The Battle for Spanish Terroir

As a determined band of Spain’s top terroir-focused winemakers continues to win support for its cause, the country’s consejos face a choice: do they resist, or do they adapt?

All fine wine makers will tell you that great wines are made in the vineyard. Rather than put his or her stamp too obviously on the wines, it is the vintner’s job to work with what nature has given them and do their best to create a liquid expression of the land where the grapes were grown. It’s curious then, that one of the world’s oldest and most respected wine-producing nations – Spain – has taken the opposite approach for so long, choosing instead to emphasise the importance of barrel ageing as a quality signifier.

Rioja, Spain’s most famous and profitable wine region, has centred its entire marketing message on oak ageing, building a four-tier structure based on the amount of time the wines spend in barrel and bottle before release, with gran reserva wines reputed to be of the highest quality purely based on the fact that they have been aged for two years in barrel and a further three in bottle.

The system emerged in the late 19th century, when estates in Rioja took the Champagne approach of buying in grapes from small growers across the region from which to make wines in their signature house style, stripping Rioja of its connection to the land and ushering in the barrel ageing system as a quality standard, which was largely copied by other regions in Spain in a bid to emulate Rioja’s success.

Last December, this archaic system was called into question when Alava-based Artadi, one of Rioja’s finest producers, run by Juan Carlos López de Lacalle, took the bold step of leaving the Rioja DOCa due to a dissatisfaction with the organisation and its lack of focus on terroir. Lacalle feels his wines have more in common with those made in Bordeaux and Burgundy than Rioja, due to their sense of place and reflection of origin.

Championing single-vineyard wines in Rioja Alavesa, including the highly sought-after El Pison, he describes the decision to leave as “long and pondered”, but believes he and his team will work more constructively now that they are free from the restraints of the presiding Consejo Regulador.

“We face this new chapter with optimism and excitement. We must keep the historical and cultural legacy inherited from our ancestors alive. We cherish this responsibility and vow to preserve this legacy in order to hand over the baton to future generations of vine growers,” Lacalle said in a statement on the Artadi website at the time of the announcement.

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