Millar's Tale: No Spain, no gain
As storms crash around the UK and we look ahead to the increasingly common March snows, it may seem that to speak about seasons at all is now hopelessly old-fashioned.
But am I being nostalgic in thinking that we used to have a spring tasting season (mainly new vintages from Europe) and an autumn tasting season (get your range together before Christmas), punctuated by the occasional en primeur or importer-specific portfolio tasting in the spaces between?
If it was ever true once, it’s certainly not true now. Invitations to tastings, lunches, dinners and trade shows arrive daily in my inbox. It’s not always clear what the focus of the tasting is, or why I, or anyone else, should take time out of their day to attend. I do my best, but going to tastings isn’t the only part of my job, and I’m forced to become increasingly picky about what’s worth the time.
One of the most valuable types of tasting to emerge in the past decade, especially following on from SITT and the Dirty Dozen, is the large- scale joint portfolio tasting. As a buyer, these are extremely useful, especially when you already have active accounts with most people in the room.
A great example of this is the recent Viñateros tasting organised by Westbury Communications, focusing on new wave Spanish wineries from the portfolios of 12 UK agents. It was in London’s Lindley Hall, a venue whose capacity for tables is equalled only by its capacity for noise, but there was undeniably a sense of energy and optimism in the room. I arrived at 10.30am and there was a queue to get in.
Spain’s transformation from a source of cheap wine – cheap old wine, cheap young wine, cheap fizzy wine – to being far and away the most dynamic of the major European wine producers has been thrilling to be part of as an independent retailer.
Everywhere you look, change is happening, and most of it, encouragingly, is in response to the market. Rioja is bravely or foolishly shaking up an appellation system that has brought it to the peak of popularity in the UK in the hope that it will open up markets for a greater range of styles. Ribera del Duero is slowly starting to move slightly more in the direction of freshness and drinkability, even though there are many over- oaked wines that are as reminiscent of the 1990s as Push Pops and Y2K.
Cava is changing too, moving towards higher quality, including organic certification for top vineyards, even as many of the leading estates have been spun off into the relatively new and untested Corpinnat classification. Albariño soldiers on without much change, but in Gredos, Priorat, Tenerife and Jumilla it’s all to play for. Even in sleepy Jerez, producers like Willy Pérez and Ramiro Ibáñez at Cota 45 are pioneering dry, unfortified Palomino with astonishing results. This could easily become the future for the region, and quickly.
Too many trade tastings seem to occur for the sake of it, and even fewer have something new to tell us. Viñateros was the rare tasting that had me leaving the room regretting I couldn’t stay longer. Thank goodness they didn’t provide lunch.