Few wine regions can truly claim the sort of collective brand status that makes it a household name, but, however vague people’s understanding of its identity, Rioja has carved itself just such a coveted position. That familiarity helped the region to sell a record 277 million litres of wine in 2013, of which Spain accounted for almost two thirds.
However UK consumers’ thirst for Rioja has made it by far the region’s largest export market, accounting for 32.8m litres in 2013 – almost double that of number two market Germany.
What makes this success so striking is that consumers clearly feel confident in the style they expect from Rioja, but – as the broad spectrum of categories tasted in The Drinks Business Rioja Masters demonstrates – the reality is a diversity seen in few other wine regions. When prices range across the board, as does its signature oak influence, Rioja can mean anything from primary fruit-led styles for immediate drinking to tobacco-laced, leathery wines with 50 years ahead of them. Add to the mix its no less polarised white expressions, not to mention the ambitious but classification-defying “Vino de Autor”, and the value of a dedicated, expert assessment of this region becomes ever-more clear.
VALUE AND VARIETY
In addition to picking out individual star performers across each price bracket or category, the results of this year’s competition highlight areas where Rioja offers particularly consistent quality and value for money. The good news for consumers is that there’s plenty of both these two factors on offer at very accessible prices. For Hugo Rose MW, director of fine wine merchant Vinsignia, there were rich pickings below £10.
“The high marks awarded to a good range in the lowest price category continues to speak of the value for money offered by Rioja,” he observed, picking out crianza as a particular “sweet spot”. Indeed, it was crianza and reserva – an increasingly popular style in Rioja’s export markets according to the DO – that attracted the most effusive plaudits from this year’s judges. Describing these two categories as offering “always sure value”, José Godoy, restaurant manager at Arzak’s London partnership Ametsa, also highlighted the “incredible complexity” offered by mature gran reserva as he summed up: “I believe that Rioja in general has the best value for money among the best known wine regions in the world.” That certainly appears to be the view of Laithwaites’ customers, as the retailer’s consultant winemaker and senior buyer Robin Langton confirmed that Rioja is a “huge” part of its business. “We’re gaining the most traction in terms of crianza,” he reported. “For me, it’s probably the most interesting segment where you can find real value.”
There was further praise for the region from Ian Waddington, group wine buyer at Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Declaring himself “impressed” by the overall quality of wines on show during the tasting, he asserted: “There were enough wines of real interest and which represented good value for money to ensure the region’s guaranteed presence on most wine lists”.
STRENGTH A WEAKNESS?
That’s not to suggest Rioja offers a completely consistent playground for its fans. Simon Field MW, Spanish buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, drew a parallel with the similarly powerful regional brand of Champagne as he warned that what is in many respects an enviable position also leaves the category exposed to “mediocre quality, quite a lot of discounting, and the general impression that the winemakers cherish the reputation of the brand more than the impulse to improve the raw materials.” In his view the most rewarding categories were perhaps not the most obvious Rioja styles: its unoaked joven classification and the region’s white wines, which account for no more than 10% of total production, despite a push by the consejo in recent years to redress this balance. White Rioja also attracted emphatic praise from Rose, who noted the “exceptional” quality offered from these flights in the competition, adding: “classic white Rioja is a massively underrated category.”
For all the exceptions that exist today, Rioja remains a region that is closely associated with oak maturation. Indeed, the DO’s entire classification system is based largely upon this influence. Reassuringly therefore, judges’ feedback on this element was largely positive. “What impressed me throughout, above joven of course, was the judicious use of oak,” remarked Rose. Reviewing wines tasted during the course of the day he noted: “Oak rarely smothered the fruit component, and surprisingly we were not blasted with once-usual banana, popcorn and vanilla of overt US oak.”
With oak management given the all clear, debate centred instead on those wines that fell outside or strained the boundaries of Rioja’s traditional classification system. Agustin Trapero, head sommelier at Launceston Place, argued that producers wishing to pursue more alternative styles should avoid shoe-horning them into the official DO hierarchy so as not to create confusion among consumers. “I am not against modern styles of Rioja, in fact I think they are even necessary to be able to reach different markets and palates, but what I think is a big mistake is that those modern full-bodied Riojas are classified as crianza, reserva, and gran reserva”, he maintained. Instead, Trapero suggested, “they should be classified as Vino de Autor or Vino de la Tierra to keep the style and tradition of Rioja.”
From a stylistic rather than communication perspective, Clement Robert, head sommelier at London restaurant Medlar, acknowledged: “I think the more modern style split opinions.” Expressing a personal wariness of Rioja wines made “in the fashion of the New World”, he continued: “I am in the favour of high quality wine but I am not sure that high fruit extraction and 100% new oak allied with more modern techniques are what consumers expect or want from Rioja.”
For all this concern, at an individual level there was plenty of evidence for the successful results that producers with a more iconoclastic outlook can achieve. Indeed, Waddington noted, “I think there needs to be room for experimentation, Rioja isn’t a museum.” Meanwhile Godoy cited producers such as Amaren and Baigorri, which took home a Gold and Master award respectively, as prime examples of those producers pursuing a more modern style of Rioja. In his view, “I think it is always good to see that a region is trying to be innovative. It shows that they want to improve their products and that is beneficial for the consumers.”
However, where Godoy did express concern was in the challenge of knowing what to expect from wines in the Vino de Autor category. Typically denoting wines at the very top of a producer’s range, these wines are often used to show off a particularly good site or year but, similarly to Chianti’s Super Tuscans, are made in a way that falls outside the official requirements of their denomination. For Godoy, “the absence of regulation in the category of Vinos de Autor makes it more difficult for the consumers to understand those wines.” This tension between ancient and modern, maverick and traditionalist, is hardly unique to Rioja. As demonstrated by the results, judges were happy to reward the best examples in each of these camps. Indeed, here the Masters’ emphasis not just on recruiting expert palates but encouraging discussion ensured that talent was distinguished from shallow artifice and rewarded. The medal winners here should offer some guidance to Rioja as it treads the line between exploring fresh possibilities and alienating the millions who remain loyal to this impressive brand.