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Rioja to Allow New Grape Varieties

Spanish vintners can plant nine more varieties for blending, so long as traditional Rioja grapes make up more than half of the finished wine

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: January 29, 2007

For the first time since Rioja was established as an official Spanish wine region in 1925, winemakers may plant nine new grape varieties. Three non-native white varieties, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo, may now be blended with Rioja's established varieties. Three native whites--Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Turruntes--and three native reds--Maturana Tinta, Maturano and Monastel--can also now be planted as well.

"This decision … aims to allow Rioja wines to adapt more flexibly to today's market, giving their [wines] a competitive edge," said a statement released by Wines From Spain, a body established by the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade to promote Spanish wine exports.

The newly permitted native red and white varieties can be used to make single-variety wines, but the non-native ones may not. Also, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo cannot make up the majority of a wine, and the bottle's label must first list a traditional Rioja variety (Viura, White Garnacha or Malvasia) or one of the newly accepted native varieties. To prevent overplanting in the region, the new varieties can be grown only if a producer uproots and replaces currently planted vines.

Tempranillo is the most common red variety in Rioja. The decision behind allowing the "neglected" local varieties--Maturana Tinta, Maturano and Monastel--to be planted and used for blends or as single-variety wines was part of "a drive to recover the region's local varietal heritage," the Wines From Spain statement said.

This is not the first time Spanish vintners have made unorthodox Rioja wines, according to Wines From Spain spokesman Chuck Cramer. Bodega Remelluri in Rioja produces a white wine blend of six to seven grape varietals, and Viura is not one of them. "They have been making this blend for a while," Cramer said, because the winery already had non-native varieties planted prior to the 1925 establishment of Rioja's regulations. The 2004 Remelluri Blanco contains Chardonnay, Marsanne, Moscatel, Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and White Garnacha.

In Rioja Baja, a subregion of Rioja, Marques de la Concordia produces a range of wines called Extreme, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah and no local varieties. The bodega also produces Hacienda Susar, a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Both are sourced from the vineyards at Hacienda Susar.

"Hacienda Susar has been given 'experimental' status to grow these four classic grape varieties," Cramer explained. "However, they cannot be labeled crianza, reserva, gran reserva"--the region's designations for how long a wine spends in oak barrels--"even though they are aged for 15 to 18 months in oak. They are all tagged with the 'joven' Rioja label on the back of the bottle."

The legislation is pending approval from the local governments in the Basque country in the North, La Rioja and Navarra, as well as the Agriculture Ministry. Once the measure is approved, growers may begin to plant the new varieties.

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