Perhaps no other region has experienced such a sharp decline in fortune as Rioja. But now the industry has woken up to its problems, writes VICTOR DE LA SERNA, and smaller producers with pride in their wines are leading the recovery.

Perhaps no other region has experienced such a sharp decline in fortune as Rioja. But now the industry has woken up to its problems, writes VICTOR DE LA SERNA, and smaller producers with pride in their wines are leading the recovery.

The daily reports by riojainternet.com, the quasi-official online information service for Rioja, used to contain brief but glowing, sometimes ecstatic, reports on a thriving region. But lately their tone has changed. A sense of crisis and urgency now pervades many of them. They say, over and over again, that Rioja needs to go back to the basics: better grapes, sounder wines, lower prices. Welcome to the great Rioja comeuppance party. But despite current problems, it might portend better times ahead, particularly for the consumers.Back to those English-language texts by riojainternet.com: they are rather poorly translated from the Spanish original (by a machine?), but the messages are quite clear. One recent example: ‘The experts justify the influence of the production in the quality of the wine. The quality is more conditioned by the viticulture than by the work of the oenologist. The production of the grape by hectare is a question for the quality of the wine. The great quality is situated between four and six tonnes/hectare. If it is more than six, the wines have worse quality.’

Or take this one, also from the spring of 2001: ‘The extraction of polyphenols of grape will be one of the subjects in the Rioja courses.’

Less yield in vineyards, more colour in red wines: pretty obvious stuff, all over the winemaking world. But it’s quite revolutionary in Rioja, where self-satisfaction with ‘traditional’ – pale and oaky – reds reigned until only recently, and where Consejo Regulador boss Angel Jaime used to write that typicity was more important than quality.Quality, obviously, has been on the decrease, while prices were increasing by leaps and bounds in the late 1990s. Enough is enough, said international consumers, who turned in droves to attractive and inexpensive competitors from such places as Chile or La Mancha (see Decanter May 2001 for our feature on alternative Spanish reds). In 2000, exports dropped by close to 25%. And in some markets, the bloodshed was even greater – Rioja, in just one year, lost 68% of its sales to Germany.The problems are no doubt rooted in the vineyards. The Rioja vineyard surface has grown steadily (from 43,000 hectares in 1990 to 52,000 in 2000), but the yields have far outpaced this growth. During that same period production went from 161,000 hectolitres to 310,000 (or actually 366,000, but 56,000 hectolitres of wine were disqualified last year). In other words, the yield mushroomed from 34 to 60 hl/ha in just a decade.

Only in 1999, due to a fierce frost, did the escalation of production slow down, but otherwise it kept right on skyrocketing, despite fierce droughts in 1994 and 1995. The advances of irrigation are only part of the explanation for the oversupply, since a large majority of the vineyards are still dry-farmed. Highly productive clones used in the many new Tempranillo plantations, the heavy use of synthetic fertilisers and the very long pruning of vines (with little or no green harvesting to lessen the load) are more convincing reasons for this trend. And the result is the usual one: increasingly diluted, indifferent wines.But the Denominación de Origen (DO) did not react with any sense of urgency until the worst-case scenario was upon it: dropping sales combined with the record 2000 crop, which was almost double what Rioja had ever been able to sell in a single year. The lateness of the reaction compounded the problem, which will now take years to solve, as – it is hoped – yields are cut, quality improves again, wine stocks drop and prices follow suit. It will not be easy, as mentalities will have to change radically. ‘Dominated by the political interests of the mass-producing bodegas and the cooperatives, previously prestigious Denominaciones now are no more than places where the lowest common denominators of quality are defended instead of winemaking excellence,’ a Spanish critic writes.

While it will be some time before overall quality rises again, the prices couldn’t wait a second more. They have begun dropping in a hurry as Rioja tries to cut its inventory. Grape prices came first: from an average of £1,500 a metric tonne of Tempranillo in the frost-reduced 1999 harvest to a mere £450 in 2000. Aggressive price cuts for finished wine followed, already in 2000, when producer prices dropped by as much as 50%, and again in 2001, undercutting even such modest appellations as Valdepeñas and La Mancha.In the end, the current market for Rioja reds (whites seem to be in almost terminal decline) is clearly veering in three directions: the minority of very expensive ‘super wines’; a mass of humdrum ‘traditional’ Rioja that will be back to square one – ie competing on price alone; and a new breed of good-value, fine-quality wines that will rise to the current challenge. These are, of course, the wines to seek out. The corollary has to be that Rioja has become a decidedly pick-and-choose region.

WHERE TO FIND QUALITY

Into the latter category fall smaller producers who control most of their grape supply and take viticulture seriously. Unfortunately, they are not that numerous. The Eguren brothers are among these producers, and their Sierra Cantabria winery turns out largely reliable, good-value wines. Marcos Eguren, the bodega’s winemaker, sounds a word of warning: ‘I hear private producers or cooperatives talk about getting together to build new non-appellation wineries to vinify declassified grapes as simple vin de table, and I despair. The declassified grapes are the problem in themselves. When the yield is 10 tonnes per hectare, it’s not just the excess 3.5 tonnes that are bad and thus declassified, it’s the whole production! We have to keep the overall yield down, not divert part of the production to vin de table!’Another excellent producer is Miguel Angel de Gregorio of Finca Allende. His basic Allende cuvée retails in Spain for £7 and tastes like a £20 wine, with depth and pungency and a long fruity finish. De Gregorio likes to say: ‘I run a business, not an NGO, and I can assure you I make an honest profit with this wine. No need to go for cheap unripe grapes or to opt for those big luxury wines to make ends meet in Rioja. I hope everyone would understand that here.’Juan Carlos López de Lacalle of Artadi, in Alavesa, does an excellent job, not just with his much admired and very expensive top cuvées, but also with his basic Viñas de Gain Crianza. It’s not only the boutique producers of modern, controversial wines who are concerned by the new situation. Last January that most classic and well-established of producers, La Rioja Alta, sent a ‘Dear farmer’ letter to the hundreds of growers who regularly supply it with grapes. It ran as follows: ‘The difficult 2000 harvest is over and it has left us some important experiences. The quantity obtained in many vineyards has been clearly superior to the desirable one, giving a quality that is often inadequate for the type of wines that we make. Apart from uncontrollable climate reasons, it is clear that inadequate pruning, the lack of green harvesting, some irrigation, and the widespread use of potassium-based foliar fertilisers favour production excesses and damage quality.’

After this introduction, La Rioja Alta lays down the new ground rules: only top quality grapes will be accepted in future; their prices will vary considerably, on a 1-to-3 scale, to reward truly superior producers; and practically no white grapes will henceforth be bought.

Several small growers point out that similar efforts are being made by some of the large houses, including such well-known ones as Muga and CVNE, and also by former underachievers who are determined to climb the quality hierarchy – such as Lan, the large bodega in San Asensio whose new owners are keen on turning it around. A number of other bodegas of varying fame which can be relied upon for good value without sacrificing quality include the following: Riojanas, Martínez Bujanda, Viña Ijalba, Primicia, Palacios Remondo, Abel Mendoza Monge, Ontañón, Viña Salceda (now owned by Navarra’s Chivite family) and the Aldeanueva coop.

Victor de la Serna is a freelance wine writer, based in Spain.

Written by VICTOR DE LA SERNA