American consumers have begun to discover the diversity that Spanish wine offers. Driven by the country’s renewed focus on exports, adventurous importers, retailers and sommeliers are expanding the American palate beyond Spain’s traditional heavy hitters. The Spanish wine category, which has more than doubled since 2004, took a dip in 2014 due to a sharp drop in bulk shipments, falling 5.7 percent to 8 million cases, according to Impact Databank. “Spain has had an enviable growth curve—slow, steady and continual,” says Katrin Naelapaa, director of the trade organization Wines from Spain. “It was inevitable that we’d eventually flatten out.” However, the premium and super-premium segments remain on the rise.
The sixth-largest wine exporter to the U.S. market, Spain is dominated by relatively small brands. Only three labels, all Cavas, deplete over 200,000 nine-liter cases. “There are a lot of regional and smaller players in the Spanish import business,” says Vince Friend, president of CIV USA. “The market tends to be pretty fragmented.” Friend, whose company imports No.-2 Cava label Jaume Serra Cristalino and the sangria-driven Don Simon range, notes that many successful brands still don’t have national distribution. The competition has allowed a diverse array of Spanish wines to flourish, generally at highly competitive price points.
Spain made its name with Rioja in the ’90s, and the region remains the market leader: Four of the top five Spanish table wine brands are primarily Rioja-driven. For No.-5 brand Campo Viejo, Rioja is the ideal entry into Spain. “The Spanish category is still small and underdeveloped in the United States,” says Ariel Boorstin, brand manager for Spanish wines at Pernod Ricard USA. “Our aim is to use Campo Viejo to introduce Spanish wine to American consumers with compelling packaging and an approachable taste profile.” Campo Viejo depleted 110,000 cases in 2014, according to Impact Databank. Rioja Tempranillo (around $9.99 a 750-ml. bottle) and Rioja Reserva ($12.99) offerings lead the off-premise–driven brand, although newer Cava and Garnacha offerings have also grown quickly.
Traditional categories still dominate Spanish wine at higher price points. “People are starting to really enjoy high-end Rioja and Ribera del Duero,” says Ricky Febres, national brand manager for Shaw-Ross International Importers. The company markets No.-2 Spanish wine Marqués de Riscal, which depleted 138,000 cases in 2014. The brand has seen the most success with its Rioja Reserva (around $19.99 a 750-ml. bottle). “There’s always been a good market for these wines, but now they’re appearing in more restaurants,” Febres says, adding that national accounts like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and The Palm are increasingly open to Rioja. Naelapaa of Wines from Spain adds that Rioja is widely available and well-known even in secondary markets.
At Jones Liquor in Brownsville, Texas—less than two miles from the border with Mexico—classic high-end Spanish reds are booming. “The demographic of this area is 90-percent Hispanic, and these consumers are really educated when it comes to Spanish wine,” says owner Michael Jones, adding that many customers are Mexican nationals visiting from across the border. The store offers around 70 Spanish labels, which account for about 35 percent of wine sales. “Ribera del Duero leads the category, closely followed by Rioja,” Jones explains. The retailer cites Vega Sicilia as a particular success, especially its Unico Gran Reserva offering ($450 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2005 vintage). “Vega Sicilia is by far the most popular and expensive wine in the category,” he says, noting that the top Spanish wines don’t even make it to the shelves. The 2010 Portia Crianza ($44.99), 2011 Portia Ebeia Roble ($15.99) and 2012 Emilio Moro Finca Resalso ($15.99) also do well.
Top Rioja labels at Jones Liquor include hard-to-find offerings like the 2010 Macán ($85 a 750-ml. bottle) and 2010 Macán Clásico ($45), which are produced by a joint venture between Vega Sicilia and Benjamin de Rothschild. “That brand has exploded, but it’s pretty much only available in Europe and in select restaurants,” Jones says. “Our clientele is looking for this kind of wine.” The store also does well with the 2007 Cune Imperial Gran Reserva ($74.99). “Supermarkets and grocery stores cater to generic Rioja and Ribera del Duero,” Jones says. “We go deeper than that.”
Beyond The Classics
The range of Spanish wines available in the United States now extends to regions other than Rioja. “In the ’90s, Rioja was responsible for almost 70 percent of the exported table wines from Spain to the United States,” says Friend of CIV USA. “Today, we sell a lot more Rioja, but its market share is around 20 percent. That means more regions in Spain are selling here, and everything is growing overall.” The change has accelerated since the global recession, which hit Spain particularly hard and encouraged the country’s winemakers to aggressively pursue export markets. “Spain has around 80 appellations, and every one wants to sell in the United States,” Friend says, noting that most have no name recognition yet. “To the average consumer, Rioja and Ribera del Duero stand out. Only wine-centric people know about other appellations. The average consumer is looking for discovery wines.”
This paradoxically puts most regions on a level playing field. CIV has found success with the Portal del Montsant range (around $25 for the 2013 Bruberry Rouge to $45 for the 2010 Santbru Carnyenes Velles) from D.O. Montsant, which surrounds Priorat. “The wines are very similar to Priorat, and we’ve gotten a phenomenal response,” Friend says. Marqués de Alella ($15 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2013), made from the white Pansa Blanca grape in the Alella appellation outside of Barcelona, has also thrived—despite its obscurity—because of its flavor profile. “We’ve seen a lot more acceptance of the white wines of Spain than we did 20 years ago,” Friend says.
Among wine connoisseurs, interest in all parts of Spain is on the rise. “People are starting to look at regionality on a serious scale,” says Andrew Sinclair, senior business development manager for González Byass. Education is particularly important. “When you have a category that overdelivers for its price point, you have to get it in front of people and recruit them,” Sinclair explains. González Byass—best known for its Tio Pepe Sherry and Beronia Rioja brands—has seen strong performance from other regions, but not just at the high-end. The company markets several wines from the Somontano appellation in the foothills of the Pyrenees, including Secastilla ($15 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2013 La Miranda de Secastilla Garnacha Blanca and Tinto; $37 for the 2010 Secastilla).
The offering is a member of the “Grandes Pagos de España”—a nonprofit organization of Spanish wine producers dedicated to upholding and promoting high-quality single estate wine. In contrast, González Byass’s Viñas del Vero Luces range (around $9.99) includes white, red and rosé offerings that blend indigenous Spanish grapes and international varietals. The brand targets national retail and restaurant accounts.
The diversity of Spanish wine is most visible in the on-premise. The wine list at Jaleo in Washington, D.C., features around 200 offerings, spanning every region of Spain. “Jaleo does well with Rioja, of course,” says Andy Myers, wine director for parent company ThinkFoodGroup. “Albariño is such a great value and easy-to-drink wine.” Lesser-known wines also do well, particularly the red grape Mencía, which is represented by around 20 offerings ($49 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2013 Guímaro Ribeira Sacra Mencía to $190 for the 2008 Moncerbal Descendientes de J. Palacios Mencía). “Mencía has the texture of Pinot Noir, but with more Gamay qualities,” Myers notes. “It’s turning into my favorite wine-geek grape.” Other top selections include the 2005 Can Ràfols Penedès Gran Caus, a Bordeaux-style red blend ($13 a glass; $52 a 750-ml. bottle). “It drinks like classic Bordeaux,” Myers says. “We’ve been selling a ton of it.”
Value And Variety
Spanish wine retains a strong value proposition. At the Basque taverna Donostia in New York City, co-owner Jorge de Yarza built a deep wine list around that principle. “With Spanish wine, you’re going to find good value compared to France, California, and even Italy,” he says. Donostia offers around 30 Spanish still and sparkling wines by the glass ($8 to $15), along with over 50 Sherries ($4 to $45), around 10 Spanish vermouths ($6 to $8) and a range of rare wines poured via Coravin ($11 to $34). “We feature a fun list with esoteric products that are also exceptional values,” de Yarza says. “Whether or not consumers know the intricacies of the wine or the region, we believe they can taste the value.” Donostia’s range, which also includes over 100 bottled selections ($29 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2010 Protos Rueda Verdejo to $168 for the 2010 Remelluri Blanco Rioja Alavesa), encompasses every region of Spain, with a particular focus on Basque wines. “We have the biggest Txakolina selection that I’ve seen in the country,” says de Yarza. “We want people to become familiar with Spanish varietals that they’ve never really tried.”
The effort has paid off, according to Donostia co-owner Marissa Miller. “People’s palates have begun to change toward wines that are a little more complex,” she says. “It’s not just industry people who like funky things—the whole younger generation enjoys them as well.” The wines pair well with Donostia’s traditional Basque cuisine. “The United States is very aware of the Spanish food game, but it’s still surprising that not as much focus has been placed on the beverage side,” de Yarza says.
Joe Manekin, Spanish wine buyer at the three-unit retailer K&L Wine Merchants in California, agrees. “There’s an interest in exploring cooler climate areas and other parts of Spain—places where alcohol is lower and the flavors are more unusual,” he says, citing Ribeira Sacra and the wines of Asturias. Wines in the $10-to-$15 range drive volume, but older vintages also see good growth. “Spain has lots of options for well-aged bottles, either direct from the winery or otherwise of very good provenance,” Manekin explains.
However, operators must strike a balance between the foreign and the familiar. Spanish offerings run the gamut at the Austin, Texas–based eatery Foreign & Domestic. “Someone who doesn’t want to ask for assistance will gravitate toward wines that are more familiar,” says general manager Grover Smith. “Most of the by-the-glass options are easily recognizable.” Bottles, however, can be more unusual. “It takes a forward-selling approach to get guests to try something different,” Smith explains. “We try to make it a learning process.” Foreign & Domestic’s selections include the Tendal La Palma Albillo from the Canary Islands ($16 a glass; $48 a 750-ml. bottle) and the 2011 Bengoetxe Txakolina Hondarribi Zuri from the Basque region ($50 a 750-ml. bottle).
As the popularity of Spanish wine grows, importers have calibrated their marketing to fit. Friend of CIV USA notes that traditional wine marketing doesn’t work well with most millennials. “We aren’t pushing the European model, where you describe the vineyards and the climate,” he says. “Two decades ago, people couldn’t stop asking you questions about that. Today, millennials want to understand everything in a tweet.” Jordan Sager, vice president of national accounts for the importer Winesellers Ltd., agrees. “Millennials aren’t tied to specific brands or varietals,” he says. “They’re willing to try new things as long as they perceive them as authentic.”
Recent legal changes in Spain have also made it easier for importers to build brands while maintaining a focus on quality, terroir-driven wines. “Previously, the laws wouldn’t allow one brand to be used across multiple appellations,” Sager says. “The country changed the laws two years ago.” Winesellers Ltd. recently launched the Dominios de Castilla brand, which consists of three estate wines from different appellations in the Castilla region: a Verdejo from Rueda ($9 to $10 a 750-ml. bottle), a Tinta de Toro ($11 to $12) and a Ribera del Duero Crianza (around $13). “Two years ago, this brand couldn’t have existed,” Sager says.
Spain has overcome one of the great challenges for a newly emerging market in the United States: It has developed both a successful upscale segment and a flourishing premium business. “Spain became known for its higher-end wines,” says Naelapaa of Wines from Spain. “That recognition has allowed it to introduce lower-end wines without really damaging its reputation.” And the future potential for Spanish wines is strong. As Naelapaa says, “Spain has everything.”