It wasn’t so long ago that a Spanish restaurant in the United States would have a few tapas and native dishes, usually washed down with sangria. The Spanish section in a wine store, if it even existed, would have a handful of Riojas. What a difference a new century makes.
Overall U.S. wine consumption has risen in each of the last 15 years, and earlier this year the United States overtook France as the world’s largest wine consumer. And Spain has been at the forefront of this evolution. Spanish wine imports have risen almost 50 percent in five years, from 46.9 million liters in 2009 to 69.6 million liters in 2013.
American consumers also are seeking higher-priced wines from Spain. While imports from Spain were actually down in volume from 2012 to 2013 by 14.8 percent, sales of Spanish wines were up by 6.8 percent, to $340.5 million, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (L'Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin, or OIV).
At the same time, it not only is much easier to find Spanish-themed restaurants in U.S. cities, but many have become more specialized. New York’s Txikito, for example, focuses on food and wines from the Basque regions. Chicago’s Mercat a la Planxa, meanwhile, is all about Catalan tapas and wines.
Even the ongoing cocktail craze encompasses Spanish wines, with many popular concoctions containing sherry.
A look at how Spanish wine is faring in two major U.S. cities:
The Big Apple is home to one of the country’s only all-Spanish wine and spirits stores, Despaña Vinos y Mas. Located in the hip neighborhood of SoHo, Despaña carries nearly 900 Spanish wines and has an adjacent tapas bar.
At another tapas bar, Pata Negra owner Rafael Mateo marvels at how many more excellent wines he can source from Spain. “We have a lot of small importers who can go to a tiny winery off the coast of Galicia and find a woman making wonderful wines and bring them here,” he said.
During his seven years in business, Mateo has watched as his customers have become more sophisticated and adventurous. “People now come in and ask for a Txakoli. No one did that five years ago,” he said. “I now have almost 30 sherries by the glass. When we opened, I had five.”
Other up-and-coming regions for Pata Negra’s clientele: Bierzo for Mencía wines, Mallorca, the Canary Islands and Basque country.
Basque regions dominate the selections at Txikito, one of three Spanish restaurants in the city owned by Alex Raij. Once-obscure Txakoli has become so popular now that “it’s almost a cliche,” she said. So she, along with her customers, is doing a lot of exploring.
“We like having unfamiliar wines so that when customers ask, the server can immediately provide it,” Raij said. “The more things became familiar, the more we seek out the less familiar. People want to have an experience, so we look for wines that have a lot of personality.”
At El Quinto Pino, that means customers can journey north to south through Spain with dishes from all the viticultural areas.
At Strand’s third restaurant, La Vara, the emphasis is ethnic- and region-focused. “It’s a celebration of the impact of Jewish and Moorish cuisine,” she said, “so we emphasize Galicia where the presence of Jews has been stronger and Andalucia for the Moors.”
Befitting its image, Chicago’s Spanish restaurants tend to be more casual and rowdy than New York’s. Places like Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! and Cafe Iberico offer authentic food but can be quite raucous. Mercat a la Planxa is a bit quieter and has a decent enough wine list but still heavily promotes its “Sangria Flight.”
Wine lovers have flocked for years to Bin 36, which has emphasized Spanish wines since opening in 1999. Original owner Brian Duncan said that Spanish wines “have always over delivered for the price. I was able to offer [Spanish wines at] $5 and proud that there still are so many at $7.”
Now heading up the restaurant and cellar consulting firm Down to Earth Wine Concepts, Duncan loves what he’s seeing with Godellos, 100-percent Pinot Noir Cavas and reds at medium price points. “Mencía, Graciano, Monastrell, they have so much personality that they don’t require mush explanation, it’s all there in the glass,” he said. “The real art and the story that needs to be told is when a wine from Spain really complements food from Germany, when a wine can hop-scotch around the globe the way Spanish wines can.”
At the Windy City’s biggest wine retailer, Binny’s, bargain wines still dominate, said buyer Bob Calamia. He cited two “hot spots”: traditionally styled Riojas and “Garnachas from Campo de Borja and elsewhere. They have a lot of palate impact, the kind of dark fruit and weight in the mouth that people love to find for under $10.”
Overall, Calamia loves Spain’s value and reliability. “You would be hard-pressed to find a region that’s more consistent. If there’s someone looking for value, this is where I would go.”