Rioja is a rich Spanish red wine. It is one of the most famous Spanish wines and is widely respected by both Spanish and international experts. But despite this, Rioja is not considered to be a fine wine. Both international experts and members of the general public consider Rioja to be a good quality ‘every day’ wine. Here’s everything you need to know about rioja and its reputation in and outside of Spain:
What is Rioja?
Riojas are best known for being medium to full bodied. They have a strong structure and tannins. Riojas a rich red wines and are often described as tasting like berries or plums. BBC Good Food have names rioja as “the ultimate comfort wine”. Most reviews of rioja are positive but one thing that it is not considered is a fine wine.
It can be good value, award-winning, and there are some great Rioja vintages. Rioja can be a world-class wine. But it is widely considered by those in the know to be a ‘bargain wine’. One that is great quality but not such high quality that you couldn’t afford to pop open a bottle at the week.
Though there is no hard and fast definition, for a wine to be considered a fine wine it must generally be of the highest possible quality, from a wine-growing region with an excellent reputation, and produced in a vineyard where the levels of wine making are high and where viticultural standards are implemented. It is wine critics themselves who have final say on whether or not a wine is considered to be a fine wine or not. And Riojas just don’t make the cut!
Why Isn’t Rioja a Fine Wine?
There are many factors that place rioja firmly in the ‘good value for money’ category. Firstly the value of the wine itself is a a reason that rioja can’t be elevated to a fine wine. It is a middle of the road and cost effective wine, which is good news for price-conscious consumers but prevents the wine from being considered prestigious by wine critics and enthusiasts.
The reason that riojas are so affordable is because of the sheer volume of wine that Spain’s La Rioja region produces each year. An average 300 million litres of rioja wine are produced every year. This puts rioja firmly in the category of being a ‘mass market wine’. Though Rioja is known for being a red wine and around 90% of the wine produced in the region is red, the remaining 10% is actually made up of white and rose wines.
The reason La Rioja produces so much wine has a lot to do with the sheer size of the region: it’s massive! This means that the grapes are grown in most than one type of soil and that not all riojas are the same. Rioja enjoys a mixture of Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean climates with hot summers and cold winters with relatively high rainfall -- good conditions for growing grapes that produce quality wines, but with quite a lot of variety. As a result Rioja is not actually a single category of wine and there is no ‘one size fits all’ type of wine from this region. The four main classifications of Riojas are Genérico, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva.
Despite knowing that Rioja is grown in different types of soil and different soil conditions, Rioja do not publish soil studies like other wine growing regions. There is currently no authoritative report on Riojas soils.
Understanding Wine Politics In Rioja
Almost three quarters of all wine produced in Rioja is sold through a series of influential bodegas called ’Grupo Rioja’. These groups are happy to produce high quantities of wine and sell it cheap because it works for their profit margins. They are not interested in changing this model and marketing Rioja as a fine wine. And even if they did, this wouldn’t be easy in the wider wine industry.
Wine politics is a very real concern: like so many industries the wine industry is rife with politics. According to one report in recent years, wine rivalry between the Basque province of Álava and La Rioja has threatened to upend the Rioja wine world. Due to the internal politics, some Basque growers could break off from the Rioja name and brand and instead produce and label their own wines as Viñedos de Álava. This would have a very negative impact on the Rioja brand. The size of the Rioja region and the politics at play between the various suppliers and vineyards will make it very difficult for Rioja to ever be considered a fine wine, either in Spain or overseas.
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