As recently as December, plans to split off the Basque part from the rest of the Rioja DOCa were rejected. Now, however, the Basque regional government has approved the DO "Arabako Mahastiak - Viñedos de Álava". The reaction of the Rioja Consejo Regulador which has responsibility for the the Rioja DOCa, was not long in coming: "The Consejo maintains the position the parliament has already taken on this issue several times: strict non-approval."
Disputed quality hierarchy
The Basques want to break away from the rest of Rioja because they disagree with the traditional quality hierarchy of Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. For the Basques, using barrel and bottle maturity as quality criteria ignores too many parameters. They justify this position by pointing at the low prices supermarkets charge for some Reserva and Gran Reserva Rioja. These should be more expensive, as Ines Baigorri, Secretary General of the Associación de Bodegas de Rioja Alavesa (ABRA), complains to international media.
The Basque move is only a short term victory however. The DO status requires EU agreement to become official, and the Consejo Regulador does not want it to get that far: on Friday, 21 October, it will consider possible legal steps to prevent it.
Only hand-harvest and no sparkling wine
The Basque side has already published the regulations for the DO Arabako Mahastiak - Viñedos de Álava. As requested by ABRA, the ageing schedule is not included. Instead, the Basques have tightened other parameters, as well as completely eliminating sparkling wines.
In the rest of Rioja, manual harvesting is only mandatory for the single vineyard category 'Viñedo Singular' and for sparkling wines. In the Basque DO, mechanical harvesting is forbidden as a matter of principle, and small harvesting containers are also required. The maximum yields per hectare are also smaller elsewhere in Rioja: In the new DO, a maximum of 6 tonnes per hectare is permitted for red and 8 for white. Up to now, the maximum DOCa Rioja yields have been 6.5 tonnes and 9 tonnes respectively.
Other parameters include a more narrowly defined planting density (3,000 - 6,000 vines per hectare as opposed to 2,850 - 10,000) and higher minimum alcohol levels. In addition, specific rules for the production of organic wines are to be stipulated.