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The New White Rioja: Progress or Perdition?

As of 2007, the white wines of Rioja will never be the same. For some, this means "there goes the neighborhood!" For others, this means there is such a thing as progress. I personally think it's a little bit of both, but I lean heavily towards the progress end of the argument.

Here's the deal. Up until an announcement this week by the OIPVR (Organización Interprofesional del Vino de Rioja -- the governing body for the Rioja appellation), white wines in Rioja that were able to put the appellation on the label had to be made from Viura (Macabeo), Malvasi­a Riojana, or Garnacha (Grenache) Blanc. Unfortunately there are very few vineyards with these grape varietals left in the region, which essentially means white Rioja, which can be quite stunning when made well, is hardly made at all.

According to the new rules, starting in 2007, white Rioja can now contain up to 49% of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, or Verdelho, or a mix of the three. The other 51% must be comprised of the existing three permitted varietals.

The net result of this ruling is that undeniably there will be white Riojas on the market in 2008 that will taste nothing like white Rioja has ever tasted before.

But is this really such a bad thing? Especially since 95% of the world has never tasted a white Rioja to begin with?

Opponents of this new ruling would say this is akin to allowing Burgundy producers to blend Syrah in with their Pinot Noir and still call it Burgundy. And of course they are essentially correct.

However, this ruling doesn't prevent anyone from making white Rioja just as they always have done, and there will certainly be producers (especially the ones who have highly sought after white Rioja) that will have no incentive to do anything different. When the possibility of using new French oak was introduced to the Brunello di Montalcino appellation, some used it some still don't.

Proponents of the regulation, including many winemakers in the region, suggest that the law will simply help a great wine region make more white wine to meet the local and international demand. There's just not enough white Rioja to go around, frankly, and there are a lot of winegrowers and winemakers who might benefit from being able to make an appellation designated white wine.

I think the "controversy" about this ruling is ultimately an expression of a particular point of view on what wine appellations and their associated regulations are, or should be. There is no easy or 100% correct answer to what appellation designation really means -- it guarantees place of origin, offers a certain guarantee of quality (though not always), and can be a help to the consumer in understanding what they might find in the bottle based on past experience. But at the end of the day, appellations are cultural constructions that are devised to meet the needs of people, and for better or worse, us humans are always changing.

What do you think? Is this a good move or a godawful one?

Read the full story.

Comments (20)

Ryan wrote:
01.19.07 at 9:21 AM

Who cares! Rioja as we mentioned in an article talking about this story is full of bad wine. So much low end wine is made that this discussion just a distraction from doing something that could really help the region, like improving quality overall. Will the wines taste different, sure. Traditionalists won't change their wine making and the new guys will have somthing else to play with. Your right though that most people have never tasted a white rioja, let alone a good one!

A side note though, one of the best whites I have had from the region of Rioja was a 100% Albarino, fermented dry. Not DO Rioja, but very tasty none the less.

Jeff B. wrote:
01.19.07 at 1:55 PM

"So much low end wine is made that this discussion just a distraction from doing something that could really help the region, like improving quality overall."

Are we discussing Califormia or Rioja, here? This speciousness of this argument is, at best, orthoganal to Alder's original point. I do think the regulation change is a horrible idea, which will lead to the few traditional white Rioja producers getting swamped under leagues of shoddy, new-world-ish plonk.



St. Vini wrote:
01.19.07 at 5:23 PM

2005 Placet White Rioja from Viura grapes....fantastic food wine. Wouldn't buy it if it were just a Sauv Blan/Chard blend. Weird for me to say, but I don't like this change.


Jack wrote:
01.19.07 at 10:10 PM

I'm just waiting until they can grow Ribolla Gialla in Burgundy. Hoo-wee!

Okay, perhaps that's not a perfect match, but you get the idea.

Carlos wrote:
01.20.07 at 4:58 AM

Hi, Ryan, it´s impossible that you have tasted white wine 100% albariño from DO Rioja. Albariño is DO Rias Baixas from Galicia (in Spain). The white grapes in DO Rioja are: Viura, malvasía and garnacha blanca.
If you want to taste a good white wine of Rioja: Viña Bosconia, Viña Tondonia.
And DO Rioja is not full of bad wine, if you know really the DO Rioja you can´t say this.
One of the best wines in the world are from DO Rioja.

Ryan wrote:
01.20.07 at 6:44 AM

Carlos - It's not impossible because I have had it, I've also tried chards and sauvignon blancs from the region. They are not DO Rioja, but the wine I had is Albariño and made down the road from Lagroño. Albarino is know to be from Galicia, but Mirea Torres who I spoke with last month even said they are growing it in experimental plots in the Penedes! Viña Bosconia, Viña Tondonia are good wines, so are many others, but their is at the low end a overwhelming amount of bad, mundane wine made in Rioja. El Coto, one of the biggest selling Rioja's is nearly impossible to drink. SO full of brett and lacking any real fruit.
My point is that new grapes are not the issue in Rioja. I too want to preserve the traditions, I see around Spain. In fact I try every chance I get to taste new grapes and I write about them when I can.

David wrote:
01.20.07 at 7:43 AM

This discussion is introduced in Italy every 10 years or so by the big "yellow tail quality" producers in Italy who want to use the institutional value of the DOC or DOCG wines to sell a soda pop wine. Fortunately they are regularly defeated.

I see nothing wrong with the creation of new wines that meet the populous trends but if the US industry wants to be taken seriously and enter the high quality niche markets they need to protect, in some way, the wines that are good.

The question under debate should be why someone would want to use a denomination for a wine that is different from what they are producing. I believe GM would love to be able to call one of its cars a Lamborghini or Ferrari.

01.20.07 at 7:47 AM

Hi, Alder, Ryan and Carlos. Ryan: I'm sure Carlos does'nt know the perfecto konwledge you have of the spanish wine production, and it's sure that in Spain, in all the DOs, they make coupages with kinds of grapes not allowed by the DO: you have only not to mention the grapes in the label!
But focusing on the problem written by Alder: I think it's a mistake to eliminate the specificity of a zone. Burgundy has the best climate and land to deliver the best chardonnay wines, as well as the Rioja has the best malvasía, vuira and so to deliver some of the best white dry Spanish wines: Viña Tondonia and Remelluri, for instance. I guess that the most important thing right now is to keep the pecularities of a zone alive. But, hlas, I'm not a producer, just only a drinker: I'll always buy the chardonnay from Burgundy and the local white grapes in the Rioja, as well as the Godello in Galicia...

Alder wrote:
01.20.07 at 7:51 AM


Actually Ryan said he had an Albariño from Rioja but it was NOT D.O. designated.

Alder wrote:
01.20.07 at 8:00 AM

OK Folks. Let's try these little thought experiments on for size.

What happens if one day the climate changes in Rioja and you can no longer grow Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca? Does that mean that from that day forward no one should be able to make a white wine from Rioja that would carry the DO label?

Or this one:

What happens if through sheer market forces, nearly the growers in Rioja all decide to stop growing these varietals because no one is really buying the wines. Eventually there might only be an acre or two of Viura left. At that point are you seriously suggesting that then there should be no DO white wine from Rioja allowed?

Those of you suggesting that we should not eliminate the "specificity of a zone" speak like the zone has ALWAYS had that specificity. Maybe it has for as long as you and I have been around. Maybe it has for 300 years. But nearly every wine region in the world has changed the type of grapes "traditionally" grown there over time. I don't hear anyone decrying the lack of Malbec in Bordeaux these days, yet that used to be required as one of the major components of those wines.

Times change people. So do people. To force the world to be as it always was is to be the ostrich with one's head in the sand.

Blake Gray wrote:
01.20.07 at 9:44 AM

I love white Rioja. I wish more people would drink more of it. And I wish it were made from the traditional grapes forever.
However, maybe this is the free-market American in me, but still -- who am I, as a drinker/consumer in the United States, to tell a farmer in Spain about what he needs to do to stay in business?
It's not just theory and tradition for people who have their livelihood planted in the fields.

01.20.07 at 11:12 AM

Dear Alder, let's try this other little thought:
I very well know the climate in the Rioja zone and it's extremely clear there that we still have the same ranges of sun, of rains, of hot and cold weather and so long... This said, I guess that the combination between winemakers' expertise, climate, grape varieties, geology makes unbeatetable the chardonnay from, for instance, Burgundy "against" a chardonnay produced in la Rioja. Producers as Marcos Eguren, as Remírez de Ganuza, as those of Viña Tondonia, Remelluri...can say, I guess, that white Riojas can be of good quality and has a great acceptance in the market, without grape varieties coming from other european zones. This commentary IT is absolutely not dominated by patriotic feelings, it is written by one who loves good wine wherever it is produced. If I taste a chardonnay from the Somontano zone, one of the Rioja zone and one of the Burgundy zone, I guess I'll always buy the French one.
All the best,

carlos wrote:
01.20.07 at 3:25 PM

Hi, Ryan
sorry for the confusion. I red DO Rioja.
Certainly, it´s possible to made white wine with albariño in Rioja outside of the DO, but it´s a rarity, no?
I like to know more about the albariño in Penedes when you can write about this will be great!
As you say, El Coto is nearly impossible to drink, I can´t see even the label.
Repeat, sorry for the confusion. I am from Galicia and the comment was rare for me.

Alder wrote:
01.20.07 at 8:05 PM


Current climate is no guarantee of future climate. But that is beside the point. I know there can be very good quality white Riojas with current grapes. The 1988 Viña Tondonia Blanco is one of my favorite white wines of all time. But that doesn't address the problem. The problem is that there are not enough grapes to make much white Rioja. Or, more specifically: there are many more winemakers who would like to make white Rioja than there are grapes to allow them to do it.

Which is why they have lobbied the OIPVR to change the law. Because winegrowers and winemakers want to make a DO white wine from Rioja and many of them cannot.

And yes, like you I might always buy that Chardonnay from Burgundy, but like Blake above I'm not going to tell the winemaker in Rioja that he is not allowed to make a better living by making a wine that has some Chardonnay in it, and I'm certainly not going to tell any other wine lover that they're not allowed to experience or enjoy a DO Rioja Bianco made with other grapes.

01.21.07 at 12:51 AM

Yes, Alder, you are right. And if we add the commercial reasons to move from Malvasia to Chardonnay, I have absolutely nothing to say against that, I mean if a winemaker from La Rioja states that his / her bottles from garnacha blanca or malvasia have no positive commercial echoes, it's sure he / she will move to other grape varieties. The problem is another one, Alder: too much ancient vineyards with "oldfashioned" white local varieties have been destroyed in the past 20 years! And now people realizes that theres a market for the white Rioja!!!

SobreVino wrote:
01.21.07 at 12:59 AM

My point on this thread:

From the market point of view, if chardonnay is to be grown in Rioja, it will have to be sold at the price range the market will allow it to. There are GREAT chardonnay wines in Burgundy for about 25$ (not the ridiculous chardonnay wannabe we are making in Spain and most of the rest of the world). So Rioja will have to enter the market at prices let say under 15$. And there are millions of producers out there at this price range.

Climate is another important issue. I still haven't found a spanish chardonnay that remotely ressembles what this grape gives in regions like burgundy. That said, if a good chardonnay has any chance to be produced in Spain, maybe it is in Rioja (I always tend to think of red Rioja as the spanish wine that ressembles the most the Burgundian character).

On the other hand, chardonnay will only be 49% (at most) of the blend, the rest being the local grapes. Let's see what this gives...

Finally: let the producers make the choice! We tend to strongly think that the wine market is becoming global (which is true) and that this is killing diversity. But at the same time, I see masses of people looking for "that thing different", that unique grape variety or very specific blend or wine making. White Tondonia, for instance, might be a minority wine, but I see that it's a very engaged and passionate minority. This, from the producer point of view is a gold mine.

Sorry for the long comment if you reached this point.



Anonymous wrote:
01.22.07 at 12:43 PM

I think the new rules are great. Those who don't want to make wine using the new criteria don't have to. So, in effect, now there wil be 2 new styles of white Rioja. This probably also means more white wine produced in the region. So, what is wrong with that? Typicity and terroir will still exist but side by side with different wines. Besides, maybe someday the new wines will be better than the old ones. Now, if Spain would just change the regulations on aging whites so that we aren't stuck with old oxidized wine from some regions than that would be great.
Alder, do you really think that producers in Burgundy don't mix in Syrah with their Pinots?(not legally of course)
Carlos Serafim

Dan G Erken wrote:
01.22.07 at 9:19 PM

Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide, Sixth Edition (a little dated, I know) states that "most of the [Spanish] whites are still atrociously boring...the only wines with serious merit are the red wines and a handful of the Albarinos." If the powers that be want to change the rules of production in their little realm of influence, then the marketplace will give them an answer soon enough as to whether or not theirs is a worthwhile change. My power lies in casting my vote in the marketplace by buying and drinking the wine I want. Hopefully, the end result will be Spanish whites I buy, drink and enjoy, like the plethora of great and modestly priced New Zealand suvignon blancs currently available to me. Wonderful!!! Speaking of wonderful, and parrying the subject matter related to Rioja white, I did want to mention a delicious Spanish red I recently tasted: Aalto Ribera del Duero 2003---finally! a wine with a beautiful nose: roses, hibiscus and cherry blossoms--10 out of 10 for the dreamy nose; and flavors of dark red fruit, sweet earth, cardamom, allspice and star anise...I'd score it a 9 to 9.5. Unfortunately, its price runs around $49.99.

Greg wrote:
01.23.07 at 7:04 AM

The Rioja DO was established in 1926 so notwithstanding the fact that wine has been made in the Rioja area for at least 2000 years, the rules and regulations are not things that has been handed down and cherished for millenia. Essentially, the “tradition” is maybe 2 generations old? Moreover, if I’m not mistaken, viura is the most widely planted white grape in Rioja by far even though some producers have been using sauvignon blanc for a while. It’s not like there are going to be hectares of sauvignon blanc appearing next year even if people wanted to replace all of the viura.

Essentially, this provides competition to the current producers. Those people interested in planting sauvignon blanc will do so and they are unlikely to make that effort only to produce mediocre wines. It raises the stakes for the “traditional” producers, who will have to improve their game.

Finally, not all traditions are worth keeping. Do we need more chardonnay or sauvignon blanc? Not necessarily, but who am I to tell a producer that he cannot produce it if he wishes to? And to tell him that he MUST only produce the wine his father produced, for no other reason than because his father produced it? Remember, that historically, Spain was isolated from the world for a good part of the 1900s. Rioja has awakened from a sleepy period that lasted from the establishment of the DO through the 70s. In fact, all of Spain has. Today they are producing some of the world’s great wines – precisely because they have thrown off the “traditions” that kept so many areas in mediocrity.

Steve wrote:
02.08.07 at 11:36 PM

I've come to this thread a bit late, but have read the original post on the DOC Rioja website. As I see it, this is a sort of halfway measure that allows for "international" new varieties, but prevents wineries for taking full advantage of them. Growers can plant the newly authorized white grapes, but only to replace existing vines. But, more importantly from a marketing point of view, wineries will be prevented from making whites that have a majority of these grapes and cannot put the varieties prominently on the label. So they are free to make the investment to rip up vines and re-plant with Chardonnay, but can't then produce a wine made with a majority of Chardonnay and can't even tell the consumer about it on the front label. On the more coherent side, "native" white grapes, such as Torrontes (more famously used in Argentinian whites), will not have any of these restrictions. So, rather than seeing a Rioja Chard, will be seeing a Rioja Torrontes. I spoke with one small producer last year who has one in production and will be release it soon!

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