“We must start talking more about the origin and identity of our wines and vineyards rather than the winery or other elements”, stated Spanish expert and educator Juancho Asenjo as he led the first tasting of “village wines” organized by the Association of Family Wineries (BFR-Provir) to mark the 20th anniversary of the presentation to consumers of their new vintage wines.
This association of Rioja wineries has been particularly outspoken over recent years in their demands to establish small geographical areas within the appellation such as village wines and singular vineyards. It has also been very critical of Rioja’s Regulatory Body for their failure to comply with previous agreements regarding white varieties and their acceptance of single varietal wines made from non-local varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo. Recently they have rebelled against the payment of fees to the Interprofesional del Vino de España, an official association.
Juancho Asenjo started his masterclass with a historical introduction to contextualize the surge of quality wines in Spain beyond Sherry. According to Asenjo, it was a result of a series of factors such as the land confiscations by Madoz, the Finance Minister in 1855, which seized urban land for the first time and transformed cattle lands into vineyards; the arrival of the railway which eased transportation and specially the decline of French wine as a consequence of the oidium and phylloxera plagues which boosted plantings and large scale wine production in Rioja.
Asenjo talked about Médoc Alavés, a failed project to establish a benchmark for quality in Rioja, and recalled how the wines of Marqués de Riscal fetched similar prices as the Grand Crus from Bordeaux and the 1898 Disaster (war defeats and loss of colonies) which deprives Spanish wines of its two leading international markets: Cuba and Philippines.
In contrast with other European countries, “village wines were made in Rioja in the first half of the 19th century, but based on the winery’s location rather than the vineyard’s”, added Asenjo.
His strongest criticism was directed at the denominations of origin, which he labelled “obsolete or dead”. And he added: “The time for reform is over; it is now time for revolution”. In Asenjo’s view, “the tables must turn” and a differentiation between cheap Rioja plonk and fine wines must be established with a system based on quality such as Rioja and Superior Rioja or gold, silver and bronze categories, as proposed by professor Antonio Remesal Villar, with stringent yield and quality requirements.
During his presentation, Juancho Asenjo showed an area map unveiled by winemaker Luis Hidalgo some months ago which includes the Ebro valley and its tributaries and talked about similar classification created by Lo Mejor del Vino de Rioja experts Alberto Gil and Antonio Remesal for a book they are writing about the region. Asenjo also insisted on the importance of climate and altitude beyond the soil.
The tasting included 15 different wines: two whites made entirely from Maturana Blanca and Viura respectively, two single-varietal Graciano and Maturana Tinta reds, and two flights of Garnacha and Tempranillo. The wines were all sourced from the Association’s producers and included a variety of vintages and winemaking styles. Participants knew their origin, but had no information about brands to focus their attention on the wine.
With more elements to compare, the most interesting flights were Garnacha (four samples) and Tempranillo (seven samples), tasted from East to West across the appellation. The main areas where Garnacha is produced were present at the tasting, with altitude playing an important part: Monte Yerga, on the eastern edge of the DO, Tudelilla in Rioja Baja and the Alto Najerilla valley, along with a vertical and shape sample from the far western end of the region. In the case of the Tempranillo wines, the journey was pretty similar but including a couple of wines from the eastern and western parts of the Sonsierra.
For the sake of homogeneity, we would have liked to try primary wines (with less barrel influence or less marked by the style of the producer) and to have had the chance to compare the same vintage but the tasting was undoubtedly an interesting approach to the great diversity of wines in Rioja. If we factor in that many of these styles are relatively recent and the increasing number of producers who want to reflect specific areas of the appellation in their wines, the need to focus on the region’s terroirs seems vital.
Founded in 1991, the Asociación de Bodegas Familiares de Rioja (Association of Family Wineries in Rioja) includes around 40 members, 23 of which were present with their wines at the professional reception that followed the tasting with Juancho Asenjo as well as in a consumer tasting in the evening. Their aim is to defend the interests of small and medium-sized bodegas. “The association’s interests have always been defended, starting with the demand to reduce the number of barrels required for growers to turn their business into aging bodegas. This change led to the development of the DO and opened the door for small wineries to join in”, said Eduardo Hernáiz, from Finca La Emperatriz, who is now BFR-Provir president.
For Hernáiz, the small producers who live in the villages understand and convey the diversity of the region adding value and prestige to the appellation.