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Rioja explores en primeur

A number of Rioja producers are holding early conversations about creating a group to promote the region’s top wines and build momentum for en primeur sales.

Speaking to the drinks business, Jésus Madrazo, head winemaker at Contino, revealed that tentative discussions were taking place between himself and fellow Rioja Alavesa producers Remelluri, Artadi and the Eguren family, which owns Viñedos de Páganos, to explore the possibility of setting up a joint campaign.

“Together we would have more capacity to create an en primeur system and to get journalists and trade to visit like they do in Bordeaux,” explained Madrazo.

He also pointed to other potential benefits of such an allegiance, expressing a desire “to get everyone looking at how people in Rioja are making serious quality. We would talk about yields and other ideas”.

However, with discussions at such an embryonic stage, Madrazo was wary of advocating a body as formal as Bordeaux’s Union des Grands Crus, but indicated that an organisation such as Australia’s First Families of Wine could provide a better template.

“We don’t want to separate from Rioja or to fight against the Consejo,” he emphasised, acknowledging that any agreement would need to overcome numerous obstacles such as producer size – Contino itself forms part of the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España – and whether to include wineries outside the Basque Alavesa.

Together with Artadi, Contino is one of the few producers in Rioja currently to offer wines en primeur. Having made its first attempt to establish a UK campaign through the then independently owned merchant Lay & Wheeler in 2000, Contino has since resurrected these efforts, showing its 2011 vintage as part of agent Hatch Mansfield’s Burgundy tasting earlier this month.

Despite its popularity in the UK, Rioja’s largest export market, and a collection of high profile, respected producers, the region has struggled to make an impact on the fine wine market.

Describing Rioja’s image as being “a bit old fashioned and boring”, Olly Bartlett, director of Spanish specialist UK merchant Indigo Wines, observed: “Top-end Rioja is difficult to sell in the UK. It’s seen as an everyday wine.”

Echoing quality concerns raised previously by Madrazo, Liberty Wines director David Gleave MW, who confirmed he is actively working to expand the company’s Spanish portfolio, observed: “There’s a lot of poor Rioja – some really shocking stuff.”

However, Simon Field MW, Spanish buyer for Berry Bros. & Rudd, reported strong interest in the region from customers at the merchant’s recent Spanish tasting, especially for “more traditional” styles.

With Artadi offering its own wine en primeur at this same tasting, Field reflected on the success of this approach, saying: “There’s a danger of mixed messages, but I think it was explained quite well.”

Comparing the strength of following for Rioja en primeur with more established campaigns from Burgundy and Bordeaux, Field noted: “Artadi does really well in good vintages, but has rather less of a loyal following in weaker ones.”

With few producers in Rioja confident of fulfilling either the price or demand criteria that incentivise en primeur shopping, Field suggested additionally that “it’s not in their philosophy”.

Highlighting the traditional reluctance in Rioja to release wines for tasting before they have undergone several years of maturation, Field acknowledged the advantage of this approach, saying: “It means that when the wines get to you, they’re already tasting very good.”

For a more indepth examination of Rioja’s fine wine image, look out for February’s issue of the drinks business.


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