Many producers and retailers believe that Spain should use native grapes over international varietals, finds Jane Parkinson
Spanish Report, 2010
When an award-winning retailer says it’s “vital” for Spanish wines to retain their identity by sticking with indigenous varieties, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Jamie Hutchinson from The Sampler, the London merchant that’s turned consumer wine appreciation on its head by allowing customers to try a whole host of wines before they buy them, is adamant Spain must make use of its native grapes. “Why make copycat wines?” he asks. “The world has plenty of Cabernets, Syrahs and Chardonnays. With very few exceptions, Spain has yet to convincingly prove that it can compete with original, interesting wines from these grapes at the right prices.”
Hutchinson’s impatience is understandable. It’s frustrating to see a country like Spain, which is blessed with such indigenous variety riches, be made to tap into the international grape scene on the basis that customers are fearful of experimenting beyond Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon.
And yet the tussle between instilling consumer confidence by listing international varieties and paying respect to native varieties is a dilemma that every supermarket buyer must face. Indeed, Sainsbury’s Spain buyer Julie Buckley finds she needs to strike such a balance. “Spain’s indigenous varietals are a fantastic USP and they’re very important,” she maintains, “although with increasingly good international varieties such as Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc being produced, blends are a commercially viable option.” At Wines from Spain, director Maria José Sevilla says that this balancing act is already being handled with the caution it deserves. She says: “Of course, it’s important for Spanish wines to retain their identity, but it is not a simple black-and-white choice between strong Spanish identity equates to using native grape varieties and a lack of strong Spanish identity equates to using international grape varieties.
“Take Vega Sicilia, for example, which has been growing Cabernet Sauvignon for many decades. Spain is improving its identity by continually improving the quality of winemaking and the quality of grapes – whether they be Cabernet Sauvignon or Tempranillo,” she adds.
From an importer’s point of view though, Lindsay Talas, buying director at UK importer Thierry’s, explains just why it’s so important for Spain to keep plugging away with its characterful native varieties. “A new approach is needed to encourage consumers to try these fabulous [native] wines,” she says. “The Brits have a huge affinity for all things Spanish so building a strong Spanish identity for lesser-known wines is key.” She adds that it is all the more important because sales of Spanish wines in the UK off-trade are “dominated by big Rioja brands and very cheap wines, but there’s limited consumer awareness of the other lesser-known DOs and modern Spanish wines”.
Talas isn’t the only importer singing the praises and potential of Spanish native varieties. Harriet Kininmonth, Spanish buyer at Enotria, comments: “Thanks to all the emerging quality wine regions, an indigenous identity is important to commercial success in the UK and Spain is no exception.
“Spanish wines are attracting consumers who seek individual identity; something new and different. Spain differs from most up-and-coming wine producing regions because although stylistically modern and in a New World style, it has a great history of wine production, involving largely indigenous varietals and, generally speaking, consumers buy into the historical story behind a wine. In a saturated market (ie more wine produced than consumed), wine-producing regions must be competitive. If the New World can offer international varieties at a cheaper price then it is not in Spain’s commercial interests to try and compete at this end of the market.”
While the combined responsibility of getting these indigenous wines into the UK lies with the importer and the retailer, ultimately they can only sell what is made, making the approach of the producer towards indigenous varieties crucial.
Eugeni Brotons, marketing director at González Byass, is cognisant of the accountability of producers in getting indigenous varieties through the chain to the consumer. “It’s very important for the Spanish category and for González Byass to maximise the potential of its indigenous grape varieties. Our aim as a family-owned company is to become the benchmark, or reference point, for quality for Spanish wines and we couldn’t achieve this without having Spanish indigenous grape varieties as an intrinsic part of our viticultural strategy, hence our commitment to planting them in our vineyards across Spain.”
Red’s street cred
While Tempranillo justifiably takes the lion’s share of the praise for Spain’s indigenous varieties thanks to the resounding success of Rioja, for Brotons at González Byass, experimentation is even possible within the confines this traditionally loved style. “The success of Garnacha and Tempranillo on the domestic and international markets proves that Spanish varietals do have consumer pull and we believe that they are a unique selling point for Spain. This can be seen in the increase of single varietals Gracianos and Mazuelos in Rioja. At Bodegas Beronia, our Riojan winery, we were among the first in Rioja to experiment and launch a mono-varietal range made up of indigenous Riojan varietals. While they are quite niche in their appeal, there is a definite consumer interest,” he says.
Meanwhile Rioja is not the only region that can craft interesting wines from Spain’s most famous indigenous grape, as Hutchinson at The Sampler explains: “Tempranillo’s success extends beyond Rioja and Ribero del Duero into a number of great value wines from La Mancha and the surrounds. We also have loads of interest in Mencia from Bierzo, and in the opposite style, Monastrell, from Yecla and Jumilla.”
Thankfully for Spain, its indigenous variety portfolio also includes what the trade regards as the “thinking person’s Sauvignon Blanc” with Albariño, according to Hutchinson. With its “freshness, depth and minerality with floral aromatics, it really puts Spain on the map for quality white wines”, says Kininmonth at Enotria, who adds: “Sommeliers like it as it is a great accompaniment to seafood. It’s the trendiest white in Spain. It also was the leading suggestion for ‘wines likely to succeed Sauvignon Blanc’ in our recent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc survey.”
Vicki Stephens-Clarkson, wine buyer at Liberty, enjoys Albariño’s ability to stand up to international varieties. She remarks: “Albariño is doing very well for us because it can hold its own alongside many dry Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs. It has given Spain a much-needed boost in the on-trade and independent sector, where the white wine listings may have gone to other countries such as Italy or France in the past. Emphasising Albariño is the way forward, rather than championing some of the weaker indigenous varieties in an attempt to forge Spain’s white wine producing credentials.”
Of course, there’s no doubting that weaker indigenous white varieties exist, and yet, there waiting in Albariño’s wings is the increasingly ubiquitous Verdejo. Talas at Thierry’s is one particular Verdejo fan. She explains: “Verdejo is the variety I would back because sales of refreshing styles of whites, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, are booming and quality Verdejo is perfectly placed to capitalise on this.” Indeed, even Sainsbury’s sees the appeal of Verdejo in place of Sauvignon, as Buckley comments: “Verdejo offers a fantastic alternative to Sauvignon.” Enotria proudly boasts that it is “the first agency to recognise the commercial potential of the Verdejo grape”, thanks largely to its representation of Marques de Riscal, the first winery to gain DO status in the Rueda region and a producer Enotria has been working with for the past five years.
And for retailers looking beyond the potential of Albariño and Verdejo, Hutchinson is confident in a few other slightly more obscure varieties: “I’ve also tasted a few interesting Xarel-lo whites from Penedès, but they’re a pretty tough sell at the minute as too much focus seems to go to Parellada.” But having said that, producer Torres clearly isn’t afraid of the hard sell, in recent years its Nerola range in particular has championed Xarel-lo, saying that when it’s handled carefully, it can make “a very fresh, fragrant and interesting wine”.
Producers Play Their Part
Indeed, few producers can match Torres’ dedication to keeping the indigenous variety spirit alive. Over the last few years, its endeavour to reclaim so-called “lost” native varieties in Spain is the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales.
As part of a mass search of ‘lost’ varieties in the wake of phylloxera (prior to which there were more than 100 native varieties and after which only 12 remained), Torres placed regular advertisements in local Catalan newspapers for locals to contact them if they had a vine on their property which they could not identify. If they are contacted, Torres sends an ampelographer to examine the unidentifiable vine and in the cases where they’re unknown, Torres takes a cutting and propagates, eventually making a micro-vinification from the grapes and if the wine is interesting, the vine is moved into a larger programme of propagation.
Under this rather ambitious scheme, 26 varieties are currently being investigated by the family firm, two of which it has confirmed as being “particularly interesting”. The hope, of course, is that eventually the vines will be extended into commercial production in the next few years.
Meanwhile, at González Byass, commitment has been made with regards to pioneering styles within the indigenous varieties. Brotons says: “If we’ve found the results of our labours sufficient in terms of quality and the potential to be developed [with native varieties], we have often launched new wines into the range. Take for example our double-fermented Tempranillo from Beronia in Rioja, or the top-end Garnachas from Secastilla in Somontano – they might not seem new today but when they were launched they were groundbreaking.”
Indeed, González Byass’ commitment extends even further, thanks to its pioneering work with the varietal Tintilla de Rota in Cádiz and blending into its top wine, Finca Moncloa. Brotons comments: “Our winemakers believe that it is ideal to round off and add complexity to red wines and we have had excellent results with it in the Moncloa blend of Syrah and Cabernet. Red grapes, including Tintilla, were planted all over the region in the 1800s before the Sherry boom and the rise of Palomino. Over 20 years ago the González family began to experiment with this varietal in an attempt to recapture some of our lost traditions, on an estate just outside Arcos de la Frontera, as the vines matured. The results meant that we were able to seriously consider launching a top-end red wine.”
Things to Come
Unsurprisingly, the message from all corners of the industry is that indigenous varieties are good news for Spain, provided the focus remains on those with a serious chance of winning over the consumer. And in any case, it’s not as though native varieties were ever abandoned entirely, they were just neglected during the thrust of Spain’s experimentation with international varieties.
But now, native varietals are back in favour, both from a commercial perspective – as that all-important USP – but also in recognition of the fact that the New World is so proficient at producing well-made and highly competitive wines from international grape varieties. This has generated the feeling, according to Hutchinson, that: “A lot of the new wineries that have been set up in Spain in the last decade or so are beginning to realise that their over-oaked Chardonnays or 15% Cabernets really aren’t going to set the world alight, and are beginning to either refocus, or frankly, struggle,” and in emphasising this point he adds: “I’d like to see more old-vine Cariñena and Garnacha Blanca, the return of heavily oaked yet citrus-fresh white Rioja, and more Mencia would work wonders.” So let’s wait to see what wonders await from a country that has so much more to offer than just your bog-standard Sauvignon Blanc.