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Ructions in Rioja

Allowing Riojas to be bottled under a new, vineyard-led classification seems an obvious step in defining quality. But, says Sarah Jane Evans MW, the Viñedos Singulares initiative has led to heated debate in the region.

‘It’s a disgrace – una vergüenza,’ exclaimed a Riojan winery owner a couple of months ago. He was expressing in the strongest terms his frustration with the new regulations recently introduced by Rioja’s governing body, the CRDOCa. Appellation rules are frequently unpopular, but rarely have I encountered such criticism, ranging from the extreme above, to a more generalised lack of enthusiasm.

Put simply, in June 2017, the CRDOCa proposed a new category, Viñedos Singulares, defining vineyards and permitting the mention of their names on labels. Soon after, in August, came an update on the regulations, for zone and village wines. This was a sudden step forward for a region which had hitherto only ranked wines in terms of their time in oak: crianza, reserva and gran reserva. (See box, right, for an explanation of the new rules.)

Regulatory bodies never move quickly, so this has been a strikingly speedy event. A range of factors drove this precipitate development. It may seem to be a straightforward matter of regulation and labelling. Yet Rioja produces wines that retail at £5 and at £100 or more, and there are conflicting interests. Growers, producers and cooperatives are in different camps, and have very different visions of quality wine. In the end, points out Agustín Santolaya, director general of Bodegas Roda, ‘it’s litres that speak in the regulatory bodies’ – the decisions are made by the big producers.

‘Simmering in the background is debate right across Spain about expressing terroir’

Regional voices

Simmering in the background is debate right across Spain about expressing terroir. In Jerez, Sherry was a wine that was all about blending, from the vineyard to the solera. Today a new generation of producers is focusing on single vineyards, recuperating the traditional names and their characteristics: Balbaina, Carrascal, Macharnudo, Miraflores, Pastrana… Their names never went away, but in the boom years of the 20th century only the brand name counted.