Spain Surges Forward

A select group of U.S.-based importers has helped raise Spain's image by scouting new regions and encouraging the production of wines that are modern yet individual in style.


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A select group of U.S.-based importers has helped raise Spain's image by scouting new regions and encouraging modern yet individual styles of wine.

I knew Spain could make great wine," says Stephen Metzler. "One look at the land, the terroir, the geography and you knew it was perfect. All we had to do was get the Spaniards to think beyond Rioja and Sherry, the styles that had defined Spain. Back then, there was no variety. Now you see and taste huge regional differences."

"Back then" was only 10 or 20 years ago. As an importer of fine Spanish wines for the past two and a half decades, Metzler has seen Spain become a quality and value leader in the United States.

Metzler is hardly alone—he is just one of several quality-minded importers committed to scouring the byways of Spain in search of consumer-friendly bottlings, consulting on new wine styles, and tirelessly promoting Spanish varieties and regions in America.

From Boston area-based Jorge Ordoñez, owner of Fine Estates from Spain, to Metzler of Classical Wines in Seattle, to Eric Solomon of European Cellars in North Carolina and others, it has been a diverse group of committed enthusiasts that has unearthed and brought to U.S. consumers new and tasty wines.

To understand what these importers have accomplished, we should remember how limited Americans' knowledge of Spanish wines was just 25 years ago. True, there was appreciation for Rioja and a few other stalwarts. Rioja pioneers such as Bodegas Faustino Martínez, Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Cáceres, and Marqués de Murrieta had for years been offering discerning and value-minded drinkers mature-tasting, soft-tannin reds. Well-priced reds from Penedès, such as Sangre de Toro and others from Torres, were also instrumental in blazing the trail for those who would follow.

Since then, the influx of new Spanish bottlings has turned into a steady stream. In just the past decade, imports of Spanish wines to the U.S. have tripled to 1.8 million cases of table wine, making Spain the fifth-largest exporter behind Italy, Australia, France and Chile. In the past year alone, Spain's wine-related U.S. export revenues increased 33 percent, following a 15 percent climb in 2001. Today, Spanish wines are the second-fastest growing imported wine category (second only to Australia).

"Spain is still small among exporters, but no one approaches the value for the dollar delivered by Spain, especially for aged wines. Not Chile, and not Australia," says Vince Friend, president of CIV USA, the Sacramento-based exclusive importer for Rioja-based Martínez-Bujanda and its table wines.

Of course, Friend, as a believer and a businessman, would think that. But independent critics agree. Greg Harrington, sommelier and beverage director for the B.R. Guest restaurant group in New York, sees Spain as both a source of great value and high quality. "Spain is in the midst of a quality revolution," says Harrington. "Between the regions of Priorat, Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Navarra for reds, and Galicia and Valdeorras for whites, there is great price-quality value."

Since starting his business in 1990, Friend has witnessed firsthand sizable growth in Martínez-Bujanda's sales, and in those of the Condes de Albarei Albariño he brings in from Rias Baixas in Galicia. When he first took shipment of Spanish wines 13 years ago, the case count for Martínez-Bujanda was about 3,500. Today, some 60,000 cases are sold each year across the U.S.

Value is Spanish wine's primary calling card, Friend feels. That's largely why, over the past six years, Condes de Albarei has gone from zero to about 4,500 cases in sales and a new Martínez-Bujanda wine, Casa Solar, priced at $6 a bottle, is now a 30,000-case brand in the U.S.

"We sell Albariño in the way others might market New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc," says Friend of this lip-smacking white wine. "It may not have huge volume, but the wine has carved out a niche. Many cities across the country, and maybe not the most wine-progressive ones, are just now discovering Albariño, and they like it."

Others discovered it years ago and found that they liked it, says Ordoñez, who imports wines from 48 Spanish producers. "In 1998, I was importing 13,000 cases of Albariño, which was probably 70 percent of the market and 80 percent of what was being sold in America."

Not one to be bashful, Ordoñez takes credit for putting a charge not just in Albariño, but the Spanish import market all told. "I pride myself in being the first guy to believe in something nobody else believes in. I knew Albariño could sell for $12 a bottle." Today it's usually about $20.

"A prominent importer once told me I'd be lucky to sell 130 cases of Albariño in New York," says Ordoñez. "If you believe in what's good, you'll succeed. Same with Garnacha. Why wouldn't people like it if they like good red wine?"

Value Delivered
A number of importers contacted for this article stressed the same point in chronicling Spain's surge: that it delivers unmatched value to the consumer, at both the high end and at the entry level. And it's that perceived value that's driving the market.
"Spain covers the whole range, from a wine like Vega Sicilia Unico, a Ribero del Duero classic that is a world-class wine at the absolute highest level, down to country wines from places like Toro, Yecla and Jumilla," notes Paul Sharp, North American export manager for Europvin, based in, of all places, Bordeaux.

"There has been a recent explosion of wines and styles from Spain, and not just wines made in Priorat or Ribera del Duero," says Sharp. "Spain is now being taken seriously as a country with great variety and range."

A lot of the growth and change is taking place in regions that had little to offer American consumers a decade ago. Then, about 60 percent of Spanish wine sales in the United States were of wines from Rioja. That number is down to about one in three bottles now.
According to importers, another emerging but hardly new region with potential is La Mancha. This sprawling region south of Madrid was long known mainly as a source of mediocre red wines for local consumption. Sharp insists that La Mancha is progressing at breakneck speed.

"There is such a serious platform of replanting and adopting modern winemaking techniques in La Mancha that it can only help," Sharp says. He also points to a boost provided by a few higher-end wines being made from old Tempranillo vines in La Mancha.

One of those wines is El Vínculo, made by Bodegas Alejandro Fernández of Ribera del Duero fame. Both the new 1999 reserva and the 2000 crianza are modern, rich, lavishly oaked wines made in the so-called New World style. The wines carry New World prices of $38 and $24, respectively, but when you taste these burly, fruit-laden bruisers with powerhouse extract and tannins, you know that the old La Mancha is turning a corner.

In some ways, Metzler has helped create and elevate the Spanish import market via wines made by Fernández, whom he has represented for 15 years, and others. In that sense, Metzler is much like the always-on-the-go Ordoñez, who spends most of his time exploring Spain in search of smaller, high-end producers whose wines are made in the style of many California wines, or even some of the modern super Tuscans.

"I go back to the 1970s, when there was virtually nothing from Spain. But I was still fascinated with Spanish culture and thought there could be more [wine]," Metzler recounts. "I consider the 1980s to be the glory years. That was the time of the emerging natives, when there was progress as well as innocence. Franco had been dead for only 10 years and Spain was ripe for discovery. There were no bandwagoneers back then, just pioneers. Now you see and taste huge regional differences."

That is indeed true. Regional variety and terroir are both being expressed like never before: Galicia with its Albariño; Rueda with its Verdello; Rioja and Ribera del Duero with modern-style Tempranillo; Toro and Somontano with yet more consumer-friendly Tempranillo; Priorat with blockbuster Garnacha; Bierzo with its mixed bag of cutting-edge whites and reds; not to mention La Mancha, Jumilla and Yecla with flavorful, well-made, affordable reds.

"With Spain, it's been harder to get people to try the wines than to like them. Once buyers and consumers try the wines, they learn that for the most part they are not heavy," says Friend, commenting on the popular movement toward bigger, bolder wines. "Yes, there are a few press-friendly high-flyers, but mostly the wines are balanced. Spain has shown a great capacity to be able to dip its toe into the New World wave, especially in Ribera, Rioja and Priorat. But even with some lush, rich wines [from the likes of Dominio de Pingus, Viña Sastre, Finca Allende, Roda, Clos Erasmus, Alváro Palacios and others], the country is holding onto its identity."

And this is what the importers are selling to retailers and restaurateurs: a particular identity. Spanish wine remains approachable and friendly, they say, just like a varietal Cabernet, Shiraz or Merlot from Australia or Chile. But Spain's wines have a certain something extra, too. Terroir? Unusual flavors? Structure? How about all of the above?
"Ribera took over from Rioja in terms of producing cutting-edge, popular wines, and to some extent, Priorat has stepped in for Ribera," over the past five or six years, says Roger Bohmrich, senior vice president in charge of marketing for Frederick Wildman in New York. Wildman imports El Coto, a 20,000-case-and-growing brand from Rioja. Now, he says, other regions are establishing themselves to the point that they, too, can carry the flag for Spain.

"Most encouraging to me is what's happening in places like Toro and La Mancha. These places are proof that Spain is still the world's largest untapped reservoir of value. And that will continue, because for all the talk about this 'new' Spain, there's still more 'old' thinking going on than new. Hopefully, that will change with time," Bohmrich says.

La Mancha is just one of many regions where new thinking is providing a turn-around in quality. In Valdepeños, brands such as Felix Solis are helping to elevate this region, once known only for bulk wine. "The beauty of Spain is that much of it is still like the south of France, where you can follow a vins de pays concept of making tasty, affordable wines and the upside seems greater," says Peter Deutsch, president of WJ Deutsch & Sons, Bodegas Montecillo's importer in White Plains, New York.

A wine that is the living, breathing example of what Deutsch is talking about is Solaz, a blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon made near La Mancha, in Tierra de Castilla, selling for about $8 a bottle.

In just two vintages, Solaz, made by Osborne, has grown into a 30,000-case brand in America, and it is soon to be joined in the Deutsch portfolio by Dominio Malpica, a 100-percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the same region.

"Spain still has plenty of potential," Deutsch says. "When under five percent of the import market is Spanish, the opportunities are unlimited, especially in nontraditional areas"—places such as Tierra de Castilla.

Freixenet, Spain's undisputed cava leader, saw an opportunity in Spanish table wine when it bought several existing bodegas across the country and launched its Heredad Collection in 1999. "Now we have wines from Ribera del Duero (Valdubón), Priorat (Morlanda), Rias Baixas (Vionta), Penedès, and soon, Montsant in Tarragona. We even make Xarel-lo under the Creu de Lavit label," says Juan Furné, president of Freixenet USA.

Freixenet's U.S. sales of Spanish table wines were up 42 percent last year. Of the wines in the Heredad Collection, the Vionta Albariño has great potential, says Furné. "Albariño is a perfect summer wine. The problem is that there's not enough of it to go around."

With nearly 2 million cases of Spanish table wine now in the United States, there is more Spanish vino going around than ever before. And if there's anyone to thank for that, it's the importers who have made the market what it is today.

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