For young, hip Americans, Spain’s wines offer up a brave new world. The wide range of Iberian wines allows them to explore and experiment on the cheap.
“Young people today are very, very adventurous,” says Elizabeth Mendez, proprietor and beverage director at the Spanish restaurant/wine bar Vera. “They’re looking for undiscovered varietals at a great price point. They love hugely allocated, big-quality wines that aren’t expensive but everyone can’t get to. They’re super-interested in learning new things but not breaking the bank.”
They’re finding such Spanish wines in all realms — red, white, sparkling and fortified — and regions, from Mallorca to Malaga.
And more of them are on the way. That’s because many of the Millennials (born from 1982 to 2004) have not reached legal drinking age. But the so-called “Next-Gens” (under age 21) are poised to follow suit: 57% say they are eager to learn more about wine when they are old enough to drink it, according to the research company Wine Intelligence. By 2025, the report says, this demographic will raise the number of US wine consumers to 109 million, which would be 44% of the adult population, an all-time high.
In the meantime, their older but still quite young generational peers are seeking out varietals such as Prieto Picudo from León, says Max Kuller, executive wine director for three Washington DC restaurants, including Spanish eatery Estadio.
“You go back 20 years ago, and people wanted to understand a few grapes,” Kuller says. “Now everybody always wants something new. If they’ve had it, they don’t want it. They’re looking for grapes they haven’t heard of.”
Kuller attributed the craft-beer craze fueled by Millennials to having “a snowball effect” on the same consumers’ wine explorations. “The guy who likes the passion fruit wheat beer is probably going to order that Prieto Picudo.”
That makes them more amenable to glasses from such unexpected outposts as Campo de Borja, Bizkaiko Txakolina and Almansa. Two years ago, Estadio, where the wine list is 90% Spanish, hosted what Kuller believes was the first Canary Islands wine dinner in the United States.
Not only do young hipsters seek out unusual places, but also offbeat wines from more established regions such as Ribera del Duero and Rías Baixas.
Kuller says his young clients are opting for unusual Albariños with extended lees time, and Mendez’s customers are big fans of winemaker Raúl Pérez’s Albariño Sketch. “He ages it in bottle in the ocean so it’s something unique and highly allocated, but it’s not extraordinarily expensive. It’s the kind of trophy wine somms put on Instagram,” she says.
That tech savviness pairs well with this generation’s broad-minded approach to the world in general and wine in particular.
“I think a lot of their willingness to step outside the classic wines is that they have tools to find things they like because everything is so available,” explains Ian J. Adams, assistant general manager of San Francisco’s tapas mecca 15 Romolo. “They have an ability to sort through things and find value, and they’re willing to make that leap”. Adams adds that younger customers seem more willing to heed suggestions from the waitstaff “to take them out of traditional regions.”
Mendez has noticed the same pattern. “Sometimes when younger people come in, they don’t know what want,” she said, “and they’ll say ‘What’s new? What have you liked?’ And they know we have a lot of good stuff in the cellar, so they’ll ask about what’s not on the list.”
America’s young wine lovers are not ignoring the classics. Mendez has noticed “a real kind of cult following of classic wines like R. López de Heredia, wines with great notoriety but also fitting the profile of old-school fame, which younger people are really interested in exploring.” Estadio has served Heredia’s wines since it opened, and Kuller says he often uses it to help novices “discover what’s great about Spanish wine.”
Renowned wineries also can provide opportunities for imbibers to spread out. Kuller believes that many customers who love the sparkling wines from Raventós “have said, ‘let’s venture out and try some of their other wines besides the Cava.’ ”
Cava in general also has gained favor from coast to coast, on an only somewhat parallel track with the surge in Prosecco sales. “People are starting to pick up that a different process is used than for Prosecco,” Mendez said, “and to realize Cava is a great cheaper substitute for champagne because of these production methods.”
Also broadening its appeal to the youthful hordes is another longtime Spanish benchmark wine: sherry. Vera sells between 50 and 100 glasses a week of dry sherries, plus three sherry cocktails, the vast majority to the under-40 crowd.
“Younger people are really open to exploring sherry because they don’t have the connotation of the sweet grandma wine,” Mendez explains. “It’s great to be able to have that conversation. Plus, they’re already eating anchovies or Serrano ham, and a fino or manzanilla goes great with that.”
Another food-friendly category of Spanish wines, the reds from Mencia, have become and remained popular with Millennials in recent years. Kuller and Mendez both steer guests who say they like Pinot Noir to these wines, which, Mendez notes, “have a lot of similarities to Pinot Noir but a fraction of the cost.”
And value —in terms of experiences, explorations and economics— is at the core of young hipsters’ forays into Spanish wine.
“They’re eager to jump onto cool Catalan producers,” Adams says. “The generations older than them are a lot more hesitant to step out of those classic regions and classic styles, which is understandable because those were the the only wines they could find when they were younger. But younger people are much more willing to find value in obscure places, a lesser-known region that might have spectacular wines.”