This 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 sq.km.), Saint Emilion (129 sq.km.) or Wachau (213 sq.km.)-. According to its promoters, a larger area would hinder the chances of being included in the World Heritage Protected Sites list.
Regardless 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.
Additional article in favor of including Rioja Baja in the candidacy:
Additional articles in favor of the candidacy as is: