers are pleased with the quality of this year’s harvest.  Although Rioja was plagued by a drought all summer, the subsoil in the vineyards had accumulated enough water throughout the winter and no rain fell during picking.  In addition, throughout September and the first three weeks of October, warm days and cool nights allowed the grapes to ripen with no risk of rot.  However, as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

More about the economics of the 2009 harvest in my next post.