Size Matters: How Semiotics is Making History in the World of Wine

Kerri Lesh
University of Nevada, Reno

A “historic milestone” for the Spanish wine-making region of Rioja has been making headlines in the wine world. A new labeling strategy was approved that will shape the way producers from Rioja can market their wine after the 2017 harvest. This decision illustrates the efforts that have been made on behalf of the Asociación de Bodegas de Rioja Alavesa (ABRA) to differentiate the wines of the Basque zone of Rioja Alavesa, and will now apply to all producers in the Rioja wine-making Designation of Origen (DOC).

On August 11, the decision was made by the Regulatory Board of Rioja DOC to allow for wines to be labeled by “zona”(zone) and “villa”(town or municipality), as well as “viñedos singulares” or single vineyard wine. This ruling comes after more than forty bodegas had been working to develop a new Designation of Origin (DO), called Viñedos de Álava or, in Basque, Arabako Mahastiak. The latest decision has, then, been made to halt the efforts to create the Alavesa label, and to allow the DOC of Rioja to follow through with its new agreement.

The Vice President of ABRA, Carlos Fernández, commented on the Dastatu Rioja Alavesa blog that, “This began many years ago with the demand for a font size to acknowledge the distinct subzones of the Rioja DOC.” Up until now, the permitted subzones, now simply called “zones,” had to be displayed using a smaller font size than that of the larger “Rioja” DOC indication. The three zones–Alta, Alavesa, and Baja (the latter recently changed to Oriental or “Eastern”)–can now be listed in a font equal in size to that of the larger designation of “Rioja.”

rioja lobel

Bottle label from Ostatu displaying the previous font specifications

Bittor Oroz, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Fishing, and Food Policy for the Basque Government, expands on the importance of making “place” more visible by referencing the concept of terroir, as stated in Noticias de Alava:

“People look for the origin of the wine they consume, they want to link it to the terroir…they are looking for something more than just the quality of the product, but rather the story behind the wine, the histories that lie behind a glass, and being able to focus in on a particular bodega, on the places where it is cultivated and produced.  Because of that, it is important to identify those spaces and give them their due value.”

The importance of this new agreement highlights the challenges of selling wine within various markets, in such a way whereby identity and traceability are not lost. This particular use of semiotics is in part driven by the producers’ and consumers’ desire for a unique, traceable, and well-marketed wine.

A portion of my research in the Basque Country entails the observation of how semiotics and the concept of terroir are implemented in marketing local gastronomic products.  Alongside Anne Lally, I have co-organized and chaired the panel titled Taste and Terroir as Anthropological Matter. This panel will be featured at the annual American Anthropological Association meeting, to be held this November in Washington D.C.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or concerns at kerri.lesh@gmail.com.

1 Comment

Filed under AAA 2017 Washington DC, anthropology, Spain, wine

One response to “Size Matters: How Semiotics is Making History in the World of Wine

  1. Pingback: Kerri Lesh posts on Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition blog – Basque Books and More Blog

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