Michael Ballard, Surrey, asks: Why do some bottles of Rioja have gold mesh around them? And does it say anything about the quality of the wine within?
Sarah Jane Evans MW, author of The Wines of Northern Spain, and Co-Chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards, replies: The golden mesh, or malla, around the bottle was an early form of protection against counterfeiting.
It was introduced towards the end of the 19th century by the Marqués de Riscal, to protect his increasingly successful wines from tampering. Undoubtedly they added a certain glamour to the packaging, too. Given the medal-winning success of the Riscal wines, the golden cage came to be seen as an indicator of quality. Producers of cheaper wines and other regions soon caught on to the idea.
There are no regulations around who can and cannot use the mesh. As a result, if you find a Spanish red wine with a golden cage in a supermarket today that resembles Rioja, with a fancy label named after a Marquis, and it’s selling at a low price, then you can almost certainly guarantee it is not Rioja. It will have come from much further south.
López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia white and red wines all carry the traditional malla.
An elegant tip for removal so you can open the bottle is credited to María José López de Heredia: loosen the wire in the punt of the bottle and slip the mesh down from the top of the bottle to the shoulders; tighten the wires neatly back up again in the punt, and uncork the wine as usual. Thus the golden mesh is fairly easy for any consumer – or counterfeiter – to remove. The mesh on the Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva red and white is held down with wax: altogether more challenging for a forger.
This question first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Decanter magazine.