Rioja: Simple success

Rioja has never had it so good, says Adam Lechmere, and its producers plan to keep it that way by upping its image

Spain Equals Rioja – so ran the strapline on the website of a well-known wine importer a couple of years ago. The statement is obviously nonsense – but it accurately reflects the opinion of a considerable chunk of the world’s wine drinkers. 

The bald truth is that, in sales terms, Rioja efficiently eclipses the rest of Spain both domestically and internationally. In the Spanish on-trade, eight out of 10 bottles of wine opened are from Rioja. The wine, whether entry-level Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, is exported to more than 120 countries worldwide.

“Our only competition is Rioja,” says Albert Martinez of Bodegas Muriel. “All the other regions are very small in comparison.”

Rioja is one of the world’s most successful wine brands precisely because its offering is so simple. For the average consumer of any of the 400m bottles Rioja produces annually, the difference between the three sub-regions – Rioja Alavesa, Alta and Baja – let alone the names of the different villages, is irrelevant. 

To all intents and purposes there is one grape that matters – Tempranillo – and three quality levels – Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The classification is based entirely on the length of time the wine spends in barrel and bottle, with Gran Reserva the top tier, the DO specifying the wines must spend at least two years in barrel and three in bottle before release.

While sales of white Rioja are very much on the increase (14.9m litres were sold last year, an increase of more than 13%), they are a fraction of sales of red wines.

Rioja has never had it so good. Sales grew by 5m bottles in 2014, making a record total of 281m litres. One third (37.6%) of sales are exports, the vast majority of them to the UK, Germany, the US and Switzerland (which between them lap up 70% of all exports). New markets such as Russia and Mexico are growing apace – sales to the latter increased more than 27% last year, making it the eighth biggest Rioja importer. 

The UK remains the historic bedrock of Rioja exports (the Spanish and the British have always got on – one producer tells Drinks International: “We have more in common with the British than with the Italians”). 

In 2014 we drank 36.2m litres (about 50m bottles) of Rioja, double Germany’s consumption (18.8m litres), and more than three times that of the US (10.3m litres). Rioja outperforms the rest of Spain – it grew 9.9% last year, compared with a drop of 6.4% in the wider Spanish category.

The reasons for the UK success – beyond Britain’s historic affection for Spain – are not hard to fathom. Rioja offers consistency and value for money. In March this year the editor of Decanter magazine, John Stimpfig, used his editor’s letter to heap praise on the region. Answering the question: “If you could drink only one red wine, what would you choose?” he said: “There is no red wine region anywhere in the world that overdelivers on value, complexity and pleasure quite like Rioja.”

Rioja’s value is particularly noticeable in the UK, where the Sin Crianza or Joven (meaning “young”) category – unoaked, unaged wines – accounts for 52% of sales, with Crianza at 16%, Reserva at 28% and Gran Reserva taking up 4% of the market. 

For many bodegas, Sin Crianza is a cash cow, but others feel that it is cheapening the Rioja image. One export manager, Anne Vallejo of Marques de Caceres, is clear about this: “It can be damaging – we have to work at upgrading the image.”

Caceres, in common with bodegas across the region, is actively premiumising its range. While the top seller in almost all markets remains its Crianza, the bodega has recently introduced the Excellens range, five wines sourced from high-altitude vineyards with all the emphasis on vine age, reduced yields and limited production. “Rioja has an excellent value offering,” Vallejo says, “but that doesn’t necessarily give prestige.”

There are hidden drawbacks to the sort of success Rioja enjoys in world markets, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the movement to reform the DO. The catalyst was Juan-Carlos de Lacalle of the ultra-premium producer Artadi, who has decided that, from the 2014 vintage, all his wines will be declassified and become simply Vino de Mesa. 

Tools for expression

“We need different tools to express the thousands of styles of Rioja,” he says. He wants to add a village classification to the toolbox (his single vineyard wines, Valdegines, La Poza and El Carretil, are labelled Laguardia, rooting them in their village), as does Telmo Rodriguez of Remelluri and Alvaro Palacios, whose family winery Palacios Remondo is in Alfaro, the eastern point of Rioja Baja.

Rodriguez’ argument is that the concentration on the age of the wine, with no notice taken of site, reduces the complexity of the appellation, which after all is known as “the land of 1,000 wines”. “We’re happy to be generic,” he says with regret.

For at least a decade, Rioja aficionados and professionals have readily understood the difference between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ wines. The latter, picked earlier, macerated with minimal skin contact, aged in American oak, are lighter, more Bordeaux-like – classic Rioja Tempranillo. 

The former, popularised by pioneers such as Rodriguez, Artadi and Palacios, and ultra-premium modern bodegas such as Roda, put all the emphasis on the vineyard, producing single-vineyard wines and blends of complexity and finesse, introducing French oak and reducing ageing times, making wines that are sometimes criticised as being too ‘international’ in style, but which at their best give an indelible sense of terroir.

This has galvanised the independent end of the market. Traditional Rioja is still the mainstay of many importers (the Wine Society’s best sellers are “good traditional-style Rioja as epitomised by producers such as La Rioja Alta”, according to Spanish buyer Pierre Mansour) but importers who specialise in more artisanal wines from small producers are excited. 

London-based Indigo Wines, for example, has just taken on Remelluri, the family bodega of the Rodriguez family and one of the pioneers of terroir Rioja. Buyer Alvaro Ribalta tells DI its interest in Rioja had been lukewarm at best. “Generally we have it because we have to have it and up to now we haven’t really been proud of the offering. Until Remelluri, that is. We’re really proud
of that.”

But artisanal, terroir-driven wines make up a tiny percentage of the output of Rioja’s 800 wineries and 17,000 growers. Crianza is still the biggest category (at 104m litres it represents 40% of sales), but Reserva and Gran Reserva show the biggest increases. Gran Reserva sales jumped by just under 50% in the domestic market.

Premium offering

This is in line with the Consejo Regulador’s stated aim of premiumising the offering. The main goal, the regulatory body says, is “the specialisation in high added-value categories and turning barrel-aged wines into [the] spearhead. The Rioja Reserva and Gran Reserva categories provide a differential personality and strong reputation.”

But while Rioja outperforms the wider market in terms of price levels – the average bottle price is £6.10 in the UK, compared to £5.48 across the wine market as a whole – it still suffers from an inferiority complex, especially in the UK.

“The UK is open to premium wines but it’s difficult for Spanish fine wines,” Roda export manager Victor Charcán says. “Rioja has a reputation for value, and that means promotions and discounts. The challenge is to take the consumer of high-end wines over to Rioja.”

Across the Atlantic, the story is similar. Sales of Rioja in the US fell by 1.85% in 2014, but retailers are still bullish about the region’s prospects – as long as Rioja continues to mean value. 

At Calvert Woodley in Washington DC, president Michael Sands says: “Spain in general is one of the biggest category jumps for us. The quality is very high for the price, it’s approachable on release, and it’s affordable.” Others, such as Peter Yi of PJ Wines in New York, note that Reserva at $13-$15 is the “sweet spot”, and the trend is for the traditional style. “The expensive ‘super-Riojas’ are trending down.”

Meanwhile, at home, Rioja continues to dominate: 62% of the region’s output is sold in Spain. The statistics as published by the Consejo Regulador are dramatic. Eight of 10 bottles in the Spanish on trade are from Rioja, either Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. Unsurprisingly, sales are concentrated in north-central Spain, but 15% of sales go to the south.

However rosy the picture, producers are not complacent. Albert Martinez may reckon its only competitors are its DO neighbours, but that is “huge competition”. For Muriel, a powerful brand is the key. “The Muriel name must be stronger than the region. This is not to deny the importance of Rioja. Rioja is established. Now we have to build our brand.”