The 7th woman in the US to earn the Master of Wine title in 2011, Christy Canterbury was born in Texas but lives in New York, where she has developed her wine career, although she often travels to the vineyards of the world, particularly to French regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux or Champagne. She is also a specialist in Italy and has closely followed the rise of Prosecco, the sparkling wine that has challenged Cava in the last decade.
Her deep understanding of the American market is the result of her experience as a wine buyer for major wine merchants and restaurant groups, and as a restaurant consultant. In addition to her work as a communicator, speaker and judge at wine competitions, she has published numerous articles in wine magazines and is a team member of The New Wine Review, a new subscription-based online publication that aspires to be "the most interesting place on the internet for people who love wine".
We asked Christy Canterbury to share her thoughts on how Spanish wines are positioned in the United States, how they fare on wine lists and in the minds of consumers, and how they stack up against their French and Italian competitors.
Can you recall the first style or category of Spanish wine that made an impression on you?
I feel like my response should be Rioja, but the region whose wines I first fell for were Priorat. I’m sure that some of that has to do with the timing as I started drinking a lot of these wines in the early aughts. Clearly, there was a lot of talk in the wine press at the time about the area’s rise from near extinction. Plus, my very first red wine love was Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the wines of the Southern Rhône in general. So, I was already enraptured with Garnacha, Syrah and so on. It was easy to fall for Priorat wines!
What were your favourite Spanish wines when you worked as a beverage director and restaurant consultant? Did your taste evolve much over the years?
Rioja (the reds, to be specific), Cava and Albariño. They are all such classics, even if Albariño may be a relatively new classic here. Most consumers know the names and feel comfortable selecting them without a sommelier. They also generally offer excellent value, so people don’t hesitate to choose them. I personally loved (and still do!) Mencia for its food friendliness and Garnacha Blanca for its pretty aromatics, but those tends to be more of a hand-sell. I would want a sommelier or some really well-trained servers before I put those on the list.
The Spanish wine scene has experienced huge changes over the last two decades. We have seen the rise of regions like Gredos, Bierzo, Galicia as a whole, txakoli, the Canary Islands… as well as grape varieties beyond Tempranillo. How relevant is this “New Spain” in the US and how is it seen in front of established wine regions like Rioja or Ribera del Duero?
For now, these “new" regions and wine styles are front-and-center for wine geeks, wine media and the trade. They most likely have never hit the radar of 90% (or more) of the US wine-drinking public. That is in part because people don’t (yet!) know them, but it is also because some of those regions or the producers in them make smaller volumes of wines that tend to be sold in restaurants or specialty stores. Most people just don’t see them.
Do American consumers have a clear idea of Spain’s main grapes and wine regions? Do you think that they feel confident ordering Spanish wines or rather need to get advice from sommeliers?
No, they generally don’t know the main grapes. They might know Tempranillo and surely know Albariño. But that is true of France and Italy, too. I have had plenty of people at swank wine dinners where I do wine quiz competitions guess that red Burgundy is made of Cabernet Sauvignon or that Barolo is made from Sangiovese. In the US, consumers usually see the grape name on the front label rather than seeing a place name. In contrast to France and, to a degree, Italy, Spain does a terrific job with their labels! Back labels tend to be full of information on grapes, regions, the winery, food pairings. That makes a world of difference!
As for regions, many people would know Rioja and Cava. As I mentioned, they would know Albariño, but they likely wouldn’t know where it is from. I would put good money on lots of people being familiar with “Sherry”, but not Jerez or Xeres, and also not knowing what country it comes from. Alas, the familiarity with the latter would be for cooking, too.
In the mind of consumers, does Spain still come behind France, Italy and other wine producing countries? If so, what would be the best way to bridge the gap?
In terms of imports, yes, just because more French and Italian wine is brought into this country. In terms of quality, Spain may come behind the other two because most people drink less Spanish wine. Again, there is simply less of it here. But for Spanish wine fans, I cannot imagine they would think Spanish quality is lower than French or Italian.
I must say that I have never, ever met someone who doesn’t like Albariño and think that it is generally always good. Albariño has done such a great job with high quality production and value-for-money. It’s been 10-15 years, but there was a time when almost every restaurant in New York City had Albariño on the by-the-glass list. Many still do!
Spain has fantastic potential here though, based on some of the wine styles not to mention the generally reasonable prices. The typical US consumer likes lots of fruit and extract and doesn’t mind either a big dollop of oak or higher alcohols. Of course, there are plenty of leaner styles, too!
Is there such a thing as a pricing barrier for Spain when it comes to fine wines?
US consumers are known for paying up for wine. We’re not like the UK or Germany. We like a good deal, of course! However, if the quality is there and the price makes sense, we are happy to pay.
Are Spanish producers and wine regions communicating efficiently their distinguishing features in the US?
I think it is a mixed bag. Rioja does a great job on large production wines but doesn’t talk about the Viñedos Singulares or other smaller production wines enough or at all. Cava does well, but it relies a lot on price. I would think that communicating more on the metodo clásico would help. Albariño, again, is a great success story. Certain producers across the country do terrific work: Alvaro Palacios, Vega Sicilia, La Rioja Alta, López de Heredia, CVNE, Raventos-Codorníu, Torres and Juan Gil amongst many others.
From your knowledge of the market, which Spanish wine regions and grape varieties could have a brighter future in the US?
I think that all good wines have solid potential. The market is thirsty, generally speaking, and drinkers in big cities, especially on the East Coast, tend to be adventurous drinkers. Sommeliers and specialty stores are always looking for something new and cool, and Spain has a lot of that!
You spent a few days in Spain earlier this year. Is there anything that drew your attention?
I fell in love with Pansa Blanca! I must find more here!