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Progress in Planting New White Wine Varietals in Rioja

Rioja has a long history of winemaking and in 1925 became the first wine region in Spain to obtain Denominación de Origen (DO) status.  At both home and abroad, Rioja is most well known for the production of red wines.

Over the last quarter century, the total productive vineyard area of the Rioja D.O. has increased from ca. 40,000 ha to just over 60,000 ha.  During this period black varietals have increased their area whilst white varietals have shown a small decrease.  As a result, white varietals have moved from occupying 23% of the total productive vineyard area in 1985 to occpying only 6% of the total vineyard in 2012.

Over the last five years the areas of total black and total white varietals have remained more or less unchanged.  Yet this should not be mistaken for a period of stasis in the vineyard. Following years of consultation, the Consejo Regulador for D.O Rioja allowed the introduction of nine new varieties in 2007.  This led to a minor revolution in the vineyard, the results of which are only just beginning to be experienced.

White Rioja is produced predominantly from the varietal Viura (which is known outside of Rioja as Macabeo).  In 2008 Viura accounted for 96% of the white varietals vineyard, but in the wake of the new regulations growers have taken the opportunity to replace Viura with other varietals.  The apparent reason for this is that Viura, with its tendancy towards low aromatics and neutral characteristics, often yields wines which are of simple nature and soon forgotten.  Only careful vine management, which usually means lower than average yields on sites away from the valley floors, can produce quality fruit.  A small number of producers such as Allende and Marqués de Murrieta couple carefully selected fruit with barrel fermentation and battonage which yield complex wines capable of ageing, but these are perhaps of minority interest.

The traditionally permitted blending partners for Viura have been Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.  Together these account for less than 100 ha of vineyards, so supply is very limited.  The Consejo Regulador revisions of 2007 permitted the use of three native white varietals, namely Tempranillo Blanco, Maturana Blanca and Turruntes.  More controversial was the decision to allow plantings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo, which are neither native nor traditional varietals.  To date growers have tended to opt for the non-native varietals, with Tempranillo Blanco being the only new native varietal to be taken up to any significant extent.  Verdejo is now the most planted secondary white grape varietal in Rioja.

America’s Love Affair with New Zealand Wine

According to an interview with Philip Gregan (CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers) the US will become the number one market for New Zealand wine within two years.  Is this prediction likely to come about, and what of their traditional markets of Australia and the UK?

Looked at in terms of export volumes, in 2012-13 Australia, the UK and the US were the three largest makets and were each importing 40 – 50 million litres of wine (the vast majority of it Sauvignon Blanc).  The UK had been the largest market by volume for New Zealand wine since 1990, a position it has just given up to Australia.  The recent sharp drop in exports of New Zealand wine to the UK is entirely due to a reduction of bulk wine exports from 27 million litres to the UK in 2011-12, down to 17 million litres in 2012-13.  Over the corresponding period, bulk wine exports from New Zealand to Australia dropped by 4 million litres while bulk wine exports to the US increased by 1 million litres. The overall decline in bulk wine exports was a consequence of the smaller 2012 vintage (194 million litres produced, compared with 235 million litres the previous year).  With 2013 providing the largest harvest ever, and a production of 248 million litres, some producers are likely to again turn to bulk exports rather than increase inventories.  UK supermarkets’ own brand Kiwi Sauvignon may well still have life left in it and the UK could return to being the largest importer country by volume in 2013-14.

When looked at from the viewpoint of revenues, the export story is a little different.  The UK and US each accounted for ca. NZ$280 million of revenue in 2012-13, while Australia’s market was worth NZ$373 million.  The Australian market is showing clear signs of saturation (if not backlash) for Kiwi Sauvignon and looks set to plateau around the NZ$400 million mark.  The UK market also looks to be reaching saturation and may well plateau around NZ$300-350 million.  By contrast, exports of high-value packaged wine to the US have doubled by volume in only seven years and show no signs of slowing.  The total revenue from the US looks set to easily break through the NZ$400 million mark, taking the no. 1 spot in the process, but without an increased promotional programme it might require three to four years rather than two.

Yet for all the upbeat talk of volumes and revenues, it shouldn’t be forgotten that New Zealand wine producers have had their fair share of backruptcies and liquidations in recent years.  Export values (expressed as NZ$/litre) to the three largest markets have declined significantly, even ignoring the effects of inflation, over the past five years.  While this is only one factor affecting winery profitability, it remains an important one.  Until this downward trend can be reversed, further consolidation within the New Zealand wine industry seems highly likely.

The Increasing Commercial Success of Rias Baixas

Rias Baixas is already one of the most important white wine producing regions of Spain. Only Rueda and La Mancha have significantly larger white wine sales and much of La Mancha’s sales are derived from low value bulk exports. According to figures published by Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment, in 2011-12 the average revenue for Rias Baixas’ wine was €5.7/litre, compared to Rueda’s average revenue of €3.0/litre.

Located within Galicia in northwestern Spain, Rias Baixas is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and by Portugal to the south. The highly indented coastline with many headlands and inlets (rias in Galician) has come about by the drowning of river valleys.  Deeply dissected metamorphic rocks and granites, which give rise to steep slopes and coarse-grained alluvial soils, underlie the vineyards.  This topography has led to the Rias Baixas vineyard being highly fragmented.  Since the beginning of the 21st century the Rias Baixas vineyard has almost doubled in size and now stands at 4,048 ha.  This total is made up from 23,232 separate parcels of vines, so the average vineyard parcel size is a mere 0.15 ha.


Wine production has more or less increased in line with the increase in vineyard area, though vintage variation can have a marked affect on yields.  There was a particularly low yield in 2012, which has been attributed to unusually low temperatures and heavy rainfall in June resulting in very poor fruit set.  Winemaking facilities tend to be small with only four of the 177 bodegas producing more than 5,000 hl in 2012.  Domestic sales of Rias Baixas wines currently account for ca. 80% of total sales, though this figure was down to 74% in 2011-12 as supplies tightened.

Exports have continued to grow and appear to be an increasingly important priority for producers. The Americas account for the majority of exports by volume, of which the US is by far the largest market. Europe has shown
steady, if less spectacular growth. The largest markets by volume in Europe are the UK, Germany and Switzerland.

The Restructuring of the Sicilian Vineyard

The recent release by the Instituto Regionale Vini e Oli (IRVV) of data concerning the area of grape varietals in Sicily in 2012 provides an opportunity to take a look at one aspect of how the Sicilian vineyard has restructured during the 21st century.

In 1987 Sicily had 202,000 ha of wine vineyards.  The following year the EU introduced a vine pull scheme in response to its structural problem of wine overproduction.  This resulted in the uprooting of many Sicilian vineyards, so that by the beginning of the 21st century the Sicilian wine vineyard totalled ca. 138,000 ha.   White varietals then occupied 78% of the  vineyard area.  During the early 21st century the total vineyard area has continued to decrease and had declined to 108,595 ha by 2012.  Initially decreases were primarily due to the loss of white varietals, but more recently the overall ratio of black to white varietals has remained roughly constant at approximately 36% to 64%.  There is though considerable regional variation.  Western Sicily (provinces of Trapani, Palermo and Agrigento) contains 90% of the Sicilian vineyard, of which 71% is white.  By contrast, in eastern Sicily (provinces of Catania, Messina, Siracusa and Ragusa), which contains only 6% of the Sicilian vineyard, 90% of the vines are black varietals.

White Varietals

The removal of white varietals from the Sicilian vineyard has disproportionately affected native varietals and, in particular, Catarratto.  Used mainly to produce grape concentrate, or sent for distillation,  Catarratto has often been thought of as an inferior varietal.   Renewed interest for use in table wines has seen the vineyard area of  the biotype Catarratto Bianco lucido increase at the expense of the less well regarded Catarratto Bianco comune.   Neither Inzolia nor Trebbiano are commonly used to produce quality table wines and both have been major casualties of the continued Sicilian vineyard restructuring.

Chardonnay is the most notable white international varietal in Sicily and is used to produce table wine, sparkling wine and even desert wine.  Its growth pattern appears to have leveled off, as does that of the more recently introduced Viognier.  Grillo has traditionally been used as a component for high quality Marsala.   Increased recognition of its potential as a table wine has come about as clonal selections have helped reduce problems of coulure.  Grillo’s presence in the Sicilian vineyard has shown impressive growth during the 21st century.


Black Varietals

Compared with their white counterparts, black indigenous varietals have fared rather better in terms of retaining their place in the Sicilian vineyard.  The most import black varietal, and the second most planted varietal in Sicily, is Nero d’Avola.  Its area peaked in 2008 at 19,304 ha.   Although this area  had declined to 17,580 ha by 2012, this figure is still well above its area at the beginning of the centruy.  Nerrelo mascalese and Narello cappuccio are both natives of Etna.  Despite increased interest in table wines from Etna, both varietals have been in decline this century.


The black internataional varietals Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were first introduced to Sicily in the 19th century.  Their more recent history and reintroduction followed work by the IRVV in the 1990s.  The IRVV also trialled and recommended the planting of Syrah.   These three varietals showed rapid growth off a small base in the early part of the 2000s, but since about 2005 their areas have levelled off and are currently showing small declines.


More than just Icewine: Canadian Production Growth

Canada produces both table grapes (chiefly Vitis labrusca) and wine grapes (Vitis vinifera and hybrids).  Approximately 80% of the grapes produced in Canada are used for wine production.

Wine grape production by province

Wine grape acreage has been increasing steadily over the past twenty years. From a country total of 4,555 ha in 1993, this figure had risen to 11,139 ha in 2011.  The majority of wine grapes are grown in Ontario and British Columbia, with smaller amounts being produced in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

Broadly speaking, Canadian wine grapes are used to produce two types of products.  About half are blended with imported bulk wine or must to produce an International Canadian Blend (ICB).  Confusingly, these products are labelled as “Cellared in Canada” even though the local content of ICB wines in Ontario varied from 60% in 2009 to only 1% in 2005.  Because the Canadian wine industry is small and costs compared to international competitors are high, there is a strong financial incentive for blending.  Pronounced vintage variations in Canadian grape production have also supported proponents of the use of imported must and wine. Ths is especially true for the larger wineries who are looking to produce a “Canadian” brand in the sub $10 price category.  Currently an ICB wine must have a minimum content of 25% Canadian grapes.

The second product class consists entirely of Canadian grapes and meets quality criteria designated by the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).  These are the wines which are of interest to wine enthusiasts and which make up the Canadian export market.


Ontario Grape Production

Just over half of all the Canadian vineyard area is located in Ontario. Grape production here shows a strong vintage variation with 2005 being a particularly poor year due to a late winter freeze.

Of the ca. 60,000 tonnes produced in 2012, approximately one third was white vinifera, one third was red vinifera and one third consisted of French hybrds.  The most important white vinifera varietals are Chardonnay and Riesling.  Smaller quantities of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer are also produced. Red vinifera varietals in order of produced quantity are Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Gamay.

British Columbia

French hybrids constitute less than 3% of the wine grape acreage of British Columbia and hence make only a small contribution to its grape and wine production.  In the late 20th century British Columbia both expanded its vineyard area and changed from predominantly whites to a more even mix of black and white varietals.

The 2011 harvest was evenly split between red and white varietals.  The five most important red varietals by production were Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz.  For whites, the largest producing varietals were Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Blanc.


The growth of the national vineyard and production has meant that wineries are increasingly looking to the export market.   Exports have increased from 7.8 million litres in 2008 to 26.2 million litres in 2012, but value has risen from Can$20.3 million in 2008 to only Can$41.2 million in 2012.  Much of the dilution in terms of $/litre is attributable to sales in the US, which is by far the largest export market by volume.  As a high cost producer, Canada will need to ensure that it does not devalue its products by discounting heavily as production rises.



Australia’s Best Wine Regions – Langton’s Classification V

Langton’s, the important Australian wine auction house, publishes a Classification of top Australian wines every five years. Their latest (Classification V) was published in 2010 and included 123 wines that they regarded as being the “best performing ultra-fine Australian wines”.  What can this classification tell us about the performance of different wine regions and varietals?

Chart showing performance of Langton’s Classification V wines by colour

The Classification divides fine wines into four classes based on auction prices over an extended period.  Hence wines with a limited track record (<12 vintages) are automatically excluded.

The first point to make is that the vast majority (88%) of the included wines are red.  This might can as something of a surprise to lovers of Hunter Valley Semillon, Eden Valley Riesling or Margaret River Chardonnay. All of these wines have representatives in the Langton’s Classification V – just not very many of them.  In 2010, 39% of Australia’s then vineyard total of 152,000 ha was given over to white varietals, so at a top level we may conclude that white wines are an underperforming sector.  Yet varietals such as Pinot Gris and Viognier are relatively recent additions to the Australian vineyard.  Hopefully we can look forward to fine examples of these varietals in future Langton’s Classifications.

Best performing black grape varietals

Unsurprisingly, red wines are dominated by single varietal Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Although Merlot is used in top performing blends, there is currently no single varietal Merlot that makes it into this classification.  Is this one area where the market (and not just in Australia) seems to under-appreciate a potentially great varietal?  Two of the foremost up and coming black varietals in Australia are Tempranillo and Sangiovese, but with a limited track record  it will probably be several future editions of Langton’s before these varietals feature.


The best performing states are South Australia and Victoria with strong representation in all four categories.  In 2010, Victoria’s 26,000 ha of bearing vines was only a third of South Australia’s 72,000 ha, so its degree of representation in Langton’s is impressive.  Fine wines are being produced across the state, but with a particular concentration in the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula regions of the Port Phillip Zone.  South Australia’s finest wines are more evenly spread across the state with representations from the Barossa Zone (Barossa Valley, Eden Valley), the Mount Lofty Ranges Zone (Clare Valley, Adelaide), the Fleurieu Zone (McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek) and the Limestone Coast Zone (Coonawarra).