Rioja becoming ‘increasingly polarised’

Rioja is becoming “increasingly polarised” in terms of quality, according to one of the top winemakers in the region.

Jesus Madrazo of Contino

Jesús Madrazo of Contino

“Some producers are destroying the image of Rioja by putting Gran Reservas on the market for £8 a bottle, which is stupid,” Jesús Madrazo, chief winemaker for Contino, told the drinks business during a visit to London this week.

“The region is becoming increasingly divided between those at the bottom end producing volume wines, and those who are really serious about quality and terroir,” he added.

Madrazo believes the future for the region lies in the new generation of terroir-focused winemakers coming up through the ranks.

“The majority are based at small properties and are passionate about learning about the soils, the land, the terroir, and how we can make the most of it while at the same time respecting it,” he told db.

“Then there’s the other end of the scale, who are only interested in volumes and profits.

“There are two Riojas now and it’s only going to get more polarised as the market is so stressed. Such division is not good for the region – we should be unified in our goals,” he added.

Madrazo admitted it wasn’t always a question of size, as big operations such as Muga, CVNE and López de Heredia produce great quality wines.

“CVNE makes 300,000 bottles of Imperial and yet the quality is incredible, so it can be done on a large scale,” he said.

Madrazo believes the terroir concept is going to become increasingly important for Rioja’s top producers.

Contino's Olivo vineyard in Rioja Alavesa

Contino’s Olivo vineyard in Rioja Alavesa

“Rioja has a blending history, so the terroir story has got a bit lost, but it will emerge.

“Rioja Alavesa’s calcareous clay soils definitely have an affect on the wines. It also benefits from both a Mediterranean and an Atlantic influence, which sets it apart from the other two sub regions,” he said.

A long time pioneer of single estate Garnacha and Graciano in the region, Madrazo created Rioja’s first 100% Graciano in 1994.

He has 11 hectares of old vine Graciano and produces around 5,000 bottles most years.

“Graciano can be a headache, because it’s very low yielding and slow to ripen, but it was the best wine we produced in 2009,” he said.

Helping to spread the terroir message in Rioja Baja is Priorat pioneer Alvaro Palacios at his family’s 100-hectare Rioja Baja estate, Palacios Remondo, in the town of Alfaro.

Alvaro Palacios' new single vineyard Garnacha,Valmira 2010

Alvaro Palacios’ new single vineyard Garnacha,Valmira 2010

Palacios recently bottled the first vintage of his single vineyard Garnacha project from his 3-hectare Valmira vineyard in the Sierra de Yerga – Valmira 2010, which he hopes to release later this year.

Believing Baja boasts the perfect terroir for old vine Garnacha, he has steadily increased the percentage of Garnacha in his Rioja Baja blends each year.

“People are finally starting to realise that Rioja’s three sub-regions have very different personalities, like the Left Bank and Right Bank in Bordeaux,” he told db.

Meanwhile, Madrazo is currently experimenting with a barrel-aged rosé made from 50% Garnacha and 50% Graciano – a unique undertaking in Rioja.

“I’m not sure if I’ll ever commercialise it, but I’m very pleased with the results so far,” he told db.

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