Any lover of Spanish wine who has not been living in a cave for the last year will know that extraordinary things are happening in the Rioja region. It is all about the way a wine bottle’s back label is not permitted to specify the exact area of the region the grapes used to make the wine come from. One of the top bodegas, Artadi, decided it wants nothing more to do with Rioja and “resigned”. From one day to the next its products could no longer claim to be from Spain’s flagship region and became classified instead as “vino de mesa” (“table wine”).

Denomination Upheaval - Home & Lifestyle Magazine

Of the three main geographical zones, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa, the latter has always been considered the best; and, while the great Riojas are made here, it is alleged, perhaps rather unfairly, that in the other areas they make “supermarket” wines that are sold for a few euros. Such is the vagueness of the DO rules that the 600 bodegas in the denomination can buy grapes anywhere for unlimited blending, so that the winery’s actual location is no guide to where the grapes were grown. Not so different actually from Champagne, where 80 per cent of the big houses have no vineyards and buy grapes from small farmers all over the region.

Clearly the blue-chip wineries want it to be known they only use the Alavesa grapes but, since a “supermarket” wine currently has the same back label as a €200 one, it seems unfair they should not be allowed to make single-vineyard wines and emphasise the importance of terroir. A big bust-up will not help Rioja’s image, so let’s hope the rule-makers agree with the owner of Murrieta, Vicente Cebrian: “Rioja needs changing but not breaking up.”

INTERNATIONAL TASTING IN LA RIOJA

A colleague who just got back from the Cata de la Estacion recounted to me the huge interest in the event. The “Station Tasting” is a now annual gathering of wine critics and writers from all over the world that home in on the urban centre of Haro, capital of La Rioja, where the oldest-established, and some of the best, wineries are situated. These include López Heredia, CVNE, Rioja Alta, Bilbaínas, Muga, Roda and, most importantly for this article, Gómez Cruzado.

This bodega is possibly the smallest and least-known of the “Station district”, but with some of the best wines. Its history is interesting. It was started in 1886 by a direct descendent of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, Mexican Angel Gómez de Arteche. It changed hands in 1916 when it was bought by the Gómez Cruzado brothers, and from then until the end of the last century it continued to develop slowly but commendably. A group of investors bought it in 1990 and in 2003 it was sold to the present owners, another Mexican family, which probably explains why the wines are some of the best-selling Riojas in the old Aztec kingdom.

In a very smart move, and to follow the new trend of Rioja in producing wines of a less classical style, the owners brought in as directors rising star winemaker David González and his partner Juan Antonio Leza. The results have been little short of sensational and, apart from revamping the original range of wines, the two trendsetters have introduced some “modern” Riojas, making Gomez Cruzado the most forward-looking winery in Haro, and in the top 10 for all Rioja.

The Crianza (around €11) is a classic Tempranillo with a touch of Garnacha, and the Reserva (€17) preserves its classic style but with a very satisfying modern touch. The limited-production Honorable (10,000 bottles: €24) is one of the oldest and most recognisable labels from the bodega, but the recently launched Pancrudo 2011 (€32) is a revelation. It is a “terroir-based” wine with only 2,000 bottles made, using the currently fashionable Garnacha grape, and matured in what the bodega quaintly calls “egg-shaped concrete vats”, but which are in fact small qvevri, the clay pots that are used traditionally in Georgia to make and mature wine and which are catching on in many winemaking countries (now on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – a local bodega in Ronda has just started using them). To complete the range of “new” wines, there is Cerro Las Cuevas (€38) and a fabulous white, Montes Obarenes (€42), apart from the regular white, Blanco 2013 (€10), also matured in the “concrete eggs”. In a blind tasting in Marbella, no taster identified any of the wines as being from the Gómez Cruzado stable, but all were unanimous in pronouncing them “excellent, far above the average for even top Riojas…”

Denomination Upheaval - Home & Lifestyle Magazine

Uniquely perhaps, here we have a classic winery with a pedigree that equals any other of the established Bodegas de la Estación but that, possibly owing to the Mexican connection, has not had the exposure in Spain its wines deserve. Until, that is, some mastermind hit on the idea of bringing in two young and modernising oenologists who have succeeded in turning everything on its head and achieving the place for Gómez Cruzado that its wines deserve.