More than a decade after Spanish wine became “the next big thing” on America’s west coast, consumers are digging deeper for discovery, and finding much to their liking. California restaurateurs and retailers say their ample Spanish selections have remained strong but also have become more varied, while clinging to traditional favorites. And in many cases, what’s old is new again.
“Our approach hasn't changed, just the wines,” said George Cossette, owner and manager of Silverlake Wine store in Los Angeles. “There are a few things that we get almost every year just because they're consistently good. … [and] we explore new regions and new producers as a matter of course. The program is about discovery, and discovery is change.”
For Cossette, that includes the Canary Islands (“so traditional that they are cutting-edge”) and Bierzo. “There is enough variety of expression in both places that you can kind of ease people into it by finding the producer whose interpretation of the grapes leans more toward the buyer's tastes,” he said. “If the customer is a fan of the ‘natural wine’ movement, they will be drawn towards the funkiness of some of the Canary Island varietals. “But then there are other wines that are not so challenging, and you can get someone with more mainstream tastes to open their mind to something new.”
For Taylor Parsons, general manager and wine director at République restaurant in Los Angeles, that means Bierzo (“coming up strongly … [with] some fantastic wines”) but also Galician and Basque whites becoming “pretty mainstreamed.”
For Stephen Gelber, managing partner of smoke.oil.salt restaurant in Los Angeles, that means the Canary Islands and Castilla y Leon, “especially Bierzo and Toro, for exciting new wines.”
For Ian J. Adams, assistant general manager at 15 Romolo restaurant in San Francisco, it means “selections from the younger, more adventurous and environmentally focused producers in regions like the Terra Alta in Catalonia for Garnatxa and Cariñena, as well as the Sierra de Salamanca in the remote western mountains for the light-bodied, aromatic grape variety Rufete.”
Adams also is pumped about a well-established region that has been forging a new identity: Rías Baixas. He said “mass-produced, bland table wines” are on the way out, and “dozens of small-production, terroir-focused producers have come out of the woodwork and onto the international scene.”
Other long-popular regions are holding steady. “Priorat is still strong with the [Robert] Parker set,” Parsons said. Cossette said he has been impressed by the strong seasonal popularity of wines from Txakoli (“the supply runs out before the demand”). For Adams, “Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat are still the heavy hitters and easy sellers.” The traditional Rioja houses are, if anything, more popular than ever. “Bodegas Muga, López de Heredia, Remelluri and Marqués de Murrieta all seem to be benefiting from a reactionary return to the traditional Rioja production style among sommeliers and, by extension, the public,” Adams said.
Cossette and Parsons also cited the continuing popularity among customers of R. López de Heredia, with Cosette adding Ramon de Ayala "Viña Santurnia' Rioja and Parsons mentioning La Rioja Alta and CVNE. “Those wines offer tremendous value for the money,” Parsons said, “are sublime with many types of food, and are clearly noble, age-worthy bottles.
US wine consumption is up by 50% in this century, and Spanish wines have played a major part in that. Boosting interest and sales — imports have been up about 10 percent per year for the last five years — has been the re-emergence of sherry, both in cocktails and on its own.
US consumers, particularly younger ones, have embraced craft cocktails in recent years, and sherry cocktails have been part of that rising tide. Adams and 15 Romolo chef Michelle Matthews earned top US honors for the Copa Jerez, an international sherry- and food-pairing competition, and will be in Jerez in June competing for the world title. He calls sherry “by far the best value for wines with significant age.”
For his part, Gelber is “doing whatever I can do promote sherry and educate the American palate about the Jerez region. Although sherry sales have been going down around the world, they have been going up in the United States.”
So have the sales of Cava, which, Cossette noted, “is close to becoming a generic description for an inexpensive sparkling wine. Which can be good and bad. When we stock a more expensive Cava, it can require a discussion; but if the trust has been established with that customer, most people can be convinced to make the jump.”
Adams praised the sparkling wines’ “remarkable texture, fine bubbles and that classic brioche nose, without the extravagant price tag [of Champagne].”
For all its popularity, the Spanish wine category has room to grow, according to Cossette. “It's a good time for new producers to up their game a little bit,” he said. Young wine drinkers are very open-minded, and are looking for handmade products. “I think in Spain the mentality has been either to aim for first-growth Bordeaux status, or just turn out as much cheap wine as possible. I think there's quite a bit of room in the middle. Make something really good that can be sold retail for $15 to $25, and there's a big market there.”
Overall, though, consumers have found Spanish wines reliable and often exciting, said Gelber, whose wine list includes more than 100 offerings from Spain. “The great thing about Spanish wines now is that you can get tremendous quality and value in virtually every niche,” he said, “and to accommodate every pocketbook.”