Following on from the success of its ‘100kms of Diversity’ marketing campaign, Team Rioja is back. This winter, selected off-trade retailers across the UK are running Feliz Rioja to promote the variety on offer across this most famous of Spanish wine regions. The Buyer’s Mike Turner attended this month’s launch tasting to find out more about the promotion and why the wines of Rioja are perfect for this winter’s sales campaigns.
“It’s been truly eye opening to see the range of portfolios on offer from scores of Rioja producers right now,” says Mike Turner about the Feliz Rioja initiative.
It was about this time last year that I attended my training week out in Rioja to become an educator and ambassador for the Rioja Academy. The week’s itinerary of course took in the famous names and brands of the region, as well as showcasing the iconic wine styles that the world’s wine drinkers have come to know, love and trust over the years. But more than that, my fellow Rioja enthusiasts and I were introduced to the lesser-known range of wines often not associated with the region, including sparkling wines, whites, rosés and terroir-driven reds. It forever altered my perception of what has often been seen as an area producing very formulaic wines, and this new confidence to produce and export a much larger range of tastes and styles was highlighted perfectly through 2023’s marketing campaign of “100kms of Diversity”.
This November, the Consejo Regulator DOCa Rioja is back with Feliz Rioja. The campaign is running throughout November and is targeting the UK off-trade, using POS aids and training (and various sales staff incentives) to spread the message of the versatility and quality levels of the wines coming out of today’s Rioja. As part of that training, Rioja Academy educator Laura Kent was on hand to run an online education session to help retailers up and down the country to get the good word of Rioja out there to their loyal punters. I was in attendance to find out more about the message behind Feliz Rioja.
The thinking behind the campaign
Rioja is one of the best-known wine regions in the world. A survey conducted in 2018 revealed that four out of 10 wine drinkers across the globe recognised the name ‘Rioja’, a reputation of trust and reassurance built over decades on the back of branding and blending target wine styles. This position provides an excellent base from which to promote the new wine styles currently making noises across this surprisingly dynamic region, including whites, rosés, sparkling wines and more unique red wines. Feliz Rioja is purposefully targeting the off-trade in the run up to the festive season as wine drinkers search for that something special for the celebrations to come..
Rioja’s whites and rosés
There’s no getting away from it, Rioja’s fame is based on its iconic red wine styles. Even now around 90% of the 66,000 hectares of vines are planted with black grapes to satisfy the global demand. But producers across the region are now harnessing the variety of often cooler sites, whether at altitude, cooler aspects, or close to moderating winds, rains or rivers to reimagine the styles and flavours achievable with blancos and rosados.
Subject to similar ageing and labelling criteria as the reds, Rioja Blanco has historically fallen into two camps, either simple and inexpensive, or aged and oxidative. More recently, however, new plantings of Viura have harnessed the underlying freshness of the variety. With more modest yields, the wines are hitting much higher levels of flavour concentration, whether oaked or unoaked. The likes of MacRoberts y Canals L’Aventura Viura (imported by Graft Wine) is a beautifully fresh and vibrant example, as opposed to the fabulous yet classic Reserva and Gran Reserva style of the whites of Remírez de Ganuza (imported by Bibendum).
The example we tasted during our session with Laura Kent was Ramon Bilbao’s fabulous Límite Norte 2018 (imported by Enotria&Coe). This wine was chosen to highlight that it’s not all about Viura when it comes to the whites of Rioja. The likes of Garnacha Blanco, Riojana Malvasia, Maturana Blanco, Turruntés (Albillo Mayor), Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo and Chardonnay are all receiving increasing attention. The Límite Norte is a 50:50 blend of Maturana Blanca (fresh and zesty) and Tempranillo Blanco (stone and tropical fruit). The vines are planted high in cool North-West of Rioja Alta, exposed to Atlantic influences giving freshness and minerality. Subject to a short ageing period in French barrique to add a touch more body, the waxy, lees mouthfeel was beautifully judged and is an absolute steal at £20 RRP.
The chosen rosado for the tasting was Barón de Ley’s Rosado de Lágrima 2022 (imported by Kingsland Drinks). The ‘Lágrima’ name refers to a tear drop, and is the name given to the direct pressing method of making rosé wines in Rioja. Made from 100% Garnacha Tinto from a single estate in Garnacha’s spiritual home of the Rioja Oriental, this is a very modern style of rosado, with light salmon-pink colour and delicate, fresh fruit, florality and white pepper. The elephant in the room is that to sell to the average punter right now, we know that rosé has to look, smell and taste like this, but it’s worth remembering that Rioja can and does produce market focused rosados and, as the prices of Provence rosé climb, this is an excellent option at just £11 RRP.
Diversity of red wines
The first of the reds for the session was from the brilliant Finca Allende, with their Rioja Tinto 2014 (imported by Bancroft). Based up near the village of Briones as the Alta region hugs the southern banks of the Ebro River, head of operations Miguel Angel de Gregorio is famous for his vision of wanting cooler, fresher sites and has bought sites and then planted the Tempranillo used in this wine on north-facing aspects. Many wineries are following suit, with more plantings heading into both northern and southern hills and mountain slopes. This well-executed idea, from this fabulous boutique winery, is to maintain the freshness and beauty of varietal Tempranillo and show that Rioja’s terroir has this in its locker. It has had 14 months of ageing in small French barriques, as well as six years of bottle age, but even through the smoke and subtle nutmeg and vanilla, the fresh ripe red fruits shone through. Well worth the £29 RRP.
This was followed by red wines designed to be a sneak peek into the Rioja wines of the future. They focused on grapes varieties that, although in recent decades are seen as small scale blending partners for Tempranillo and Garnacha, will surely see more and more plantings in the coming years due to their ability to cope with a warming climate. Bodega Las Cepas’ Rebuzno 2021 (imported by Headley Rothwell) is 100% Maturana Tinta. ‘Rebuzno’ translates as ‘braying’ and refers to Maturana Tinta’s reputation as a workhorse or ‘donkey’ variety, doing lots of heavy lifting without much glamour. At less than 0.5% of the planted vineyards, Maturana Tinta was nigh on extinct in recent years, but a small number of devotees have kept the flame burning for this centuries’ old grape that, despite the heat, retains its acidity very well. Capable of slightly higher acidity and tannin than Tempranillo, as well as crunchy, sour red fruit flavours and dark spices, this is a variety that your Rioja-loving clients will soon be very aware of.
Slightly more famous, but still at only 2% of planted vineyard space, is Graciano. This late ripening and drought-resistant variety is now, in the face of climate change, producing some of the finest wines to come out of the eastern Rioja Oriental. This is especially true from the small but prized plantings of old bush vines. The wine of the tasting was the historic Rioja Vega’s Venta Jalón 2016 (imported by House of Townend). A blend of 75% old vine Graciano and 25% Tempranillo from old vines based north of the Ebro River, this has been made in a rich, oaky style giving beautiful smoke and sweet spice notes. None of that, however, detracts from the concentrated herbal, violet, and juicy black, blue and red fruits, with plenty of refreshing acidity and grippy, biting tannin. It might sound a lot at £42 RRP, but this is a genuinely fine wine that will stand up to any taste test.
Always more to discover from Rioja
The Feliz Rioja campaign is the consumer-focused wedge of the 100kms of Diversity campaign launched to the global wine trade just a few short months ago. From my travels in the region as well as tastings I’ve both attended and run, it’s been truly eye opening to see the range of portfolios on offer from scores of Rioja producers right now. Be it increasingly quality whites and rosados, or reds that don’t fit into the standard – albeit incredibly successful and well-loved – aged styles and brands, which has to include the increasing numbers of the newly anointed Viñedos Singulares pushing terroir-driven Rioja reds increasingly into the realms of the fine wine market. There truly is always something more to discover from Spain’s most famous of wine regions.
For more information about the Feliz Rioja campaign, or with any questions for the Consejo Regulador of Rioja DOCa, please contact Poppy Dean at Phipps on email@example.com.
Mike Turner is a freelance writer, presenter, educator, judge and regular contributor for The Buyer through his editorial company Please Bring Me My Wine. He also runs a wine events and ecommerce business, Feel Good Grapes, that explores and discusses the idea of sustainability in the wine trade.