Spanish Ministry of Agriculture Gives Green Light to 84 Singular Vineyards in Rioja

July 30, 2019 marks the beginning of a new era in the DOCa Rioja.

The Spanish Ministry of Agriculture approved the regulations proposed by Rioja wineries and grape growers that designate 84 vineyards covering 154 hectares as “Viñedos Singulares” (singular vineyards).

43 vineyards are in Rioja Alavesa, 31 in Rioja Alta and 10 in Rioja Oriental.

The process to guarantee the traceability of the grapes from these vineyards through vinification, barrel and bottle aging was approved internally by the Rioja Regulatory Council starting with the 2017 vintage but final Agriculture Ministry approval was required. As of July 30, wines made from these grapes can carry a specific guarantee label if they receive an “excellent” rating from a tasting panel both immediately after vinification and before the wine is released from the winery, and to state on the front label that the wine comes from a singular vineyard.

Screenshot 2019-08-01 at 14.30.56

(Credit:  lomejordelvinoderioja.com)

How does a vineyard become “singular”? The most important requirements are:

  • The vineyard must be at least 35 years old;
  • A report must show that it has agro-geological conditions differentiating it from others in the area;
  • Maximum yields must be no higher than 5000 kg/ha for red grapes and 6922 kg/ha for whites (23% lower than those required for other Rioja grapes)
  • A maximum of 65 liters of wine can be produced for every 100 kg of grapes (for ‘regular’ Rioja, the allowed ratio is 72% and for certain vintages up to 75%);
  • No machine picking is allowed;
  • The grapes must be vinified, and the wine aged, stored and shipped from the same winery;
  • No contract bottling is allowed.

The approval of singular vineyards in Rioja culminates a process of recognition of wines from specific areas in our region. Zone wines (from the Alavesa, Alta and Oriental) have been a possibility since the 1990s. More recent has been the approval of village wines.

Diapositiva2

(Credit:  Tom Perry)

According to the 2018 annual report of the Regulatory Council there are more than 114,026 individual plots of vineyards in Rioja. 15,069 hectares of vineyards were planted before 1985. Wineries have been marketing wines coming from single vineyards for at least ten years without official recognition. However, because of the rigorous certification process, wines from singular vineyards are a big step beyond the idea of a single vineyard wine.

As I mentioned in a previous article, (https://insiderioja.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/rioja-finally-comes-to-grips-with-single-estates/) both single vineyard wines and wines from singular vineyards are essential for the preservation of old vines in Rioja. Many growers pulled up their old vines because they weren’t able to find a buyer at a worthwhile price. It took the efforts of a group of pioneering young winemakers (http://www.greatwinecapitals.com/Let%27s-Rioja-%27n%27-Roll) to give well-deserved recognition to these grapes and the wines they made and gave other owners of old vineyard a reason to hang on to them.

Wines from singular vineyards can be ´generic’, crianza, reserva or gran reserva.

The 1999 Spanish wine law created a quality pyramid structure for Spanish wines, with table wines at the base and single vineyard wines at the top. The Ministry of Agriculture’s idea was:

Diapositiva1

(Credit:  Tom Perry)

At the time, the Rioja Regulatory Council rejected the idea of creating a single vineyard wine category for Rioja, arguing (correctly in my opinion), that a single vineyard wine wasn’t intrinsically of higher quality than a Rioja blend,  a single varietal, a crianza, reserva or a gran reserva. The Council worked on its own singular vineyard concept for several years until wineries and growers agreed on the terms.

Now that the Ministry has approved the certification process, consumers can look forward to tasting the first Riojas made from singular vineyards. Inside Rioja will do our best to let you know when they are released and where you can buy them.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

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

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

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

At that time I wrote:

Rioja actually produces two styles of pink wines: rosado and clarete. At first glance, the difference is merely color, with rosado a medium reddish pink and clarete a very pale orange.

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

I was also surprised to see a bottle of Muga rosé with a much paler pink color than in the past. Maybe clarete or at least pale orange-tinted rosés have an international future.

 

IMG_2179 Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 16.21.33

 

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 12.24.20

A clarete from Bodegas Ontañón (Photo: Tom Perry)

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 16.43.02

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

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

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

IMG_0710

(Photo:  Tom Perry)

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

 

 

 

 

 

Bars, bars, bars

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

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

bars

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

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

In other words, it has everything going for it.

IMG_4289 copy

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

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

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

IMG_1772

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

Vinos Murillo

Avenida de la República Argentina 26

26002 Logroño (La Rioja)

 

 

 

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

img_1786.jpg

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In practice, this meant:

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

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

IMG_2043

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

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

IMG_2044

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

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

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

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

IMG_2046

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

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

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

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

Wines of the week:

img_1964-e1524664768867.jpg

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Step Back in Time: CUNE Monopole Clásico

Until the 1980s, Rioja whites were made like the reds, with the juice in contact with the skins and fermentation in wooden vats or cement tanks. The finished wines were then aged in used barriques that were best described as storage vessels with little or no contact with air. They were bottled just before shipment. In fact the only improvement in winemaking since the nineteenth century came from the use of bentonite and later pectolytic enzymes as clarifying agents instead of egg whites.

This traditional style of white was a great success until the increased use of stainless steel tanks and temperature control for wines from other regions, especially Germany and France, gained popularity, and sales of white Rioja declined.

Today, white wines in Rioja are made in three ways:

  • fermentation in stainless steel tanks with temperature control with some skin contact to add aromatic complexity and fuller body on the palate – most Rioja white is made following this method or
  • fermentation in new barriques with contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) that are stirred occasionally (bâtonnage) or
  • fermentation in wooden vats or stainless steel tanks followed by ageing in barriques.

Only one Rioja winery is making truly old-style white today: López de Heredia in Haro with its enormously successful Viña Tondonia. Three wineries, as far as I know, are trying to make a similar style: Barón de Ley, Ontañón and most notably, CVNE with its Monopole Clásico.

CVNE says on its website that a few years ago an old customer mentioned during a tasting that he longed for the traditional style of Monopole, the winery’’s signature white. CVNE’s winemaker María Larrea found a single bottle of Monopole 1979 in the cellars and it occurred to management that it would be interesting to challenge 86 year-old Ezequiel García “El Brujo” (The Wizard), CVNE’s winemaker from the 1940s through the 70s to make a batch of Monopole the way it used to be. García was delighted!

IMG_1063

Ezequiel García ‘El Brujo’ (Tom Perry)

In the old days, Monopole was made from viura, white Grenache, malvasía de rioja and palomino. This last variety, from Jerez was used to add body to the blend, with permission from the Rioja Regulatory Council. After a light press, the juice was sent to a cement tank where the solid material was separated from the juice.

fullsizeoutput_ca6

Ezequiel García’s sketch describing white winemaking in the 1960s (courtesy CUNE website)

Alcoholic fermentation was in stainless steel tanks (a departure from the old days) and ageing was for about eight months in used 300 liter barriques and 500 liter botas (wooden barrels used in sherry wineries).

García said that what made Monopole special was the use of a small amount of wine from the sherry region, vinified under a layer of flor (yeast that forms a layer at the top of the wine) that gives the blend aromas of chamomile and dried stone fruit with lively acidity and a long finish.

I first tasted Monopole Clásico at the last Haro Train Station tasting in 2016, when a member of the CVNE export team dared me to guess the varieties in the wine after my first sip. Of course I didn’t guess correctly. Who would have thought to guess ‘palomino’!

I’m happy that CVNE made the effort to bring this style of wine to the attention of wine lovers. Younger consumers need to understand how winemaking and consumer tastes have evolved over time. It reminds me of a tasting I attended a few years ago in London. A veteran wine writer approached me with a young colleague in tow, glass in hand. The older fellow winked at me and said, “my friend here has a question”. The younger man asked me to sniff his glass while asking, “what’s wrong with this wine?” “Nothing”, I said. “It’s an old style Rioja!”

fullsizeoutput_ca5

Rioja and coke? It’s no joke!

I’ve always said that if there’s not a scandal in the Rioja wine business, the Riojans will create one. The most recent uproar was set off by a deal signed by the local bar and restaurant association, the Logroño City Hall and Coca-Cola to sponsor a contest in local bars to determine who could make the best calimocho, a drink combining wine and coke.

The contest’s tag line “The best calimocho is made with the best Rioja” drew immediate criticism from the Rioja Regulatory Council and the Rioja Wine Brotherhood. The Council, while stating that it agreed with the general idea of promotion to attract young consumers to wine, thought that Rioja wines shouldn’t be associated with “this kind of consumption”. The brotherhood was more explicit in its criticism. Its grand master remarked that he had never mixed wine with any other beverage and reminded readers that members of the brotherhood are obliged to take an oath of allegiance that includes not watering down Rioja or other ‘sacrilegious’ practices such as mixing it with fizzy drinks. I guess I’ll never be a member of the brotherhood unless I cross my fingers while taking the oath!

The other side of the argument was taken up by Miguel Ángel de Gregorio, one of Rioja’s most prestigious winemakers, who defended the consumer’s right to drink Rioja any way they please.

Porrón_1

Notice the bottle:  a 1983 Rioja reserva from Bodegas Campo Viejo (Photo credit:  Wikipedia)

When I asked my friends about it, not one of them objected to the idea of Rioja and coke. One of them reminded me that ‘calimocho’ (or kalimotxo) is a Basque name but on this side of the Ebro river it has always been called ‘Rioja Libre’. A group of winery owners that I ran into one morning while they were buying tickets to a local professional soccer game told me that they all drank it. One of them mentioned that a chilled ‘cosechero’ (carbonic maceration red) and coke was the perfect combination.

As for the international acceptance of Rioja and coke an article in the New York Times in 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/dining/wine-and-cola-it-works.html) recommends a recipe for calimocho:  mixing cola with wine, “preferably Spanish”.

But for me, the proof of the pudding was finding calimocho on a restaurant menu as a ‘signature cocktail’ in Jacksonville, Florida several years ago.

IMG_0887

Anyone who has visited (and partied) in Spain during the summer, where daytime temperatures routinely reach 100ºF (37,7ºC) knows that red wine-based beverages – sangria, ‘tinto de verano’, ‘zurracapote’ and of course, calimocho are the perfect way to enjoy wine all year round.

Do I drink it? All the time!