In terms of a global stage, the world of wine is remarkably unchanging and despite the various changes happening on a world scale right now, things rarely change in the wine scene.
However, recently, the Rioja Consejio Regulador (wine commission of Rioja) has announced a brand new classification system and thrown one of the oldest and most established standards in the wine world into a new era.
The original existing system had a number of factors which determined the primary indicators of quality for a bottle of Rioja. Primarily, one of the key factors utilized was the amount of oak-aging used to determine the quality of the bottle.
In the new rules, however, this system has shifted from oak aging into instead encouragement to leverage regional microclimates and single origin vineyards to indicate the quality of the wine.
Comparing to existing wine classification systems elsewhere in the world, there are various similarities with the Burgundy wine grading system and we believe this will be a big and positive change for the Rioja wine industry.
A quick breakdown on the new rules
- Rioja must be labelled by one of the three official zones of Rioja curation – Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (previously, Rioja Baja)
- Rioja bottles may now include the name of either the village or municipality of growth to the front label (although, there are almost 150 of them!)
- Rosé wines are now permitted in lighter colors, bringing Rosé Rioja in line with existing standards
- A new sparkling wine definition has been added (Espumosos de Calidad de Rioja) which uses a similar classification system to Champagne
- Single-varietal white wines may now be offered under the all-encompassing Rioja Blanco label (!!!)
- Gran Añada has been added to the Rioja aging classifications (including the existing Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva)
Big changes for Generic Rioja
Under existing rules, prior to the limitations imposed for white wines, generic Rioja was usually an indicator of very low quality wines exhibiting little oak aging and usually with a “fleshy style”. Under the more relaxed rules now released, we’ll likely see some fantastic Rioja Blanco wines issued under the “Generic Rioja” banner
Of all the changes installed, by far the biggest change was the new addition of regional labeling to Rioja wines. Naturally, this is quite a controversial topic at the moment especially since Rioja has a history of being incredibly popular in blends with multiple regions. As such, we can definitely see there to be a claim made that regional specificity will not aid in the overall quality of Rioja produced.
However, there are even some critics of the new system which claim that Rioja should hold itself to even higher standards by further limiting and requiring geo-specificy of even greater detail
If you’re ever lucky enough to have travelled through the Rioja region however, you’ll know full well that microclimates and microsoils are well and alive in the area. Being able to officially notate from a specific vineyard on the bottle labelling is likely to rapidly become a major factor for new Riojas as we move into this new era – and this move is likely to be broadly welcomed both by vineyards and collectors.
As such, you’ll now be able to assume that any newly bottled vintages listed simply as “Rioja” are bottled from a blend of grapes from throughout the entire Rioja region.
Of the new Zones / Zona, you’ll often hear that Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are the origin of the best wines but this is really due far more to personal preference than it is rule, and there are plenty of fantastic wines to be found from Rioja Oriental too! Rioja Alta and Alavesa do tend to have more minerality and “elegance” but wines from these areas are typically made to age for 20+ years.
Whatever you think of the new Rioja rules, we’re sure this is a great move forward both for the region and for any lovers of the wine. Next time you grab a bottle see if you can see the changes at work – and let us know what you think about how the classification system could be improved further!