White Rioja is on the up

When Wine Intelligence asked more than 1,000 regular wine drinkers about their favourite region, 9% chose Rioja, ranking it the most popular choice in?the UK.

Consumers have had a long affinity with the quality and consistency of wines from this northern pocket of Spain and producers are hoping to capitalise on this love affair to push white Rioja sales.

Rioja’s Consejo Regulador has adopted a strategy to develop the region’s whites, acknowledging that to improve sales it needs to start in the vineyards.

Ricardo Aguiriano San Vicente, its marketing and communications manager, says: “The Rioja DOC released a strategic plan to guide the future of the region up to 2020. This listed as one of the main strategies, the need to increase the range of styles produced – in part­icular the proportion of white wines.”?Aguiriano says Rioja has a great opportunity to capitalise on white wines, as sales in the UK increased by 13% in 2009 to make up 4.2% of total Rioja sales (Nielsen, year to December 26, 2009). “Spain has a total of 25% of UK sales coming from white wine, so there are opportunities to grow Rioja within that,” he adds.

A matter of style?Tesco’s James Griswood, product develop­ment manager for Spain, agrees the odds for success are good for white Riojas. “Red Rioja is such an important part of the Spanish category, so there is no reason why white Rioja shouldn’t become more widely accepted if it gets the style, quality and branding right,” he says.

But he warns that developing the style too drastically may prove to be a double-edged sword. “Most consumers still see Rioja as a red-only category. Those who have seen or tasted white Rioja probably associate it with the older, oak-aged, oxidative style of white Rioja, and making changes to the style and flavours of the wines may alienate these customers.

“However, a newer style of white Rioja may attract new customers into the category, so there are potential benefits as well as problems.”?Billy Bell of Wine Importers in Edin­burgh, is also enthusiastic about the potential for white varieties. “Banda Dorada from Paternina, for example, is a

brilliantly fresh and clean-tasting white Rioja. It stands out in tastings and meets the demands of today’s consumer who wants fruit-driven white wines, with good acidity,” he says. “If other wines of this quality become available from such a well-known region, we will certainly consider including them in our portfolio.”?Pernod Ricard’s Campo Viejo altered the style of its Rioja to cash in on changing tastes. Adrian Atkinson, wine development director, says: “Consumers are moving away from heavy, oaky styles to something lighter and fresher. This trend encouraged Campo Viejo to change the style a number of years ago.”?As part of its strategy, the Consejo authorised the planting of up to 1,725ha for new varieties of white grapes, allowing producers to plant non-indigenous varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to blend with Viura, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.

Despite concerns that this may create wines that are more international in character, most producers appear mindful of the need to retain Rioja’s individuality.

“By July 2009, the Agricultural Ministry of La Rioja had received 2,282 requests to plant a total of 3,153ha of the newly authorised white varieties – well above the authorised limit,” says Aguiriano. “Of these, 54% were to plant Verdejo, 25% Tempranillo Blanco and only 3% Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This shows producers see great opportunities for native Spanish varieties.”?Juan Velilla, of the Co-operative Viñedos de Aldeanueva, says it intends to build a new winery specifically to develop its white wines. “We requested to plant 200ha of Verdejo and some white Tempranillo, which together with the Viura we already have, will give us potential to develop our projects,” he says. Plans include a dry white wine and a barrel-fermented white.

No identity crisis?José Luis Benítez, director general of Grupo Rioja, a business association made up of about 50 wineries in Rioja, believes the new permitted varieties will have a positive effect on quality. “There must be more than 50% Viura in the blends, so no single variety wines [from the new varieties] will be produced. The main identity of Rioja white will be preserved, but improved by the aromas and rich fruitiness of the others,” he predicts.

Director of Dinastia Vivanco, Rafael Vivanco Sáenz, has been planting other white varieties to assess their potential. He says: “Viura and Malvasia, and other indigenous white Rioja grapes such as Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco and Maturana Blanca, lend typicity, individuality and a differentiated personality to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdejo.” Atkinson believes the rise in popularity of Albariño and Rueda have given consumers a better understanding of the Spanish white wine category. “They know it as a category that is price-accessible and relevant to their needs, but the challenge is there is currently very little shelf space given to Spanish whites,” he says.

“We need to be working with the trade to embrace the potential for premium modern white wines from Rioja to ensure we capitalise on the strong consumer franchise the wines enjoy in the UK.”?