Spain’s recent past has informed much of its present-day wine industry. From the 1930s to the mid-1970s, the country endured the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who enforced pervasive oppression of many Spanish subcultures. Among the trades plagued by his regime was winemaking; Franco, viewing wine as primarily sacramental, ordered the removal of grapevines in white wine-producing regions throughout the country, and many vineyards were eventually replanted with cash crops. Spain’s export market also shrank to near nonexistence during the Franco era, effectively exiling Spain from the upper echelons of the international wine community for decades to come.
Following Franco’s death in 1975 and Spain’s subsequent transition into democracy, an economic upswing encouraged a revival of the wine industry, though it came at the cost of Spanish identity—producers were making wine for an international audience, which resulted in expressions that carried the full-bodied, heavily oaked, and high-alcohol characteristics governing popular taste at the time.
Over the past decade, Spain has found itself in the midst of another winemaking renaissance. Though a hard-hitting economic crisis slowed the Spanish wine industry once more from 2008 to 2014, the country has since risen to new heights on the global stage. Last year marked Spain’s new ranking as the world’s top wine producer by volume, with 2.28 billion liters distributed globally—and 5.59 million liters of that coming to the U.S., according to Impact Databank. By value, the country has also seen strong progress, exporting $3.3 billion worth of wine worldwide in 2017, according to the Observatorio Español de los Mercados del Vino. While only a handful of Spanish wineries were imported just a couple of decades ago, today more than 900 estates are represented in the U.S. At the forefront of this resurgence is a new generation of winemakers who are embracing long-forgotten varietals, unexplored regions, and softer, more elegant wines.
Rooted In Rediscovery
While Rioja and Cava still serve as standard-bearers for Spanish wine, enthusiasm for lesser-known regions and varietals is surging. “We’re seeing producers move across the country from more well-known regions like Ribera del Duero to smaller appellations in areas like Galicia, where they’re producing with such local varietals as Godello,” says Victor Ordóñez, national sales and marketing manager at importer Jorge Ordóñez Selections, which markets Godello producer Bodegas Avancia from the northwestern DO Valdeorras. “Winemakers are caring more about native grapes after years of emphasizing international variants.”
International grapes first came to the forefront of Spanish winemaking in the early 20th century, in the wake of a phylloxera outbreak that devastated many of the country’s vineyards. Instead of replanting with the indigenous varietals that had originally grown, winemakers turned to more widely accepted grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, among others—in an effort to promote a quick return to profit. After Franco’s rule ended, the ensuing emphasis on catering to international palates guaranteed that global varieties, not native ones, took priority in many vineyards.
As a result, a number of Spain’s indigenous grapes were all but extinct by the mid-1900s, Godello included. This white grape—which is often compared to Chardonnay—was revived by small-scale winemakers in the 1970s, and introduced to the U.S. market almost two decades later by Jorge Ordóñez. While his company remained the sole importer of the varietal for nearly ten years, Victor, Jorge’s son, notes that’s no longer the case today. “Now, it seems that the U.S. market is learning more about Godello, and in some markets, we’re actually seeing it outsell Verdejo,” he says. “That would have been laughable just ten years ago.”
Numerous other indigenous Spanish grapes have since been recovered from the brink, and at New York importer Olé Imports, co-founder Patrick Mata has noticed the shift toward bringing them to the forefront of the wine industry. “Spain has more than 400 different native grapes: Garnacha, Treixadura, Loureira, Merenzao, Mencia—the list goes on,” he says. “The majority of these varietals have never been heard of, and vineyards are now exploring, learning about, and cultivating these rediscovered grapes in abundance.”
Currently, Olé imports such boutique wineries as Bodegas Quinta da Muradella, an organic estate in DO Monterrei that features old vineyards and specializes in offerings like Alanda Blanco ($35 a 750-ml.), a blend of Doña Blanca, Treixadura, Verdello, and Monstruosa de Monterrei. Mata and his partner, Alberto Orte, have also started looking to such regions as the Canary Islands, where native grapes from volcanic soil like Listan Negro and Malvasía Volcánica are gaining ground. Adding more native Spanish white wines—with a special focus on Albariño—is also a priority for Olé in the years ahead.
Even Spain’s major producers are taking part in varietal rediscovery. Grupo Codorníu-Raventos—one of the preeminent players in Cava and Rioja—sees great potential for one of its smaller projects, Catalan winery Abadía de Poblet, given its newfound emphasis on native varietals. “When we first took over the Abadía project, we were making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” says Diego Pinilla, Codorníu’s global head of winemaking. “Now, we’re working with indigenous grapes such as Trepat and Garrut, which aren’t well known outside of Spain. It’s given us the opportunity to rediscover a region and its fruits that aren’t among the big names in Spain, and that’s been very exciting for us.”
Abadía de Poblet’s offerings include La Font Voltada ($55 a 750-ml.), a 100% Trepat, and White Abadía de Poblet ($30), which is a blend of Macabeo and Parellada. Pinilla notes that the label has been present in the U.S. market for almost three years now, and is primed to illustrate the value of Spain through its old vines, unique region, and ancient varietals. “We’d love to see the U.S. consumer know more about our varieties and different regions,” Pinilla says. “Projects like this reflect our personality and aren’t an expression of global influence, and that’s important.”
The New Generation
Katrin Naelapaa, director of trade group Wines From Spain, credits much of this rampant rediscovery of Spanish grape varietals to the passionate young winemakers who are flocking to the industry in droves. “There’s an incredible curiosity within young Spanish winemakers and winery owners, who are driven by reclaiming what was once part of their heritage, but got overlooked for decades,” she says.
During the Franco era, few young people entered the winemaking business, leading many producers to wonder how the industry would survive. For the most part, younger generations stayed away until after the economic crisis of 2008, when cities no longer offered the job security that had once attracted newcomers. Thus, a return to the countryside began, and with it came a reinvention of Spanish wine.
“The new generation of winemakers has not only grown up in a different Spain than their forefathers, but most of them have also studied abroad, whether it’s in Bordeaux, California, or Australia,” Naelapaa says. “They’re coming back to Spain with different ideas about how to make wine and getting inspired by what they’ve seen elsewhere, while still looking inward to their own culture.”
This sentiment rings true at Envínate, a winery founded in 2005 by four friends—Roberto Santana, Alfonso Torrente, Laura Ramos, and José Martínez—who met while studying enology at a university in Spain. Together, the co-founders aim to create wines that are illustrative of the land on which they’re grown, similar to the practices in terroir-focused regions like Burgundy. “For us, it’s important that our wines have three things: personality, character, and soul,” Santana says. “We want to show how different soils and terrains affect the wine; how different years impart different characteristics on the final product; and how wines can convey the soul of the people working in the vineyards.”
Imported to the U.S. by Jose Pastor Selections since 2012, the Envínate portfolio ($20-$45 a 750-ml.) features wines sourced from the Canary Islands, Ribera Sacra, and Almansa, including Taganan Blanco ($39 a 750-ml.), a blend of Listan Blanco, Albillo Criollo, Marmajuelo, Gual, and Malvasia, among others; Lousas Viña de Aldea ($37), a Mencia-dominant red blend; and Albahra ($20), a combination of 70% Garnacha Tintorera and 30% Moravia Agria.
The influence of Spain’s new winemakers is already making waves in the retail arena. In the seven years since opening New York City Spanish wine and spirits shop Despaña Vinos y Más, store manager and wine buyer Veronica Stoler has seen great variation in what importers now offer, a direct result of the new generation’s mindset. “A generation ago, winemakers were eating and drinking locally, and making wine the same way they’d always made it,” she says. “Nowadays, in talking to winemakers younger than 50, you see that they’re out there tasting wines from all over the world, traveling to other wine regions, and swapping techniques with other vintners.” Despaña stocks around 580 labels, most of which are small-batch or limited production wines from boutique brands.
The Old Guard
The new wave has begun, but a multitude of Spanish wineries, both newer and established, continue to pay homage to the grapes and places that initially put the country on the map—and which still drive Spain’s wine exports today. In Rioja, exports to the U.S. rose for their third consecutive year in 2017, up 5.9% to 1.145 million cases, according to Impact Databank. And while Cava’s U.S. volume dipped slightly last year to 1.75 million cases, in IRI channels the sparkling wine’s total volume rose by 4% in the 52 weeks ending June 17, 2018.
For preeminent Cava producer Codorníu-Raventos, focusing on the premium and luxury tiers has been a priority in recent years, with the goal of making the category more competitive in the U.S. market. “Our new Ars Collecta range includes some fine cellar wines, as does our Jaume de Codorníu lineup,” Pinilla says. “We’ve positioned ourselves at the very high end of Cava, and we think that’s important for the development and future of the category overall.” The Ars Collecta lineup features three single-estate Cavas available in limited quantities and retail priced at $120 a bottle: Finca Le Pleta, Finca El Tros Nou, and Finca La Fideuera. The launch of the trio followed the creation of Spain’s new Cava de Paraje Calificado designation, which was unveiled in 2016 and set requirements, characteristics, and quality control standards for premium Cavas.
Codorníu is also exploring stylistic updates for its Rioja and Ribera del Duero-based offerings, which make up a substantial portion of its still wine portfolio. “We’re moving toward more gentle aging and attempting to better convey the soil and climate of a particular place at all of our wineries,” Pinilla says, adding that with Tempranillo in Rioja, the company is aiming for softer styles of the varietal, as well as for wines that are representative of smaller parcels, and not just overall regions. “We’re jumping from age designations like Crianza and Reserva to a much more focused system. By featuring specific villages or towns, consumers can see different expressions and history in a glass.” To that end, Codorníu is set to launch Legaris Páramos in the first half of 2019; the brand’s name translates to “plateau” in a direct correlation to the 950-meter-high vineyards in Ribera del Duero where its Tinta Fina grapes are grown.
Elsewhere, González Byass USA has seen success for its Rioja-based Beronia label, according to CEO and manager Nicolás Bertino, who says the brand will reach around 10,000 cases this year. Growth was bolstered in part by the debut of Beronia rosé ($13 a 750-ml.) in February. A blend of 60% Garnacha and 40% Tempranillo, the new offering capitalizes on the ongoing global rosé craze, as well as on the longstanding popularity among U.S. consumers of two of Spain’s most prominent red varietals. “We’re in a position between tradition and innovation right now,” Bertino says, noting that the new wine is the first still rosé in González Byass’ Spanish portfolio to reach the U.S. He adds that the company is currently more bullish on native Spanish varietals, with Rías Baixas winery Pazos de Lusco—added to the portfolio in 2016 and known for its Albariño ($25)—performing well in the U.S. market.
On a smaller scale, Perinet Winery in Priorat is also looking to reinvigorate the perception of its famed region among U.S. consumers by way of single-vineyard expressions. “We’re making wines from special plots and small pieces of land, which makes them very different from many other wines throughout not only this region, but Spain in general,” winemaker Tony Sanchez says. “We’re making it easier for consumers to appreciate and get to know varieties like Garnacha and Cariñena, which are not the same when taken from anywhere else in the world.” He points to two single-vineyard, single-varietal wines launching in December—a 2016 Carinyena from the Pendents Vineyard in Porerra, and a 2016 Garnatxa from the Mas Vell Vineyard, also in Porrera (both $120 a 750-ml.)—as exemplary of this effort. The winery also offers a variety of high-end red blends ($28-$390) made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Garnacha, and Cariñena. In a unique move to further its reach in the U.S., Perinet partnered with Napa Valley winery Alpha Omega earlier this year, gaining distribution in its tasting room and through its DTC channel.
Given the heightened attention to old vineyards, new varietals, and sustainable winemaking techniques, Spanish wine has increased substantially by value in recent years. While bottles priced at $10 and below once dominated the U.S. market, offerings above $15 are now finding success.
At Despaña, Stoler says the sweet spot is $22-$36 a 750-ml., with many wines rising above that, but few coming in below. Likewise, Katie Rice, manager of Barcelona Wine Bar’s VinoTeca wine shop in Atlanta, says that for the most part, the store’s Spanish wine selection sits within the $15-$20 range. “Spanish wine is trending upward, and becoming a better-made, higher-quality proposition,” she says. “Wines priced right in the midst of the premium tier are really our bread and butter at the moment.”
Along those lines, Prestige Beverage Group has seen recent success for its super-premium Particular brand, which is currently driving growth for the company’s Spanish portfolio. The Particular lineup includes a 100% Cariñena, an old vine Garnacha, and a barrel-aged Chardonnay (all $15 a 750-ml.). “Our retail partners have realized that this relatively new super-premium price point for Spanish wines is really what consumers are looking for,” says Prestige wine and spirits director Lisa Lundgren. “They’ve been looking to stretch beyond the traditional value-priced Spanish wine segment, which consumers used to attribute to Spain.” Given Particular’s strong performance, Lundgren notes that Prestige may add a Cava to the lineup in the next couple years.
Mata of Olé Imports notes not just the decline of the below-$10 segment and the rise of the super-premium tier, but gains at the luxury end as well. “In the last three years, we’ve seen a lot of growth in wines that cost more than $50 a bottle,” he says. “Previously, those wines only sold well if they received a high rating, but now we’re selling a lot of high-end bottles without any press support.” The importer’s ultra-premium offerings include Rodrigo Méndez El Barredo ($50 a 750-ml.) from DO Bierzo, QDM Lugar de Grou ($101) from Quinta da Muradella in Monterrei, and Torralvo ($81) from Vizcarra in Ribera del Duero.
With such an explosion of varietals, regions, and new wineries on the scene, many producers and retailers are stressing the importance of education for U.S. consumers, who are primarily familiar with Rioja, Tempranillo, and Cava. Wines From Spain has held the Great Match—an exhibition of Spanish wine and food—for the past 25 years in New York City and Los Angeles. Though the event was initially limited in scope, today it features over 300 labels from nearly 30 different geographic regions across the country. “We want to show people the diversity and quality of Spanish wine,” says Naelapaa.
Wines From Spain engages in a number of other education initiatives, among them social media marketing and wine courses at culinary and hospitality schools, to secure more on-premise placement for Spanish wines. The trade group is also supporting a new Spanish Wine Scholar program that’s run by the Wine Scholar Guild and is set to launch in January 2019. Additionally, Naelapaa points to a newly introduced pilot program at Total Wine & More as a major breakthrough at the retail level. “They’re redesigning their shelving and the placement of the Spanish wine section in their stores, adding maps of Spain, and giving consumers basic facts about grape varietals, regions, and aging requirements,” she says. “Initially, it’ll be rolling out in five stores, but there’s potential for the program to spread across the entire network.”
Aside from displays, in-store tastings are also crucial in the off-premise, with many retailers noting that Spanish wines—especially those from boutique producers or at higher price points—are often hand-sells. “With the wave of new wines we’re seeing from producers that are finding small, abandoned vineyards and bringing them back to life with native varietals, tastings are essential in getting people excited,” says Bob Scherb, owner of Portland, Oregon retail store Liner & Elsen. “We do a lot of public tastings, and in some cases producers come in from Spain to guide our consumers.”