Spain: a winemaking revolution is brewing

In January 2016, respected winemaker Telmo Rodríguez unveiled a controversial document that caused a surge of excitement across Spain’s viticultural landscape: The Manifesto in defence of Spanish terroir. It has thus far attracted the signatures of more than 150 individuals, including Peter Sisseck, Xavier Gramona and Pepe Raventos. 

Rodríguez, who is the owner of Rioja brand Remelluri, explained that he co-drafted the Manifesto in an attempt to challenge the inertia of the country’s top DOs and their reluctance to promote Spanish terroir. “It’s ridiculous to categorise such a diverse range of terroirs, wines and climates under one simple designation like Rioja,” exclaims Rodríguez in defence of his document. “The equivalent would be lumping all of Burgundy’s incredibly varied wines under one simple generic Vin de Bourgogne appellation, which is clearly nonsensical,” he adds.

As expected, the Manifesto – which currently exists as a mere statement of intention – elicited a negative response from the Rioja Consejo Regulador. “This sets the stage for self-interested parties to take advantage of supposed splits and inflame them with wild rumour,” was their riposte. But, in addition, the Consejo did claim to be discussing the possibility of considering a more geographically specific “recognition for unique wines on the basis of their origin”.

Such a turn of events would have been unthinkable decades ago, when the authority of Spain’s DOs was generally considered sacrosanct. Indeed, the focus on terroir is quite novel in Spain where, historically, the quality of wines was associated with the length of time they spent in barrel, with joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva wines being priced in ascending order. 

“The system of crianza, reserva and gran reserva is cemented into Riojan tradition,” explains Contino winemaker Jesús Madrazo. “That’s why the concept of terroir has been ignored for so long here.” 

Seismic shift

However, during the past 15 years Spain has witnessed a seismic shift in the priorities of its brightest firmament of winemakers, many of whom produce the country’s most expensive and sought-after wines. Today, a growing number of producers want each sub-region and vineyard to express itself, and resent being classified under one generic appellation structure. 

“Traditionally the Spanish DOs have marketed their regions as single entities – terroir is an anathema to them,” notes Sisseck.

“To an extent, the authorities have failed the smaller, quality-led producers – the DOs tend to be heavily politicised and so they primarily serve the interests of the major brands. Ribera del Duero is a classic example of this – over 60% of our wine is made by fewer than six companies,” he adds.

“Traditionally the Spanish DOs have marketed their regions as single entities – terroir is an anathema to them”

Peter Sisseck

Madrazo shares Sisseck and Rodríguez’s frustration. “Terroir recognition, or lack thereof, is an issue that is very familiar to us at Contino,” he says. “In the early 1970s my father, José Madrazo Real de Asúa, created a single estate, domaine-bottled Rioja wine called Contino at CVNE. It was the first brand in Spain to carry the name “single vineyard”; the first vintage was released in 1978. And for many years the Consejo Regulador told us that it was illegal to use that expression in a label!” 

But if there is a growing consensus that Spain needs to reference terroir in its appellation systems and labelling, the people calling for change differ in the path they would like to follow. Some are pushing to implement a Burgundian-style vineyard classification in Rioja, despite the clear political hurdles that would have to be overcome and the monumental amount of time and resources. Contino’s Madrazo, however, advocates following the Champagne model, with the Consejo Regulador rating each wine village based on the quality of its vineyards. This rating would then be used to set a price. 

Others, including Vega Sicilia’s Pablo Alvarez, urge caution, warning that abandoning the DO frameworks will not further the terroir cause. “In Spain designations of origin were originally simply administrative bodies and not marketing entities – let’s not deceive ourselves,” explains Alvarez. “Now, winemakers are campaigning for a complex Burgundian system of vineyard classification in each one of the designations of origin and that is impossible. It took hundreds of years to map out Burgundy’s vineyards – we want to create a similar system overnight.” 

Curiously, Sisseck agrees with his colleagues’ reticence about a Burgundian approach in Spain. “A Burgundian system is too fragmented for Spanish regions, I don’t think that consumers would respond well to such a system,” he says.

Ever the pragmatist, Sisseck instead advocates petitioning the various DOs to allow the use of specific village names on wine labels. This had already been implemented in Priorat and Sisseck hopes, with persistent persuasion, other DOs will follow their example.

Abandoning the DOs

But for a growing number of ambitious Spanish producers, the statement of intentions outlined in the Manifesto is a case of too little, too late. To date, over 10 wineries have abandoned the Cava DO, including historic producer Raventos I Blanc, which left in November 2012. Instead, Raventos adopted a new and uncertified regional designation, named “Conca del Riu Anoia”. 

“Historically, the Sant Sadurni Cava industry was always volume and quality orientated,” insists Pepe Raventos of Raventos I Blanc. “But in recent years Cava had become a solely volume-oriented DO, with no geographical distinction in terms of climate and soils with low viticultural standards.” 

Setting a precedent, Raventos was followed by Rioja producer Bodegas Artadi, who left the Rioja DO in 2015. “The Rioja DO [appellation] is simply too large,” says owner Juan-Carlos López de Lacalle, pointing out that it covers 63,137ha, according to the census of 2013. “There is no other singular appellation covering such a large vineyard area – Rioja is a designation that gives no due recognition to any differential in vineyard quality and it is for this reason that we have been forced to leave the DO,” he adds. 

Xavier Gramona, a Manifesto signatory who has declared his intention to fight for change within the DO, nonetheless believes that “more and more winemakers will leave the DO system if change isn’t forthcoming. I think more will announce their departure soon.”

”More and more winemakers will leave the DO system if change isn’t forthcoming. I think more will announce their departure soon”

Xavier Gramona

But in a wider sense, this growing abandonment of appellations from Spain’s dissatisfied producers is arguably a case of history repeating itself. Indeed, departures from appellations are far from unknown in Europe – Chianti is a prime example of this, a region which started to rebel against its stultifying regulations decades ago by selling its wines as mere “vino da tavola”. 

“Fifty years ago, many wines produced with Sangiovese in Tuscany were coming from vineyards planted for quantity and not for quality, and techniques of vinification and ageing were coming from old traditions,” explains Albiera Antinori, of the historic Antinori estate.

Her father Piero helped to restore the reputation of the region, releasing what would become the first wine produced in the Chianti zone that could not be classified as such. Antinori’s Tignanello, first released in 1971, caused an outrage among the local Chianti bureaucrats, but has since become a massive international success.

Fast-forward 45 years and the improvements in winemaking, including better clonal selection and an overhaul of the ridiculous regulations that forbad 100% Sangiovese wines have been significant. Would they have happened had the Super-Tuscan Revolution not occurred? “It’s highly unlikely,” notes Antinori.

Strict regulations

Of course, there are key differences between the situation in Tuscany and Spain, but the basic principle remains the same: dissatisfaction with stifling regulations is encouraging Spanish winemakers to directly challenge the inadequacies of their DOs through various means. 

“Spain now finds itself at an historic moment and must engage in a constructive dialogue with the DOs to challenge historic attitudes and prejudices. However, significant change will come slowly though and we must be patient,” says Sisseck.

Yet in the short term, at least, there are tentative signs that the rhetoric of Rodríguez, Raventos and Sisseck is not being simply ignored. “Key regions have started down a path of terroir appraisal – DO Penedès has developed a soil map, in Montsant we are undertaking a similar process – it’s going to happen,” argues Pep Llaquet, winemaker and technical director at Cellers Unió in Catalunya.

Furthermore, the Cava DO has introduced a new classification, entitled Cava de Paraje Calificado (qualified single estate Cava), that will be available to certain producers by autumn 2016. It specifies that Cava made under this new designation must be produced from estate vineyards and is subject to a minimum 36-month ageing period on the lees. But would this have occurred without the widespread and public criticism of the status quo in Penedès by Raventos I Blanc and others? “I doubt it,” answers Gramona. 

And despite the frustration of some of its producers, it should be emphasised that Spain has made enormous inroads into export markets of late – in particular, Rioja remains one of the wine world’s biggest success stories. 

Nonetheless, for the majority of Spain’s quality-led producers, Rodríguez’s Manifesto will undoubtedly encourage many brand owners to consider their long-term strategy in a changing world. Moves by high-profile producers like Artadi and Raventos may well help to drive a move towards a more terroir-focused approach, but it is ultimately the balance sheet that will encourage producers to embrace terroir-driven wines. For the fact remains that Spain’s costliest wines – L’Ermita and Artadi’s El Pisón to cite two examples – all follow the modern approach of promoting a specific terroir story to consumers. 

So while Rodríguez and his colleagues may fall just short of starting a revolution, they have certainly shaken things up a little.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Good article! Right on the money, well-researched and the Chianti comparison is a good one. Cheers!

    Andrew
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/ahalliwell

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  • I liked the Chianti comp too

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