Rioja leaves bad taste in the mouth for Basque winemakers

A group of winemakers from northern Spain are seeking EU approval for their products not to be labelled Rioja, the country’s most famous denomination.

The Rioja denomination embraces three regions: La Rioja, part of Navarra and the Basque province of Álava. More than 50 Rioja Alavesa winemakers now want to break away and have created their own denomination, the somewhat unwieldy Arabako Mahastiak/Viñedos de Álava.

The move has won the approval of the ruling Basque Nationalist party and the government in Madrid, which depends on the Basques for its parliamentary majority. The denomination now goes to the European Union for approval.

Identity politics play a part. The Basque government likes the idea of a Basque denomination, while local winemakers say that cave paintings show they have been making wine in Álava for millennia and that their wines and the way they make them is distinct from their neighbours.

Ultimately, though, it’s about quality versus quantity. Rioja’s 473 wineries produce 3.1m hectolitres (310m litres) and, inevitably, not all of it lives up to its name.

The Rioja Alavesa producers want to distinguish themselves on the grounds of quality, even if it means forsaking the internationally recognised Rioja brand name.

“Spain is Europe’s biggest wine exporter by volume but only the third in income, whereas France is only the third largest but its exports earn four times as much as Spain,” said Javier Ruiz de Galarreta, the president of a major group of exporters of Rioja Alavesa.

Supporters of the breakaway point to research that shows a trend towards consumers wanting to drink smaller amounts of higher-quality wine.

What they want is something similar to the French system, where there is a regional appellation contrôlée such as Bordeaux or Bourgogne but within it numerous smaller ones such as Médoc or Meursault. There are also further quality indicators such as premiers or grands crus.

Rioja also has its ratings of crianzareserva and gran reserva but these are unreliable guides to quality and simply indicate the age of the wine.

“Quality is the key, not the time it’s spent in the bottle,” said Benjamín Romeo of Bodegas Contador in Rioja.


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