by Tim Atkin

Rioja On The Rocks

It should have been a moment of celebration, a chance to hymn the qualities of a special place. José Luiz Pérez-Linares’ documentary, Rioja: La Tierra de Mil Vinos, will be premiered at the Valladolid film festival later this month. No doubt the movie will talk about Rioja’s diversity, about the thousand wines of its title, but it will also prompt deeper questions about the way Spain’s marquee wine region is run – and its future viability.

Rioja is experiencing the most serious crisis in its history. Some of its problems have been building for years, the result of bad decisions by the region’s executive; others have been beyond its control (COVID, the economic downturn, Brexit). But not even its greatest supporter could argue that Rioja is in a good place right now.

Earlier this summer, the regional governments of La Rioja and the Basque Country committed to funding the distillation of 30 million litres of surplus wine to try to balance supply and demand. A further 150 million litres are sitting in cellars, which is way more than the market wants to buy. Against the backdrop of a large and extremely difficult 2023 harvest, affected by heatwaves and unseasonable rains, Rioja’s grape prices remain unsustainably low at between €0.5 and €1.2 per kilo. Indeed, many growers have no home for their grapes this year, their contracts torn up or ignored. The crisis is social as well as economic. Two large bodegas are in administration, at least one major co-operative is on the verge of bankruptcy and Campo Viejo, the region’s largest winery, is allegedly up for sale.

If that weren’t bad enough, Rioja is also engaged in an internecine power struggle, variously described as a civil war or a revolution. On the 6th of September, the Asociación de Bodegas Familiares de Rioja walked away from the decision making body of the region’s Regulatory Council, accusing its dominant force, the Grupo Rioja, and its allies of pursuing a business model based on quantity rather than quality. Bodegas Familiares represents 216 of the region’s 430 active bodegas. If ABRA, the Asociación de Bodegas de Rioja Alavesa, and its 100 or so members also decides to abandon the Consejo after the 2023 harvest is completed, it’s hard to see how the region can continue to function with credibility.

Rioja’s fundamental problem is that it makes too much wine. Its area under vine has grown from 38,817 hectares in 1985 to its current 66,798 hectares – an increase of 72% in less than 40 years. Many of these additional hectares have been planted in the wrong places, with the wrong grapes, or rather grape, as Tempranillo now accounts for 88% of Rioja’s plantings. The resulting retail prices – Top Cash in Logroño sells a wine called Campo Aldea at €1.69, a Crianza at €2.29 and a Reserva at €3.95 – have depressed grape prices further.

The saddest thing about all this is that the cheap, volume-driven market is only one part of the region’s production. At the top end, Rioja is making the most exciting and diverse group of wines in its history, reds and whites with a unique sense of place that deserve to be compared with the best in the world. For now, these wines remain under-priced, or under-valued. Most Rioja consumers, especially in the UK, have no idea how the region has developed for the better in the last 20 years. Our preference for cheap, sweetly oaked, easy-to-drink wines largely ignores the best stuff. This mess is partly our mess.

It’s hard to predict how the current crisis will end. But it may have to get even worse before it does. The 2023 vintage, like 2013 and 2003 before it, will not be easy to sell. This murky cloud may have a silver lining, however. Just as Juan Carlos López de Lacalle of Artadi’s decision to leave Rioja’s Designation of Origin (DOCa) in 2015 prompted change in the region, with the introduction of village wines and Viñedos Singulares, so the stand taken by the Bodegas Familiares, those unsold grapes and the recourse to emergency distillation may force the region to rethink its image and objectives.

This will painful. Following the lead of Bordeaux, Rioja probably needs to uproot 10,000 hectares of vines, preferably those that deliver poor quality grapes. It also needs to give all its stakeholders – not just its big volume players – a meaningful say in their own future. But change it must. In 2025, Rioja will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its DOCa. Let’s hope it’s resolved at least some of its problems by then.

Originally published in Harpers

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