The battle for Spanish terroir

12th April, 2016 by Lucy Shaw

As a determined band of Spain’s top terroir-focused winemakers continues to win support for its cause, the country’s consejos face a choice: do they resist, or do they adapt?

04. Belondrade (Vines)All fine wine makers will tell you that great wines are made in the vineyard. Rather than put his or her stamp too obviously on the wines, it is the vintner’s job to work with what nature has given them and do their best to create a liquid expression of the land where the grapes were grown. It’s curious then, that one of the world’s oldest and most respected wine-producing nations – Spain – has taken the opposite approach for so long, choosing instead to emphasise the importance of barrel ageing as a quality signifier.

Rioja, Spain’s most famous and profitable wine region, has centred its entire marketing message on oak ageing, building a four-tier structure based on the amount of time the wines spend in barrel and bottle before release, with gran reserva wines reputed to be of the highest quality purely based on the fact that they have been aged for two years in barrel and a further three in….

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4 Responses to “The battle for Spanish terroir”

  1. Terryn says:

    The ” pagos system” in Spain as it as been done and run have more to do with good relations with key people in the government than with reality of the Terroir. It is a good idea but with wrong motivations and process!! For a french guy , it is just a funny joke!! It can mot be taken seriously by the international winepress and critics!’

  2. Isabel says:

    In my opinion, even though I agree on some points, this is a quite selfish approach. Why not work together and make the necessary changes and enhance Spain’s diversity in terroir, culture, gastronomy… instead of leaving the DO saying it is a complete failure and giving an image of fragmentation and crisis abroad, when, in the case of Rioja, is a long standing institution and a world reference. If the historic wineries in Rioja would have taken such approach, in difficult times, Rioja would have crumbled. I am sure Rioja Alta, López Heredia, Muga, and a few others, have been there as driving force, giving its best, always producing quality conscious wines, that were, and are, flagship of Rioja, that others have benefited from. When wine is kept in oak for as long as a Gran Reserva is, the best quality grapes, from the best vineyard sites, should be implied, if not, difficult to bear that amount oak and have anything like wine at the end.

    One of the things I am really proud about Rioja classic and all timer quality wines, is that you can get hold still of old vintages, where as in other places, this is unthinkable, because the wine is sold “raw” so the potential drinker keeps it in bottle for years at his own expense and hopefully under good conservation conditions. So when the wine is drank, the winemaker has no clue what it tastes like, and this is decisive for its reputation and the good (or bad) image of the region and all its producers.

    Rioja has 63,500 ha under vine, and if this was to be converted all into terroir-driven appellation controllée and single vineyard wines, how much land we would be taking about, and at what price? Maybe it is assumed we can all pay premium prices for our daily glass of wine, but I think some people are very happy they can get £5 Rioja with the guarranty it has been done under the DOs standards, and others, more fortunate, are able to pay £100 for their daily enjoyment.

    Maybe it is worth saying that the comparison with Bordeaux and Burgundy apply. As top crus here represent a tiny % (I think in both cases under 5%) of the total area under vine. So I am sure if you are a tiny estate, with a tiny production, in a privileged site, and have a marketplace for your excellent and higher-priced wines, maybe you can produce wine anywhere and still have a market for them.

    Not to forget that in the UK, and elsewhere, it is the under £6 category (under 10€) where most sales happen.

  3. Tim Tromley says:

    Why both systems can’t be used is confusing to me. Providing customers the most information possible could only enhance the buying/drinking experience. The grapes birthplace, it’s quality of upbringing, the blending and ageing of all the grapes in the neighborhood ALL provide the particular bottle of wine its character and its reputation. Would not the competitive market ensure that quality levels are established and maintained and provide vineyard owners and winemakers the competition that is needed to consistently improve the wine industry? As a consumer I would love to see the single vineyard name if it is a single vineyard, the village area as designated if a blend of various vineyards from this village or an area designation of a blend of multiple vineyards from the same unique area such as Rioja. Personally, I love the ageing system of Rioja. It provides me a quick quality check for new winery purchases of small quantity, small investment. Any larger investments are researched further if an unknown but for known wineries its lifetime reputation is upon which I rely. The competition factor, or survival factor for older wineries tells me they have invested for the long term and their reputation for quality is well established and provides me confidence in a quality purchase. What I’m trying to say is the present system provides some information to consumers but not all. That is not to say we don’t find the additional information prior to purchasing, it just takes more time and perhaps could be a roadblock to a purchase. Having vineyard designation and location as well as ageing level would just make life easier for consumers and might make the purchase roadblock disappear. Competition will handle all the problems the somewhat egotistical wineries or area organizations believe are created by “their” system. Give us both, I might drink more, and really isn’t that the point!

  4. Joaquim Auque says:

    I personally agree with the motivations of some producers to skip DO, DOCa rules and restrictions. Such like a limited grape variety list, or crush and press rates and barrel time control are ridiculous. And I absolute agree with the importance of notice in the label every especification of production location, special terroir, etc. Outerwise I want to recall that in Spain there are 25.000 wine products at least, and key positioning is a must to survive in the market. Notice that all the producers named in the article are the ones that are in ALL THE WINE MEDIA ALWAYS EVERY WEEK, and all them are friends and once in a time get together to lunch and build this “lightweight terroir synicate”. They work very very much and very very well on their marketing stratrgies to be ON THE TOP ALWAYS, it is normal and I would do so if I had time. The nicest example is a well known winery that makes the most expensive single vineyard wine of Spain and at the same time sells 200000 bottles of blended wine from 9 diferent villages, (fine coop. style), it is a good wine with nice burst powered market price slowly increased every year thanks to their ultra prestiged Premier Cru Classé Seleccionée. Success, it is a perfect strategy, because buyers have the impression of buying a piece of the excellece of the best wine in the country.
    Building a CLUB like GPE supplying the DO is another way to get differenced, exclusivity is money and media impacts. One of the main obsessions of the CLUB is sell the wine french-weise, ” vente en premiére”, raw wine that is expected to multiply it’s value many times in the next years. Especulation? You need a very solid label to get credit in this kind of investments, GPE it’s a good label. Terroir flag its a justification.

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