Four months working as an au pair near Madrid was all the time Sarah Jane Evans needed to feel a special connection with a country that was living its last days under Franco. Over the years, Spain became a fascination for her, not least thanks to her acquaintance with Spanish wine —Sherry, in particular— at the University of Cambridge where she studied social and political science.
She combined her work as an associate editor at BBC Good Food magazine with her Master of Wine studies, which she passed in 2006 with a dissertation on the Almacenista producers of Jerez.
She now devotes most of her time to write —she is busy researching a book on the wines of southern Spain and her work features regularly in Decanter— consult and judge in numerous competitions.
A regular visitor to Spain, we met over lunch with her in Vitoria, where she directed a tasting of Basque wines at the IWINETC wine tourism conference before traveling to Madrid to address the inaugural conference at the first International Congress of Traditional Andalusian Wines. Always polite and very friendly, Evans chatted passionately about the diversity of Spanish wines and the challenges ahead.
You lived in Madrid in your youth. What memories do you have from those days?
When I was 16 I went to Paris for a French exchange but I’m afraid Paris and I didn’t fall in love. In fact, it was a terrible teenage experience. I found the French very intelectual and at that time, I thought they ate very strange food. Two years later, in 1972, and before I went to Cambridge, I worked as an au pair for three or four months with a family near El Escorial. It was a very long time ago and Spain is completely different now.
Franco was still alive then.
Yes. I was very innocent and I didn’t think then about the dictatorship and Franco. Madrid was a very different place and there were social classes. I was with a very rich upper-class family —they had a chauffeur, a maid, etc. The first night, the chauffeur was serving dinner because it was the maid’s day off. He gave me the food on the plate over my shoulder and I noticed that his gloves were too small for his hands. My brother had joked with me that the experience was going to be like a Luis Buñuel film and indeed it was. But being 18, I went to every single art gallery, church, museum, and without knowing it I got a huge education of Spain’s Golden Age —funny I learnt all the Catholic saints, having been brought up as a nice protestant girl!.
Did you get to drink wine during your time in Madrid?
Wine was drunk in the house in El Escorial but I don’t remember anything about it. Back then I used to get away every weekend —Toledo, Ávila, Segovia— because I wanted to learn everything. I traveled by train to Mérida, Cáceres and Seville but I never got to Jerez in 1972. Those trips made me really fall in love with Spain and I returned every year once I was in college.
Was Spanish wine popular in England then?
Yes, it was the popular cheap wine and sadly still is. There were a couple of brands and everybody had it around. Many years later, when I lived in London, the first brand I remember was Paternina Banda Azul, which was just everywhere.
Your latest book, The Wines of Northern Spain, starts with the sentence “Spain is the most exciting country in Europe for wine lovers and one of the most exciting in the world”. Do you think buyers and consumers share this opinion?
It’s my job to tell them; I’m completely shameless in that respect because I think it’s really important that they should know. Spain produces deliciously lovely, shockingly cheap Garnachas and other wines which give a huge amount of pleasure but it’s not a sustainable business and we should do something about that. As an English market, we want cheap wine and Spain is giving it to us.
For many years, Spain was cut off from the rest of Europe, so effectively agriculture and communications were frozen. The good thing about that now is that the historic terroirs are being discovered or rediscovered and there is a passion for artisanship, for the old varieties and it’s all coming together now. I find that particularly exciting.
Do you not find that excitement in other countries?
Let’s think about France: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Alsace. It’s a country that is tremendously steeped in tradition and then you have gatekeepers —you can include MW there— who will tell you what’s good about each of those regions and you have to follow their rules and regulations. What’s so exciting about Spain is that, beyond the famous wineries and regions like Rioja, I can find different varieties, climate influences, wine styles… Spain gives me everything I want to drink, all in one place. Even if you want a more radical type of wine, like amphorae wine, you have it. There is a huge amount of choice and that’s what makes it exciting. There’s so much more than Tempranillo!
The diversity in Spain is evident but is the world really aware of this?
Well, you need good communicators. In the early days, Álvaro Palacios did exactly that. Out of the five people in Priorat, he was the one who really went on to talk about it and he still does. We recently had a masterclass about Atlantic reds from the north and north west and one of them was from Fedellos de Couto. Curro [Bareño] flew over and talked about it and he is a terrific communicator. His wines in London, or any other metropolitan market like Madrid and Barcelona, can be very popular. You need to have the wine and the place for a good story, and then you need someone to communicate. That’s what’s great about this generation. Similarly in Rioja Alavesa, you have Sandra [Bravo] from Sierra de Toloño who communicates very well. She’s not a noisy personality at all but she is a memorable one; it’s that combination of the people, the wine and the place.
And they speak English too, which helps.
Yes, being able to communicate in English helps. Another person who has done that very well is Xabi [Sanz] from Viña Zorzal, who has gone from being a family business in Navarra to having a global presence. In a different way, Vintae are also an example. They have quite a mainstream, traditional wine from Rioja which goes very well with drinkers in the UK and then they are doing their more special Garnachas.
But are average drinkers familiar with these names?
No. Rioja brand is very dominant in the UK —we are its most important market— but it is likely that if you go to a regular hotel somewhere in the country, the first wine they’ll give you is Rioja and it won’t be an interesting wine. It won’t reflect everything that’s going on in the region now and that’s disappointing. But there is hope. At the annual Wines from Spain fair there was a terrific range —everything from big brands like Cvne and Codorníu to a small company that is importing an interesting range of wines from Galicia.
The big brands is what most consumers know.
You must compliment groups like Pernod Ricard and others for making Campo Viejo such a known brand but on the other hand, to get a more subtle message, you need other people to be working too. I had an interesting discussion with [consultant winemaker] Mª Antonia Fernández Daza. I was telling her how excited I am with Spain’s diversity and she said 'you cannot build an industry on wineries that produce 1,000 bottles of each brand; you need to have the Vega Sicilias and the La Rioja Altas', which is true. You need to have top brands which are produced in quantity.
How do you make that leap to have prestigious, renowned brands?
I’m not in the business of selling wine and there’s no easy answer to that. Quality must be part of it.
Fifty years ago, Jerez was unstoppable. It was THE liquid that we drank before dinner and sometimes after dinner and every time you needed a glass, it was Jerez. But it din’t need to be any particular good quality. It just needed to be sherry because that’s what we wanted. It’s a little bit the same with Rioja in that we want the safety of that brand. But in fact you need to keep moving on with quality, find better clones; you need more people to take care of the vineyard and then you may have your ladder of quality: you have the top, which might be limited to productions of 2,000 bottles but then a mid-range which is well priced and has good quality. Ricardo Pérez in Bierzo manages to do that pretty well: he has Pétalos, an entry level wine that we can all approach, and then he’s got all the others that gain in quality and price.
Master of Wine Andreas Kubach says that Spain is very good on the entry level, has a few recognizable brands at the top level but where it really needs to get its act together is in the mid-range.
I agree and I would add that with the top wines, it would be nice to have a few more, specially given the global demand. One of the regions Kubach works is Uclés —many people would argue that they have never heard of it— so of course you need to build your brand, which I think he’s doing. When you turn up in an area that no-one can put in the map then it’s the quality of the wine that is going to speak for it.
Regions like Campo de Borja and Cariñena have provided juicy liquid to keep everybody cheerful but it has to be so much more. That’s why it’s rather nice to see people like Jorge Navascués, Fernando Mora and Norrel Robertson working very hard to raise the profile of Aragón.
If you ask wine lovers or professionals around the world to name their top three favorite regions, it’s likely that none of them are in Spain.
I agree. I was talking to a group of sommeliers from top restaurants in London during a recent judging competition and all of them said their aspirational wine was Barolo. You need to get them to talk about Priorat in the same way, for instance.
Ribera del Duero is a very hard sell in the UK because the mainstream wines are more concentrated and structured than what perhaps we really like. For many people, the ones that you get from Soria have a more delicate appeal which is the sort of style that is in demand now. But Ribera del Duero can sell these wines in the US and Spain so they may not need to worry too much about the UK market.
On that same judging competition we had a flight of wines from Catalunya —we didn’t know exactly where from— but they were all really good. Each one of the sommeliers talked about how good these wines were and how they could sell them in their restaurants so the groundwork is being laid. And if you think about the main magazines in the US, the ones that do Top 100 lists, they usually have one Spanish wine in the top four, probably from Rioja. They are there but France is certainly at the top, followed by Italy and then Spain.
And probably with the tag “Great Value” even if they are top wines…
Yes, and that is hateful. In auctions, you very rarely see wines from Spain; there just are not enough top wines, perhaps because there is not enough production of them. Vega Sicilia is the exception; in Rioja there are only about three or four and would be interesting to see more of them in the auctions, even though I don’t particularly like auctions because it means putting away wines and not drinking them.
To be at that level you need a certain number of brands to play that game.
Certainly, but things have changed dramatically. Forty years ago, all those Spaniards who emigrated to the UK after the Second World War were working at Italian restaurants as Italian waiters, not as Spanish waiters. Now we have an authentic Spanish gastronomic culture developing in the UK and that is a very good platform for Spanish wine.
Is Spanish wine on the radar of sommeliers?
Last year, I was asked to speak at Texsom. It’s an educational conference for sommeliers focused on getting their Master Sommelier or their Advanced Sommelier titles and then you get young sommeliers who give up their holidays to work backstage just to learn. I have to say that Spain was not really much on their radar. Of all the things they could have asked me to talk about, I would have never thought they would pick Vinos de Pago, although it’s true that as an MS student, you need to understand what it is about. We decided to call the seminar “WTF are DO Pagos” —I could never do that in England!
Anyway, we had a very warm response to it but I also had to do an hour’s talk about trends in Spanish wines because there are so many. You can see there is still so much to learn, but you have to see who’s been important there; names like Jorge Ordóñez, Eric Solomon… and there are a few more, but a new generation is needed —people like Fernando Mora o Xabi Sanz [Viña Zorzal]— to go out there and work the market.
Let’s talk about Rioja. Do you think the Consejo has handled the new designations well?
They needed to do something. If they hadn’t, everyone would be tearing up their hair or would have said that they were behind the times. The question is: is it set in stone or can they revisit the subject in five years’ time and finesse it?
In a way, they did a lot of briefing but perhaps they organized it too early. They talked privately to the UK press about it but it’s only now that we are beginning to feel who’s interested, who’s likely to go ahead. At the beginning we just knew about the people who didn’t want to do it and actually, it would have been nice to know the names of, say, 10 people who supported the new designations.
It’s easy in retrospect to criticize but we have all learnt that when you are doing a major change in an appellation, you need to be able to communicate it in a few words.
How is the “Saber quién eres” campaign working in the UK?
It’s not something we can pronounce. We understand things like “buenos días” but “saber quién eres”, just doesn’t do it. It doesn’t matter in a way —Audi had its Vorsprung durch Technik campaign and we’ve learnt it over the years. It’s not embedded in yet but you know that when there is a tasting it will be there. Consejos need to keep moving; changes are important.
Rioja has some exceptional wines, it’s a place with outstanding terroir and it can be at the very best of Spain. It is hard to do a generic marketing campaign with a generic name but Bordeaux has had the same problem with generic pictures of couples looking lovingly at each others eyes and you think: does it really work for Château Latour?
Do you fear that the “Burgundisation” of the territory or the classification may end up tainting the image of the traditional great wines of Rioja?
There is a really nice story with the village wines and it’s a direction all top wines are taking. Having said that, I think that one of the very good things about Rioja is that you can blend say, Garnacha from Rioja Oriental and Tempranillo from Rioja Alta. Bordeaux does it as well and you can be perfectly upfront about it explaining where the fruit comes from. People behave sometimes as if producers are hiding something because they are blending across regions, but there’s no shame in blending. I think you just need to be super honest about it.
You often talk about the low prices of Rioja and how this should change.
I don’t like accepting the fact that Rioja, which has been so well supported by marketing, is sold for £5 a bottle in my local supermarket. That’s absolutely wrong. One thing you should be doing is supporting the image of these premium areas to charge more for the wines and give more to the growers. If we’re able to buy Rioja for £5 you can clearly buy Uclés for peanuts. The ladder has to start somewhere.
Is Rioja a familiar style for English consumers?
For some time, Rioja was quite hard for English consumers to follow. Many of them like the oxidative character —the lovely cherry and vanilla flavours— but then they found wines aged in French oak, single vintage, single vineyard wines and then single variety wines with Graciano or Maturana Tinta and people were thinking 'Is this Rioja?'. Now we’ve learnt that the region is expressing us the best. We just need a little bit more information on the back labels.
What do you find encouraging in the region?
It’s interesting to see groups like Rioja’n’Roll because it shows that young people can start their own business. It’s not entirely set in stone that only those who own family vineyards can work the land. You can sneak in and rent or buy your two hectares and that’s very encouraging and important for the future of Rioja.
Could the Cava crisis be a step in the right direction in terms of quality even if it looks painful now or is it a step back?
There was a very good launch of Cava de Paraje for Masters of Wine a few years ago, but, a bit like the Rioja singular vineyards, it was done before it was properly explained. At the dinner, MWs were asking detailed questions and the Cava people didn’t have an answer which was unfortunate. On the one hand, it was good that they were communicating but on the other you need to have changes set in stone before you start. I have a lot of respect for what was done for Cava de Paraje — the name was difficult to pronounce but it was convincing and it was done with great amount of feeling.
At the same time, I can see why Corpinnat came into being. Even though the name again doesn’t work at all —it doesn’t sound convincing— Corpinnat is very well put together and has some famous names behind that brand.
It would have been nice if Cava had found a way to keep them under their wing. I’m glad that they want to keep the door open but in any case, this move doesn’t benefit anyone.
Putting cava on the back label feels like saying cheap Prosecco for some of these producers.
Some Spanish brands are so strong —Gramona, Recaredo, Telmo Rodríguez etc— that they can be marketed almost without denominations. It feels like we are approaching a time in which the whole house of cards is beginning to topple. DOs were introduced as a sort of definer of quality and it would be nice to think that this could continue. Clearly there are things to learn on both sides.
Do you think Consejos are still guarantors of quality?
Everybody says they only represent the large companies and maybe that’s something that needs to be thought about. In the end, the large companies are damaging themselves because their inflexibility sometimes means that they are not able to redefine themselves to the challenges of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, areas like Bierzo or Priorat seem to have found the right track.
Priorat seems to be really making some good progress and the lovely thing is that they have soil maps and climate maps, really in wonderful detail. Someone approached me to write about Spanish soils on the basis that if the French have it, then Spain must have it too. Unfortunately, it’s not the case.
Moving onto Sherry. What’s changed there since your first trip to the region?
In a short time, Sherry has travelled a long way. I wrote my dissertation in 2006 and even then people didn’t tell you anything about how the wine was made because it was mysterious and happened in these extraordinary bodegas. Now people are able to explain the name of the yeasts and talk about the winemaking. That encourages me to think that Jerez might keep moving.
At the same time, what’s rather exciting is that Vinoble now dares to host a tasting on soils and pagos like the one last year that was really electric and emotional. And the fact is that there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t talk about single vineyards or soils because that knowledge is known. It’s just not been shared with the consumer.
How do you see Jerez right now?
Instead of turning their backs as it feels in other parts, the Consejo seem to recognize that either they confront issues like the regulation of unfortified Palomino whites or they get left behind. They managed to ignore it when Equipo Navazos started to bottle these wines but now there are some really serious people involved in this.
What concerns me ever since I did a tasting at Taberna der Guerrita last summer is that all over the world people are making wines with flor and sooner or later if Jerez doesn’t do anything about it, other people’s wines with flor will become more interesting than Jerez. In fact, people appear to take Jura much more seriously than Jerez.
There seems to be a new generation wanting to recover traditions.
I remember the first time I went to Jerez and I saw PX grapes being raisined on mats in one of González Byass’ vineyard houses. I was recently with Mauricio González and he showed me in his camera how they were doing that again now. Finally we have gone full circle and it’s a good thing if we can recover some old traditions.
Bodegas have a fantastic history but in a very short time in the 20th century we got rid of all that. As it’s happened in so many other parts of the world, we wanted to make stainless steel, machine-made wines and everything else was thrown out. Now as long as we don’t go too far, it seems like there are good things that may come back.
Jerez had so many grape varieties before phylloxera and now we’re working with just a couple of clones of Palomino but there are so much more that can be done to create super interesting wines. Releasing finos and manzanillas with two years of age is not really doing any good at all. They need to look at the vineyard a little bit more too.
What’s your view on wine education? Do we need more of it? Eric Asimov told me in an interview that it is highly overrated.
Wine education has really been a wonderful thing for me. I was working for BBC Good Food when I did my WSET Diploma in 1997 and wine tastings in London were attended by men in pinstriped suits who looked down on me. I felt that I had to somehow justify myself whereas now I just have a little ticket that says MW and that is enough. The Master of Wine has opened all sorts of doors to me.
People are always free to say that MWs are elitists or academics, but in fact among us are winemakers, viticulturalists and even people who have bush vines in Aragón. I hated geography at school but then you start studying about wine and you learn about mountains, soils and aspects and, all of a sudden, geography becomes interesting because of a glass of wine. Learning about wine has taught me about people and culture and yes, it’s a sterile exercise to have the white tablecloth, a pencil, the tasting sheet and a row of glasses but the insights and the pleasures you get out of wine are incredible. It stops being a red liquid in a glass to reflect centuries of culture and that’s exciting.
Is wine still intimidating for most people?
I do think there are still plenty of people who can’t wait to tell other people how much they know. I think the world of wine is still very intimidating and I’m sure Eric would agree with me on that. You want to help people to have as many opportunities as possible to feel relaxed about wine. The whole thing about needing a corkscrew and special glassware is also intimidating for a lot of people.
When you are writing or judging, do you find it hard to give a bad score to the wines of a producer that you like?
I always try to write about producers who are doing good things or have interesting things to say. I’m not the sort of person who gives 78 points to a wine; I’d rather not talk about it.
There are people who are very good at marketing themselves; I mentioned a few of them earlier and another one is Suertes del Marqués. They have a great story, but Jonatan [García] also talks very well about it in English and his mum is an amazing cook. All of those elements combined and the fact that he’s good at building a network must have helped him to sell his wines. You can write a brilliant story with all that but then you have to be objective about the wines and make sure you don’t mark them up just because you’ve had a lovely time. We are all human but you have to be fair.
Do you think a label helps to translate the wine inside?
In blind tasting, the label doesn’t come into play at all but I think the label and the bottle shape are very important. We all want to have information, photograph the bottle and put it on social media.
Shape is important too. Ribeira Sacra used to have some bottles that looked more like olive oil. The DO needs to organize a trip to the UK and visit a supermarket to see what bottles look like on shelves. There’s an issue with txakoli bottles too: they don’t know whether they are green, white or brown, Riesling, Bordeaux or Burgundy shape. You don’t want uniformity but they seem to be unwillingly fighting with each other.
I also like to have a map on the back label. Take Terra Alta, for example. It is one of the nearest regions to Barcelona so it might be good to have a map of Spain showing where Barcelona is. If your wine is traveling to the other side of the world people are not necessarily going to know where your area is.
And what about the language on the labels?
It’s a way of celebrating the enormous heritage of the Basque culture and I’m perfectly happy to see some Basque words or half English half Basque on the label. We’re fascinated by the language but you don’t want too many words —the English are not good with foreign languages— but I think it’s a very respectable thing to do. A good comparison is the rising interest in Greek wines, particularly Assyrtiko from Santorini. Hatsidakis has sold Assyrtiko in multiple supermarkets so you can do references to a culture as long as you do it judiciously.
Do you feel comfortable with social media?
Yes, I came to it relatively late but I like it a lot. Of his tweets, Richard Hemming said that nine of them ought to be informative or deprecating and one of them can be self promoting. I make a point of never ever talking about my personal life or complain about things like I’m stuck at an airport. It’s marketing but a rather controlled kind of marketing.
You can get obsessed with social media but I try to use the 15-minute train ride home from central London to publish messages and it’s a way of saying thank you to people. I also make a point of not taking part in the very macho conversations that happen among some members of the wine trade, which are rightful arguments, but they usually involve a bit of posturing. It’s not productive.