It has been almost a half century since a guy named Antinori decided that the ‘rules’ in Chianti were far too restrictive. The rules were put into place to prevent people from cutting corners and, in so doing, protect the appellation. In the case of this producer, they turned out to be counter-productive. The Antinoris were looking to reach beyond the appellation with better grape blends and a more refined barrel regimen. The ‘appellation police’ essentially said ‘no’, that Antinori had to conform to the rules of the DOC if he wanted to identify with Chianti. He said no, and the rest is history.
To Antinori the existing narrow boundary for winemaking and requirement to use certain ‘second tier’ varietals in the wine, were a severe handicap. Since he felt constrained by following the rules, he said ‘forget it!’, essentially causing the ‘super Tuscan’ category to emerge. But the wine industry thrives on tradition, and breaking out of the ‘beaten path’ is harder than it would appear.
Antinori was a rebel, and his challenge of the status quo was legendary. But the wine industry is not afraid to change in many ways. There are constant discussions about various techniques of winemaking, viticulture…how to make better wine, how to grow better grapes, etc. But as far as questioning the very ‘definitions’ and ‘guidelines’ by which appellations are defined…revolts such as Antinori’s have been historically rare.
That said, there is a significant uprising going on in Spain that not a lot of folks have heard much about. True there are a lot of rumblings in Spain these days about a lot of things9. In the area of Catalunia in the northeast, which was an independent kingdom for a couple of centuries, there have been definitely been aspirations to secede from Spain proper. Heck, the Basques to the north act like an independent country to some extent. There has long been ‘turbulence’ in Spain, but nothing thus far has actually gone beyond that. But there are disturbances in Spain, specifically Rioja, that threaten to significantly alter the modus operandi of the region.
A long-simmering conflict in Rioja kind of erupted when Bodegas y Vinedos Artadi announced its “decision to leave the Consejo Regulador of the D.O.C Rioja,” the region’s governing organization. Artadi was founded in 1985 by a group of vintners led by Juan Carlos López de Lacalle and is located in the village of Laguardia, part of the Rioja Alavesa subregion. We have sold Artadi for a long time (since the early 2000s) and they have never really marketed under the ‘traditional’ banner. But eschewing the regional banner is a new twist.
The bodega has focused more on origin (bottling a number of single-vineyard wines, including its flagship El Pison) than on the common Rioja designations of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. Artadi isn’t the only winery to do that. Muga, for example, makes a couple of wines that don’t follow the specific guideline of the appellation. They don’t use the ‘official’ nomenclature, however. They simply give those less traditional bottlings other names like Torre Muga and Seleccion that don’t confuse themselves with the ‘traditional’ designations that Muga also produces, and they still call everything ‘Rioja’.
What makes the move by Artadi notable is that, moving forward, their wines will not say Rioja on them at all! According to the article we read, Lopez de Lacale says he is not trying to be a revolutionary. In fact, in his mind, he isn’t doing anything different at all! He was quoted as saying, “We would like to highlight that there is no change in our project…We will keep betting on the land and the vineyard as the main sources of value for our wines.”
Senor Lopez de Lacale claims he isn’t trying to lead a secessionist movement. But it is a pretty major move to buck a century plus of tradition without a clear end game. His wines aren’t going to say Rioja on them. So what are they? The Riojanos have put in more than a century of work to get their region’s identity established in the world market. A number of large concerns are benefitting from that identity, and the region seems to have made some real progress over the last decade or so in raising awareness.
Now what? Where does it go from here? Is Artadi a ‘lone wolf’ or will more bodegas follow the Artadi lead, and to what end? There are a lot of issues swirling around, and it is unlikely that a solution that will garner widespread support can be cobbled soon given the range of diverse range of concerns that seem to be at the heart of the matter. There don’t seem to be any easy answers.
Part of the problem is philosophical. Rioja’s classification system permits only one geographical indication… Rioja. That works as long as everybody is on board and all of the ‘players’ conform at least to the task of solidarity in representing the region. Rioja has done a lot to elevate itself in the international wine market. That solidarity of image has been a key part of the program. Sure there are some mavericks that experiment with more modernist approaches to winemaking, but all under the “Rioja’ banner.
But there are forces that are pushing for a more specific identity within the region as a whole. Telmo Rodriguez, a highly visible winemaker who has projects all over Spain, has been advocating implementation of a “village” appellation system (a la Burgundy) in Rioja for years. In January, El Grupo Rioja, the largest association of wineries in the region, issued a proposal to move in this direction, including formalization of criteria for village and single-vineyard designations! A ‘Grand Cu’ map for Rioja in other words.
Also, Rioja’s three sub-regions (Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja) have been looking towards an opportunity to express their own specific areas beyond the simple catch-all ‘Rioja’ appellation. According to an article in Wine Spectator, the Alavesa region (located within the very independent Basque area) wants to put the Rioja Alaveza designation on bottles. In June 2015, 120 bodegas in the Alavesa region requested permission to add this indication to their labels, and officials in the Basque government have indicated their support.
Finally, the folks in Rioja have worked long and hard to create an international image for themselves. They seem to be finally getting to a good place and a number of their ‘native sons’ are doing better than ever. Is it worth blowing the economics of a united thrust for the sake of individualism? The largest bodegas have also built worldwide brands based largely on multi-regional blends of vineyards from all over Rioja. If Rioja becomes a subservient appellation to, say, Rioja Alavesa, where are they left in the consumers view?
If a bunch of bodegas, arguably some of the more prestigious ones among them, eschew the Rioja handle altogether for something like Rioja Alavesa or Rioja Alta, or even something more specific like Logronio or La Guardia, where does it end? What does that do to Rioja’s larger marketing thrust? Most important, how will consumers, many of whom are just recently coming to grips with Rioja and loving it, deal with the confusion this kind of ‘upheaval’ can create?
“Clarity” is important part of the wine experience. A lot of people like to be comfortable with regions and varietals before they settle in with the genre. If things happen that cloud the identity of the region in the consumers mind, or a lot of big names back out of using the appellation name, it could undo a lot of what Rioja has done to elevate itself in the wine market over the last decade.
By the same token, how do the secessionists garner any kind of attention for themselves? We are reminded of one of our favorite Spanish producers, Mauro, who hail from the Ribera del Duero adjacent, nebulously defined (in consumers’ minds) Vinos de Tierra y Leon. The Garcia family makes killer wines here, but they don’t necessarily fall into a category that gets reviewed by a majority of the pundits. They are technically ‘other Spanish wines’. So their name doesn’t get in front of consumers as much the wine merits simply because they are effectively independents.
The same would happen with those Rioja guys that aren’t calling it Rioja. There isn’t a ‘category’ for ‘folks in Rioja that aren’t calling themselves Rioja’. The whole fuss causes would-be buyers to have a more muddled picture of what the region, and the wines, are about. That is usually not a positive from a marketing and imagery perspective.
It is possible that, ultimately, a terroir-centric orientation might play better with the wine cognoscenti. But it would involve a bit of back-tracking in re-educating people to the new terminology and the more specific landscape in Rioja. They make a lot of wine in Rioja, and something that undermines the broad message of Rioja would seem to be something to avoid.
Granted those rebels in Tuscany ended up creating a whole new category (‘super Tuscans’) that has elevated the whole region. But it is important to note that those wines are typically estate, rather than regionally focused. It’s ‘Tignanello’ or ‘Orenellaia’ that most people know, not the dirt they sit on. Yes, Burgundy is a terroir focused region. But it has taken centuries to develop the vineyard framework and most people still don’t understand it. So if you like confusion, you already have Burgundy for that.
Rioja has never outwardly been about site specifics. We don’t deny the importance of the terroir with something very specific like Senorio de San Vincente. But they still call themselves Rioja. We can’t really contemplate all of the complications that might occur down the road, particularly for Artadi who is the one pushing the issue.
We understand the independent spirit of Artadi, Rioja Alavesa, and Basque country. We get the idea that the winery feels site specificity is important to their program. As independent types ourselves, we admire their courage. But having pioneered a number of genres ourselves over the years and taught consumers about all kinds of things they were not familiar with. We are well aware of how difficult the education process can be even when it is relatively straight forward. There can be wine-speak, curious foreign words, maps, and all manner of ‘information’ that isn’t necessarily easily digestible.
We also know the more complicated the explanation, the smaller the audience will be at the end. As students of business, we have to wonder what the long term benefit for this kind of ‘declaration of independence’ is, and what kind of marketing mess it will create if more people follow suit.