Q&A: Nicholas Hammeken

Nicholas Hammeken is the founder and CEO of Hammeken Cellars, which creates modern Spanish wine brands from across the country, including Priorat and Ribera del Duero, and exports them around the world. Founded in 1996, the Dénia-based Hammeken Cellars exports over 1.5 million cases of Spanish wines a year to over 30 countries. Aiming to infuse Spanish tradition and indigenous grapes with New World winemaking techniques, among the fruit forward Spanish wine brands the company has created with wine director Marcelo Morales since its inception are: Piquitos, Allegranza, Creencia, Gotas de Mar, Pasas and Radio Boka. Hammeken Cellars recently signed an agreement with Fruit Driven Wines, which will exclusively represent their portfolio in the UK.

2020 has been a challenging year for all industries – how has the Spanish wine industry fared?

This year has been tough as the Spanish wine industry is very dependent on the domestic market, and a lack of tourism and reluctantly on the part of Spanish consumers to spend money has effected sales. Everyone has had to adapt and there is still a lot of uncertainty but certain companies will emerge as winners.

We did very well in the first couple of months of the year, and were enjoying 30% year-on-year growth, but hit the wall like everyone else in March. We have a mix of clients and have done very well in the off-trade and gained a lot of growth there. Our online sales have also done extremely well, but our on-trade and private retail sales have been hammered.

We have focused a lot on our major clients this year, like big monopolies, in Scandinavia and Canada, and the big retailers in northern Europe. We also recently signed an agreement with Fruit Driven Wines to represent our portfolio in the UK, so are aiming to have our wines in the UK next year, both at bigger retailers and small independent merchants.

You make wines across Spain, how was the 2020 vintage in terms of quality and quantity?

From looking very desperate in the spring due to too much rain, and a mildew concern, the vintage then stabilised and turned out to be a lot better than expected. The quality is a little bit inferior to 2019, as the wines are a little lower in alcohol. The yields in general will be bigger than last year.

We’ve been reducing our yields on purpose this year so as not to over produce, as there is a danger of a glut. Grape prices in Spain were very low a few months ago but are stabilising a bit now, but commodity wines from the 2020 vintage will be sold at low prices, especially as there are still wines from the 2019 vintage to be sold. Turning grapes into industrial alcohol is one way to avoid a glut. Spain needs to get rid of the poor, low quality wine from the 2020 harvest.

Rosé and organic wine are two of the big trends in Spain

What are the biggest trends in Spanish wine at the moment?

Spanish wine companies that are capturing the zeitgeist are doing really well at the moment. Over 25% of our business is now organic wines, which went from a niche to a major income driver for our company, in a trend that is set to grow even bigger, along with the trend for vegan Spanish wines. Spain is in a very strong position to capitalise on the organic wine boom, as it has the largest area of organic vine plantings in the world.

The rosé trend is here to stay. Spain has become a lot better at making lighter, commercial styles of rosé that the market is looking for, and has adapted well to that trend. There are a lot of attractive, good quality, well priced rosés being made across the country now.

Spanish reds in general are becoming more accessible, and there is a better balance between fruit and oak, with terroir playing a much bigger role. Castilla la Mancha has changed a lot as a region and the wines coming out of there are a lot more approachable, as are the Garnacha-based wines from Aragon. There is a new generation of young Spanish winemakers at the helm now who are well travelled and are making more elegant styles of wine. They are much more careful about preserving the fruit character.

We’ve had the trend for big bold reds and now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction towards lighter reds, which is interesting in a country with so much sun. The biggest quality increase in Spain has been with its whites. We’ve been identifying areas in the eastern part of La Mancha for cooler climate whites, and it’s making a huge difference on a large scale. We’re reducing yields and are making much more aromatic and well balanced whites now from Viura and Verdejo. The vines are getting older too, which is adding complexity to the wines.

Is the perception of Spanish wines improving around the world?

Yes. Across the board the quality has been increasing a lot, and bit by bit, with marketing and social media, we are starting to see an increase in awareness of quality Spanish wines. With our range we are identifying where we can offer a point of difference to our consumers, and add value, such as making old vine reds from Jumilla and Yecla.

What are your plans for 2021?

We are investing a lot in promoting our wines at export. Our wines are on sale in the US through our own import company, and will be coming to the UK next year through our collaboration with Fruit Driven Wines, in a project led by Nick Mantella.

We see a tremendous opportunity in the UK and look forward to developing the market. Our growth over the last decade has outperformed the Spanish wine category by offering a fresh and branded approach based on understanding what works for our consumers and trade partners.

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