A Rioja By Any Other Name

A critically acclaimed winery has pulled out of the local regulatory council, drawing a stiff rebuke from officials. Will it matter in the long run?

 

This past December, while interviewing Juan Carlos López de Lacalle for a future article on Rioja’s best wineries, the iconoclastic owner of Artadi in Rioja Alavesa informed me that his highly respected winery would soon bow out of the Consejo Regulador for the Rioja wine region. On January 4, that’s exactly what Artadi did.

Such a move, on the surface, may seem like a big one. A winery known for making some of the finest wines in Rioja has chosen to forego using the Rioja name in order to operate freely and outside the rules of the region.

Without explicitly saying so, López de Lacalle, in that interview, insinuated that most of the rules set by the Rioja board, which oversees Spain’s second largest wine region after La Mancha, do not benefit or apply to a small-sized, quality-driven winery such as Artadi. According to López de Lacalle, regional regulations are instead geared toward the lowest common denominator: producers of large quantities of uncategorized Rioja wines or basic crianzas.

“Rioja produces [more than 400 million] bottles of wine per year; there are 600 wineries of all types and sizes. The traditional rules governing aging [crianza, reserva and gran reserva] don’t apply to us, and with production six times greater than 20 years ago and increasing every year, it is our belief that Rioja is losing its sense of terroir. The rules are not about precision, which is the opposite of our philosophy,” he said.

According to Juan Carlos López de Lacalle, regional regulations are instead geared toward the lowest common denominator: producers of large quantities of uncategorized Rioja wines or basic crianzas.

Kaboom! That cutting assessment of Rioja’s rules and regs hit like a cruise missile at the headquarters of the regional control board in Logroño. Rather than quietly accept Artadi’s decision, the association that governs the region and promotes Spain’s most renowned denominación de origen fired back, and with force.

The author with Juan Carlos López de Lacalle in Artadi's vineyards.
The author with Juan Carlos López de Lacalle in Artadi’s vineyards.

“Aside from what [Artadi] may wish to represent, it is surprising that, after having built up a name thanks to both its own efforts and also undoubtedly to it belonging to Rioja, the [region] should suddenly cease to serve its interests,” said the Consejo in a statement. “It is also regrettable that the only justification given be veiled criticisms of a wine region whose success is undeniable.”

So now Artadi, which López de Lacalle founded in the village of Laguardia in 1985, and whose wines regularly score above 90 points in Wine Enthusiast, will go it alone. Certainly there is risk involved in what Artadi is doing; Rioja is an iconic wine region, both in Spain and on the global scale. Being able to put “Rioja” on the label of one’s wines would seem beneficial. But going forward, wines that cost between $100 and $300 a bottle—like La Poza de Ballesteros, El Carretil and Viña El Pison—will be known simply as Vino de Mesa Español, or “Spanish Table Wine.”

Personally, I don’t think this move will have impact on Artadi’s sales one way or the other. Artadi is not a winery that relies on volume to be profitable. Those who know Artadi’s wines and are not scared off by their prices will continue to enjoy López de Lacalle’s silky, delicious interpretations of Tempranillo regardless of what region they represent. Besides, in recent years we have seen Bodega Mustiguillo and Raventós i Blanc, top-shelf wineries in Utiel-Requena and the patchwork Cava D.O., respectively, do the same thing as Artadi has done, with seemingly no ill effects.

But I do find it a bit sad that one of my favorite wineries in Spain will no longer technically be a Rioja, even if that’s where the grapes are grown and the wines are made. What’s in a name? Soon we will find out.

Published on January 28, 2016
Topics: Spanish Wine
About the Author
Michael Schachner
Spanish and South American Editor

Reviews wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain.

Michael Schachner is a New York-based journalist specializing in wine, food and travel. His articles appear regularly in Wine Enthusiast, where he is a longstanding contributing editor responsible for South America and Spain. Schachner reviews more than 2,000 wines annually for WE and regularly travels to Chile, Argentina and Spain to keep abreast of the constantly changing global wine map. Email: mschachner@wineenthusiast.net.




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