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“Perhaps it is necessary to regulate for a two-speed Rioja”.

Luis Martínez Lacuesta at the University of La Rioja Course 'Denominations of Origin in the 21st Century'.

28 Oct 2023 |

Last week, the University of La Rioja held the course Las Denominaciones de Origen en el XXVI century, two days of debate on the model of regulation of Rioja and the institutional framework in which the Control Board operates.

Within this framework, Luis Martínez Lacuesta took part in the round table discussion on Friday 20 October. Regulation versus deregulation with Rafael del Rey, from the Spanish Organisation of Wine Markets; Berta Valgañón, a young winemaker from Cuzcurrita, Abel Torres, from Fincas de Azabache and Eduardo Hernáiz, Bodega La Emperatriz. Alberto Gil, a journalist from the newspaper La Rioja, moderated the event.

Here we highlight some of the statements made by Luis Martínez Lacuesta during his speech.

Historical notes

“My great-uncle José Martínez Lacuesta was, from 1920 to 1930, President of the Exporters Associationwhich was then for many years the Breeders and Exporters Group and today is the Rioja Groupbut before that there had been a similar organisation presided over by his elder brother, Félix Martínez Lacuesta, who was the Rioja Exporters’ Union founded in 1907. In other words, associations seeking to unite to defend Rioja existed even before the creation of the Denomination of Origin”.

“Félix Martínez Lacuesta was a great fighter against the Free Ports. At that time, many wines came from France to Rioja and were sent to the seaports, especially Pasajes, and from there they were exported as Rioja. My grandfather’s uncle asked them to pay taxes and stop selling them as Rioja. I believe that this is the seed of that first regulation because in this type of trade union it was already suggested that a seal should be used to identify Rioja wines. In fact, they managed to put an end to the Puertos Francos, which had been permitted since 14 July 1894”.

The reality of Rioja

“From the Asociación de Bodegas por la Calidad we have always pointed out that in the future we might have to regulate a two-speed Rioja. I believe that this is a reality. There are wineries that have the capacity to make a wine of a higher level and another of a more economical level”.

To regulate or not to regulate

“The debate is about regulation or no regulation. Everything has to be regulated but the question we have to ask in this debate is if we regulate everything, is the end consumer able to perceive that more regulation gives more guarantee. That is the debate at the end of the day. We advocate regulation but not so exhaustive, especially at the bureaucratic level”.

“From the Association we have asked for a more lax regulation. For example, Rioja requires that for a winery to be classified as a crianza winery it must have at least 50 barrels. Perhaps it is not necessary for a winery to have 50 barrels to be classified as a crianza winery, but we defend that if you have 5 barrels and you can be a crianza winery you cannot sell, for example, 35,000 bottles between crianza and reserva.” “The Association has asked for a more lax regulation. For example, Rioja requires that for a winery to be classified as a crianza winery it has to have at least 50 barrels. Maybe it is not necessary for a winery to have 50 barrels to be classified as a crianza winery, but we defend that if you have 5 barrels and you can be a crianza winery, you cannot sell 35,000 bottles between crianza and reserva, for example”.

“We have been arguing for a long time in the board that if you have one barrel, the sales have to correspond to that number of barrels. 50 barrels and 80,000 bottles of Reserva is a miracle that I don’t know how to do”.

New descriptions and the usual rioja

“I think that the new description of Rioja wines is very correct. But I don’t like to call it categorisation. I think that a wine can be a singular vineyard and fall into the categories of crianza, reserva and gran reserva”.

“We must not give up what has made us great. Recently a gran reserva from Rioja has been considered Best Wine in the World and that is a source of pride for all of us. We have to make people lose their fear. Just because it is a gran reserva, it doesn’t have to be an old wine”.

“And regulation, yes, as long as it makes sense and is aimed at greater understanding on the part of the end consumer, who is the one who pays for our wines and recognises our prestige. I think what we need to do is help brands more, give brands more weight and not hide everything under the Rioja umbrella, which is a very long shadow in which we all fit, but there is always someone who sneaks in”.

Luis Martinez Lacuesta in the course "Denominations of Origin in the 21st century".
Luis Martinez Lacuesta in the course “Denominations of Origin in the 21st century”.

Consumer confusion

“When you go to a shelf and you are finding reservations at €3.85, the problem is not whether I am able to make a reservation at that price. The problem is that when the consumer arrives and sees the word ‘reservation’ and his head starts to generate doubts. That is the reality we were talking about before and if that is the case, there must be a first-class Rioja and a second-class Rioja. What I am not willing to do is to be criticised because my bottle is worth 8 instead of 3.85. The consumer thinks I am cheating him or her. Consumers think that I am cheating them, not that it is the 3.85 that is cheating them. The fact that it says the same thing is that it has the same endorsement. I understand the difficulties of the council and it is true that perhaps wineries and winegrowers should make it easier for them and provide them with more resources if we want more control”.

“But in this price war you have to be clear about one thing, quality first and then price.”

The consumer is not stupid

“We wineries often believe that the consumer is stupid. And people are not stupid. You put a cheap cucumber of wine and you run out of wine two days later. And you put an expensive firecracker and they buy the first three bottles. People are not stupid. There have been years when people came to the winery and gave you wine lessons. We do manual racking by gravity. It is our style. We don’t demonise mechanical racking or mechanical harvesting or anything like that. Everything done well is fine. But people don’t value some of the more traditional practices because they don’t know them. When you show it to them and try to show the value of it, people know what it entails”.

And the final anecdote

“Many people come to the winery and say that what they like most are the wines of the year, the young wines. In the final tasting of the visit, we only give Reserva or Gran Reserva. In 16 years, no one, absolutely no one, has ever returned a glass or told me that I don’t like this wine. So do they like young wines because they are fresher as they say or because they are cheaper?”