Whether it’s automobiles, olive oil or paper towels, consumers tend to stick with products that combine quality, reliability and value.
That definitely holds true with wine enthusiasts in the United States, who have embraced the Spanish brands that boast these attributes. Names such as Vega Sicilia, R. López de Heredia and Alvaro Palacios have gained and retained avid followings on these shores.
“I have seen brand equity and endurance play a big role in Spanish wine market trends for years,” says Taurean Philpott, wine director for Rootstock and Vine restaurant in Atlanta suburb Woodstock, Ga. “Spain is high with customers who stick with names because of years of excellence.”
That’s why even über-expensive bottlings such as Pingus and Vega Sicilia retain their cachet among collectors. “Those hit the same customers who buy first-growth Bordeaux or the top Burgundies or high-end Rhônes,” says Andy Booth, owner of three The Spanish Table wine stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. “They’re the wines that people need to ‘check off the list.’ ”
Or as Spain-centric New York restaurateur Alex Raij puts it, “luxury products that good will stick around, like a Louis Vuitton bag.”
Still, plenty of Spanish wines that don’t sell for hundreds of dollars have preserved prestige status with US wine lovers. Brand loyalty is built largely around buyers knowing that they can count on quality with every purchase.
“You know that if La Rioja Alta or López de Heredia produces a wine, it’s going to be good wine,” reckons Mike Dombrow, manager of Sunfish Cellars in Lilydale, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb. “They have to take different vintages and make the best wine they can on each vintage. And they do that.”
These esteemed and well-established wineries are adept at exactly that practice. Philpott points out that with its Viña Tondonia line, López de Heredia “absolutely hold their wine back until it’s ready,” which diminishes vintage variation and increases trustworthiness with customers.
Booth also affirms that having less vintage variation plays in Spain’s favor. “Spain does have difficult vintages, but historically less so than regions to the north,” he said. “They taste differently, but stylistically they maintain that uniformity. It’s rare to hear anyone say ‘I love this vintage’ or ‘I hate this vintage.’”
The dependability would mean less if the wines didn’t, as the saying goes, “punch above their weight class.” Americans have embraced the values found in inexpensive Spanish wines for decades, but the quality-to-price factor plays out all the way up the cost ladder.
“With all those brands there is a value for dollar in the wines” Dombrow adds. “The wines always perform better than what you pay for them.”
Part of the impetus for these wines’ stature emanates from high scores with wine critics. As Booth notes, “The Wine Spectator and James Suckling have people jumping all over those wines. This is especially true with larger retailers who do email offers. They say ’95 points,’ and can move two pallets.”
Other consumers work their way up a winery’s offerings to get to the spendier bottles — and stay there. They might start with Alvaro Palacios’ $25 Camins del Priorat and progress to the $75 Finca Dofí and perhaps to the $500-plus L’Ermita.
Similarly, Pingus winemaker Peter Sisseck’s Hacienda Monasterio is a gateway to Flor de Pingus and then to Pingus, and some shoppers fall in love with Pintia before going all in on Vega Sicilia.
In one case, a brand’s status gains were gradual. “Fourteen years ago nobody was buying López de Heredia,” Booth says. “We only sold some to older customers who remembered it from trips to Spain.
“But it became fashionable primarily because professional palates have changed. There’s more interest in that style, especially in the sommelier community in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. It’s a style they like now, but 12, 13 years ago sommeliers liked big, rich wines that have notable oak and notable extraction. Now it’s more about higher acid and less noticeable oak, more grape character than wood.”
It’s also about compatibility with food, explains Raij, whose restaurants include Txikito, La Vara and El Quinto Pino. “That’s what Spanish food and wine are predicated on. You can be modern [in syle], but you have to have the base product.”
And with at least one winery, she adds, there’s another au courant factor: “López de Heredia has a style, an oxidated style, that has a relationship with [trendy] natural wines.”
Finally, good old-fashioned promotion plays a role. Booth cites Alvaro Palacios skills on two levels. He does a great job with the marketing. As a result, in terms of public perception, “what would Priorat be without Alvaro Palacios?,” Philpott wonders.
Several other Spanish wineries are improving their status. Dombrow touts the wines of Bodegas El Nido and says: “I have more people asking for Clio than any other Spanish wine,” whereas Philpott calls Raúl Pérez “arguably the hottest new winemaker in Spain.”
But for now, it’s the old-guard mainstays that bring Spain into the pantheon with the top offerings from other world-famous regions.
“A lot like Bordeaux and Burgundy,” Philpott says, “Spain’s [top wines] are entrenched in history, and there’s a guarantee to consumers that if they stick with these names, there is inevitable quality.”