The new Rioja, by Tim Atkin MW

Rioja is a paradox. As opinion polls and sales figures both confirm, it’s Spain’s most famous and best-loved wine region. And yet, curiously, it’s also one of its least well known. Rioja has done such a good job of communicating a strong brand image, based on the sturdy pillars of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, that very few people are familiar with any of its 144 municipalities.

Lovers of fine Burgundy or Bordeaux can tell you, in the tiniest detail, the differences between a Pommard and a Gevrey-Chambertin or a Pomerol and a Margaux. But ask most Rioja fans to do the same thing with Ábalos and Alfaro or Briones and Briñas and they wouldn’t have a clue. There’s a good explanation for this. Most Rioja is made and sold as a pan-regional blend, combining grapes from two or more of its three sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Oriental (formerly known as the Rioja Baja).

In a region that can be much cooler than people imagine – it snowed during the 2008 harvest – it makes sense to blend marginal, often high quality areas with hotter zones, especially in so-called Atlantic years when acidity levels are higher. But there’s a growing and very important body of opinion that says that vintage variation is no bad thing. In fact, it’s part of what makes fine wine regions interesting. More to the point, Rioja, along with almost every other wine region in the world, is warming up because of climate change.

Rioja has always valued certain vineyards and villages – municipalities if you prefer – above others. It just hasn’t broadcast the fact outside its own borders. But now the Regulatory Council that runs the region’s affairs has decided to introduce three new classifications. Subject to certain criteria, producers can now choose to label their wines as Unique Vineyards (Viñedos Singulares), Village Wines (Vinos de Pueblo) or Zonal Wines (Vinos de Zona) as well as straight, generic Rioja.

Not everyone is happy about this, but it feels like a step in the right direction to me. Rioja is a great wine region and it deserves to be treated and sold like one. The diversity of the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), in terms of landscape, climate and geology, is extremely varied. Rioja is only 60 miles long and 25 miles wide, but to drive its length or breadth can be to experience two seasons in a single day: mist and rain in the mountains, furnace-hot sun on the plains.

By recognising that Rioja “contains multitudes” as the American poet, Walt Whitman, said in another context, the Consejo Regulador is recognising a long-established reality. This will also be great news for wine drinkers – not just the geeks who want to discuss the finer points of slope, aspect and soil type – but those who are keen to try radically different styles of Rioja and to understand what makes them so.

This doesn’t invalidate the pan-regional blends that are so popular with consumers. Rioja’s generic reds are arguably better and more reliable than those of any other major wine-producing area. But now it is taking the first steps towards greater individuality, by allowing producers to identify different villages and vineyard parcels. Several of them were doing this already, choosing to thumb their noses at the regulations, but now it’s official.

I spend three weeks every year in Rioja – it’s a hard life, I know – and I’ve never been more excited by the quality of the region’s wines or their potential for even greater things. Rioja needs big volume brands but it also needs smaller wineries. Groups such as the Bodegas Familiares de Rioja, Rioja ‘n’ Roll and ABRA (the Association of Rioja Alavesa Wineries) are all helping to promote the region’s human face, allowing consumers to attach a face and a culture to a label.

The two co-exist and, ideally, should benefit and support one another.

The new Rioja is also a win-win situation for wine consumers. Spain’s most famous region is about to get even more interesting, inspiring new and existing drinkers to explore this remarkable denomincación. One day soon, I hope that we’ll see wine lists and retail shelves classifying Riojas by sub-zone, village and vineyard name.  Then the paradox will be resolved.