Rioja's Controversial Bid to Enlarge Unesco's World Heritage List | Catavino
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Rioja’s Controversial Bid to Enlarge Unesco’s World Heritage List

Rioja versus UNESCOThis cold and rainy spring of 2013 has brought about a rare strain of fever to the D.O.Ca. Rioja. Instead of the usual buzz about how the uncommon weather will affect this year’s crop, today, swords are drawn between the three subzones (the Baja, the Alta and the Alavesa) because of the region’s exclusive bid to enlarge Unesco’s World Heritage list.

Despite it being just a first step for the site to be nominated, the inclusion of the “Rioja and Rioja Alavesa Vine and Wine Cultural Landscape” in UNESCO’S  World Heritage Center Tentative list has gotten peoples blood boiling in this normally calm and amicable region. The origin of the debate is the geographical area proposed for protection in the candidacy. The proposal includes the triangle between Haro, Najera and Logroño (Rioja Alta) as well as the whole Rioja Alavesa; nevertheless, this area in the northwest is only about 10% of the total surface and leaves out a major part of the region, mainly the Rioja Baja to the East. The people of the Alavesa and Alta see the candidacy as a last chance to defend their land from aggressive over-development, precisely when the planned construction of an important high voltage power line right across their vineyards has hit the news.

Influential personalities, star winemakers and various others have lobbied for the inclusion of the Baja subregion in the candidacy, rightfully defending the area as an integral part of Rioja and its history. The main arguments brandished against them are that the candidacy does not have to necessarily coincide in territorial terms with the D.O.Ca.; and that the area proposed in Rioja spans 1.164 square kilometers while other wine regions already included in the World Heritage list are much smaller -Lavaux (23, Saint Emilion (129 or Wachau (213 According to its promoters, a larger area would hinder the chances of being included in the World Heritage Protected Sites list.

Rioja and UNESCORegardless of the controversy around the geographical area included, it’s clear that what can become a great opportunity both to build Rioja as a first class wine tourism destination and to protect its unique landscape, has turned into a quarrel and revealed a lack of regional consensus and collaboration that seems endemic in this region. Initially, the information on the candidacy was very poor. Still today, nobody knows what being a World Heritage Site means and, given the case, how it will affect everyday life… Will it limit the construction of necessary infrastructure like roads or dams?  Would modern viticultural practices have to change? Later, once the reduced geographical area included in the candidacy became widely known, some voiced the fears that the promotion of one sub-region above the others would end up affecting the Rioja brand negatively; others went further, arguing that the moment mention of the World Heritage Site was added to some labels and not others, would be the beginning of a new regional subdivision and possibly the dismemberment of Rioja as we know it.

In truth, Rioja wine’s strength is its world renowned consistency in taste and quality. More than reflecting the terroir of a certain plot or area, Rioja is mainly recognized internationally as a style (medium bodied reds, very food friendly, dry and with a character defined by more or less oak ageing, depending on the category). This stylistic regularity is guaranteed year after year by the blending of grapes sourced from all three of its subregions -what one lacks, the other provides-; making its climate and soil diversity the D.O.Ca’s main asset. Rioja can’t be understood without any one of its three subregions and its wine and vine landscape would be incomplete if only one of the areas is excluded.

Looking closely at the state of Rioja’s landscape today, unprotected and vulnerable to the construction of high voltage power lines, roads, highways, and golf complexes; constantly changing due to the growing land consolidation and the constant reparcelling and restructuring of old vineyards, it seems it will be very difficult to convince UNESCO to protect something the people of Rioja haven’t been able to defend and safeguard together.


John Perry

Additional article in favor of including Rioja Baja in the candidacy:

Additional articles in favor of the candidacy as is:

  • Lots of interesting points here. Heritage is worth preserving, but heritage and commercial considerations are uneasy bedfellows. Even IF they get it (which I am not sure), there are reasons to think it could create more problems than it solves. Think of all the potential innovation in winery technology, tourism infrastructure, communications links etc. that businesses will want & need in order to compete in future, that they may no longer be able to install.

    What will they say when all their grandiose winery building plans are rejected?

    Also, one could take exception to the idea that Rioja is only the result of blending. Certainly that is a strength and key to its success, but more winemakers in Rioja Alta, Alavesa and even Baja, are exploring single-vineyard / terroir wines, so it needn’t always be the case.

    Let’s hope that this discussion at least encourages debate and creates, rather than ends, opportunities for cooperation.

  • John P.

    Agreed that Rioja has always had “terroirists” and that many more will continue this line of work -think classics like López Heredia or modernists like Benjamín Romeo-; nevertheless, I still defend the region’s strength has always been the consistency product of blending the different varieties from all three subzones (Alta and Alavesa are mostly Tempranillo plots while the majority of the vineyard area dedicated to the other varietals in the blends -Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano- is located mainly in the Rioja Baja/Rioja-Navarra area) The big players like: Marqués de Cáceres, Dinastía Vivanco, Campo Viejo, Faustino, El Coto, Marqués de Cáceres, Paternina, etc. source grapes and wines from all three subzones for their main brands, regardless of where their production/aging facility is located. By the way, I too doubt that Rioja’s bid will be successfull, it seems to have started off on
    the wrong foot… We’ll just have to have to wait and see the outcome. Thank you for your comments 🙂