According to the IWSR (International Wine & Spirits Research) wine market trends report commissioned by Vinexpo this year, Spain is one of the countries with the highest export growth expectations until 2020. However, predictions for the British market are negative both for sparkling and still wines. The UK wine market itself is expected to drop 1.6% in the same period.
Could terroir-driven Spanish wines perform better in the UK? Judging from the success of the Viñateros tasting held in London late last month, they definitely could. The event, in which SWL took part with a master class, featured almost 50 Spanish wine producers. Seven UK-based importers (Alliance, Carte Blanche, Dynamic Wines, Indigo Wine, Fields, Morris & Verdin, Les Caves de Pyrene and New Generation McKinley) teamed up to host it. All of them were fully aware of the need to create a specific forum to highlight the dynamic and varied Spanish wine scene and to shine a light on the increasing number of Spanish wines with a focus on vineyards.
Spain has a diverse presence in their portfolio — in the case of Indigo Wine, generally seen as the spearhead of Spanish wine in the UK, half of its producers hail from there; in other cases, the figure barely represents 10% of the total listings. Yet all of them merchants share their desire to search wines that are perceived as authentically Spanish. An organic or artisan approach to winemaking is also valued, particularly in the case of Les Caves de Pyrene, focused on natural wines.
According to Ben Henshaw, founder and driving force behind Indigo Wine, Spain is gaining presence amongst the UK’s most dynamic wine merchants. Viñateros, which was attended by leading wine experts like Oz Clark, Julia Harding MW, Sarah Jane Evans MW or Margaret Rand, was like a breath of fresh air that brought together some of the newest and more exciting flavours of Spanish wine; a refreshing parade of styles and landscapes to break preconceived ideas and show the huge diversity and potential of Spain’s wines.
We had a chance to chat with some of the importers behind the event and take the pulse of the country’s wines in the mature UK market. We also interviewed Pierre Mansour, The Wine Society’s new head buyer, who was promoted to this position after eight years as buyer for Spain for the world’s oldest wine club. Below are their impressions.
Paul Shinnie, Alliance Wine: “Somewhat in metropolitan areas there is an awareness of a wider offering. Overall, the UK is limited in their appreciation of Spanish wine.”
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene: “I don’t believe that there is a lot of knowledge about Spanish wines other than the classic regions —Rioja, Priorat, Ribera del Duero. The marketing of Spain has over-simplified a country with a rich viticultural heritage and enormous potential. People will fixate on a grape variety for a while —look at Albariño— but will neglect equally worthy grapes such as Godello, Loureiro, etc. I am not even sure that the majority of consumers really understand about Sherry or Cava either. Cava is seen as cheap bubbles, as Spain’s answer to Prosecco, and the sherries that are drunk most often are pretty neutral Finos. I think that people who sell and the people who buy wine are looking for the “brand”. Marketing is more interesting when there is an educational imperative underlying it. In other words, tell the story, engage consumers and make them drink up, drink real wine, as opposed to a lowest common denominator branded version of a wine.”
Ben Henshaw, Indigo Wine: “Knowledge of Spain’s grapes and regions is increasing and specialist importers like us have to work hard to help our consumers with that. Clearly for your typical wine drinker Rioja, Sherry and Cava act almost like brands, but that’s the same with many countries and interest in other Spanish regions is certainly growing. Spain has been a big success story in the UK over the last decade, but there is still a ceiling as to what people are prepared to spend on Spanish wines before they look to the more classic regions of France and Italy. Luckily Spain offers unrivalled value for money in my opinion.”
Catriona Felstead MW, Fields, Morris & Verdin (FMV): “It’s not a particular style, but something that feels Spanish, a sort of unique Spanish character, something with a sense of Mediterranean.”
Paul Shinnie, Alliance Wine: “Wines that demonstrate ripeness of fruit and a knowledge of origin.”
Pierre Mansour, The Wine Society (TWS): “What I look for in Spain is wines with Spanish personality; that is, wines made with indigenous grapes in a way that respects the traditions of the wine producing areas. My job is to buy wine my members would like to drink.”
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene: “Over the last few years our buying has focused on growers who work organically and make wines with minimal interventions in the winery. We are also looking for wines that express the singularity of the region and the terroir.”
Ben Henshaw, Indigo Wine: “While there is a global movement of winemakers creating fresher, more restrained styles, Spain has many regions and grape varieties which add something totally unique to the wines. Think Rias Baixas Albariño, Gredos Garnacha, Malaga Moscatel or even certain Riojas, modern and traditional. These are wines of region and terroir.”
Catriona Felstead MW, FMV: “We look for interesting, different wines with a story of their own, mainly coming from recovered vineyards or unusual grape varieties. Spain has a unique wine climate, capable of making fruit-forward wines with real character and not just simple fruit.”
Pierre Mansour, TWS: “The tradition of long aging as represented by classics producers is practically impossible to find outside Spain and the cost implications of aging the wines for such a long time are unbelievable. In new wine making countries, they have to start from scratch. And of course Sherry, which is probably Spain’s greatest gift to the world of wine. The area has created the biological conditions for the development of the flor and the fabulous architecture of bodegas to age the wines. There are so many fantastic ancient vineyards in Spain. The weather is quite good for growing consistently healthy grapes. You don‘t need to do much but work with freshly picked grapes. I love those styles of wine which cannot be copies, because you cannot copy than combination of soils, climate….
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene: “For me, the main advantages that Spain has are altitude and old vines. In theory, organic farming should not to be too difficult, so the growers should be starting with great raw ingredients.”
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene: “The main change has been the attitude to winemaking, in particular the use of oak. That is beginning to change because the vignerons are becoming more responsive to markets which value the gastronomic aspect of wine, its drinkability and capacity to accompany food. In the end, we are seeing more balanced wines because of a more balanced approach in farming and winemaking. I am certain that this has come about because vignerons are travelling more, tasting more wines and as their palates are changing, so the wines that they make are naturally changing.”
Ben Henshaw, Indigo Wine: “The main change has really been more and more focus on vineyard over cellar, or as Eric Solomon says ‘place over process’. Spain has shown its true diversity in the last 10 years and the producers we work with make wines to drink and enjoy, rather than wines for garnering high scores. As for selling their wines, as with producers from any wine region, they have to work harder than ever to get their wines tasted and understood… travel has become an essential part of the job.”
Paul Shinnie, Alliance Wine: “Work was easy when I first started. All you had to do was open the door to a winery, take a sniff and know if the wine was good or not. Now almost all Spanish winemakers make some decent wine and are able to articulate the origin of their wines. Spanish winemakers demonstrate a lot more pride in where they come from.”
Ben Henshaw, Indigo Wine: Firstly, shaking off for good the stigma of rich, highly extracted and oaked reds. Secondly, breaking through the pricing barrier that most buyers set for Spanish wines and lastly, acknowledgment of the large variety of styles, grapes and regions found in Spain. Most buyers seem to be more welcoming to obscure wines from Italy or France than they are from Spain.
Catriona Felstead MW, FMV: “Compete with Rioja if you’re not Rioja. Luckily, restaurants are developing an understanding of Spanish wines. In terms of sparkling wines, consumers prefer easy-to-drink Prosseco; Cava is not succeeding at building a quality image for itself.”
Pierre Mansour, TWS: “Probably the biggest one is for Cava. The quality is absolutely fantastic but it has failed to create interest in the sparkling category. It’s a great shame. Cava is the best inexpensive alternative to Champagne and needs to take advantage of that somehow. The other challenge generally facing Spain is more a marketing challenge. You see lots of wines in the mass market labeled as Reserva and Gran Reserva which connect to English consumers at £4-7 a bottle, but they aren't intended to age, the fruit is not consistent to be aged for those periods of time and they are relatively hollow.”
Paul Shinnie, Alliance Wine: “Dominance of Rioja and the characterization of Spanish culture – castanets, sangria and the Costa del Sol (Spain being no more than a holiday destination).”
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene: “I don’t think that Spanish wines are marketed well over here. But I am not sure that better marketing is the answer. I believe that growth is organic and sustainable and built on knowledge. Spain should focus its energies on the independent sector, and the producers should continue to improve quality, whilst exploring themselves what makes their regions so unique.”
Paul Shinnie, Alliance Wine: “Rioja – due to championing indigenous grape varieties. We are moving into a generation of consumers who are looking for new expressions from this well-known DO.”
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene: “White grape varieties especially those with a backbone of acidity and minerality. Penedès with Xarel.lo, Galicia with Godello and Loureiro. Albillo from the mountains. Viura, Malvasia, Moscatel… Stylistically, lower alcohol wines. The other day I tried a Bobal fermented with whole bunches at 11%. So delicious! Garnacha from the high mountains. Made sensitively this is “the Pinot Noir of Spain”. There are some brilliant skin contact wines and exciting wines made in cement and amphora. Mainly (and always for us) it is a question of style and drinkability and freshness comes first, something that you feel in the wines which have a particular mineral, almost saline edge to them.”
Catriona Felstead MW, FMV: “Godello is really taking off: Albariño is still very present, specially in summer time. Bobal has a great potential and could become the next big thing and it doesn’t have to be expensive.”
Ben Henshaw, Indigo Wine: “Unfortified wines from Jerez. Interest in lower alcohol wines and escalating duties are all against Sherry, as is the growing demand for wines with a sense of place. Single-vineyard still wines from Sanlúcar and Jerez are yet to hit the UK market.”
Pierre Mansour, TWS: “The trend of Grenache is very clear because it’s a great variety and makes lovely, light, fruity, delicious and pleasure-to-drink wines, but in the right hands it can turn into incredible, complex wines. I’m a great fan of this variety and it’s already happening. Another trend is white wines in general. Galicia has led the way and there are now some local styles all over the country based on grape varieties like Macabeo, Garnacha Blanca or Xarel.lo.”
Ben Henshaw, Indigo Wine: “The value for money tag that Spain has is mostly an advantage but yes it can also have a negative effect on the small production, higher priced wines. This is particularly true if the wines don’t have a long track record, or strong third party reviews and scores. While this can be frustrating it also highlights the need for tastings like Viñateros just to show the UK trade how great the wines are. Selling interesting wine is a constant work in progress.”
Pierre Mansour, TWS: “Yes, it could be, particularly for wines which don’t have the recognition of Rioja and Ribera del Duero but I think it’s a great opportunity because Spain still offers value for money —you can still buy top Rioja under £30 a bottle. Most of the styles present at Viñateros are perfect for restaurants and passionate sommeliers who can recommend them to their clients and tell the stories behind the wines.”
Catriona Felstead MW, FMV: “The terroir-driven wines category will be still dominated by the French. We cannot talk about rivalry but a greater awareness is developing for Spanish wines. There’s an opportunity for terroir-driven wines with a story.”
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene: “Value for money is a huge plus for Spain. We can find these artisan terroir-driven individual wines at a terrific price, not only in the lesser-known regions but even in Priorat, Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Ultimately, it is the mentality of the producers that we are working with rather than the reputation of the region. Those who don’t feel the DO has any meaning for them are not trying to make classic wines to live up to DO prices or profiling.”