Grapevine: Quality assessment
How do you assess quality from just looking at a bottle of wine?
Like any product, the brand of the producer will stand for something, the processes used in its production will play a role and being an agricultural product; where it comes from and how it is grown will also be important.
However, what is valued and important at one point in time may no longer be so in the future and thus begin to work against the interests of the producers and the region, as growers and consumers look elsewhere for the attributes they value the most. Many regions around the world are facing this challenge at the moment; a common quality system that is facing criticism and pressure is the length of aging of a wine. As the love affair with oak continues to wane among growers and consumers, it is fair to ask is a wine that spends four years in oak better than another that only spends two years in oak?
Rioja is one of the oldest wine designations in Spain, but their labelling and quality standards have been under pressure for some time now as they are reliant on the aging of the wine in determining how they are labelled. While there are other factors that can come in to play, the terms that a consumer sees; Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva along with the associated price increments clearly gives the impression of better quality as you move up the tiers of aging. This set of rules has run in to a couple of high level headwinds – oak has become a bit of an ugly word, particularly the overtly vanillin flavoured American oak which has historically been associated with the wines of Rioja, the second trend has been the move towards single zone and single vineyard wines which have not been allowed on Rioja labels under the rules.
While some regions have resisted change, almost stubbornly so, Rioja has made some concessions which will likely be to the benefit of the region as a whole. While the aging requirements haven’t gone anywhere – ‘Rioja’ has no aging requirement, ‘Crianza’ has two years of aging, with at least one in barrel, ‘Reserva’ has three years of aging with at least one in oak and six months in bottle, ‘Gran Reserva’ has five years of aging with at least two years in oak and at least two years in bottle – they have now allowed for the use of sub region and village names to be put on labels, which allows producers to differentiate their bottlings by specifically where they are grown. It will likely prove to be double edged in some respects as the best sites will continue to be sought after and may become even more sought-after. It may be at the expense of “lesser” sites that may see their stocks lowered as they are a little more exposed without the uniformity of a simple ‘Rioja’ designation on the label. Nevertheless, these laws will always have their critics and require evolution to remain relevant, we can only hope the changes are in the best interests of the region as a whole and enabling clear communication with consumers.
Olivier Riviere ‘Rayos Uva’ Rioja – $33
One of the young stars of the region is actually a Frenchman. Olivier Riviere grew up near Bordeaux in France and was trained in the local winemaking schools with a focus on biodynamics. His style is typical of the current wave of producers, being focused on organics and biodynamics in the vineyard paired with as little intervention as possible in the winery. He uses cement and old large format oak leaving little trace of their flavour in the wines and keeps sulphur to a minimum, just adding at bottling to keep the wine stable. The Rayos Uva is his early drinking red, typically a blend of Tempranillo, Graciano and Garnacha it is a pure, fruit-driven wine bright with principally red berry fruits, subtle complexity from herbs and meaty elements. The structure is super fine and delicate, simply there to give it definition and allow the fruit to shine.