LA RIOJA UNDER FIRE!
REVOLUTIONARY FORCES MOUNT
SUSTAINED GUERRILLA ATTACK!
It seems it’s ‘backs to the wall’ time in La Rioja, that bastion of
old-school, tried and tested tradition. Quoting Oscar Wilde who said,
“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who
has read history, is man’s original virtue.
It is through disobedience and rebellion
that progress has been made.”
the forces of rebellion are on the attack and apparently making ground.
Not content with being the primary movers and shakers behind DOCa La Rioja’s, perhaps begrudging, acceptance, a couple of years ago, of three ‘foreign’ white wine grape varieties, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo, the revolutionary guerrillas want more. And, from what I saw at Barcelona’s wonderful wine fair, Alimentaria, a couple of weeks ago, the wine consuming public are solidly behind them!
So what’s it all about? Well a fascinating story unfolded when I sat and chatted to José Miguel Arambarri over some chilled glasses of said ‘guerrilla’ wines. There are those, and I number myself amongst them, who believe that white wine from La Rioja is the rather poorer cousin of the reds for which the area is, for the most part, rightly famous.
I’ve said before, and even quoted Juan Muga of the world-famous Bodegas Muga who said the same thing, Viura, the principle white wine grape variety of the region ‘needs some help’. The rules adopted just over two years ago allow for the above varieties to be included in any Rioja white wine, provided that Viura has over 50% of the share. I understand their reasons for not going any further, they want to protect the integrity and identity of Rioja white. However I feel that, given the revolution, the percentage rule will change – watch this space!
Señor Arambarri and his fellow revolutionaries have decided to create an area, within the geographical limits of the Communidad La Rioja, that is dedicated to making white wines only – it’s the only such area in Spain. It is their belief that the micro-climate, soils and altitude of certain parts of La Rioja, some of which have never before been considered as possible vineyard areas, are in fact ideal for top quality white wine production.
And they’ve put their money where their mouth is! A huge investment, which is on-going, has been made in an area, Valles de Sadacia, described as a region of ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ – seemingly similar to Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT). This area makes only white wines.
It was all started it seems by Bodegas Castillo de Maetierra who re-discovered and essentially brought back to life an ancient variety, Muscat à Petits Grains, which had died out in La Rioja 100 years ago when Philoxera hit the area (that nasty vine pest that decimated the vineyards of Europe at that time). The results of their first wines were more than encouraging and thus the Libalis range was created. The one I tasted was off-dry with a slight residual sugar content making it sweeter than dry, but not sweet – lovely.
This success gave them the confidence to experiment, whilst their sales gave them the impetus and the wherewithal. They wanted to see which of the world-famous white wine varieties would adapt best to the Rioja conditions. So far they have settled on 8 varieties: Chardonnay (in both oaked and unoaked styles), Riesling, Viognier (which is slightly oaked), Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, Albariño and Muscat à Petit Grains. I think we can expect more and it wouldn’t surprise me if we eventually see some blending too.
So how have the establishment responded – the dyed in the wool traditionalists? Well with some, I’m told there has been hostility, some have shown indifference and a small proportion have, thus far at least, shown some measure of support. Some are, in my opinion mounting an offensive.
Whilst at Alimentaria I attended a tasting given by Señor Peñin (more on this in a later article), the famed founder of the Peñin Guide, Spain’s best wine guide and mentioned often in this column. I was fascinated to meet him and also to learn from him. I was also interested in his subject – the white wines of Rioja Alavesa. It seems to me that the status quo in Rioja have decided that they need to bring up some big guns to defend their traditional white wines.
This suggests to my investigative journalist’s nose that there is some concern in the corridors of Riojan power! The more so, I’m sure, when they will have witnessed that at the same time that Señor Peñin was giving his informative talk to perhaps 16 people, there was, I’m told, a huge crowd at the tasting of the Guerrilla Wines, given by the winemaker. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the timing was a deliberate tactic!
The label designs certainly are a deliberate tactic. The designers, the Mongarro brothers of the Brosmind Studio, had already established a name for humour and fantasy and their cartoon characters, a different one for each variety with various revolutionary style uniforms and weapons, have won several awards.
My own view, and this is really my only criticism of the whole project, is that whilst these designs may work well initially, the ideology is in fact now a little passé. For example the weird and wonderful names and labels from California and Australia, which turned people’s heads and contributed massively to sales are now perhaps a little too Nineties!
Flippancy is fine, at first, and the labels will certainly promote sales. But I think that if the wines are to be considered serious in the future, this style will need to be changed, perhaps retaining the cartoon character, but on the back label, with a more grown-up motif on the front.
Well it’s all very well making such a publicity splash (and of course this article is part of the fuss) but it comes to nothing if the wines aren’t up to scratch. No point in fighting for a lost cause.
Well they needn’t worry on that score, in my view – all the Guerrilla wines I tasted were clean, fresh and characterful. Whilst there were traces of the varietal characteristics that you would expect there were also other nuances, often with herby notes. The vines are young and as the years go buy and they become more acclimatised and more mature I’m sure these wines will develop, perhaps into a new breed of acclaimed white wines from Spain!