THE latest figures show that Spain was the biggest exporter of wine last year, followed by Italy, with France in third place. In terms of value of these sales, however, Spain came in only a distant third place. The average export price per litre of French wine was €6; of Italian wine €2.78; and Spain €1.25. The main reason for this differential is that more than half its sales come in the form of bulk wine.
Nevertheless, one region in Spain has managed to maintain its quality image: Rioja. Historically, Rioja has been a branded wine, setting little value on individual vineyards, grapes, or regions. Indeed, 40 or so years ago, a bodega had to be of a certain size before it was permitted to export its wine. Over the past few years, efforts have been made to individualise the wines and make them more appealing to the consumer.
In 2007, the grape varieties permitted for the production of Rioja were increased. This was particularly aimed at raising the popularity of the white wines. Indeed, several Rioja bodegas began to produce white wines from Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo grapes in Rueda. Now, these and Chardonnay are permitted in Rioja, and may even be sold as single varietal wines.
Another new move is the new classifications of vino de zona, vino de municipio, and vinedo singular. That is to say, a Rioja may now be labelled as coming from one of the three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Oriental (the new name for Rioja Baja, as coming from a single village or even, now, a single vineyard). These alterations to the law will welcomed by the smaller producer, whom they will help to personalise his wines.
There have also been changes in the ageing requirements. While the minimum age before release for reservas and gran servas remains unchanged, at three and five years respectively, there is now more flexibility over the length of time that the wines might spend in cask before being bottled. Until now, gran reserva was theoretically the most prestigious level; yet some producers considered “time in bottle” to be more important than “time in cask”. Thus the Culmen, of Bodegas Lan, and the Gaudium, of Marqués de Cáceres, are premium wines, though classified only as reservas.
One final change: in the past, the few producers in the Rioja region who made botte-fermented sparkling wine had to label it as cava; now, they will have the wordy alternative of Vino Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja.
What will all these changes mean for the British Rioja-lover? Not much, I feel; for most wines that we will drink will continue to come from the main bodegas. Here are some that I can recommend: Marqués del Romeral Reserva 2011 (Marks & Spencer, £14); La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva 2007 (Majestic, £25.99/mix 6 £22.99); Cune Barrel Fermented white 2016 (Waitrose, £10.99); Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva 2005 (Waitrose, £22.29); and, finally, for the party-giver, Marqués de Riscal Reserva 2012 in magnums (Majestic, £34.99/£29.99 mix 6). As far as the current Rioja is concerned, plus ça change.