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Rioja bodegas slow to embrace white varieties

Nearly five years after Rioja bodegas were allowed to use international white varieties in their blends, only 150ha of new white vineyards have been planted.

Rioja: international whites not catching on

In January 2007 the OIPVR (Organización Interprofesional del Vino de Rioja) agreed that Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo would be allowed, with the ruling given the formal go ahead in 2009.

Far from opening the floodgates, however, the decision has ‘made no difference,’ Jose-Luis Lapuente, general secretary of the Rioja Consejo Regulador told Decanter.com.

The overwhelming importance of Tempranillo in Rioja is the main reason, together with the fact that the ruling came at the beginning of the global economic downturn, meaning producers have been reluctant to take risks.

Ninety per cent of Rioja’s 270m litre production is red, of which the majority is Tempranillo, with 5% Rosé and 5% white wines, mostly Viura.

The Consejo believes that the Rioja brand – one of the most-recognised wine brands in the world – should be expanded to include white wines.

‘We are missing an opportunity,’ Lapuente said.

The problem, he added, was that even if the Consejo put some of its €40m budget to promoting Rioja white wine, ‘we don’t have the offer – we don’t have enough white wine to promote.’

Rioja has 63,000ha of vineyards at present, with a further 130,000 earmarked as suitable for planting, which needs local government approval to be designated as vineyard land.

But even when that comes on stream, Lapuente said, there was no guarantee producers would take advantage of their right to plant foreign white grapes, and it was not feasible to designate the land a white denomination.

The decision to allow international varieties in Rioja – albeit as no more than 49% of the blend – was controversial.

‘It was a great error,’ Vicente Cebrian-Sagarriga, owner of Marques de Murrieta, told Decanter.com. ‘Rioja is a red region – why would we want to lose our personality by planting Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc?’

However, another bodega, Baron de Ley, is using Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo in its white blend for the first time in 2011.

They feel there’s a good potential to grow sales of white Rioja, they told Decanter.com, particularly with more international varieties in the blend, which they said would help with the marketing. They plan to plant more white varietals, including Chardonnay.

Sixteen red and white grape varieties are allowed in Rioja, of which the primary whites are Viura, Malvasia Riojana and Garnacha Blanca; the secondary include Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Written by Adam Lechmere in Rioja

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