The Wines of Iberia

Lying side by side on the European continent, Spain and Portugal have a couple of things in common. Both cultivate tempranillo (tinta roriz) and albarino (alvarinho) and in addition to their still wines, they are known for fortified wines: sherry, port and madeira. The strongest connection between the two, however, has got to be the modernization that has taken place in the vineyards and the winery, bringing about wines that make for strong competitors on the international market.

 

Until recently, Spain had been pigeonholed as red wine country. Consumers and press alike saved their best reviews for the tempranillo-based wines, but that is all changing now that the whites of northern Spain are making their mark. One region that has experienced tremendous growth is Rias Baixas. Made from the albarino grape, in the heart of Galicia, the wines of Rias Baixas are influenced by the nearby Atlantic Ocean giving the region a cool, maritime climate that produces crisp wines. “Rias Baixas wine sales in the U.S. experienced nearly 40% growth in 2006, according to the Consejo Regulador Rias Baixas, making the U.S. the top export market for the region,” asserted Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain. Another white wine that has piqued the consumer palate is verdejo from Rueda. Mario Vitale, the U.S. Sales Manager for Marques de Riscal, noted, “There is definitely an upward trend in the sales of our Rueda. It captures something different for the white wine drinker. It’s fruity, crisp, easy-drinking and a bargain in the $8 to $9 range.”

Kym Apotas, wine buyer at Astor Wines and Spirits, a retail store in New York, NY, agreed. “Verdejo is taking off. It’s so like sauvignon blanc and I think that’s a taste a lot of people like. A perennial favorite here is the Basa Blanca from Rueda and we’re selling a lot of the Chamelin Verdejo, made from old vines. It’s a concentrated wine, but still refreshing at the same time.” Both wines retail for under $12.

If there is anything that puts the U.S. wine consumer off it’s a complicated wine label. So the sales of Txacoli, where the labels are written in Basque, from Galicia, are somewhat phenomenal. Made from local grape variety, hondarribi zuri, it’s a wine that offers a slight spritz and should be consumed young and fresh. Kerin Auth, account manager at Tempranillo Inc, the New York based distributor for importing company Fine Estates From Spain, said, “When I started with the company six years ago we sold about 200 cases in a year — total. Last year alone, we sold about 1,000 cases. Txomin Etxaniz was the only Txacoli available in the U.S. for almost 10 years, and now I’m seeing six or seven more brands on the market and I’ve heard that more will be coming. Because of Spanish culture being so popular right now, the general consumer has more knowledge and they are increasingly getting to know what Txacoli is.”

In Rioja

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The country’s best known DO that boasts a history of quality winemaking is Rioja. “Rioja has enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years thanks to a dedicated promotion program (Vibrant Rioja) and to the great number of wines imported into the U.S. from that region,” said Naelapaa, of Wines from Spain. “It has always been the most important red wine producing region of Spain and has been adapting to the changes in consumer demand. It proudly holds on to its tradition of longer barrel aging but has also shown itself capable of producing more modern style wines of greater fruit concentration, aged for shorter periods in new French and American oak barrels, that appeal to the American palate.”

Vineyards in Bierzo, one of the wine-producing regions of Spain creating a buzz.
Photo courtesy Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX); Photographer Juan Ramon Yuste

Among the top five best selling Spanish wines in the U.S., sits two Rioja producers: Marques de Caceres and Marques de Riscal. Vitale added, “In the last five years, we’ve seen an incremental increase in the double digits for Marques de Riscal. It’s the fastest-growing category for Spain.” Marques de Riscal’s sales also reveal that consumers may be upgrading in their purchasing choices. “We are a Reserva Rioja company; we do not sell a Crianza; the Reserva is our bread and butter,” asserted Vitale. At around $16 retail, he added, “People are trading up to the next level of wine. Even our Gran Reserva Rioja has shown growth percentage-wise.”


Marques de Riscal’s sales also reveal that consumers may be upgrading in their purchasing choices. “We are a Reserva Rioja company; we do not sell a Crianza; the Reserva is our bread and butter,” asserted Vitale. At around $16 retail, he added, “People are trading up to the next level of wine. Even our Gran Reserva Rioja has shown growth percentage-wise.”

While the likes of Rioja and Ribera maintain popularity with Americans, there’s been an influx of red wines from newer regions. The trend has encouraged large companies to explore new territory. Freixenet, known for its best-selling Cava, has invested in the new hot regions of Spain. “We needed to diversify into still wines. We’ve been able to attract young winemakers who are bringing something different than their forbearers,” enthused David Brown, Freixenet vice president, marketing director. “The wines of Rioja were overly regulated by the government and were sometimes too tannic and too oaky — they weren’t providing an international style. But Ribera was able to do that, likewise with Priorat, and now all that is extending into other areas of Spain. You hear a lot about Jumilla, Bierzo and Montsant, which makes these intensely dark, rich wines that are a third of the price of Priorat,” Brown said.


One region that has drawn the attention of Freixenet and Osborne is Tierra de Castilla in central Spain. Osborne launched Solaz in 2001, a line of wines made from local and international varietals, retailing in the $9 price range. Freixenet just launched Tape

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