Jane Anson explores Rioja terroir with fresh eyes and finds there is a fightback in the Spanish region among those seeking to promote its diversity.


There is a back road into Rioja from France that I cannot recommend highly enough. It scales the Pyrénées mountains, through winding country passes that switch between French and Spanish Basque villages.

You pass hand-made signs offering Baigorre ham, Pryénées brebis, Espelette peppers, fresh river trout and spicy Basque chocolate. The backdrop zigzags between dense swathes of oak, beech, fir and birch forest and wide-open vistas across mountains and fertile valley floors.

You arrive in Rioja not only exhilarated, but with a clear understanding of the influence that altitude and orientation exerts over these wines. Rioja sits within its own fruitbowl of mountains, most notably the Obarenas and the Cantabrias, with dramatic escarpments from Sierra de la Demanda to Sierra de Valdezcaray. Its soils are a jumble of slates, limestones, sandstones, loam, gravels and clays, as you would expect in an area so clearly governed by shifting tectonic plates, cut through by the fast-flowing Ebro river. And yet, the move to talk about this has been a weirdly long time coming.

When learning about wine in the classroom, Rioja is seen as one of the good guys, the establishment figure of quality regions in Spain. And yet there’s an uncomfortable complacency at its heart that is causing increasing frustration.

It’s been just over two years since my last visit, and I was struck by how many winemakers are now openly lamenting the negative impact of big brands and industrial production on the region’s quality image. The focus of anger seems to be directed towards the system of labeling according to length of ageing (so the Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva that we see on wine labels) that forms the backbone of Rioja’s traditional sales and marketing.

The biggest surprise, for me, is that this has taken so long. Why don’t more Rioja producers make a noise about the fact that when the region does talk about geography, it is usually only by dividing the wines into the three distinct regions of Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja? There are over 140 villages across Rioja, on both the Left and Right banks of the Ebro, and yet it is forbidden – actually forbidden – to mention them on the wine labels, according to rules set by the Consejo Regulador regional wine body.

‘There is a blanket temptation in Rioja to approach wine only through what happens in the cellar,’ Alberto Saldon Maté of Sierra Cantabria says. ‘The usual business model is brands rather than vineyards, and the usual approach is to blend grapes from across the entire region. Both of these things undermine the image of quality’.

This family-owned group, headed up by Marcos Eguren, is at the forefront of the move to reclaim the importance of place. Around 25% of the grapes they use are bought in from other growers, but their family bottlings such as San Vincente and La Nieta use only their own vines.‘We avoid putting the traditional terms such as Reserva or Gran Reserva on our labels, and instead bottle according to site and terroir,’ says Saldon Maté. ‘We are happy to use the generic Rioja label for our single-vineyard wines, as the usual distinctions are often little more than box ticking.’

I loved the discussion at Sierra Cantabria, but the wines have plenty of ‘modern Rioja’ signatures in the form of 100% tempranillo and serious amounts of new oak and I was still left wondering what Riojan terroir really meant. It wasn’t until I arrived at Remelluri, in the lower foothills of Sierra de Tolono, that I started to feel closer to an answer.

Remelluri is one of the oldest properties in Rioja Alavesa, near the hamlet of Ribas del Tereso. Its setting gives you that same wild, electric jolt that you get from approaching Chalone in California, or Glenwood in Franschhoek. Within minutes of arrival we were walking through the vineyards up a dusty mule track that led to the ruins of Monte Tolono monastery, abandoned in 1422 after the monks struggled with the harsh mountain climate. We climbed up to a ridge that overlooked the vines, the path heavy with the scent of wild anis, thyme, rosemary and sage. The vineyards here are set across 200 plots, with an average size of just one acre. They lie at the highest elevation in the region, south-facing and protected from the winds that often cause nail-biting harvests (one of the reasons that winemakers prefer to blend from across the region, making use of the sugar-rich tempranillo grapes from the hotter Rioja Baja).

I knew of owner and winemaker Telmo Rodriguez, followed some of his brilliant wines from sites around northeast Spain in Galicia and Toro, but had ever been to his home estate. He is often called Rioja’s prodigal son, as he spent over a decade doing his own thing before returning to work alongside his sister Amaia Rodriguez Henandorena at Remelluri in 2010.

He is also the poster boy for Rioja terroir driven wines, and since 2010 has ensured that Remelluri bottles the grapes that it buys from local growers into a separate range, Las Lindes de Remelluri, leaving his family wine to express the singular character of its own vineyard.

‘I wanted to reflect the real Remelluri,’ Telmo tells me. ‘Too many decisions in Rioja are made by managers and commercial people, and inevitably that has taken the region away from the vines. My starting point has always been to search out the original taste of Rioja, to discover the potential of the best vineyard sites, the grand crus’.

The best way to understand what Remelluri is about is to try the estate white wine – a field mix of nine different varieties that defies easy description – a squeeze of citrus zest, a clutch of wild herbs, a lick of wet stones. The best way to describe it is of tasting exactly of itself. Right, as Sylvia Plath once said, like a well done sum.

The reds ask the same questions, and are equally a reflection of the historical diversity of Rioja – a region that used to be home to 70 grape varieties and is now too-often given over to just tempranillo and gernacha (grenache). One plot in the Remelluri vineyard is planted with over 20 historical varieties, used as a nursery to maintain genetic diversity. Bush training is being reintroduced, as are terraces, and a variety of concrete tanks, oak barrels and large-sized oak vats – some new, some old – are used to age the wines.

These are wines to fall in love with. I did, and I hope you do too. But the man who makes them is restless, conflicted and searingly honest.

‘By cutting out bought-in grapes, reducing yields by 40% and introducing a second wine, I have increased the cost of making Remelluri drastically. Doing this makes me anti-competitive and the worry is that I won’t be able to continue. It’s why so many producers here are happy to turn out supermarket wines – there is a market for them, and it’s easy. One of the problems is that Rioja has so many natural advantages that even the cheaper wines taste good. For me, those ‘false good’ wines make it clear that with the right viticulture and an honest approach to terroir, Rioja can equal the greatest wine regions in the world. But it will take bravery and curiosity to get there’.

See also: Rioja Vintage Guides

See also: Rioja Wine Reviews

  • Vicente Salaner

    It’s not just Spanish bureaucracy. It’s EU appellation rules. It will be hard to extract a separate appellation from an existing one – if that old one doesn’t go along.

    The best system would be to combine a generic Rioja appellation, including the traditional oak aging mentions, and new geographically based sub-appellations, Burgundy style: not just the three old subdivisions (Alta, Alavesa, Baja), but one for each village and even one for each single vineyard deemed by an expert committee to be a ‘grand cru’. Then producers could freely choose to remain in the old generic appellation, or move to the terroir-based one, or indeed produce wines in both of them, as they do in Burgundy.

    But this will take a lot of good will on both sides of the argument, and there isn’t much of it available right now – particularly on the side of the immobile Consejo Regulador!

  • Sue Style

    Thanks for a thoughtful and timely piece, Jane. The terroir argument was much aired at the recent Cata del Barrio de la Estacion in Haro, put on jointly by Bodegas Bilbainas, Muga, Roda, Gomez Cruzado, Lopez de Heredia CVNE and La Rioja Alta. It’s a great talking point and gives us all something to write about, plus it’s always fun to bash the authorities and their blinkered approach (in this case Rioja’s Consejo Regulador). The supposition seems to be that to permit village- or single-vineyard wines would automatically increase quality right across the board. Yet the top bodegas, as many have pointed out, have been making wines of extraordinary quality and longevity for ages, with recognition of the best terroirs, and sometimes the naming of them on labels (e.g. Alto de la Caseta/Vina Pomal amongst many others). There’s a market for these grand wines, as there is also for decently made, ‘false-good’ (what does this mean?), so-called supermarket wines – where’s the problem?

  • tkoby11

    That makes sense and I suspected that political reality. In the end if you do whatever you want and you can sell successfully (i.e. Super Tuscan wines) that is the ultimate gauge of success.

  • Andrew Holod

    I’m certain Rioja is capable of world-class brilliance in winemaking, as Temlo mentions. But what defines greatness is open to debate. Are the great old and still viable Rioja reserva and gran reserva wines from the 1920s to 1970s great? or are low yielding, site specific, carefully but lavishly oaked “modern” wines great? Both?

    If both may be considered great, please think through the idea that the production of these new, site-specific wines will likely decimate quality in those blended wines. It is likely true that privileged sites in any region are limited. By removing those powerful, structured, age-worthty lots from the blending bench, blended wines will lack thier historic backbone. These new blended, aged stated Rioja wines will truly be “aged to perfection” and “ready to drink” upon release as so much marketing money has been spent to tell us these last few years.

  • Andrew Holod

    Outright flouting of DO rules is not uncommon. So winemakers can can break/ignore existing rules now. The political reality is that growers in Rioja, mostly in cooperatives generally control the Consejo Regulador.
    Regarding doing it themselves, lok at the situation with Raventos/Cava…or the Super Tuscan era of 1970/80s Italy. A very determined, individual or group of wineries can certainly try to create a brand new denomination, but history and Spanish bureaucracy is likely against them.

  • tkoby11

    Jane great article, this is the 3rd or so that I have read about Mr. Rodriguez or Juan Carlos López de Lacalle at Artadi that are the loudest in opposition to the current labeling/aging requirements and the inability to put the place of origin of the vines on the label. I like their intentions and what they are doing makes sense, but have they collectively come up with an organized and detailed plan to work with the consejo regulador body to implement something or are they just beating a war drum with no plan but to do whatever they want?

  • Vicente Salaner

    Re ‘For me, those ‘false good’ wines make it clear that with the right viticulture and an honest approach to terroir, Rioja can equal the greatest wine regions in the world. But it will take bravery and curiosity to get there’.
    I would disagree. It already is among the greatest wine regions in the world. Bordeaux turns out huge amounts of plonk too – probably not as good as Rioja plonk. But Bordeaux has Petrus and La Mondotte and Haut-Brion and Yquem and Margaux and the lot, so it’s rightfully considered great. It’s my contention that the top wines, made now and also made in the past, in Rioja (I know no longer-lived reds anywhere, Bordeaux and Barolo included) are indeed world-class, on a par with Burgundy, Bordeaux, the northern Rhône or the Mosel..
    Some producers of breathtaking world-class wines, some of them better known outside Spain than others, would include López de Heredia, CVNE, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Murrieta, Remelluri, Contino, Finca Valpiedra, Palacios Remondo, Lanzaga (another Telmo Rodríguez estate), Muga, Artadi, Roda, Benjamín Romeo, Abel Mendoza, Olivier Rivière, Marqués de Riscal, Sierra Cantabria, San Vicente, Viñedos de Páganos, Fernando Remírez de Ganuza, Amézola de la Mora, Exopto, David Sampedro, Vivanco, Finca de los Arandinos, Valenciso, Paco García, Palacio, Valserrano, Tentenublo… Quite a few!
    Call them the Rioja 1ers Crus and Super Seconds, and there you have, the Bordeaux of the south!

  • Jane Anson

    Agreed – do say usual practise is to blend from across the region. But you’re right, geography definition only refers to the location the cellars. Really a shame when there is such great diversity.

  • Vicente Salaner

    Just one nuance: there is zilch terroir recognition in Rioja currently. ‘Alta’, ‘Alavesa’, ‘Baja’ only refers to the location of the winery, not the vineyards! So you may be in Rioja Alta and use 100% Rioja Baja grapes – no one will know.

  • Stephen Bolger

    An honor to travel the region with someone who has captured it so well…

  • KJ Hulsebosch

    Really interesting, as usual !