Rioja: Breaking boundaries

The winemakers of Rioja are doing exceptional things in their attempts at diversification. Hamish Smith reports

"At the end of this project I will probably become a carpenter,” says winemaker Oscar Tobia, sitting before a line of white wines aged under four types of wood – acacia, chestnut, ash and American oak. The experiment has been an involved one, taking two years to get to sample stage. At his Cuzcurrita de Río Tirón winery, Tobia has worked with a cooper to produce 120 barrels using the experimental woods for wine which will be used to create a new blend, Tobia Blanco. Cherry wood had also been part of the plan but in the end this was a step too far into the exotic, even for Tobia.

That this is the work of a rioja winemaker is no longer a surprise. The region may have a tradition for oak-aged, older red wines – still 65% of red output, according to the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja – but diversification and innovation are well established terms in the winemaker’s repertoire. A homogonous identity is perhaps the goal of an emerging region with a reputation to form, but rioja is established and can afford to branch out.

Tobia calls his approach ‘I&D’ – investigation and development. “I like to do things that are a bit different to stand out,” he says. He was the first to produce a barrel-fermented rosé wine and later convinced the DOCa to change its rules to accept it.

For his fruit-forward but barrel-aged reds he uses an Intelligent Tank, which allows gentle but deep extraction in an anaerobic environment. “Oxygen ages the skin and it’s the same with wine. To make young wine you need maximum fruit.” Tobia can’t understand why more producers don’t use the technology in the region but concedes the downfall of his wines is that “they are not for everybody”.

This is much less of a problem than it used to be. Rioja now has scope beyond the traditional and Tobia has found interest for his wines in the Caribbean, Mexico, the UK (through Barwell & Jones), Belgium and Germany – exports make up 80% of his sales.

At the consejo the strategy has diversified in line with production and is far more sophisticated than just promotion of a region. “Rioja has done a great job diversifying from traditional to modern wine,” says Ricardo Aguiriano, marketing director at the consejo. “Rioja can offer on all categories – young wine, modern wines with a hint of oak, reserva and gran reservas, single estate and single varietal. We now have to promote not only the big players but the smaller players too. Our key messages are that rioja wines are value for money, ready to drink and are food friendly.”

Innovation is not only the pursuit of the small. Campo Viejo’s huge operation hides its own laboratory of invention. The Experimental Winery has just released its first tests under the banner Cata Cero – four white wines, two of which are the winery’s first foray into Tempranillo Blanco.

The grape was the result of a mutation of the black Tempranillo back in 1988, which joined the consejo’s list of eligible grape varieties in recent years. The wines were four of 14 experiments in 2013, and will be sold initially from the online and winery store. Each year there will be more experiments, with the hope that some could become the wines of Campo Viejo’s future.

The on-trade is the natural platform for innovative wines. In restaurants especially, consumers are more open to experimentation, whether it be food or wine. Now owned by Sogrape, Bodegas Lan has refocused. “Now we are going for the modern style rather than more classical and focused on the on-trade to show our quality,” says Enrique Abiega, general manager of Lan.


The UK is by far the region’s top foreign market, making up a third of exports. “In the UK you have a more sophisticated consumer. Some are focused on entry-level wine but others are experimenting and looking for new flavours and tastes. Rioja can offer on both categories,” says Aguiriano.

What the UK is drinking a lot of is Campo Viejo Tempranillo. In the year to April 26, 2014, the wine became the UK’s number one red wine sku by value in the off-trade (Nielsen), which is quite incredible for a rioja with an rrp of £9.09. The much-publicised move from crianza to single-variety Tempranillo a few years back was not about reducing aging costs (crianza is required to spend 12 months in barrel), according to Christian Barré, chairman and CEO of Pernod Ricard Winemakers Spain, it was about improving communication with the consumer.

“We realised a few years ago that we had an issue with crianza,” says Barré. “While reserva is understood [in international markets], people had no clue what crianza was – they thought it was a grape variety. It was bringing confusion.” The arm of Pernod Ricard has said it hopes Tempranillo can be to Rioja what Sauvignon Blanc is to New Zealand.

Barré reports that the brand grew 20% in the UK last year, without sacrificing margin, though the wine sells on average closer to £7.00 than £9.00. “The increase in volume did not impact the value of the brand. Some retailers have used Campo Viejo as a loss-leader – but discounting is not good for the brand and playing this game with Campo Viejo is a short-term gain. It impacts the premiumness of the brand. We have tried to prevent it.”

Instead Barré attributes success to Pernod Ricard UK getting across the message that “Campo Viejo is rioja and Spain in a bottle” and the taste profile of the wine. “People are looking for less wood and more fruit. The style is less traditional rioja but it’s still true to what rioja is.”

But traditional styles are still central to rioja’s future. “My personal feeling leans in the shorter term towards oak-aged older wines,” says Oscar Urrutia, export manager at CVNE. In many markets this is still the expectation of rioja. “Germany and Switzerland are more profitable than in the UK because we are trying to focus on the the reservas and gran reservas,” says the consejo’s Aguiriano. “They are more classical markets but are not as open to the modern wines.”

The US, like the UK, is seeing growth across the styles, with reserva wines rising by 48% last year. The US is the key strategic market for the Consejo and receives the largest share of the promotional budget. “The US still is the more interesting market in this respect, because of its potential in the short and medium run,” says Urrutia. “Mexico and other Latin American markets, too. In the long run, Asian markets such as China may also become important for the higher quality Spanish wines.”

Aguiriano has been closely watching the trend. “We think Mexico, China and the US are the future.

“With Mexico we have the language and culture in common. They are traditionally more beer and tequila drinkers but young people are trying to drink wine. In China the wine is mainly for gifting rather than drinking with food. But it’s an important market.”

Also among the long-term prospects for Rioja is Russia – the Consejo put aside €500,000 this year to investigate its potential. “We are making small tests in Russia and Canada to see if there is market demand for a consistent marketing campaign and to see if the importers will support us,” says Aguiriano.

For new markets Rioja’s traditional image will be the starting point of the relationship, even if the picture in Rioja today is rather more pixelated.

By moving away from typicity and convention, it’s conceivable that a region dilutes the very identity that brought it success, but Rioja is in the latter stages of its development and is surely big enough and established enough to be different wines in different glasses.