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?

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