|In 2017, Rioja introduced new ways of labelling wines by vineyard, village and region, with the aim of placing greater value on its diverse terroirs. Although not without controversy, Rioja’s winemakers have used the new rules to produce interesting wines, says Anna Harris-Noble
Rioja’s traditional categories of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva are based the number of years each type of wine must spend in barrel and bottle – but for many that favour a more Burgundian approach to terroir, the fact that village names and sub-regions were not allowed to be mentioned on a Rioja label was a major failing. Five years ago, after much soul-searching, Rioja introduced a series of new categories: Vino de Zona (sub-regional wines, either Rioja Alavesa, Alta or Oriental), and Vino de Municipio (village wines).
These certify that a minimum of 85% of the grapes must come from the named location and the wine must be made in the same place. At the top of the pyramid are Vinos de Viñedo Singular – single vineyard wines. Dominio de Queirón was the first bodega to use the new Vino de Municipio designation in the village of Quel, Rioja Oriental. ‘Certain villages, such as Quel, Arnedo or Cordoví, have been associated with great wines since time immemorial. But until recently, the legislation didn’t allow us to express this philosophy on the label. It was illegal,’ spokesman Pablo García-Mancha said. He welcomes the new legislation, believing that a village wine reflects more than just vines: ‘It represents a tradition, a local economy. It is a way of ensuring that the profits of each wine go to the village where it was made.’ At Bodegas Bideona in Rioja Alavesa, all wines are labelled Vino de Zona (142 wineries use this classification to date) ‘because our 300 parcels are all in Rioja Alavesa and Bideona’s reason for existence is to make wines that show the personality of this subzone,’ said the winery’s Andreas Kubach MW.
Kubach pointed out one of the anomalies in the rules – that wines can only be labelled Vino de Municipio if the village is home to the winery as well as the vineyard the grapes come from. ‘Despite making wines that display the character of the great villages of the Sonsierra,’ he said, wines sourced from vineyards just one kilometre from the winery could not feature village names. Bodegas Bhilar, also located in Rioja Alavesa, is one of the 54 wineries that have launched village wines (Vinos de Municipio) so far. ‘It certifies that 95% of our vineyards are located in our village of Elvillar, which is important to us. We have a special microclimate here. You can feel it in the wines,’ says US-born Melanie Hickman, one half of the husband and wife team behind this organic winery. Crucially, the new village and regional designations can exist alongside the traditional categories of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva – allowing such wines as Cosme Palacio’s Vino de Laguardia Crianza (Laguardia is the appellation with most village wines to date).
Bodegas Cosme Palacio’s chief winemaker Almudena Alberca MW explained that the winery, located in the village since 1894, sources grapes for this wine locally due to their special character. Naturally they wanted to highlight this on the label: ‘Laguardia’s wines are defined by the calcareous bedrock of the area and the cooler, wetter weather of the Rioja Alavesa gives a fresher character to the fruit.’ The strictest category, Viñedo Singular (which the Consejo translates as ‘Singular Vineyard, demonstrating that it’s not just a single vineyard but a distinguished one) are wines from plots classified as exceptional, the vines at least 35 years old, harvested by hand, with lower yields than for other categories.
Despite the considerable work required to launch a wine in this category, it has seen the biggest up-take so far. By July 2023, there were 148 Viñedos Singulares recognized across Rioja, owned by 90 different wineries. Of course, separate bottlings of certain vineyards did already exist - Viña Zaco, a vineyard owned by Bodegas Bilbaínas since 1918 – is one example. But it is only now that this wine can be officially designated Viñedo Singular, and many others are only just seeing the light. One of these is Dominio de Queirón’s Viña El Arca. ‘It is incredible to think that has been supplying grapes for wine since the end of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 2017 that it had its own identity. Before then, the grapes just went into blends,’ Pablo-Garcia said.
At his eponymous bodega in Rioja Alta, Juan Carlos Sancha makes his Cerro de la Isa from plots planted by his great-grandfather. The old vines are key, he says. ‘The great advantage of Viñedo Singular is that it differentiates old vines above ageing in oak barrels.’ Sancha is an avid proponent of limiting the excessive use of new oak, ‘I’m a winemaker and I sell fruit, if I were a carpenter, I’d sell wood,’ is one of his catchphrases. The traditional ageing system specifies that only 225l barrels may be used, but under the new rules, to make Viñedo Singular wines winemakers are free to use vessels of any size or material they see fit. Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Zaco 2017 was aged in 1,200l foudres, Tereseño Single Vineyard Garnacha from Sierra de Toloño in amphorae; Ramón Bilbao uses exclusively concrete for its single vineyard Lalomba range.
While the new system is broadly welcomed, not everyone is in favour. Paul Shinnie of the UK’s Alliance Wine – importers of several Rioja wines, including Amaren - has mixed feelings. ‘For less seasoned consumers, I fear we add a level of complexity that they don’t fully comprehend. ‘Is this special Viñedo Singular Rioja a Reserva?’ is the kind of question I get,’ he says. ‘The really positive side of this for me is that it raises a conversation about Rioja based on quality and having vineyard sites – such as Amaren’s Carraquintana and El Cristo de Samaniego - that can be valued in comparison to the best in the world.’ It's also important to note that the new rules don’t mean Rioja has suddenly discovered terroir. Any winemaker will stress that the land has always been a vital part of the equation when making traditional wines in the Reserva and Gran Reserva categories. Careful sourcing and blending are essential to create wines that can withstand long ageing. As CVNE’s co-owner, Maria Urrutia told Club Oenologique: ‘CVNE’s Imperial comes from multiple vineyards, but they are all single entities. Even though you do a blending, you’re always thinking of a single plot.’
Dual Spanish-British national Anna Harris-Noble has been working in wine marketing, translation and education for over 20 years. The Old Vine Conference Regional Ambassador for Spain, she also co-translated the best-selling wine book Wine Folly into Spanish. You can follow her on Instagram @taste_exchange