I saw an article today outlining the approval of three new grapes to the Rioja repertoire: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo. They are right to point out that part of the reason for their acceptance into the D.O. regulations is that Rioja didn’t have much to work with as far as white grape varieties. The three varietals available to wineries up until now were Viura (Macabeo), Malvasía Riojana and the rare Garnacha Blanc, which have been creating some wonderful wines in the regions of Priorat and Terra Alta. In addition, there has been a push to allow Cabernet, Merlot and a few other French red varietals, but alas, these were not officially approved by the D.O.
For those of you unfamiliar with the law, it says you can’t use any grape not approved by the D.O., but that doesn’t necessarily mean people aren’t growing them. All the new varieties are most likely going to be in bottle within the coming year, even though the average grapevine needs approximately five years to produce decent fruit. What this translates to is that wine is currently being made from these “unapproved” varietals, but not labeled with “Rioja”. Personally, this “official” versus the “non-official” varietal business means very little to me. I’ve tried Albarino and Chardonnay from Rioja and they both were lovely wines. Yes, the traditionalists will say that the region is losing its historic significance because of this, but I say WHO CARES.
That’s the headline but here’s what I think is the more important issue: the question of quality. If I ask my other “geek” friends who live in Spain, most will agree that Rioja has the highest percentage of bad wine to good wine produced under its name, more than any other region in Spain. Not to say that there isn’t great wine made in Rioja, but come on! They are supposed to be the benchmark of Spanish wine. Tasting around the US this past month, I’ve consistently seen people move towards other regions and more innovating styles of Spanish wine. Rioja does have GREAT wines that I love and would seek out, but if I was going to blindly pick a wine out of a bag where one was a random bottle of Rioja and the three other bottles were not, I’d be praying not to get the Rioja. The odds would not be in favor of Rioja in regards to quality.
Dear Consejo Regulador of Rioja, I ask you this, let’s not talk about the grapes for now but rather let’s fix this quality issue that you have! Make Rioja great again! Not by relaxing rules and allowing for people to become more distracted by choices as to what to grow, but rather institute strict quality controls that would help create less bottom shelf supermarket wines with your name on them. Most people outside of Spain still think Rioja is a grape and not a region. Until the labels begin to look better, and the wine is consistently good from the cheapest bottle to the most expensive, nothing else you do will matter. You are the voice of Spanish wine; remember that the rest of the country is counting you.