Three new grape varieties are being let into the mix to help the white version of Spain's most famous wine to compete better internationally. Susie Barrie reports on reactions to the decision
The recent announcement that Ribera del Duero is to become Spain's third DOCa brought with it cries of dissent from some producers. While it is widely acknowledged that those two extra letters will bring with them a certain level of prestige, it's feared that they will also carry the burden of the kind of restrictive legislation to which the Rioja DOCa has historically been subjected .
Yet, although it is fashionable to regard Rioja as hopelessly traditional and stuck in its ways, with regulations so crippling as to make any sort of real innovation impossible, no one can deny that the region's continued success is unparalleled. At 261 million litres, sales of Rioja were at an all-time high in 2006, with exports up 11 per cent over 2005, according to the Rioja regulatory council. The UK, Rioja's largest export market, has also seen significant year-on-year increases since 2003, and in 2006 sales topped 27.8 million litres.
At the same time, the ground-breaking architecture of buildings such as the Ysios winery in Laguardia and Riscal's City of Wine ; the opening of Dinastía Vivanco's world-class wine museum near Briones ; and the advent of so-called "alta expresión" wines, surely prove beyond doubt that Rioja is, in fact, as dynamic and exciting a region as any in the world right now.
So the question is not how to climb out of a perceived rut, but rather how to keep the current momentum going. With the growing realisation that the domestic market in Spain was stagnating, the Rioja Regulatory Council created a long-term strategic plan for 2005-2020 which aimed to concentrate resources on Rioja's three key export markets - the UK, US and Germany. In addition, Reserva, Gran Reserva, white and rosé styles were identified as most suited to the needs of the international market.
According to Ricardo Aguiriano, of the Consejo Regulador, it was subsequently decided that if Rioja's white wines were to compete successfully on the international stage, they needed to be adapted to meet "worldwide wine consumption trends". From the 2007 harvest, therefore, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo will be allowed into the mix (provided the combined total is less tha n 50 per cent of the blend).
The Regulatory Council has clearly given this matter a great deal of thought and is confident of its decision, but what do producers, brand owners and buyers feel about the new legislation?
The issue is certainly a divisive one among the region's producers, with the bigger companies largely in favour of the move.
Adrian Atkinson, wine development director for Pernod Ricard UK, whose portfolio contains the number one-selling Spanish wine brand, Campo Viejo, says the company "welcomes all initiatives that drive innovation into the Rioja category and help to broaden its appeal to UK wine drinkers".
He does, however, sound a note of caution: "We also believe it is important that we preserve the quality cues and Spanish heritage Rioja currently enjoys with the UK trade and consumer ." He adds that it is "critical" that the right clones and varieties are planted in the right place for this initiative to work.
Grupo Faustino, which already has some "experimental" Chardonnay that currently goes into its Campillo Blanco Barrel Fermented white, also welcomes the new legislation. According to export director Roberto Alonso, the company also has an advantage in that this established vine stock will be yielding grapes of greater maturity when the time comes for international varieties to form up to half of the blend and to be mentioned on the label.
Naturally, there are those who disagree with the new legislation and, although the exclusively red wine-producing La Rioja Alta will not be directly affected, managing director Guillermo de Aranzabal s ays: "We as a company are against it."
He feels trying to increase acceptance of white Rioja by allowing international varieties into the mix is misguided, especially as producers are unlikely to be able to compete on price with Rueda and Rías Baixas, given that the cost of producing grapes will probably, in his opinion, be higher.
More importantly, if this leads to the acceptance of new red varieties, he says: "This would be very negative. Rioja wines have a strong personality, different from most wines made in other areas. We think this is the most important asset Rioja has and we want to protect it." Aguiriano, however, confirms the council has no such plans and "is very confident in the variety, quality and potential of the Tempranillo grape".
Whatever existing producers may think, it seems the buzz around Rioja's strong market position and its spirit of ever-increasing innovation is attracting new, influential investors .
Pioneering wine giant Torres has already set up successful operations in Chile and California, but until recently its policy had been to keep its Spanish business firmly rooted in Catalonia. With the new generation of Miguel Torres Maczassek and his sister Mireia, however, that approach is changing and on a trip to London last week Torres Maczassek confirmed that the new Torres wineries in Ribera del Duero and Priorat will soon be joined by a venture in Rioja.
The idea is to buy unplanted land and begin from scratch, experimenting in much the same way as the company did in Priorat, until the right product can be made and brought to market.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Torres Maczassek is upbeat about the new legislation, saying: "It's a sign that things are changing, which is positive - and it would also be good if it happened with red varieties." Isn't he worried, though, that Rioja will lose its sense of identity? He says not because, in his experience, international varieties have a different character when grown in Spain.
He goes on to state that "a variety should be a tool to achieve the style you want, not an end product - and a tool to help you sell the wine" - something he believes is difficult for producers trying to compete in international markets with only lesser-known varieties such as Tempranillo.
Assessing the mood on the ground in Rioja is important, but ultimately this business is about delivering wine that consumers want to drink at a price they are willing to pay. So what do off-trade buyers here in the UK feel about the relaxing of the rules? And, crucially, will it help to sell more wine?
Most people I spoke to seem to think that the main issue with white Rioja is its quality, or rather a lack of it. Majestic's Spanish buyer, Matt Pym, has witnessed "excellent growth" in the category as a whole over the past couple of years which he thinks is largely down to improvements in quality. But current sales are red-dominated and, in order to redress the balance to some extent, he feels "the inclusion of other [international] varieties into the white Rioja mix could be a good thing, as I believe the average quality should improve".
Tesco product development manager for Spain James Griswood agrees: "Any flexibility given to winemakers to decide which varieties to use can only be a positive move. If these new varieties prove to offer high quality wines they will be used; if not, then there is no loss." He adds: "If wine quality improves then of course this can influence listing numbers and sales." This will be music to the ears of producers intending to invest time and money exploiting the new laws.
Thresher 's Spanish buyer Helen McEvoy is equally optimistic, but feels it's an issue of taste. "With its traditional oaky style, white Rioja is at the opposite end of the flavour spectrum to the Sauvignons and Pinot Grigios that are currently flying off the shelves in the UK. Allowing winemakers to produce a fruitier style of wine may, in time, persuade consumers to give white Rioja a second chance." Again, there seems to be little concern among buyers about the danger of a loss of identity for white Rioja, with Pym stating that "red Rioja has, and relies on having, a sense of place far more than white Rioja".
So it would appear that the overriding reaction to the move is one of cautious optimism. If producers are careful about where and what they plant, and aim for sensible yields of quality grapes, white Rioja could indeed attract a new generation of drinkers looking for something different, for an exciting alternative to New World Chardonnay but with the clean, fruit-driven flavours that Rioja's whites have historically been considered to lack.
It's also the kind of intelligent innovation that the region needs if Rioja is to stay in vogue and roll with the winemaking times.
The big sell
Emma Eversham takes a look at the independent wine merchants who wowed judges in OLN's Rioja retailer competition
Winner: D Byrne & Co in Clitheroe, Lancashire
Prize: An all-expenses paid trip to Rioja
Andrew Byrne dedicated his window display to Rioja for six weeks from the beginning of October 2006 and created a Rioja display inside the shop . He held tastings every Saturday in October and staff encouraged customers to enter a prize draw to win a case of six wines.
To highlight the promotion outside the shop, Byrne wrote about it in his fortnightly column in the Clitheroe Advertiser & Times, and persuaded a journalist to mention it in a food and wine feature which was accompanied by a money-off coupon. The promotion helped to treble his sales of Rioja.
First runner up: Tanners Wines
Prize: A meal for staff
The company's 17,000 mail-order customers were sent newsletters with a Rioja theme and POS material was created to promote special Rioja offers in all four stores where staff also held daily tastings.
Second runner up: Henderson Wines, Edinburgh
Prize: A case of Rioja
Henderson Wines already stocks 24 different styles of Rioja, but revamped its window and shop display, held an in-store tasting and offered 10 per cent off tasting wines throughout the promotion.