Rioja’s Civil War

Barnaby Eales·Friday, 15-Sep-2023. Source: Winesearcher

Spanish producers make a united stand in the fight against ‘industrial’ Rioja.


Many Rioja producers feel quality is being sacrificed for quantity.
© Shutterstock | Many Rioja producers feel quality is being sacrificed for quantity. 

A new political storm has hit Rioja, once again raising questions over the governance and strategy of Spain’s star wine region.

Bodegas Familiares de Rioja (BFR), an association representing 216 producers – that’s more than half of Rioja’s accredited wine producers – abandoned Rioja’s wine board and its sectorial committee, the OIPVR, last Wednesday sending shockwaves into Rioja’s corridors of power. More producers are likely to adopt the same course of action in the coming months.

BFR’s move triggered a wave of indignation from rival associations and Rioja‘s governors, who argue that consensus over reform takes time and even more than two years. But BFR is standing firm.

« We’re not going back to the managing bodies of the wine board unless the board has firm reform proposals. We hope our decision will prompt the Consejo Regulador (Rioja’s wine board) to get its act together, » BFR’s Vice-Chairman, Juan Carlos Sancha, told Wine-Searcher.

« Two years ago, we publicly announced plans to leave the board in 2023. In June this year, the Rioja wine board announced a set of reform intentions, but not firm proposals, so we proceeded with our decision, » Sancha explained, adding producers had unanimously agreed to the decision in two rounds of votes.

In the 2021 elections to the OIPVR of Rioja’s wine board, BFR increased representation to more than 50 percent of producers.

BFR’s move has raised doubts over whether Rioja’s wine board can continue to operate coherently with less than half of its accredited producers onboard, even if they produce a small percentage of Rioja’s wine, compared to that of the big wine companies represented by the powerful Grupo Rioja.

In early 2021, the wine regulatory board of Spain‘s Valdepeñas appellation in Castilla La Mancha was disbanded after the production sector formed of growers and cooperatives abandoned the managing body of the board albeit for different reasons: in this case, allegations of mass labeling fraud had emerged against big volume producers, including Felix Solis – a legal case has been remitted to Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional in Madrid. Management of the appellation is currently run by the regional council of Castilla La Mancha.

In the case of Rioja, its wine board could soon face further dissent. Wine-Searcher can reveal that ABRA, the Basque Association of Rioja Alava producers will table a move to abandon the Rioja board this autumn.

« A motion to leave the wine board will be on the agenda of the ABRA’s next assembly, » Itxaso Compañon Arrieta, ABRA’s Chairwoman exclusively told Wine-Searcher on Friday.

« A majority of members would need to back the motion, » she said.

ABRA and BFR, who largely share the same grievances against Rioja’s wine board over the excessive production of high volume relatively low-cost wines are formed of small and medium-sized producers who want to ensure economic and environmental sustainability through the production of quality artisanal wines.

Despite BFR’s move to leave the Rioja wine board, its producers will continue to produce and label wines as Rioja wines.

Reflecting the general growing sense of unhappiness – exacerbated by grape prices which in some cases have fallen below costs of production – several well-regarded producers of terroir-driven wines have hinted they may leave the appellation.

Wine critic James Suckling published on his website on that September 7, that renowned fine wine producer Telmo Rodriguez was planning to « ditch the Rioja appellation. »

Suckling had quoted Rodriquez who said:

« The current system doesn’t make sense. I am not interested in a world that is not interested in terroir. »

However, Rodriquez told Wine-Searcher on Tuesday that there had been a misunderstanding with Suckling, and that he was not about to leave the appellation.

« I am not going to leave Rioja, I am sure will do interesting things, but it’s true that we’re in a difficult moment with much uncertainty, » Rodriguez told Wine-Searcher.

Rodriquez said that the production of large volumes of Rioja classified as Crianza, Rioja, and Reserva does not correspond to a prestigious appellation.

Small producers say big companies are preventing the establishment of a hierarchical system in Rioja based on terroir and quality parameters and have no desire, for instance, for a study showing the mapping of the appellation’s soils to be made public, as it could undermine their businesses.

In 2000, Professor Vincente Sote´s of the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid was commissioned to conduct a study into Rioja’s soils, but Rioja’s wine board has never made the study public.

« It’s hidden away in a locked draw, the wine board should make it public, » said Oxer Bastegieta, a highly regarded producer of terroir-driven wines in Rioja Alavesa. « The study on the mapping of soils could provide one of the solutions to the appellation’s woes. » he said.

Bastegieta is part of the new generation of Rioja producers who have successfully developed their own brand of quality artisanal wines. « I don’t need the appellation as I have worked hard to develop my own brand. But I don’t have time to leave Rioja. I am working in the vineyards and winery, but out of my window, I see a complicated situation in Rioja has unfolded, » he said.

Rioja producers are taking charge in a bid to ensure quality remains the priority.
© Shutterstock | Rioja producers are taking charge in a bid to ensure quality remains the priority. 

Moving past mass production

BFR’s Sancha, a veteran Rioja producer, agronomist, university professor and defender of old bush vine viticulture and diverse grape varieties, has spent much of 25 years on Rioja’s wine board calling for the implementation of democratic changes to governance. He reckons decision-making reforms would help reorientate Rioja’s strategy away from the surplus production of relatively low-priced wines.

« Most of Rioja’s development had ended up in standardized viticulture: Old vines have been grubbed up and replaced with vertical shoot positioning viticulture and much more productive clones, which in many cases, have been planted in areas, where they shouldn’t have, » he said.

Sancha says Rioja’s problems of excessive production started well before the impact of Covid, inflation, the invasion of Ukraine and Brexit.

« Rioja since 2017, has been producing more wine than it can sell, with vineyards expanding by almost 28,000 hectares since 1985, and this has led for the first time this year in the distillation of wines, and even so, Rioja still has 150 million liters of surplus stocks, » Sancha said.

Rioja’s wine board, the Consejo Regulador did not comment on the surplus stocks figure.

Making way more wine that it sells is Rioja’s fundamental problem according to wine critic Tim Atkin MW, who said in his 2023 Rioja Report that « Rioja was facing its biggest crisis since the 1980s. »

In order to bring about democratic and strategic reform Sancha has called small and medium-sized producers to have bigger representation on the Rioja wine board’s sectorial inter-professional committee, the OIPVR.

« Although we represent more than half of the producers, we only have 8 percent of the 100 votes allocated to the producers’ board, which is democratically absurd, » he pointed out.

The OIPVR’s voting system is based on wine volumes and grapes produced and sold, rather than their quality or value.

The allocation of votes includes a coefficient (points system) for each bottle of Rioja sold, which gives generic (Generico) labeled wines much lower scores than wines classified as Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, even though many generic wines are sold at higher prices.

« Each winery with a bottling register has votes allocated according to the number of back labels it has requested from Rioja’s wine board, » Sancha said.

« For example, I sell my Cerro La Isa wine at €25 ($26.7 USD) to my distributors and at €45 ($49.2 USD) retail, but as it has a generic back label, even though it is certified as a Single Vineyard, it is worth only €2.40 ($2.56 USD) a bottle in terms of votes, as this price is the average price of all the bottles sold with the generic seal. However, a Reserva sold for €3 ($3.2 USD) in a supermarket is worth €4.85 ($5.9 USD) in votes, » he said.

Sancha wants representation based on actual turnover instead of inaccurate figures which benefits the sales of big industrial producers. Meanwhile, Sancha and the BFR may have to wait until the Rioja OIPVR board elections of 2025 for reform to be implemented if it comes about at all.

Rioja’s conservative wine board and ‘industrial’ producers have all too often shown their reluctance over reforms. New recent rules over the creation of village and single vineyard wines have been widely criticized for containing muddled and impractical aspects.

Producers who thought Rioja’s Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva traditional categories – in which wines are classified according to their age rather than according to quality parameters – would be excluded from new wine classifications say they’ve been let down.

BFR meanwhile says it wants another Rioja to exist.

One alternative for producers in the Rioja Alavesa sub-region is the Viñedos of Alava (Vineyards of Alava) appellation whose rules do not include Rioja’s Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva classifications.

Compared with Rioja’s production rules, the Vineyard of Alava’s Cahier des charges includes stricter limitations on yields, vineyard density and maximum use of sulphur in production.

Wines from this appellation would have to be made from grapes grown in Rioja Alavesa.

Rioja Alavesa is part of the Basque Country of Spain, which has tax raising and legislative powers, but its wine laws are determined by the Rioja wine board.

Rioja Alavesa is known for its old bush vine viticulture, traditional pruning techniques, and smaller-sized but sought-after vineyards.

ABRA has hoped that the Vineyards of Alava appellation, which was temporarily approved last October, would help sustain an alternative business model to the production volumes of large industrial estates which often sell Rioja wines including Reserva wines as low as and under €4 in Spain.

But in April 2023, the High Court of the Basque Country in Bilbao, temporarily suspended the authorization of the sales of Vineyards of Alava wines after the Rioja wine board lodged a lawsuit in which it claimed that the appellation and its wine « would cause reputational and economic damage to the Rioja appellation and confuse consumers. »

Vineyards of Alava and its own regulatory council have since launched a legal appeal against the ruling.

Highlighting its heavy-handed legal approach against ABRA Rioja’s wine board, authorized last November, are controversial new exclusivity rules which, among other matters, restrict Basque growers from selling grapes.

With Rioja producers either leaving the governance of Rioja or poised to leave the appellation entirely, the Rioja wine boards’, at times, authoritarian approach to dissidents and what the region’s smaller producers describe as half-hearted reform intentions, could well backfire.