Rioja's Response To Climate Change: Changing With The Change

 

Wednesday 19th June 2024

In late May Elif Suzmecelik, Deputy Store Manager for our shop in Bath was lucky enough to spend four days in Spain as a guest of the Consejo Regulador of Rioja, where she met with like-minded professionals, producers, and was immersed in all things Rioja wine. Here she tells us what she discovered.

Global warming affects viticulture worldwide but in some regions more severely than others. Every single wine producer I visited in late May mentioned climate change, no wonder why, considering how altering conditions transform Rioja's vineyards. Rising temperatures, shifting weather patterns, and increased frequency of extreme weather events impact grape ripening and harvest times, requiring adaptive strategies to maintain wine quality.

As always, change leads to positive outcomes, too. Rioja's wine producers are embracing various ways to overcome these challenges by exploring diverse varietals, focusing on native grapes, adopting new farming techniques and microterroirs, expanding their production to include sparkling wines and widening their range of white wine styles.

 

 

RECONSIDERING RIOJA - CHANGING WITH THE CHANGE

It was inspiring to see how Rioja's winemakers are taking proactive steps to mitigate the effects of climate change and secure the future of their winemaking. One important response has been the implementation of sustainable viticulture practices. Many vineyards are transitioning to organic and biodynamic farming methods, which improve vines’ resilience by promoting soil health, and enhancing biodiversity while reducing chemical use.

Even though the situation is not as dire as the other wine-producing regions such as Catalonia, water management has also become a critical focus whilst Spain experiences some of the worst droughts on record. Winemakers have begun to use advanced irrigation techniques to optimise water usage and preserve this vital resource. Drip irrigation systems, for example, deliver water directly to the vine roots, minimising waste and ensuring the plants receive adequate hydration even during dry spells.

Another significant adaptation is to explore higher altitude vineyards where cooler temperatures can offset the effects of global warming. Many producers have begun to plant new vineyards or revive the old vines on the foothills of Sierra de Cantabria and Sierra de la Demanda, the two mountain ranges that define the unique climate of this region. Planting vines at higher elevations allows winemakers to produce grapes with balanced acidity and sugar levels, which is crucial for producing high-quality wines.

Collaboration among winemakers, scientists, and agricultural experts is leading to the cultivation of new grape clones and rootstocks that are better suited to withstand the changing conditions. An excellent example is Roda's meticulous research into the Tempranillo grape variety, where they have identified 552 clones. They are aiming to determine which of these clones are best suited to different sites and to adapt to rising temperatures.

Technology plays a key role in Rioja's response to climate change. Utilising satellite imagery and data analytics allows for real-time monitoring of vine health, yields and more precise management of vineyard resources.

REASSESSING WHITE VARIETALS

The Consejo Regulador Rioja is the regulatory body responsible for overseeing the production, quality, and promotion of wines of the region. The Board is constituted of representatives from various sectors of the wine industry, such as grape growers and wineries. With their collaborative efforts, Rioja is seeking a future in white wines by allowing thirteen white grape varietals since 2017. These efforts are yielding results, according to the Consejo’s reports, production of white Rioja accounted for around 10% of the total volume in 2023, compared to only 5%, ten years ago. Meanwhile, the planting of white varieties has almost doubled. Yes, Tempranillo remains the king of Rioja's red wines, but the region is gaining worldwide recognition for its diverse range of white wines, too.

Viura (also known as Macabeo in other regions of Spain) is the primary white grape of the region, prized for its ability to produce wines with crisp acidity, fresh fruit flavours and subtle minerality as well as richer wines that benefit from lees or oak ageing. Blending Viura with Indigenous varietals like Malvasía de Rioja and Garnacha Blanca adds aromatic complexity and body to Rioja's white wines. Some winemakers also experiment with international varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, bringing a modern twist to the traditional Rioja profile. From unoaked young whites to barrel-aged, lush Reservas, Rioja's white wines offer a refreshing alternative to their red counterparts, becoming highly sought-after, showcasing the region's versatility.

SPARKLING AMBITIONS

Even though it is still unknown to many consumers, in recent years, Rioja has begun to make a name for itself in the world of sparkling wines. It has been possible to produce DO Cava sparkling wines in Rioja since 2017.

Using the traditional method (méthode champenoise), Rioja's winemakers are producing sparkling wines of exceptional quality and elegance. These wines, known locally as Cava de Rioja, are made from a blend of indigenous varietals like Viura and Malvasía, as well as international grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As a reminder, Viura is one of the three main cava grape varietals and is otherwise known as Macabeo.

Cava production in Rioja has slightly stricter regulations, particularly longer ageing requirements than in Catalonia. The result is a range of sparkling wines with fine
bubbles, bright acidity, and complex flavours, from zesty citrus and green apple to richer notes of brioche and almond. Rioja's sparkling wines offer a novel and sophisticated option for wine lovers, whether enjoyed as an aperitif or paired with a meal.

CULINARY TREASURES

No exploration of Rioja would be complete without a nod to its rich culinary heritage. From hearty stews and succulent roasts to small bites and artisanal cheeses, Rioja's gastronomic options are as diverse as its wines. Whether you are enjoying a casual tapa/pincho (small snack) at a tapas bar or a multi-course meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Rioja's food culture is an integral part of the region's identity and always enhances the enjoyment of its wines.

It feels almost overwhelming walking down the Calle Laurel, a narrow street in the heart of Logroño, full of bustling tapas bars with all sorts of delicious smells inviting you inside. Make sure to taste a gilda (mini skewers with anchovy, olives and pickled peppers), the region’s famous oyster and champignon mushrooms, patatas a la Riojana, and embuchado (these balls made from lamb tripe that is grilled are rewarding but not for the faint-hearted!) The best part is that there is always a glass of wine to pair with these delicious offerings, either a crisp white, a young crianza or a hearty reserva.

SUMMING UP

The fine wine capital of Spain continues to evolve while at the same time staying true to its roots. They embrace the challenges of climate change as they explore new horizons in winemaking to ensure that we can always enjoy a glass of that incredible Rioja – a choice treasured by every wine enthusiast!

DID YOU KNOW

•    Rioja has been making wine for more than 2000 years, but saw a renaissance with the arrival of French winemakers after the phylloxera epidemic at the end of the 19th century.
•    The region has more than 600 wineries, there are more than 14,800 growers and there are 66,200 hectares under vine.
•    Rioja makes more than 280 million litres of wine a year.

 

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