The battle for Spanish terroir
As a determined band of Spain’s top terroir-focused winemakers continues to win support for its cause, the country’s consejos face a choice: do they resist, or do they adapt?
12th April, 2016 by Lucy Shaw
All fine wine makers will tell you that great wines are made in the vineyard. Rather than put his or her stamp too obviously on the wines, it is the vintner’s job to work with what nature has given them and do their best to create a liquid expression of the land where the grapes were grown. It’s curious then, that one of the world’s oldest and most respected wine-producing nations – Spain – has taken the opposite approach for so long, choosing instead to emphasise the importance of barrel ageing as a quality signifier.
Rioja, Spain’s most famous and profitable wine region, has centred its entire marketing message on oak ageing, building a four-tier structure based on the amount of time the wines spend in barrel and bottle before release, with gran reserva wines reputed to be of the highest quality purely based on the fact that they have been aged for two years in barrel and a further three in bottle.
The system emerged in the late 19th century, when estates in Rioja took the Champagne approach of buying in grapes from small growers across the region from which to make wines in their signature house style, stripping Rioja of its connection to the land and ushering in the barrel ageing system as a quality standard, which was largely copied by other regions in Spain in a bid to emulate Rioja’s success.
Last December, this archaic system was called into question when Alava-based Artadi, one of Rioja’s finest producers, run by Juan Carlos López de Lacalle, took the bold step of leaving the Rioja DOCa due to a dissatisfaction with the organisation and its lack of focus on terroir. Lacalle feels his wines have more in common with those made in Bordeaux and Burgundy than Rioja, due to their sense of place and reflection of origin.
“We face this new chapter with optimism and excitement. We must keep the historical and cultural legacy inherited from our ancestors alive. We cherish this responsibility and vow to preserve this legacy in order to hand over the baton to future generations of vine growers,” Lacalle said in a statement on the Artadi website at the time of the announcement.
The consejo’s wrath
Understandably, the consejo’s reaction was one of disappointment and disbelief. In January it released a statement describing Artadi’s decision to leave the DOCa as “regrettable”.
It added: “It is surprising that, after having built up a name thanks to both its own efforts and also undoubtedly to its belonging to Rioja, the same project should suddenly cease to serve its interests,” the statement said. It also claimed that Artadi’s “veiled criticisms” and denigration of the DOCa “sets the stage for self-seeking voices to highlight purported dissidences that look to fostering potential splits or encouraging others to pronounce demagogic smears”.
Adding salt to the wound, in January over 150 winemakers, merchants and wine writers signed a manifesto in defence of Spanish terroir put together by provocateur and disrupter Telmo Rodriguez, who makes wine both at his family estate Remelluri in Rioja Alavesa and from a number of small plots across Spain.
The manifesto aims to combat the close-minded nature of a lot of the regulations enforced by the governing bodies in Spain’s DOs and highlight the potential of the country’s top terroirs in order to shift the focus towards Spain’s rich winemaking heritage and away from mass-produced wine with no sense of a specific place.
One of the biggest frustrations with the current system is the refusal to allow village and vineyard names on the front label as they do in Burgundy, which is holding back Spain’s terroir-focused producers from highlighting what makes their wines unique.
“The Spanish appellation system has been oblivious to soil differentiation and levels of quality. Efforts have been aimed at turning our vineyards into the world’s biggest, not the best. Deep changes are needed to boost our wine heritage.
“The best way to identify wines based on their origin, quality and authenticity is by a pyramid structure, with wines made anywhere in the region at the base; village wines a step above and single-vineyard wines at the top. We call upon the regulatory boards to be sensitive to the new wine reality that is emerging all over Spain and to approach a classification of the land in terms of quality,” the manifesto said.
|Victor de La Serna|
Among those to have signed it are Lacalle of Artadi, Miguel Angel de Gregorio of Finca Allende, Peter Sisseck of Pingus, Jesús Barquín of Equipo Navazos, and wine writer-turned-winemaker Victor de la Serna. A new generation of terroir-focused winemakers has emerged in Spain, including Raúl Pérez, Veronica Ortega and Daniel Jiménez-Landi, who are hungry for a tier system based on specific sites rather than oak ageing.
“Spain can’t afford to be left behind in a movement that now encompasses the whole wine world, from the Russian River Valley to the Mount Etna hillsides,” says de la Serna, who makes Syrah, Monastrell, Bobal and Garnacha at Finca Sandoval in Manchuela. Rodriguez believes Rioja has become a victim of its own success and that the future of the region lies in its small producers.
“The way the big wineries are working today is unsustainable – you can’t make a quality crianza for €3 – it’s a dangerous route to take,” he says. “We need to revive the idea of the grand cru in Rioja as it boasts some of the best vineyards in the world. We need to be showing the place not the process. There’s too much talk about oak ageing – we’ve lost our sense of place,” he says.
Priorat pioneer Alvaro Palacios agrees and has been working tirelessly with René Barbier of Clos Mogador both to map out the soils in Priorat and allow for the use of village names on his wines.
“Being able to flag up a single vineyard or village on a wine label acts as a guarantee for the consumer. I want my wines to be taken seriously and stand shoulder to shoulder with the best wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, not be cast to the back of people’s cellars,” Palacios says.
De la Serna is also pro the idea of allowing village names on Spanish wine labels and believes it’s down to consumers to gauge the quality from village to village.
“A terroir-based classification system in Spain is a no-brainer,” he says. “The market will decide if Laguardia is better than Alfaro in Rioja, as the market long ago decided that Puligny-Montrachet was better than Saint-Aubin.” He further points out that two centuries ago, vineyards in Jerez were as minutely described and ranked as they are in Burgundy today.
|Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle|
“We do it anyway, and the font size is getting bigger by the year, but we might get into trouble for it one day,” she says. “In France they know the difference between Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf; it’s crazy that we don’t take this approach in Spain.
The old way
“The consejos are still very old-fashioned and dominated by the big wineries. Those who pay more get better representation. But there’s a new breed of terroir-driven producers coming up that are fighting to be recognised.”
One organisation that has been flying the flag for Spanish terroir since the year 2000 is the Grandes Pagos de España (GPE), formed of 29 single-estate wineries that share the common goal of shining a light on the country’s best terroirs and the unique, characterful wines that come out of them. Among the estates in the group are extended-aged Cava producer Gramona, Valdespino in Jerez, the LVMH-owned Numanthia in Toro and Aalto in Ribera del Duero, run by former Vega Sicilia winemaker Mariano García.
All of the estates within Grandes Pagos, the majority of which are family-owned, have an annual production of 50,000 bottles or fewer and none of them buys in grapes. The group receives around eight applications a year from wineries keen submit their wines to a blind tasting panel in order to join. Members benefit from joint marketing initiatives and tasting events.
In a similar way to the new generation of terroir-driven winemakers emerging in South Africa, there’s a community spirit among members of the GPE, with the sharing of technical information and winemaking tips encouraged. Membership costs around €1,500 a year but varies depending on winery size.
But while many within the group would like it to stay small and exclusive, Xavier Gramona of Gramona takes a ‘more the merrier’ approach. “We have enormously good wines in Spain. I hope there are 50 members of Grandes Pagos in the next three years – I don’t want it to be like a private members’ club,” he says.
Gramona is so passionate about bringing the best out of his vineyards, he recently switched to biodynamics at a considerable cost. “The land brings personality to your wines. Terroir gives you the genetics for potential excellence,” he says.
For Manuel Louzada, former winemaker of Numanthia and now at the helm of Arínzano in Navarra – which, in addition to being part of the GPE, is also one of the country’s 15 Vino de Pago estates with its own DO designation – terroir is “the only thing that makes a wine unique”.
Beyond the barrel
“Ageing a wine for a certain time in oak doesn’t make it a better wine, so we need another level of recognition and it has to be related to the land. You can find gran reserva Riojas on the market for under £5, which is confusing for consumers,” he says, adding, “The future of Spanish wine lies in a terroir approach. If you rely on ageing and winemaking you’ve got a problem, otherwise everyone would be able to make a Pétrus or a Cheval Blanc.”
The only way for Spain’s top wines to be considered among the best in the world and start appealing to both collectors and auction houses is for the country to develop a terroir-based tier system to run alongside the barrel ageing system. There is no reason why the two can’t happily sit side by side.
“Spain’s top fine wines aren’t being taken as seriously as they should be in the UK because the country has thus far failed to tell the terroir story,” laments Louzada.
But there are signs that the consejos are starting to sit up and listen to disgruntled growers. Keen to dissuade any other high-profile estates from following Artadi’s lead, the Rioja Consejo Regulador announced earlier this year that it is “considering proposals for differential recognition for unique wines on the basis of their origin, with special attention to vineyards”.
For any kind of terroir-focused classification system to take hold in Spain, Rioja will need to play ball. The ever-hopeful Palacios believes we could see serious changes taking place across the country within the next five years.
“Things will only really change when Rioja takes the first step. I’m sending sound waves from outside the region to try to make it happen,” he quips.
The ground is fertile for change and if there’s ever been a time for Spain to single out and acknowledge its most magnificent terroirs, then that time is now.
Origin information: The Drink Business