The Wines of Iberia

L ying side by side on the European continent, Spain and Portugal have a couple of things in common. Both cultivate tempranillo (tinta roriz) and albarino (alvarinho) and in addition to their still wines, they are known for fortified wines: sherry, port and madeira. The strongest connection between the two, however, has got to be the modernization that has taken place in the vineyards and the winery, bringing about wines that make for strong competitors on the international market.

Until recently, Spain had been pigeonholed as red wine country. Consumers and press alike saved their best reviews for the tempranillo-based wines, but that is all changing now that the whites of northern Spain are making their mark. One region that has experienced tremendous growth is Rias Baixas. Made from the albarino grape, in the heart of Galicia, the wines of Rias Baixas are influenced by the nearby Atlantic Ocean giving the region a cool, maritime climate that produces crisp wines. “Rias Baixas wine sales in the U.S. experienced nearly 40% growth in 2006, according to the Consejo Regulador Rias Baixas, making the U.S. the top export market for the region,” asserted Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain. Another white wine that has piqued the consumer palate is verdejo from Rueda. Mario Vitale, the U.S. Sales Manager for Marques de Riscal, noted, “There is definitely an upward trend in the sales of our Rueda. It captures something different for the white wine drinker. It’s fruity, crisp, easy-drinking and a bargain in the $8 to $9 range.”

Kym Apotas, wine buyer at Astor Wines and Spirits, a retail store in New York, NY, agreed. “Verdejo is taking off. It’s so like sauvignon blanc and I think that’s a taste a lot of people like. A perennial favorite here is the Basa Blanca from Rueda and we’re selling a lot of the Chamelin Verdejo, made from old vines. It’s a concentrated wine, but still refreshing at the same time.” Both wines retail for under $12.


If there is anything that puts the U.S. wine consumer off it’s a complicated wine label. So the sales of Txacoli, where the labels are written in Basque, from Galicia, are somewhat phenomenal. Made from local grape variety, hondarribi zuri, it’s a wine that offers a slight spritz and should be consumed young and fresh. Kerin Auth, account manager at Tempranillo Inc, the New York based distributor for importing company Fine Estates From Spain, said, “When I started with the company six years ago we sold about 200 cases in a year – total. Last year alone, we sold about 1,000 cases. Txomin Etxaniz was the only Txacoli available in the U.S. for almost 10 years, and now I’m seeing six or seven more brands on the market and I’ve heard that more will be coming. Because of Spanish culture being so popular right now, the general consumer has more knowledge and they are increasingly getting to know what Txacoli is.”

In Rioja

The country’s best known DO that boasts a history of quality winemaking is Rioja. “Rioja has enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years thanks to a dedicated promotion program (Vibrant Rioja) and to the great number of wines imported into the U.S. from that region,” said Naelapaa, of Wines from Spain. “It has always been the most important red wine producing region of Spain and has been adapting to the changes in consumer demand. It proudly holds on to its tradition of longer barrel aging but has also shown itself capable of producing more modern style wines of greater fruit concentration, aged for shorter periods in new French and American oak barrels, that appeal to the American palate.”

Vineyards in Bierzo, one of the wine-producing regions of Spain creating a buzz.
Photo courtesy Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX); Photographer Juan Ramon Yuste

Among the top five best selling Spanish wines in the U.S., sits two Rioja producers: Marques de Caceres and Marques de Riscal. Vitale added, “In the last five years, we’ve seen an incremental increase in the double digits for Marques de Riscal. It’s the fastest-growing category for Spain.” Marques de Riscal’s sales also reveal that consumers may be upgrading in their purchasing choices. “We are a Reserva Rioja company; we do not sell a Crianza; the Reserva is our bread and butter,” asserted Vitale. At around $16 retail, he added, “People are trading up to the next level of wine. Even our Gran Reserva Rioja has shown growth percentage-wise.”

Marques de Riscal’s sales also reveal that consumers may be upgrading in their purchasing choices. “We are a Reserva Rioja company; we do not sell a Crianza; the Reserva is our bread and butter,” asserted Vitale. At around $16 retail, he added, “People are trading up to the next level of wine. Even our Gran Reserva Rioja has shown growth percentage-wise.”

While the likes of Rioja and Ribera maintain popularity with Americans, there’s been an influx of red wines from newer regions. The trend has encouraged large companies to explore new territory. Freixenet, known for its best-selling Cava, has invested in the new hot regions of Spain. “We needed to diversify into still wines. We’ve been able to attract young winemakers who are bringing something different than their forbearers,” enthused David Brown, Freixenet vice president, marketing director. “The wines of Rioja were overly regulated by the government and were sometimes too tannic and too oaky – they weren’t providing an international style. But Ribera was able to do that, likewise with Priorat, and now all that is extending into other areas of Spain. You hear a lot about Jumilla, Bierzo and Montsant, which makes these intensely dark, rich wines that are a third of the price of Priorat,” Brown said.

One region that has drawn the attention of Freixenet and Osborne is Tierra de Castilla in central Spain. Osborne launched Solaz in 2001, a line of wines made from local and international varietals, retailing in the $9 price range. Freixenet just launched Tapeña, a line featuring mono-varietal Garnacha, Tempranillo and a soon to come Viura. “There’s some fabulous opportunity out there. Some of these areas of Spain are like Australia, like the wild west, where the mentality is that you do what you want to do,” quipped Brown.

Vineyard in Jerez (Cadiz). Pictures Courtesy Of The Spanish Institute For Foreign Trade (ICEX)

Cream sherry casks at the Bodegas Gonzalez Bypass. Picture Courtesy Of The Spanish Institute For Foreign Trade (ICEX); Photographer Juan Ramon Yuste

Port wine cellars in Gaia. Photo By Joao Paulo
Fortified WINES

Sherry has been garnering attention from sommeliers, so we are seeing more of it on-premise, especially at Spanish and Iberian-influenced restaurants, but off-premise growth has been sluggish.

Steve Metzler, president of Classical Wines, the importer of Bodegas Hidalgo-La Gitana, said, “It has been hard to grow the sherry category. There has been no noticeable increase in sales overall, but we’re pleased that over the last 20 years sales have been steady. It’s a personal great love of mine and everyone else here at Classical Wines. You get quite jaded once you’ve had a good Manzanilla.”

Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain, added, “The main source of growth has been on-premise as the promotional efforts have been focused there. These efforts have led to consumption of higher-end sherry and the inclusion of the sherry category on many contemporary and high-end restaurants menus. At retail, I believe that the majority of sherry
sales are more in the value category.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that port sales do best around the holiday period. General sales haven’t been that great, according to ICEP Portugal. However, ports such as aged tawny, late bottle vintage and vintage ports are showing sales hikes.

There could be a future trend for white port. Suzzana Loh at Evaton explained, “We are going to start a program focusing on Offley white port. A classic aperitif is white port with tonic and a slice of lemon served over the rocks in a tall glass. France happens to be the largest export market for port, mostly because they drink it as an aperitif.”

The more exciting fortified wine from Portugal right now is madeira, a wine that was all the rage in America several centuries ago. “I’ve noticed that people are much less interested in attending port tastings, but there has been interest in madeira. It’s a story that has enormous pull for Americans because of its ties to history. Washington and Jefferson, they drank madeira and chose it to commemorate important events in history,” said Bartholomew Broadbent, president of Broadbent Selections Inc.

Doug Polaner, the New York-based distributor for the madeiras imported by Rare Wine Co., offered, “I find that when promoted, madeira causes excitement and now it is finally seeing it’s day. You can drink madeira that was made in the early part of the 1800s – it’s like drinking the ghost of generations past.”

Creating Buzz

Ask any buyer which region is creating the most buzz and most will say Bierzo, situated in Castilla-Leon. “Bierzo has become the darling of the wine press over the last two years. The Mencia grape is indigenous to the area and has been given new life thanks to people like Alvaro Palacios and his nephew Ricardo Palacios, Mariano Garcia (of Vega Sicilia fame) and his sons and a few other talented and very focused winemakers. Like great Priorat wines, the better ones tend to be on the pricier side as the growing conditions are challenging, with very steep slopes, yields are low and must be hand harvested,” revealed Wines of Spain’s Naelapaa.

Vineyard in Priorat, one of Spain’s highly regarded wine-producing regions.Photo courtesy Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX); Photographer Rafael Vargas

The New York-based distributor of Palacios’ wines, Douglas Polaner, owner of Polaner Selections said, “Bierzo offers an indigenous variety in a terroir that you can’t find anywhere else – it looks a little like Cote Rotie. The wines are sort of at where Priorat was a few years ago, where great wines didn’t really exist before the late eighties. But going back in history, religious monasteries in Priorat always made wine for sacrament, and somehow those vines survived. The same goes for Bierzo, another stop that was en route for religious pilgrimages. Bierzo has tremendous potential and Palacios has been a really good promoter of the region.”

Polaner also credits one of the industry’s well known importers, Eric Solomon, as being the first to really put the up and coming areas of Spain on the map. “Eric Solomon found indigenous material, good winemaking, packaging and marketing and introduced all this to the U.S. market. Now everybody is jumping on the bandwagon. Jumilla, Yecla, Calatayud, Cariñena and Toro. They are beyond up-and-coming; I’d say they’re here,” said Polaner.

Modern-Tasting Wines
Barricas at Marques de Riscal

A lot of Spain’s success stems from the move towards more modern tasting wines. Naelapaa remarked, “Producers have responded to market demands by producing younger, more concentrated fruit-forward wines, bottling many wines as mono-varietals, and labeling as such, in regions where permitted, and also introducing bold new packaging for these wines.”

Most U.S. wine buyers approve of the less oxidized and more fruit-forward wines but there is one producer in Rioja that remains a staunch traditionalist and, as a result, has a solid cult following. Polaner says, “We are big believers in tradition and you cannot talk about Spain without mentioning Lopez de Heredia. They have maintained tradition, despite the current trends, of aging their wines extensively. There are vintages on sale now that go back to the 1940s, even their white wines are being sold at forty years old.”

Lopez de Heredia makes great food wines and the push for their vino has primarily been on-premise, which is where the hip Spanish wine scene started, eventually leading to off-premise interest. “Without a doubt, one reason for the boom in the U.S. is all the positive press the new Spanish cuisine began receiving (the Feran Adria factor) three to four years ago, followed by new awareness of all the exciting developments in Spanish architecture, art, fashion, design and so on,” said Naelapaa.

Vitale puts it this way, “Everything from Spain is hip right now: the cuisine, the destination and the wine. The wine has always been there, but quality has improved and at a good price and value.”

Terraced vineyards in Douro. Photo by Joao Paulo

Many folks in the trade are predicting that Portugal will be the next Spain.

“Wines from Portugal are growing steadily. We experienced 13% growth in 2004 and 18% in 2005. We are where Spanish wines were about five or six years ago. There’s huge potential in Portugal and it is something we have to convince the market of,” offered Rui Abecassis, Deputy Trade Commissioner for ICEP Portugal.

Much in the same way that Spain modernized their wines and methods of wine productions, so has Portugal. Peter Granoff, master sommelier and owner-partner of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants in San Fransisco, CA, said, “Portugal is now in the midst of what Spain and, even earlier, Italy have been through. I think that participation in the EU means you have to become competitive and improve everything from hygiene in the cellar, to winemaking techniques, better cooperage and so on. So we’re seeing that the wines coming out of Portugal are getting much, much better since joining the European Union.”

Once known just for port production, Douro is a hot region for still red wines, made from the same grape varietals that make port. Bartholomew Broadbent, president of Broadbent Selections Inc., a wine importing company based in San Francisco, CA, explained, “Fifteen years ago, still winemaking in the Douro was practically non-existent other than a few producers like Ferreira, whose Barca Velha, was like the Lafite of Portugal. About fourteen years ago, more port producers starting concentrating on their still wines. Some of the newer wines use new world techniques. For example, Quinta do Crasto has a Spanish winemaker and an Australian consultant yet they are still foot-treading the grapes. There’s a sort of new world extract but with European balance and sensitivity. Quinta de Crasto has been so successful here because it is balanced but still powerful enough for the American market.”

Maria Dulce Stevens, the U.S. Brand Manager for Admiral Imports, based in Cedar Grove, NJ, echoed a similar view, “Up until the eighties, most Douro winemakers were busy making port. Real Companhia, one of the biggest port producers in the Douro invited famed wine consultant Jerry Luper to revamp their still wines. He brought new ideas and techniques, including the use of American and French oak, while still using the traditional Douro varietals. He has balanced out the best of the old world and new world. And the media have raved about his wines.”

Another famed Port producer, Dirk Niepoort, has turned to making still wines that have impressed the industry. Polaner says, “The Douro is the most exciting region as far as quality is concerned. It’s like the Mosel with incredibly steep, high-elevated vineyards but with red wine grapes instead. The quality from some of the old vines there is amazing. Dirk Niepoort spearheaded this with truly outstanding wines that have almost become cult wines.”

The other region that has been finding favor is Dão, situated a little further south and more inland from the Douro. Its production is predominantly made up of red table wines made mostly from Touriga Nacional. Up until recently the wines produced here weren’t much to write home about but by embracing more modern methods Dão’s wines have improved dramatically. “If you’d told me years ago that Dão would be big news I would have been really surprised. It was a region known for wines that appealed to the immigrant Portuguese community. The wines just weren’t very good. Now we’re bringing in Quinta do Cabriz, which has grown fast. We started by importing 500 cases four years ago and now it’s up to 15,000 cases,” remarked Pedro Veloso, sales and marketing director of importing company Aidil Wines and Liquors.

New, Hot Region
If Spain’s new darling is Bierzo, Portugal has Alentejo, a hot, dry region in the southeast, also known for producing cork. The wines are rich and ripe in style, made from local varietals Aragonez (called Tinta Roriz in northern Portugal and Tempranillo in Spain), Periquita, Trincadeira Preta, and Alfrocheiro.

Sogrape recently launched Callabriga, which they refer to as “A new wine from the old world.” The line will feature wines from three of the popular regions of Portugal: Douro, Dão and Alentejo. Suzzana Loh, territory manager at Evaton, an importer that will bring in Callabriga, offered, “Alentejo really is up and coming. These wines are bolder in character and appeal to the American palate. People that like cabernet will like the wines from Alentejo.”

Another wine that has become synonymous with the modern style of Aletejo is Esporão. As the importer of the brand, Veloso said, “Esporão is a strong, trendy brand in Portugal itself. It has very large production but everything is estate bottled.”

As for Portugal’s whites, the titillating wines of Vinho Verde have had terrific sales spikes of late. Every importer we spoke to has experienced growth. According to Loh, sales for Gazela Vinho Verde have increased by 48% from 2004 to 2006. Rui confers, “Vinho Verde offers incredible value for money. It’s a young wine that is full of life. We’ve been really happy with the performance of Vinho Verde but please, no one should ever call it a “green wine.” The name is Vinho Verde, which refers to its youth and style.”


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