Spanish Wine Industry Gets Political

Rioja Alavesa overlaps with the famously secessionist Basque Country.
© Wikimedia Commons | Rioja Alavesa overlaps with the famously secessionist Basque Country.
Politics and wine are aligning in Spain as the industry – and the country – struggles to hold together.
By James Lawrence | Posted Tuesday, 07-Sep-2021

The parallels between Spain's political climate and its wine industry become stronger with each passing day.

Its national government, held together by a fragile coalition of 'left leaning' parties, took a beating in a recent regional election.  Spain's leaders preside over a bitterly divided society, not least concerning the government's response to the pandemic. The far-right party Vox, champions of Franco-esq social conservatism, are gaining ground in key federal states like Andalucia. An appetite for regional separatism in Catalunya has not disappeared. 

Related stories:
Cava's Last Shot at Survival
Uncertainty Reigns in Spain's Strange Vintage
Struggling in Rioja's Shadow

A  nationwide consensus on the best future direction for Spain in the 21st century? Don't make me laugh.

Back in the world of wine, many producers in Rioja are fiercely opposed to the proposed succession of over 45 wineries in the Alavesa sub-zone –  particularly as the zone partly falls under the administrative boundaries of the Basque Country. The breakaway group has petitioned the EU to create a new appellation within the Basque region: Vi?edos de álava. Brussels will now consider their request. Former friends and colleagues are at war.

In Catalunya, the fledgling designation Corpinnat recently welcomed another winery into its association. As it stands today, Corpinnat's leaders have no intention of resubmitting to the rules of the Cava DO.  After decades of being pacified under one overarching appellation banner, coalitions of breakaway wineries have developed a taste for power. And they want more of it.

"In 2020, I discussed the proposal to create a new designation within the Riojan boundaries with Bittor Oroz, the  Basque Country's vice councilor for agricultural affairs. Of course, no one will be forced to leave the Rioja DO, but there are many wineries who have already left, and others who want to leave," explains Jose Urtasun, co-owner of Remirez de Ganuza.

"Unfortunately, like everything related to the Basque Country, the proposal is controversial and is obviously highly charged politically. If this was any other region, we'd be talking about technical details."

Although Urtasun has decided to remain under the Rioja banner – for now – he sympathizes with their cause.

As winemaker Victor de la Serna frequently remarks: "Appellation bodies in Spain defend a lowest common-denominator quality wise." Debates concerning the stigmatization of Spanish wine as "good value" have been raging for decades, as premium wineries repeatedly cast the DO frameworks as cuckold mouthpieces for the volume-led producers. The large exporters had no interest  in terroir classification, and so Spanish appellations were historically marketed as monolithic entities, with no due recognition to any differential in vineyard quality. Moreover, recent attempts to pacify the discontented with new single-vineyard designations have failed. Like the electorate that destroyed the Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) vote share in recent local elections, a growing firmament of winemakers want a new beginning. Nothing less.

"As long as Rioja is Spain's best-known appellation, it will be led by volume producers with different priorities to the quality-focused labels. Consumers recognize the name, which is clearly a good thing, and yet its primary reputation is for value," says Urtasun.

"So this new designation is just another response to all the disappointment that many small producers and quality producers have with the DOCa Rioja. Time will tell whether their endeavors will prove successful."

Playing politics

However, the group will undoubtedly have a prolonged battle on its hands. The association of Spanish wine councils, headed up by David Palacios, is one of 17 organizations that has attempted to curtail the separatists' plans. He told the Spanish newspaper El Correo that "at first glance, the proposal is politically motivated. Rioja already offers the diversity that is sought by the group. They want to create something that is neither demanded by the sector or necessary."

From the outset, the wineries involved have strenuously denied that they are just playing politics. "This is not about Basque politics and Basque independence – this is about establishing an appellation to ensure a sustainable economic model for smaller Rioja Alavesa producers," said Compa?on Arrieta, winemaker at El Mozo wines. But it is perhaps apt that the breakaway group is geographically aligned with the birthplace of Spanish separatist terrorism.

Of course, departures from appellations are far from unknown in Europe. Italy's modern wine revolution was sparked by a decision of leading Chianti producers to sell their wines as Vino da Tavola,  while Sandro Boscaini took his Campofiorin out of the Valpolicella DOC, marketing it as an IGT.

And yet, Chianti Classico has put its cards in order. Many of the region's top winemakers proudly market a Chianti Classico label, in addition to an IGT Super Tuscan.

But one suspects that the Spanish wine scene is likely to become more fragmented, as the regulatory councils are stymied by the wishes of the biggest firms. The largest exporters are responsible for Rioja's renown and prosperity, albeit at price points that leave many dissatisfied. Radical change cannot happen with their approval –- and they say nunca! Consequently,  it is becoming nightmarish for Spanish appellations to keep everyone happy in the 21st Century. Pepe Raventos left the Cava DO in 2012 – Bodegas Artadi waved adios to Rioja in 2015. And so it goes on.

It is perhaps a minor miracle that Spain's bureaucracies have held together such a minefield of contrasting priorities under one flag for so long. The Spanish practically invented schismatic politics; this is a relatively young democracy that presides over voters with often fierce attachments to regional identities first, and nationality second. Catalunya's independence movement is still the single most divisive topic among Catalans in 2021. Advocating Basque separatism in Madrid is a surefire way of making enemies for life. Spaniards can also now argue about the region-by-region handling of the covid crisis – economically disastrous or prudently cautious? If life does indeed imitate art, then Spanish wine and politics are becoming inseparable bedfellows.

When Artadi announced its decision to succeed from the Rioja DO six years ago, the fallout was minimal, at least on a practical level. Any fears within the Consejo Regulador authority of a domino effect in the region were unfounded; a critical mass of the region's most prestigious brands voiced their desire to remain within the DO.

Yet we live in a zeitgeist where identity politics are king. Spain's winemaking elite are increasingly drawn towards points of difference, not similarity. The level of tolerance towards homogeneous representation among Spain's premium brands has seemingly reached a historic low. If Vi?edos de álava turns out to be a success, with higher prices to match, then the domino-effect scenario isn't implausible. Rioja needs Benjamin Contador more than he needs the nomenclature. Artadi reports that the brand has thrived since they decided to go it alone.

It isn't inconceivable that the authorities in Cava and Rioja may decide to embrace radical change, sufficient in the eyes of disaffected wineries to halt their plans for self-renewal. But neither is it particularly likely. Just as Vox's manifesto pledge to "reconquer Spain from the Muslims" is unlikely to seduce urban liberals, regional DOs are broadcasting antiquated messages to producers like Artadi, despite the surface-level desire for change. As owner Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle says: "The Rioja DO is simply too large – there is no other appellation covering such a large vineyard area in the world."

Equally, reactionary voices in Spanish wine and politics are far from toothless. Historians may look back at this period and wonder what went wrong. Unless something drastic happens, consensus in Spanish wine and politics will be irretrievably lost.

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