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Spain's New Approach

A growing number of winemakers are upending tradition in their pursuit of terroir. Thomas Matthews. Issue: October 15, 2016
"Rioja made a big mistake. We focused on gran reserva, rather than grand cru." When Álvaro Palacios made this observation, in 2012, he was standing in an old-vine Garnacha vineyard at his Bodegas Palacios Remondo estate in Rioja Baja. During the past 30 years, he has made brilliant wines from Rioja, Priorat and Bierzo, always seeking out old vines and focusing on distinctive terroir.
But Spanish wine law mostly takes a different approach.
Rioja is a large wine region, with more than 150,000 acres of vineyards. That's three times the size of Napa Valley. Yet unlike Napa, which is divided into 16 distinctive subappellations, all of Rioja
comprises only one geographic designation. Instead of geography, Rioja's quality designations focus on aging. "Cosecha" wines may be released directly after harvest; "crianza" wines must spend a year in oak and another in the cellar before release; and "reserva" and "gran reserva" wines have more extended aging requirements.
In theory, bodegas will choose only their best wines—whether barrel or vineyard selections—to bottle with the higher designations. But even when this is the case, there is no obligation for transparency as to origin. A gran reserva may be blended from widely disparate vineyard plots, and the blends may change from year to year.
This system frustrates vintners such as Palacios who believe that a wine's greatest responsibility is to embody its speci

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