Revolution in Rioja

Small bodegas are changing the image of Rioja, often focusing on traditional techniques and specific regions rather than blends.

David Schwarzwälder reports.

In Rioja, more and more producers know how to use the varied terroir
In Rioja, more and more producers know how to use the varied terroir

Rioja, Spain's most important appellation, is still the preserve of big bodegas, but the picture is changing. More and more small and micro producers are making a name for themselves with highly rated individual wines, and influencing the image of the region as a whole.

Some 16 large producers account for almost half of an annual production that averages around 350m bottles. Basically, the production structure is closer to Champagne than to Bordeaux, for example. The big bodegas may produce a large proportion of the wine and maintain relatively stable prices, and volumes and the continuity in terms of quality that are still the appellation's strengths, but it is the small winegrowers who own most of the 66,000ha of vineyards. Only 580 bodegas bottle wine today, but this is a larger number than in the past.

Considering the changes we are seeing today, there are historic parallels with Burgundy, where, until the 1970s and 1980s, growers also did very little of their own bottling. In Rioja, however, the structure of the industry was affected by several more factors that were not at play in that part of France. Until his death in 1975, the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, did everything possible to encourage big producers, cooperatives and low quality, high-yield agriculture. As in Champagne and the Douro, there was also a tradition of blending wines from across the area, and of historic ageing of the blends for long periods before bottling them with the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva designations that added to their value. Regulations stipulating that producers wanting to use these labels had to age a minimum of 50 barrels in their cellars for up to five years created major cashflow barriers for almost any small producer.


The still young classification Viñedo Singular is noted on the back label


The mid 1980s marked a shift to family ownership of more moderately-sized bodgas, and a greater focus on terroir and regional wines. The arrival from Spain of Jorge Ordoñez in the US and his launch of a wine brokerage business, brought more dramatic changes. At a time when, as he says, “Spanish wine [in the US] was thought to be low quality, funky, and cheap”, Ordoñez drew attention to good small estates, and was rewarded by high scores from Robert Parker. Others followed in Ordoñez’s footsteps and gradually a market developed for what would be called ‘wines of expression’ or vinos del autor that, like the finest efforts from France and Italy, did not rely on lengthy ageing or designations like Reserva and Gran Reserva. Generally, these wines could be likened to Italy’s Super Tuscans in the way they helped to break the traditional mould. Often richer and more powerful in style, more crucially, they were produced in individual sites with the intention of expressing the terroir and bringing out the potential of the Tempranillo grape.


Super Riojans

As in Italy, where a legal designation had to be developed to cover the Super Tuscans, Rioja saw the creation of the Viñedo Singular – or VS. These are described legally as “minor geographical units that can comprise a single or several cadastral plots” and the wines they produce are subject to tighter rules than their neighbours. Yields have tob e at least 20% lower than the usual DOCa level (up to 5,000 kg per hectare for reds and 6,922 for whites); there has to be a maximum 65% grape-to-wine ratio compared to the standard 70%; vines must be at least 35 years old; and the vineyard has to have been owned or rented on a long-term basis for at least 10 years. They are also subject to two tastings – after fermentation and prior to release – at which they have to score at least 93 points.

The first list of Vs‘s was released in 2019, and included examples that belonged to big bodegas as well as small ones. Indeed some high profile small estates did not apply because their vineyards were too young, or because they saw no interest in doing so. 

However, the VS designation is  increasingly being used now, especially by the small to medium-sized bodegas. More than 100 vineyards have been certified, and the total area of all certified VS single vineyards is almost 200 hectares. As was to be expected, more than 40 percent of the VS plots are now in the Basque subzone Rioja Alavesa to the north of the Ebro river, which can actually only claim 20 percent of the total DOCa area. 

Revealingly, with 96 percent of its vineyards given over to Tempranillo, Rioja Alavesa also has the region’s highest percentage of this grape. The wines it produces here are thought fruitier and more charming than to the south of the Ebro. In addition, it is distributed over a smaller parcel size. The latter may be one of the reasons why such a disproportionate share of classified single vineyards is allotted to Basque Rioja.  


Most of the classified single vineyards are located in the Rioja Alavesa subzone / Credit: Sergio Espinosa


The dynamism of the innovators

The small producers now include almost 300 cosecheros, as the producers of young wines without that do not go through traditional barrel-ageing are called, and including some of the avant-garde of Rioja. However, it is simplistic to imagine that the new wave is all about single vineyards and a move away from maturation in cask. Indeed, the leading new wave producer, Bryant MacRobert embraces almost the entire Rioja, so to speak, in search of the combination of the finest terroir for the best possible varietal typicity. Sampedro, another of the pioneers of the new generation of winemakers, uses the traditional "Sexto Año" Spanish ageing designation on the label of his top red wine Phinca La Revilla.

This reference to the ageing period is familiar from some of the country's famous classic wines, such as Vega Sicilia's "5° Año Valbuena". Another producer, Jon Peñagaricano, whose small winery near the wine capital Haro was started by his father back in 1978 grows just under 7 hectares and produces Joven, Crianza, Reserva and occasionally a Gran Reserva in the classic style. 

Despite their efforts to gain a lasting foothold in export markets, this is far from simple in markets where prices competition is keenest. At first glance, Rioja generally has not suffered any price losses. But if you take a closer look, you will notice that there has been an indirect fall. Reserva qualities are systematically traded in a price segment that was occupied by Crianzas not so long ago. The success of private labels has also been challenging to individual producers. 

Consumers may also be finding it increasingly difficult to define Rioja in a category with such a broad range of styles, but one thing is clear. Rioja accounts for the largest number of top ratings in Spanish quality viticulture - a great achievement – and the medium and smaller producers are making a huge and growing contribution to the region’s reputation. 

Next week: David Schwarzwälder’s pick of the new wave Rioja producers

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