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Spanish succession

Rioja still dominates the public’s perception of Spanish wines, but hold your horses, says Susan Low, other regions are beginning to shine forth

THEY say that since he joined Real Madrid David Beckham’s command of Spanish has improved day by day. Not only can he now order "tapas" and "cerveza" without blushing a gringo-ish shade of rosado, but he’s also allegedly pretty good at ordering wine – Rioja, to be specific.

Then again, chances are that he learned about Rioja back on home turf.  The British and the Spanish may not agree on many things, but there’s a rock-solid concordat where red wine is concerned.

So much so, that Rioja is the fourth-most recognised brand in Spain behind Mercedes, Coca-Cola and BMW (its pervasive popularity is often referred to as "Riojitis" in the trade), while in the UK, about 25% of all the still wine from Spain sold in the UK is from Rioja.

Taken together with the other Spanish export behemoth, Cava, of which 1.6 million cases are sold annually in the UK, these two wines account for the lion’s share of Spanish wine sold here.

So, is Rioja’s domination A Good Thing or A Bad Thing? The question goes further than merely separating the world’s optimists from the world’s Victor Meldrews.  For, while Rioja may be the envy of many a wine-producing region, the strength of "brand Rioja" isn’t without its inherent difficulties.

For example, what happens if, as we’ve seen, there are major price fluctuations? And what does the dominance of a single wine style mean for other wine regions trying to break into the UK market? As Alex Canneti, business development manager for Spain at PLB, whose portfolio includes wines from Rioja, Castilla, Cariñena and Galicia, says, "There are three brands that the consumer is aware of from Spain: Rioja, Cava and Torres."

But, he believes, "The UK consumer is looking for a hook that could be regionality (eg Chablis, Sancerre, Bordeaux and Chianti) or a brand.   The key is recognition and a name that indicates a style.

Spain suffers from one strong area, in the eyes of the consumer."  Recent research into British attitudes to Spain by one major industry player shows that the British have a positive image of the country, which includes associations with warmth, tradition and relaxation.

But, while there seems to be no barrier to Spanish wine per se, it isn’t always easy for new regions – even those projects with plenty of marketing muscle behind them – to find their way to shop shelves in the UK. Still, there are rumblings from beyond the country’s northern reaches, as investors from within and outside the country attempt to broaden Spain’s vinous appeal.

Here we take a look at some of the regions that are most likely to make their mark on the UK market over the next few years. 

Central Spain

Long known as "the sleeping giant" of Spain, perhaps this vast central plain ought to be renamed "the awakening giant".  Some of the most vigorous signs of life have come from the Grandes Pagos de Castilla association, which, under the guidance of Carlos Falcó, Marqués de Griñon, has generated a great deal of interest in the region (not least in Falcó’s own wine, Dominio de Valdepusa).

Conceptually, the Grandes Pagos, essentially single-estate wines from particular terroirs, are partly aimed at showing what this region can achieve when yields are kept low and quality is put at a premium.

There’s plenty more happening in the area, too. At Bodegas Fontana, the fruit of Tempranillo vines, many of them 40- plus years old, are being used in wines that combine Old and New World styles, with help from former Caliterra winemaker Rodrigo Espinosa.

Sandrine Perry of importer C & D Wines says, "La Mancha was once known for producing large quantities of poor-quality wines.  This has changed dramatically since the 1980s, and Bodegas Fontana is a great example of the level of quality that can be achieved in this part of Spain."

Investment in the region is coming from various quarters within Spain.  The Riojabased Martinez Bujanda family has added the La Mancha DO to its stable with the purchase of Finca Antigua, on the boundary of the Cuenca and Toledo provinces.

Grape varieties include Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, vinified by the young Lauren Rosillo, who previously worked at the respected Pago Manuel Manzaneque, in El Bonillo.

Puerto de Santa María-based Osborne has also invested in the region with its Solaz range, made at the Osborne Malpica winery near Toledo.  Following the launch of two wines, Solaz de Osborne and Dominio de Malpica (both labelled Vino de la Tierra de Castilla), Solaz now has a Shiraz-Tempranillo blend and a 100% Viura.

Paul Evans of Halewood International reports that sales are performing above expectation levels. 


Another region that’s been widely tipped for the top is Toro. In recent years, this once moribund region has had a change of fortune, and is now turning out gutsy, intense red wines with enough fruit to appeal to palates weaned on Aussie Shiraz.

Telmo Rodriguez is among the big-name winemakers to get involved in the region, with his Dehesa Gago wine, but there are plenty of others, too. In 1999, there were nine wineries in Toro; by 2003 there were 32.

The largest producer in the region is Viña Bajoz, a modern cooperative with 142 growers. Export director Nicola Thornton says, "Old-style cooperatives had a very bad name due to the fact that they were run by farmers and run by too many people who had little outside knowledge of winemaking and sales.

The farmers at Bajoz handed over control to the new team between 1997 and 1999 and in turn started to work like a privately owned company." Viña Bajoz now accounts for one in every three bottles of Toro wine sold.


Toro may have earned something of a reputation for itself in the UK and in Spain, but other regions are just beginning to emerge from the shadows.  One such is Jumilla. In addition to projects in Ribera del Duero, La Mancha, Rueda, Ribeiro and Rias Baixas, Bodegas y Bebidas (owned by Allied Domecq) has a presence in this region, too, with its Señorio del Condestable, part of the Bodegas Artesanas range.

Western Wines, importers of wines from Finca Lazón, which makes the Altimar range, is another company that has seen the potential in this arid region – potential both in terms of the wines, and in terms of commercial opportunities.

Mike Paul describes the Spanish market as a "doughnut market", with plenty of choice at the two ends of the price spectrum, but not very much at the £4.99 price-point.  The three Altimar wines, based largely on Monastrell, sell at £4.49, £4.99 and £6.99.

The winemaking team is headed by Luis Sánchez with input from globetrotting Dane, David Tosterup.  Paul describes the wines as "halfway between the Old World and the trendy New World.

The beauty of it is that some regions are producing easy-to-drink, full-flavoured wines that are not Australian or South African.  That’s our gain," he says.  Working at the top end of the price spectrum is Casa Castilla, which is producing intense Monastrell-based wines from old, unirrigated vines, some of which are ungrafted.

Richard Whinney, head of the sales support team at importer Morris & Verdin, describes the wines as "fascinating and distinctly Spain", but "as serious as Rioja".

Even so, as they don’t have the magic word Rioja on the label and they’re not inexpensive wines, handselling is required.  "You can’t just stick them on a shelf and expect them to move," Whinney says.


Nearby Utiel-Requena is another region that is hoping to emerge from the shadows. Granted, the area is pretty unlikely to elicit nods of immediate recognition, but Andrew Montague, of Buckingham Vintners, importers of Bodegas Murviedro’s Santerra brand, stresses that there are commercial advantages to be gained by looking beyond the better known regions.

"We’re trying to create a new Spain, with wines that will knock the corners off, say, Rioja or Navarra wines in similar price ranges," he says.

Bodegas Murviedro is a subsidiary of the Swiss Schenk group; the company has invested US$18.7m in a technologically advanced winery, with winemaking overseen by Pablo Ossorio.

The Santerra brand comprises a Tempranillo and a Dry Muscat and the 2004 London International Wine and Spirit Fair will see the launch of the Santerra Bobal Rosé 2003; Monastrell and Garnacha releases are in the pipeline.  The wines retail at about £3.99.

The aim, says Montague, is to "apply a New World philosophy" to winemaking.  "We’re also trying to broaden our appeal away from just one region," he explains.  Aragon Aragon is another region that is rich in potential, with some decent wines coming from Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Calatayud and, particularly, Somontano.

Not everyone is convinced, however, that any of these DOs are likely to become "brands" in their own right. Alex Canneti of PLB says, "The Aragon DOs are providing wines that the UK consumer enjoys, but it will take many years before the regions can be recognised."

And, he says, "They are, unfortunately, practically unknown in Spain."  This has not stopped Codorniu from spreading its winemaking tentacles into this region, however.  The company’s latest project, following on from investment in Rioja, Priorat and Ribera del Duero, is the Nuviana brand, from Codorniu’s property in Aragon, in which the company has invested €6.9m.

In 2003, a Chardonnay, a Tempranillo/ Cabernet and a Cabernet/Merlot were launched in the UK under the Nuviana label.  Codorniu’s marketing manager, Jo Maclean, describes the Nuviana range as sound, commercial wines with a "young, funky" appeal.

Ribera del Duero

Aragon may not be a household name in wine circles, but Ribera del Duero is.  The DO came into being in 1982, when there were still only nine wineries in the region and most of the production was bogstandard jug wine.

Since the early 1990s, however, Ribera has been the subject of a veritable gold rush, with producers from all over Spain flocking to the area, hoping to become the next Pingus, or to capitalise on the Ribera name.

It was the region’s reputation that attracted the Valdepeñas-based producer Felix Solis to Ribera. Felix Solis Ramos says, "Ribera del Duero is one of the most prestigious DOs in Spain, with wine consumption that is increasing over the average.

At the same time, the production of grapes in the DO has grown dramatically, with an expected production of 100,000 tons.  The mixture of the ‘prestige’ and, at the same time, the ‘need’ of the growers to sell this production make it interesting for a big player to consider this DO as an option."

With its new Pagos del Rey winery, Felix Solis is among the biggest producers in the region, with a bottling capacity of 8m litres.  The first release was a pair of wines made under the Altos de Tamaron label, a Joven 2002 and a Barrel-Aged 2002, both 100% Tinto del País.

The wines retail at £4.99-5.99, well below the stratospheric prices of many wines from the region.  There has been some criticism of bigger players getting involved in Ribera, but Solis Ramos replies, "If the vinification, ageing and bottling is done with care and with the latest technologies, quality will not suffer.

On the contrary, it will give the consumer a safe, consistent product.  Also, it helps Ribera del Duero to be known around the world."  Another company to invest in the region is United Wineries International, a subsidiary of Arco. As part of its wideranging Haciendas de España project, UW is investing in a number of high-end "wine estates" in Spain and Portugal.

In Ribera, UW’s Hacienda Abascal winery comprises 17 hectares of vineyard land, planted in 1999 to Tinto Fino, plus a state-of-the-art winery. Capacity is limited to 80,000 bottles a year, made entirely from estate-grown grapes.

Codorniu also has projects under way in Ribera, having launched its Legaris brand in the UK last year, following the purchase of two properties in the area. 

In wine, as in football, as Beckham’s stellar presence in Spain shows, the spirit of cross-fertilisation seems to be alive and, er, kicking.

Beyond Rioja: What’s the point?

Rioja sells.  Everyone knows that, so why bother spending time, money and effort trying to encourage a nation of Rioja drinkers to drink wine from elsewhere in Spain? Roger Higgs, associate director of Western Wines, has at least two good reasons: consistency and price.

"In Jumilla, you get a consistency of quality and price that you don’t get with Rioja," he argues.  After all, the vintage variation, not to mention price fluctuations, of Rioja can be a source of frustration for both consumers and trade.

Furthermore, there’s the flexibility that other regions, particularly those working outside DO zones, can offer.  Investors and winemakers can choose what sort of wine they want to make and then produce it, rather than having to play by the DO rules.

What’s more, Mike Paul of Western Wines believes that Rioja’s dominance of the market has its downsides.  "The problem I have with Spain," he says, "is that it’s almost two markets – Rioja and everything else. It is a constraint."

Few in the trade would disagree that there is a need to diversify beyond Rioja and Cava.  As Bill Rolfe, international marketing director for United Wineries International, says, "We need to show diversity, to have an edge; that’s the whole purpose.  We’d be dead in the water without diversity."

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