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Rioja Terroir: Approaching the concept of terruño in wine

Rioja TerroirEditor’s Note:  With a view to the EWBC: Digital Wine Communications Conference launching in just a few weeks, John Perry has taken a very complicated concept – Terroir – and broken it down in a fascinating and approachable way to help us understand how it significantly affects Riojan wine. 

Wine has a complicated vocabulary. For the beginner, learning some of this jargon is often the first step to increasing knowledge. Sometimes, even professionals come across an intimidating term and are reminded that things are not as tightly defined as they seem. One such concept is terroir; probably one of the most controversial in the industry. We all have a general idea of what it means, yet it means different things to different people. Because of Rioja’s blending history, terruño -Spanish for terroir- is a concept that had been somewhat lost along the way. Nevertheless, it has increasingly become more important as the divide grows between the large volume and profit based companies and a wave of modern winemakers claiming “more focus on the land”. As a world renowned wine region that enjoys a position of leadership, Rioja might want to address this polarization if it wants to face the challenges of today’s wine market from strong ground.

 Terroir is not an easy concept to grasp so, before we approach the topic of Terruño in Rioja, it is important to define it. Commonly, the term (from the French terre, “soil”) is understood as the unique set of geographical, climatic and other complementary environmental characteristics (location, grape varieties, soil type, etc.) of a certain vineyard area. This set of site specific or “regional” characteristics influences the grapes and the resulting wine giving it an identifiable character. Loosely, it’s the reason why the same grape variety, when grown in different sites, produces a distinctively different wine. The idea is at the very heart of Europe’s DO/AOC system, which provides a framework for the wine industry in the Old World. The term is controversial, with critics arguing that winemaker intervention and vinification techniques are more important in achieving a recognizable taste profile in wine than other factors like soil chemistry. Regardless of the dispute around the source of these specific regional taste characteristics, it is undeniable that quality wine begins with quality grapes. In turn, it’s accepted that these depend on grape growers using adequate viticultural practices -some, deeply rooted in tradition- and making the correct decisions considering certain key factors (climate, elevation, soil, etc.) related to the above concept of terroir.


The wines from Rioja have always been blends. In the old days, plots were rarely planted with a single variety; they were made up of a mix of different red grape vines -sometimes even white varieties as well- which were all used together in the resulting wine. The appearance of Bordeaux négociants in the region during the second half of the 19th century marks the beginning of the modern wine industry in Rioja and the critical transformation from bulk production for local consumption towards quality wine. Undoubtedly, the Riojanos and their regional wine style are influenced by the French yet they interpreted those techniques without compromising their traditional know how. The main French contribution to Rioja winemaking was aging wine in the Bordeaux-shaped 225 liter oak barrels that are still used by the wineries today. These aging periods are the basis of the D.O.Ca’s classification system (Cosechero (Guaranteed as Rioja), Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva) which focuses on process (type of oak, time spent in oak, wood toast levels, age of the barrels, etc.); whereas, elsewhere in the wine producing world, the specific vineyard location, soils and vines will be mentioned on the label.

The reason for this is that despite some of the wineries in Rioja owning vineyards, since the very beginning most of them sourced from a myriad of small producers, aged and blended the wines to come up with a specific and recognizable “bodega style”. Vintage dating wasn’t common until the mid 20th century, so it was general practice for Rioja producers to mix several vintages much in the Champagne “maison style” tradition.

As this map of 1769 proves (MAP), another uniqueness of the D.O.Ca. Rioja is that its three official sub-zones (Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja) are defined by traditional/regional or political boundaries between Spanish provinces (La Rioja, Navarra and Álava) instead of matching soil or microclimate types. This fact has also contributed to producers’ traditionally sourcing grapes from all three sub zones and blending them to add complexity to their wines, making the sub-division somewhat irrelevant for the consumer. This system is thought to favor large companies to the detriment of smaller producers, who are forced to sell their production to the larger wineries in the region. The traditional Rioja regional style consisted of early harvesting, very short macerations and fermentation followed by long aging periods in 225 l. oak barricas (barrels) prior to blending wines from the three sub zones and bottling. Minimal contact between the must and the grape skins was fundamental. Tannic wines with deep color were considered unrefined and were usually rejected.

Rioja Terroir

It was at the end of the 20th century when smaller, newer producers experimented with modern working methods in their search for wines with more fruit and tannins. This led them to a greater understanding of climate and soil; thus, the terruño movement, defined by its “alta expresión” wine style, was born in Rioja. This new philosophy defends a greater understanding of the land and the importance of matching particular grape varieties with certain soils, versus the traditional focus on process. The appearance of more of these “alta expresión” wines during the 1990s, marks the beginning of the current modern Rioja vs. traditional Rioja dichotomy.


Rioja’s blending history might have made the terruño concept a little hazy; nevertheless, it’s not something foreign to the region. Oenonologist and wine-and-vine research specialist Manuel Ruiz Hernández authored a study of Rioja’s soils in the 1990s that included the following widely published soil map, where he divides the D.O.Ca. Rioja in three types of soil: Alluvial, Ferruginous Clay and Calcareous Clay. He noted that Calcareous clay soils –found predominantly in the Rioja Alta and Alavesa sub zones, although not exclusively- were those that “offer more special qualities” to wine due to its low yields. Regarding climate, the most cited researchers are Sánchez-Gabriel and Núñez & Martínez who consider Rioja to have a mix of Atlantic and Continental climates with Mediterranean influences.

Rioja is a fertile land depression in the Ebro river valley, which flows through the region from west to east, enclosed by two mountain ranges (The Sierra de Cantabria to the North and the Sierras of Cameros and La Demanda to the South). These mountains create natural barriers and have a tempering effect both from the cold and rainy fronts from the Bay of Biscay (North/NW) and from the warm and dry winds from the central Spanish plateau and the Mediterranean (South, SE). The western part of the region is more exposed to the humidity from the Atlantic and the temperature regulating effect of the ocean (these are the areas that enjoy more rainfall and where temperatures are mild). As we advance eastwards the average altitude descends, the atmosphere is drier and the temperature contrast wider, showing the characteristics of the Continental climate and the dry winds and rainfall deficit of Mediterranean influence.

These researchers’ studies that explain Rioja’s soil and climate are widely available and make these influential factors easier to classify and understand yet they are also very dangerous for they tend to generalize. Simply put, the rich mosaic of soils and microclimates that is the small territory of the D.O.Ca. Rioja cannot be explained at a glance. Nevertheless, if there’s an area within the region that is considered above the rest –or at least more fashionable- its the calcareous clay soils north of the river Ebro. As Ruiz-Hernandez noted in 1990, these vineyards planted high on the steep and rugged flanks of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains where the low yielding Tempranillo is grown are coveted by producers throughout the region.

Rioja Terroir


Standardization is one of wine’s most dangerous enemies. The idea behind the Denominación de Origen framework works as a safeguard of product authenticity towards the consumer. Legally, a wine labeled D.O.Ca. RIOJA guarantees a certain number of aspects about the wine, among them: varietal composition, grape provenance as well as maximum yields and quality in terms of aging. At the same time, by displaying the name RIOJA in a prominent position on the label, the producer is creating a series of expectations for the consumer, who presumes there’s a typical regional wine style behind the name. Because of the aforementioned blending history in Rioja, its typical regional style responds to traditional Rioja wines: medium bodied, refreshingly acidic barrel aged Tempranillo based blends with a refined taste, restrained alcohol levels and low tannins. These are the wines represented by classic producers like: Faustino, Bodegas Riojanas, La Rioja Alta, Marqués de Riscal, López de Heredia, Bodegas Franco-Españolas, etc.… Can anyone fairly say these wines don’t reflect a recognizable style and sense of place?

Terruño focused winemakers argue that the only indication of place in the existing official regional subdivision is the address of the winery, a fact that creates confusion because the grapes can come from anywhere in the region. They defend that to reflect terruño accurately producers would need to make wines with grapes sourced from individual vineyards or specific villages and cite it on the labels. Other wine regions building a quality-focused position in the market, like Priorat, have readily accepted these village appellations. The governing body in Rioja, the Consejo Regulador, is against this, as it values the name “Rioja” as a brand and considers that their region-wide approach would lose focus by creating a new subdivision based on terroir.


A short drive through the Rioja region and a look at its landscapes is enough to discover that this is an area ideally suited for single vineyard wine production. Among the rolling hills sprout thousands of acres of vineyards broken up into small plots, creating many clearly defined areas planted with vines with different climates, soil compositions, orientations and sun exposure. Tomorrow’s wine market will continue to be stressed characterized by standardization, global oversupply and declining per-capita consumption. If the D.O.Ca. Rioja wants to maintain its position of leadership, it must tackle the growing divide between the large producers, focused on sales volumes and cut-throat prices and the smaller, quality focused producers who want to make the most out of the ideal conditions for grape growing the area boasts. Of course, the solution is not always a matter of size. Rioja has a collection of large producers who have wines with amazingly good quality. It all comes down to re-thinking the region-wide approach to marketing and promotion, a system that is proven to encourage mediocrity and has recurrently run aground on the guarantee of quality because it rewards those that can produce large volumes inexpensively and sell at low prices taking advantage of the region’s prestige, over those dedicated and conscientious producers who want to make better quality wines.

One of the best things in the world of wine is its diversity and the fact that such a wide range of regional styles exist should be celebrated.The natural evolution for the D.O.C. Rioja is to include village-based sub-appelations first (it already allows producers to put village names on the labels) and later officially recognize single vineyard wines. This would help raise the average quality of Rioja wines and assure future market success.


John Perry

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