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.




Rioja: Process or Place?

Telmo Rodríguez

I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but lately I haven’t been reading other wine blogs because I’ve been busy with a project inMoldova and teaching.  But with those projects behind me, I recently dove back into the blogosphere.

One of the most interesting articles I read was on the Dr. Vino blog where Rioja winemaker Telmo Rodríguez from Remelluri spoke out about how people are missing the point when they talk about Rioja (http://www.drvino.com/2012/04/10/telmo-rodriguez-terroir-rioja-remelluri/ ).

Telmo thinks that too much emphasis is placed on process and too little on place.  With the crianza/reserva/gran reserva classification, you know how long the wine has been aged in oak and in the bottle but very little or nothing about where the grapes come from.  He believes there ought to be more emphasis on expressing the character of individual vineyards by making site-specific wines.

Rodríguez is doing exactly that with a new project called ‘Las Lindes de Remelluri’ using grapes provided by growers who used to sell to Remelluri to make wines from the villages of San Vicente de la Sonsierra and Labastida.  Only grapes grown on the Remelluri estate will be used for the Remelluri brand.

While I agree that wines from individual vineyards are interesting (and I like the idea that there are more and more of them) Rioja is a lot more than small wineries making wines from small plots like inBurgundy.

Rioja as an appellation of origin needs volume and strong brands to be visible in the marketplace, something that 2000 micro-wineries could never achieve.  The idea that Riojas can be blends of grapes and wine from different corners of the region as well as single estate wines is one of the region’s strengths.

To understand why so much Rioja is blended you have to understand the climate here.  Rioja Baja (the eastern end of the region) is hotter and drier than Rioja Alta or Rioja Alavesa, often producing wines with 14% alcohol and even higher.  In Rioja Alavesa the harvest usually starts at the beginning of September and gradually moves west to the cooler, higher parts of Rioja, where the harvest ends at the end of October.

The problem is that the weather often turns cold and rainy towards the end of October so the grapes harvested there can be bloated and the juice watered down, producing wines with low alcohol.  To compensate for this, many Rioja wineries either own vineyards or buy grapes from Rioja Baja.

In spite of the historical trend that favors blending, some of Rioja’s most famous wineries produce wines from individual vineyards, among which are

  • Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia and Viña Gravonia from R. López de Heredia
  • Viña Pomal from Bodegas Bilbaínas
  • Finca Torrea from Marqués de Riscal
  • Contino (a single-estate wine belonging to the CVNE group)
  • Finca Valpiedra
  • Marqués de Murrieta

Getting back to the idea of process, I think that using color coded back labels to distinguish crianzas, reservas and gran reservas is not only consumer friendly, letting you know if the wine is young or aged, but is also a way to reinforce the image of the brand by offering more than one product under the same brand name.