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Rioja shows Burgundian-style ‘revolution’

Riojan wine is going through a “revolution” that is far more meaningful than the region’s “misleading” traditionalist versus modernist debate, believes Tim Atkin MW.

Tim Atkin MW shows off evidence of the Rioja revolution

Speaking at the annual Wines from Rioja UK trade tasting in London this week, the writer and critic presented a series of wines to illustrate a growing shift away from large scale blending of regions and varieties in pursuit of consistency in favour of single vineyard or single village expressions.

“What we’ve seen is a move from a Bordeaux or Champenois model, where people are buying grapes across regions, to something much more akin to Burgundy or Piemonte, where individual sites and soils determine style,” reported Atkin.

As a result of this development, he observed: “I believe that Rioja in the last 25 years has been through a revolution just as important and far reaching as any in the wine world.”

However, Atkin suggested that because “Rioja is a very, very successful brand”, such a dramatic change had remained largely overlooked. “You can see why commercial Rioja is so popular,” he continued. “It’s a soft, fruity, easy wine to understand, but there is another story to Rioja.”

While discussion about Rioja during the last decade has tended to focus on a division between “traditional” and “modern” producers, Atkin argued that this represented “a misleading distinction”.

Instead, he suggested, “the distinction now in Rioja is between people who farm their vineyards and care about their vineyards, and the people who don’t.”

Despite Rioja’s history of larger negociant style wineries who blended across different regions, Atkin pointed back to an earlier tradition of “cosecheros” – family winemaking operations based largely around their own vineyard holdings.

As a result, he stressed that the region’s shifting focus towards individual vineyards represented more of a revival than an innovation. “What we’re seeing today is a return to a much, much older tradition,” he maintained, noting that even today, “Rioja’s vineyards are quite small – very few growers are over 30 hectares in size.”

Among the region’s most interesting sites, Atkin acknowledged a personal preference for the limestone soils that dominate Rioja Alavesa and a “handful” of vineyards in Rioja Alta.

Describing this area as “Rioja’s Côte D’Or”, he remarked: “At the top end Rioja should be known for its villages. They should be just as marked as the difference between Gevrey Chambertin, Volnay and Pommard.”

In short, Atkin concluded: “It’s an incredibly exciting phase in Rioja’s lifetime. Rioja in the next 25 years will not be seen as a place that makes reliable and fruity wines, but some of the greatest wines in the world.”

This vision ties into a shift in marketing strategy from Rioja’s Consejo in some of its more mature export markets such as the UK, which accounts for around 37% of the region’s total exports.

Ricardo Aguiriano, international marketing director for Wines from Rioja, told the drinks business: “The last four years have been focused on democratisation, building the brand among consumers.”

However, he revealed: “Now we are going to focus on premiumisation, promoting wines with added value, especially reserva and gran reserva, and promoting the diversity of our wines and producers.”

While acknowledging that it was still too soon to adopt this strategy in less mature focus markets such as Russia or China, Aguiriano explained: “Once consumers know Rioja is a brand they can trust, now is the time to show them the differences inside that brand.”

For the moment, this diversity message will be channelled primarily through the trade and media. “This is not something new we’re doing in Rioja,” emphasised Aguiriano. “We’re just explaining what we already have.”

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