The fruit of a Rioja rebellion, ‘singular vineyard’ designation now permitted on wine labels
Following calls from prominent winemakers such as Artadi’s Juan Carlos López de Lacalle for labels to focus on geography, the Spanish wine region has introduced an overhaul – but it doesn’t go far enough for some
When Juan Carlos López de Lacalle publicly signals his disapproval, people listen. This is the man behind Artadi wines, one of the most sought-after and acclaimed bottles in the Spanish wine region of Rioja.
So when he quit the regulatory council of DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) Rioja in early 2016, it caused something of an earthquake.
His reasoning, however, was no surprise to anyone who had followed his career. Ever since founding Artadi in 1985, López de Lacalle has focused on producing wines bottled according to terroir- and site-specific character in a region that only allowed one geographical designation on its labels – that of Rioja itself.
His wines, from Viña El Pisón to Valdeginés, are reflections of specific pieces of land, and Artadi displayed the information on the label even though this was against the rules.
What he was objecting to was the fact that, instead of geography, Rioja bottles its wines according to length of ageing: “joven” for young wine with low or no oak, “crianza” for one year in oak and one year in bottle, “reserva” for one year in oak and two years in bottle, and “gran reserva” for two in oak and three in bottle.
Artadi was far from the only critical voice, but surely it is no coincidence that now, almost 18 months later, Rioja has introduced a “viñedos singulares” (singular vineyard) designation.
To use the label, producers will have to justify the “natural delimitation of the vineyard” with soil studies; must entirely hand harvest the grapes; have vines older than 35 years; ensure yields are at least 20 per cent lower than the usual DOCa level; and have full traceability in place with wines vinified and aged separately. An official tasting committee will oversee the process. Each single vineyard will have to be registered as a brand for use on a label.
The new designation will exist alongside the current system of joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva. Wines that qualify in these categories will now be able to say, for example, “crianza from a single vineyard”.
The choice of designating them “viñedos singulares” – “singular” rather than “single” vineyard – can probably best be explained by the fact that there are something like 10,000 single vineyards in Rioja, so its ensures that this designation only goes to the best quality ones that adhere to the rules.
It’s still not perfect. For a start, Rioja has been enormously successful under the existing system. The region sold 386 million bottles in 2016 across 100 countries, while sales value increased 9 per cent in the last two years. It is responsible for more than 30 per cent of Spain’s entire DO/DOCa exports. So you can understand that the powers that be might be unwilling to rock the boat.
They have not gone far enough for some winemakers. A wine’s village location is still not allowed on the label, and some complain that this reform might derail a more far-reaching overhaul promoted by winemakers such as Telmo Rodriguez at Remelluri (and, in fact, López de Lacalle) to have the full “regional-village-individual sites” pyramid system enjoyed by places such as Burgundy.
But perhaps that misses the point. Within two years – allowing time for registrations to take place and for vineyard inspections and tastings to be carried out – we should start to see single vineyard bottles appear on the shelves.
“This is one of the most important developments ever introduced in Rioja,” says Juan Carlos Sancha, another highly respected winemaker who has been lobbying for the change. “Finally we have a link between quality of the wine and the vineyard that it has come from.”
Artadi Valdeginés Rioja Alavesa 2013
López de Lacalle’s Valdeginés vines are grown in a small valley called San Ginés. Until 2009 they were blended into his Pagos Viejos wine, but are now bottled separately. Chocolate and black cherry gives this wine a rich and polished feel, laced with graphite and floral aromatics.