Spanish wine: into the unknown

Madrid’s main avenues were a sea of blue and purple Podemos flags this month as thousands of the unemployed, the disaffected and the impoverished protested against austerity.

The protestors were spurred on by victory for left-wing party Syriza in Greece and fighting talk of wiping out some of the nation’s crippling debt, so they threw their backing behind anti- austerity Podemos.

The Spanish economy has shown tentative signs of recovery in recent months but, like Greece, the nation is still plagued by a depression that has left 4.5 million people out of work. With millions living below the breadline, there has been little to spend on wine, causing producers to look to exports to stay afloat.

Spain exported 400 million litres more wine in 2014 than in the previous year (OEMV). The UK has been a major beneficiary – it is the number one export market for Rioja, and lesser-known gems from a host of emerging regions are finding their way on to shelves, offering shoppers remarkably complex wines at reasonable prices.

A quick look at the figures makes worrying reading for embattled bodega owners – Spanish wine is down 13% in volume and 7% in value to £502 million in the UK off-trade (Nielsen, year to October 2014).

But these figures do not tell the full story. “There was a huge amount of growth in 2013 as Spain had some of the cheapest prices in Europe,” says Anthony Habert, who looks after Bodegas LAN for Sogrape UK.

“In 2014 we are seeing a rebound. As currency has fluctuated the market has contracted. That’s a function of the lower end of the commodity market. But Rioja is still in growth and higher price points are in growth, and our focus is on these areas.”

Rupert Lovie, brand manager for CVNE at Hatch Mansfield, adds: “Sales are dropping as retail prices rise. Part of this is down to duty and currency, which makes it difficult for Spain to continue to offer sub-£4 wines to the UK market.

“At the other end of the spectrum, where a lot of the CVNE wines operate, we have found the consumer is embracing quality Rioja as an alternative to Bordeaux.”

Alison Easton, head of marketing at Gonzalez Byass, says: “Our experience is actually quite different [from the Nielsen figures]. Our sales have grown by more than 50% year on year in volume, and even more in value. Our portfolio is focused on the premium sector, with wines generally retailing over £8, and sales are buoyant.”

Spanish sparkling wine is soaring in the UK too, as shoppers turn to cava as a more affordable luxury than Champagne. Unlike Prosecco, cava has large, historic brands such as Codorníu and Freixenet to champion the category.

Codorníu is launching an addition to its portfolio – Cuvée Barcelona 1872 – which commemorates the year the brand was launched.

Brand manager Carolyn d’Aguilar says: “We’re committed to innovation and this kind of activity is an ideal way to add value to both the Codorníu brand and the cava category.”

British retailers bringing in wines from regions beyond Rioja are adding value to the Spanish category. “Spain is a broad brush and people have been discovering regions other than Rioja,” says Habert. “Every major off-trade outlet now has a Rias Baixas and Ribera del Duero wine. We have had great success with Santiago Ruiz from Galicia and Duquesa de Valladolid, a 100% Verdejo from Rueda.” Rueda’s vibrant whites and juicy reds have made it a focal point for the likes of Torres, Free Run Wines, Buckingham Schenk and even Aldi.

Easton adds: “Over the past few years there has been a growing awareness of the diversity of regions and styles of wine from Spain, which adds to an understanding of a more premium offering and an acceptance of higher prices. We see no signs of this abating – there are still areas to discover. Somontano in the foothills of the Pyrenees, for example, has a very different identity from other areas.

“There are some outstanding whites and rosés on offer. We are getting a great reaction to some of our newer releases – partially barrel-fermented Verdejo from Finca Constancia, and Pinot Noir rosé from Somontano. And our Viñas del Vero Gewürztraminer has built up a fantastic following.”

But Tempranillo is still king. Rioja’s flagship grape was the only red variety in growth in the off-trade in the final quarter of 2004, according to Nielsen. José Manuel Gallego, export manager at Barwell & Jones’ Bodegas Tobía, says: “It is the most prestigious and known Spanish grape variety. It’s a noble variety, which enables us to provide elegant, subtle wines that are intense and full-bodied at the same time, and this is what the customer is demanding right now.”

Andreas Kubach, managing director at Bodegas Fontana, adds: “The growth of Tempranillo could be mainly a consequence of promotional activity in these categories. However, it seems true that a growing percentage of consumers recognise Tempranillo as a Spanish grape, or at least a Spanish wine style they like, especially when the wines show the ripe berry aromas and moderate tannins the grape is capable of in more elegant styles.

“There is also a nice phonetic quality to the name, it is easy to pronounce while sounding exotic and Mediterranean. All this makes Tempranillo a great asset for Spain on which we should continue building.

“But it is important that more Tempranillos display the grape’s true varietal character. Too many inexpensive examples are grown in climates that are too warm, where the early-ripening Tempranillo quickly loses freshness and definition. We could perhaps combat this if UK buyers were to insist on varietal expression when buying varietal wines and buy Tempranillo from the cooler and higher areas in Castile.”

Gallego warns: “We must remain committed to supporting and championing the quality of our wine, now more than ever, and continue to produce unique wines that are appreciated by consumers.

“It is also important to work closely with our importers and distributors to ensure they communicate our values and those of our wines to the consumer. The fall of Spanish wines in the market is greater in volume than value, and therefore it is important that we invest in wines with an excellent quality-to-price ratio but not necessarily inexpensive wines.”

Spain is a passionate nation – as demonstrated at the protests – and its winemakers bring enthusiasm to its vibrant and varied wines. Hopefully one day its people will no longer have to protest and starve, but in the meantime the wine trade can play its own small part in the recovery by championing Spain’s wines.

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