Tempranillo-based Rioja has long held a fabled reputation in the minds of wine lovers. But for many in the industry, fabled had begun to resemble antiquated. That’s why several big, hard-fought-for changes were announced this summer; changes years in the making, with the goal of embracing modernity and terroir as much as history and winemaking.
The Consejo Regulador (regulatory council) voted to amend the rules of the Rioja Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) to allow for the following: single vineyard designations, village and zone designations, and quality sparkling wine. The regulatory council said these new classifications were a response to the market’s demand for traceability, although, as reported inThe Drinks Business, “in January 2016, more than 150 winemakers, merchants, and wine writers signed a manifesto demanding greater recognition for Spain’s terroir.” Until now, it was illegal to use a vineyard or village name on a label.
Below is a rundown of the new allowances, and what they mean for you, the consumer. But first, a recap of the current system.
Since the late 19th century, initially influenced by the French predilection for barrels, Rioja has staked its regional reputation on oak aging as an indication of a wine’s quality—and the longer, the better. This model was adopted by myriad Spanish regions. The designations were, and continue to be: Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva.
Joven/Young wines: One or two years old, with fresh, fruity, primary characteristics.
Crianza wines: Starting at three years, having spent a minimum of one year in cask. For white wines, the minimum cask aging period is 6 months.
Reserva wines: Reserved for wines of better vintages, aged for a minimum of three years, with at least one year in cask. For white wines, the minimum aging period is 2 years, with at least 6 months in cask.
Gran Reserva wines: Selected wines from exceptional vintages, aged for at least two years in oak cask, and three years in the bottle. For white wines, the minimum aging period is four years, with at least one year in cask.
New Designations and What They Mean
Viñedos Singulares Exceptional single-vineyard sites can now be scrutinized, approved, and branded. Expect the first bottle with this designation to hit shelves in about two years, with wine from Telmo Rodriguez as one of the first. These wines will likely carry higher prices.
For too long, many argued, Rioja rewarded work in the cellar over work in the vineyard, despite the complexity of Rioja’s soils and micro-climates. Introduced in 1998 were the Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Baja sub-zone designations. And so, it has remained, until June of 2017.
After a multi-year tussle, the Consejo finally approved the indication for single vineyard wines. The goal: to begin outlining a geography-based quality system (more in line with Burgundy). The key word is “singulares” or “singular” not merely “single.”
As Jane Anson inDecanter reports, with 10,000 single vineyards in Rioja, the Consejo wants to ensure the rules for using the designation are strictly adhered to. Rules include supplying a soil study to justify the delimitation of the vineyard; hand harvesting; vine age of 35 years or more; yields reduced or lower by 20% than the usual DOCa allowances; and full traceability, with wines vinified and aged separately. A tasting committee will give final approval, and the vineyards will be registered as brands for use on labels.
Village and Zone Wine Designations: Winemakers in Rioja can now specify smaller geographical units, bringing the region in line with appellation systems in Italy and Burgundy. Look for wines from San Vicente, Labastida, Laguardia and Briones, villages long recognized as sources of Rioja’s best grapes. Expect higher prices than wine from the broader “Rioja” appellation, although it will be interesting to see what the market bears.
The use on labels of Vinos “de Pueblo” and “de Zona,” or “villages” and “zone” will allow producers in these smaller municipalities or sourcing from them, to promote their area and increase consumer awareness of their differences. For example, think of quality as a pyramid with the widest designation at the bottom, then wines from villages, with wines from single plots, or Viñedos Singulares, at the top. It’s neither perfect nor always correct, but at least it’s an attempt to bring long overdue differentiation.
Bring on the Bubbles: Rioja’s fame is rightly associated with red wine, and to a lesser extent, white. But the region’s growth in sparkling wine production finally earned it official recognition. Look for quality white and rosé sparkling wines, made using the traditional method, and aged for a minimum of 15 months, or for 36 months for the top tier.