Rioja’s classification conundrum

Like many regions, Rioja has developed a new classification framework. James Lawrence evaluates its chances of success.

Peter Mitchell
Peter Mitchell MW, wine director, Jeroboams Group. Photo: Jan Rockar

The Consejo Regulador of Rioja caused a surge of excitement across Spain’s viticultural landscape when it unveiled a new classification framework in June 2017. Spain’s engine for global red wine export had decided to embrace terroir with the creation of a new Viñedos Singulares designation, but only after much campaigning and controversy. 

Under the new rules, producers who wish to make use of this single-vineyard classification would have to justify the ‘natural delimitation of their vineyard’ and comply with strict quality control regulations. “The decision to introduce a new set of regulations in 2017 was in response to consumer feedback and also in response to producers who wanted to be able to reference this information,” says José Luis Lapuente, president of the regulatory board. 

According to Lapuente, to date the board has received 45 official requests from winemakers to apply for Viñedos Singulares status. “I think the initiative is a symbol of the maturity of the denomination of origin,” says Remigio Sanz Garcia, global brand manager at Ramón Bilbao. “Although I think that the current Reserva/Gran Reserva classification will continue to be valid for a long time, this represents a good evolution.” 

However, critics have suggested that the concept is more akin to tinkering around the edges, rather than a truly game-changing initiative. “The worry is that this benefits the big farmers once again, because there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit for what constitutes a single-vineyard in size,” says Dominio de Pingus owner Peter Sisseck.

But perhaps a more pertinent question is: will the new classification offer any commercial benefits?  Rioja is already a highly successful export player and much of the region’s success hinges on the widespread understanding of the Reserva/Gran Reserva hierarchy. 

A popular route

“I understand and sympathise with the reasons for doing this, however for virtually all consumers, it is at best an unnecessary complication and potentially a turn-off. We have encountered customer resistance to paying a premium for these single-vineyard wines from people who happily buy into the Burgundian system,” says Peter Mitchell MW, wine director at the Jeroboams Group.

Yet many European regions over the past 15 years have gone down the terroir classification route, adding ever-more tiers of bureaucratic labelling requirements. Austrian and German wine growers in the business of making premium wine have invested considerable resources into creating hierarchical vineyard classifications, while Barolo, a region with a tradition of blending wines from different parts of the zone, is embroiled in a fierce ongoing debate about classifying its various crus. 

Proponents of such ventures argue that they create added value in the eyes of consumers – a reference to Burgundy’s long-established system is de rigueur – and help artisan growers differentiate themselves from the volume-led. “Spain’s mistake was to enter the market at the bottom end and to ride on the value ticket for far too long,” says Javier Galarreta, CEO of the Spanish wine group Araex. Indeed, despite the average price per litre rising from €1.11 ($1.30) to €1.18 in 2017, Spanish global exports are still reliant on bulk wine, while France celebrated sales worth more than €7bn in 2016.

Galarreta adds: “I hate the word value. It imposes a price ceiling on an entire region even if standards and terroir vary enormously, as they clearly do. That’s why I was heavily involved in creating the new single-vineyard category in Rioja, as I wanted to forge stronger market segmentation in the region.”

His Riojan counterpart Garcia concurs, believing that the ethos underpinning such classifications – single vineyards are intrinsically higher quality – should be taken as an axiom. “We have perfectly parameterised all our vineyards and plots, and we treat each one in a different way, vinifying by areas and attending to the particularities of each of them. We believe that this is one of the ways to increase the quality and price of our wines,” says Garcia.

However, many in the trade disagree. “Single-vineyard wines should not automatically command a premium. They are not intrinsically superior. For example, in Barolo a producer like Bartolo Mascarello makes one blended Barolo instead of making multiple single-vineyard wines,” says sommelier Gianpaolo Paterlini, wine director at 1760 & Acquerello Restaurants in San Francisco.

“There is no one soil type or set of micro-climate statistics that can be proved demonstrably better.  To genuinely prove which sites were best would require many years of identical treatment in the vineyard and winery, after which would still come the subjective test of tasting,” adds Mitchell MW.

Yet buyers readily admit that the Burgundian pyramid system has created a useful pricing structure, with consumers obviously willing to pay a premium for Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines. “It’s almost analogous to the way car manufactures stratify their products – Grand Cru is Ferrari, Premier Cru is Audi etc,” says Ted Sandbach, owner of the Oxford Wine Company. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, why shouldn’t other regions attempt to emulate the Burgundian philosophy? “Burgundy and indeed France have had far longer to work on their act. The roots of the Burgundian classification system go far back to the Cistercian monks,” Sandbach says. The rush to play catch-up in Spain and Germany and elsewhere by focusing on single vineyards appeals to a minority of enthusiasts, but the “general public are more likely to be confused than reassured by a newfound emphasis on village names, or single-vineyard wines. In the end, it simply comes down to the brand in question.”

The debate over brand versus terroir is a fierce one, not to mention longstanding. It is self-evident that wine as a category often struggles to create added value; in the eyes of most consumers, Benjamin Romeo’s Contador (average retail price around $200.00) looks, smells and tastes much the same as a sub-$10.00 bottle of Rioja, obvious label differences aside. Any initiative which attempts to address this conundrum is surely to be applauded. Yet a vineyard classification system which has no longstanding historical tradition is also clearly fraught with problems, not least inconsistency of approach.
In Austria for example, the Österreichischen Traditionsweingüter  (Austrian Traditional Wine Estates) undertook a private investigation of the distinctive terroirs of four key regions, looking at parameters from geology to history. The initial results were published in May 2010, 18 years after the association was born, and 52 vineyards were initially classified as Erste Lage (Premier Cru), although that number has since expanded. 

In contrast, Rioja for the moment has created an official category of single-vineyard wines without undertaking a detailed soil analysis of the region. There is no hierarchical classification of terroir. This rankles, particularly with self-confessed terroiriste Telmo Rodriguez. “I still believe we need a pyramid hierarchal classification,” he says. “We should ask ourselves why such an amazing region like Rioja (DO founded in 1926) does not have any iconic wine? This is a region full of nuances, villages, great vineyards and we need to focus on the exceptional, rather than the generic.”

But be careful what you wish for, Señor Rodriguez. In 2010, the Barolo appellation was updated with the creation of the Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva. This was the official classification of every single vineyard in Barolo, largely based on the work of renowned winemaker Renato Ratti, who in 1980, after years of painstaking research, created a map of Barolo crus. It was not a rank of quality, rather a simple warranty of origin.  Hardly a controversial move, you would imagine.

Think again. Part of the Menzione’s remit was to enlarge the prestigious Grand Cru Cannubi vineyard area to 34ha from 15ha, which resulted in a protracted and expensive legal dispute in which growers fought individuals in favour of maintaining the enlargement. 

The Bordelais are also no strangers to legal action – the 2012 St-Emilion classification which upgraded several estates to Premier Grand Cru Classe A status was challenged by three châteaux; Croque Michotte, La Tour du Pin Figeac and Corbin-Michotte. An administrative tribunal in Bordeaux ruled against the properties, although the owners vowed to take the matter further. 

So it’s hardly surprising that the authors of Europe’s newest regulatory framework are reticent to proceed further, despite the demands of winemakers such as Rodriguez. “It’s too early to say what will be next for Rioja, as the new regulations have just been introduced,” says Lapuente. “But we should not forget that blending is, and will continue to be, a cornerstone of Rioja.”

Indeed, the Consejo Regulador has to take account of producers who feel just as strongly about maintaining the status quo. Wineries which own vineyards and control land in vastly different areas and villages across the region undoubtedly fear that any vineyard classification could dramatically affect grape prices and producer costs. Some even doubt the validity of allowing growers simply to reference single-vineyard names, regardless of any future possibility of hierarchal classification. 

“Felix Solis does not plan to launch a range using the new classification at this stage, because our key markets and customers are not showing a strong interest in it,” says Felix Solis MD Richard Cochrane. “These measures are intended to placate a small number of producers who want to be seen and heard. The real question is not for Rioja, but for those who enjoy Rioja around the world. Would a further classification of the region’s terroir help consumers? Many would argue not.”

Does it work?

On the one hand, the biggest problem facing many wine producers over the past decade has been the stifling affect of existing under one generic designation, making it harder to sell premium brands to consumers. Reinforcing the fact that regions such as Rioja are not homogenous will hopefully drive further consumer interest. 

“I believe that both small producers and big companies can coexist and thrive together to our mutual gain,” says Sisseck. “Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has little in common with generic Bourgogne rouge, yet DRC arguably helps to sell the generic stuff by creating awareness of the Burgundy region. Having superior designations has not stopped consumers buying affordable, lower-end Burgundy. In fact, it highlights the value of such wines, which is why vineyard classifications are useful.”

Casting a shadow over this appraisal is the unfortunate truth that Bodegas Artadi, one of Rioja’s most respected names, has been making vineyard-specific wines for a couple of decades. They are often superb and garner exceptional critical scores – but little customer enthusiasm. The wine trade has a habit of fetishising terroir, but for most consumers simply having a vineyard site on the label will probably not add any commercial value or convince them to buy more wine.

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