Rows of Rioja Corks
Features 12 November 2020

Why isn’t Rioja considered a fine wine?

It’s one of the world’s most rewarding wine regions, capable of profound, ageworthy bottlings. Yet too many people dismiss it as a good-value glugger, argues veteran critic Tim Atkin MW

Words by Guy Woodward

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Tim Atkin MW, one of the UK’s foremost wine writers and a specialist on Rioja, has bemoaned what he perceives as prejudice against the region, which he argues faces a constant battle to establish itself as a fine wine in the public mindset.

In a major article in the next issue of Club Oenologique magazine,  Atkin argues that the region’s success at the “cheap-and-cheerful” level tends to detract from its ability to produce profound, ageworthy wines.  He cites the example of Lidl’s Cepa Lebrel Reserva which – for £5.49 (€6.16) – offers the kind of flavours that have made Rioja Spain’s most popular wine export: “Soft tannins, sweet vanilla oak and summer berry fruit, ready to drink after extended ageing in barrel and bottle, all wrapped up in an appealing package. No wonder it sells.”

Such success, though, is a problem. “Very cheap wines from most of the world’s major wine regions are invariably undrinkable. You’d be taking your life in your hands opening a bottle of Barolo, Bordeaux or red Burgundy at that price. But Rioja is rarely terrible, even when it’s sloshing around in the depths of wine’s bargain basement.”

In the fine wine world, Rioja is marooned in the ‘good value’ category

As a result, in many people’s eyes, Rioja lacks gravitas. “In the fine wine world, it rarely holds centre stage; in the public imagination, it is marooned in the ‘good value’ category.”

This is unfair, argues Atkin. “Judging Rioja by its big-volume wines is like basing your assessment of Burgundy on its Bourgognes rouges and blancs, with no thought given to Musigny, Chambertin, Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne. Would it be still be considered a great wine region? Obviously not.

“Rioja makes some amazing wines. It has long done so. Taste a mature gran reserva from a classic vintage like 1964 or 1970 and you are in the presence of something sublime, something that ages as well as any red wine on the planet. And yet the region as a whole doesn’t benefit from, or even trade on, its top end.”

Bottles of Ygay 1948
"Taste a mature gran reserva from a classic vintage and you are in the presence of something sublime"

Atkin says there are several reasons for this. The volume of wine made in Rioja – 270m litres in an average year – means there’s “an unspoken fear that the mass-market wines won’t sell”. As a consequence, the governing body – the Consejo Regulador – which is controlled by a powerful 55-bodega-strong association that sells 75% of the region’s production, has little interest in disturbing the status quo. “Flogging large quantities of cheap wine at small but profitable margins suits them fine.”

Then there are political issues at play. The majority of the top vineyards are in the Rioja Alavesa subregion, which is part of the Basque Country – and the rivalry between the Basque province of Álava and neighbouring La Rioja has, in recent years, been simmering dangerously, with a very real possibility that some Basque producers will leave the DO and label their wines as Viñedos de Álava. As a result, single vineyard wines aren’t championed as much as they should be, despite the introduction of new and more specialist categories of wine that include Viñedos Singulares (Single Vineyards). “Sadly, with a couple of exceptions – Castillo de Cuzcurrita’s Tilo and Ostatu’s Gloria de Ostatu – the owners of Rioja’s best sites have not applied to join this particular club.”

As to how the region goes about elevating itself to the ranks of the world’s finest wine, Atkin has a radical suggestion. “Rioja should change the restrictive rules about the way its wines are aged in oak, at least if they’re labelled as crianza, reserva or gran reserva. This is why so many of the outstanding producers prefer to sell their wines as genéricos, eschewing a classification that is based on time in bottle and barrel rather than on quality. The old categories don’t mean much any more.”

On the upside, however, Atkin argues that it is not just at the supermarket level that Rioja offers good value. Even higher up the chain, “the best Rioja remains a comparative bargain” when considered alongside fine wines from other hallowed regions.

To read the full article, including Tim Atkin’s top picks of the latest releases, see the winter 2020 issue of Club Oenologique magazine, out on November 18 – see here for details

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