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This week I attended The Drinks BusinessRioja Forum, organised in conjunction with Wines from Rioja, to discuss the motion: “Should Tempranillo remain the dominant grape?”

In many ways, it wasn’t a discussion as much as a series of comments around the theme of how Rioja should present itself to the world, and more importantly, how it might go about offering a broader range of wines to consumers.

[for more professional reporting on this event, read Rebecca Gibb’s take]

The key fact, in terms of the topic, is that Tempranillo plantings represent 78% of ALL vineyard plantings in Rioja. Without any Tempranillo, you’d scarcely have enough for a decent dinner party, never mind to sell wines to the entire world as happens now.

The question was really interpreted as whether Rioja should attach its brand more clearly to the Tempranillo varietal/brand or not.

The strongest argument for this idea came from Maria Martínez from Bodegas Montecillo, known as the “Queen of Tempranillo”. In her opinion Tempranillo was THE vehicle for expressing the personality of Rioja, and by this I take her to mean her sense of its place, its terroir. She admitted that many other regions, and even countries, could grow Tempranillo, but the unique mix of weather, soil and historical wine making practices in Rioja gave it a real personality, whilst most other wines turned out to be “manufactured”, “Coca Cola” wines. I admire her conviction, and her wines.

However, what she is discussing is more than the varietal mix of the wine. She did not argue against using other classic grapes to blend with Tempranillo, only that it should have “personality”. Rioja’s strong, and much loved personality, is what consumers around the world love.

Follow-up presentations by Juan Carlos Sancha of Viña Ijalba and Victor Fuentes of Baron de Ley, were ostensibly a counter-argument, but in fact followed the same theme. Rioja used to grow a variety of grapes, in 1912 there were 44, but today there are only 7 – and in the case of Tempranillo, only 3 different clones. This means that the region is HIGHLY dependent on a small range of varieties, that it has lost (permanently through extinction in many cases) many indigenous varieties. It wasn’t an argument for making Rioja from something other than Tempranillo, but a plea for experimentation, to genetic diversity, to a uniqueness for Rioja that was defined by something more abstract than a single variety.

There are producers such as Dinastia Vivanco and Viña Ijalba who are trying to showcase the personality of each of the key Rioja grapes, and examples such as Baron de Ley who are even planting 28 hectares of a newly approved, but classic indigenous grape called Maturana Tinta.

Most of the assembled audience agreed that Rioja risked more by linking itself to Tempranillo than it gained – opening the doors to copycat regions selling similar grapes, confusing consumers who only have limited wine knowledge, and not doing anything to sell more white or rose wines.

The only real point of contention seemed to revolve around price. A representative from an importer with a focus on supermarket brands, and Melissa Draycott, head of wine buying at First Quench, pointed out that consumers loved Rioja and only really wanted a good Quality/Price ratio. Rioja had delivered in the past and should focus on this for the future.

The implication of this is that all the discussion of “Personality”, of genetic diversity and of new plantings of recovered indigenous or international varieties was likely to lead to more high priced, premium wines and distract from the business of selling more volume. I will look at this is depth another time as I think it is important, but most of the audience agreed that Rioja needed to be more than a provider of generic “soap bars” (comparing wine marketing to the success of P&G etc.).

All in all, it was good to have the opportunity to hear from some interesting Rioja personalities, and to taste their wines. Hopefully we can use these discussions to define a clearer path for Rioja to innovate without losing its special place in the consumer’s hearts and wallets.

More soon.

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The full list of speakers was: Ricardo Aguiriano, Marketing Director for the Rioja Consejo; Maria Martínez from Bodegas Montecillo; Juan Carlos Sancha of Viña Ijalba; Victor Fuentes, Managing Director at Baron de Ley; and Melissa Draycott, Thresher. Rafael Vivanco from Dinastia Vivanco was supposed to join them but was unfortunately unable to attend.

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