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 ( ).

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.