Wines of Spain: Not Lost in Translation

Spain has the largest area devoted to vineyards of any country in the world and has achieved considerable international success, both critical and commercial. But it also confronts the many challenges typical of Old World producers. As I write The Wine Economist blog and work on my new book* I am increasingly convinced that much rides on the ability of Old World wine producing countries like France, Italy and Spain to adjust to and succeed in changing market conditions.

Spain is an especially interesting case study in this regard. On one hand Spain faces  many of the problems we associate with Old World wine. Although overall production has fallen in recent years it is still well above consumption (which has fallen, too). The surplus — poor quality wines with no market — have been sent to the distillery in recent years, but this is about to end as the new EU reforms kick in. These reforms will benefit wine regions and producers that increase quality and are able to adapt to the new more competitive global market environment.

Map of Spain’s Wine Regions

The Spanish wine industry is well positioned in some ways to take advantage of this situation. Consumers are looking for good value in wines today and I have found a number of interesting and distinctive wines from Spain in the competitive sub-$14 price range, where demand is still relatively strong as buyers trade down from more expensive products. White wines from Spain are attractive options for the growing number of consumers who have lost interest in Chardonnay and the reds would be a good choice for those who’ve grown tied of Australian Shiraz. Jaded ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) and ABS (Anything But Shiraz) buyers are up for grabs and Spanish producers are making their case.

Today’s market, for all its economic discontents, is a good opportunity for Spanish wines to move deeper into the American market, but there are problems that must be addressed. American wine buyers have learned to speak Italian, French and, well, Californian when it comes to wine in terms of varietals and appellations. They have trouble, both literally and figuratively, translating Spanish wine.

Spain has an unusually rich heritage of native grape varieties, which is both an advantage and an obstacle to be overcome. Unfamiliar varietal names are not an insurmountable barrier, although you won’t know if you like Tempranillo, Albariño and Garnacha and other native grape wines until you try them, so getting consumers to take that first taste or make the first purchase is very important. Appelations are a bigger hurdle. Spain has more than 50 regional appellations – Denominaciones de Origen or DOs – and mastering this system and understanding the differences is a challenge – an educational challenge.

The Spanish wine industry has wisely decided to confront this problem directly this summer by organizing a series of 3-day educational seminars around the country organized by The Wine Academy of Spain in association with Catavino. Wine professionals and enthusiasts will meet in Denver, Houston, Chicago, Boston, New Haven, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Cleveland, Washington and New York (click here to see dates and registration information) and learn about the wines of Spain. Three days? Well, yes. Looking at the schedule it seems to me that it will take at least three days to learn the basic of Spain’s regions and their wines, appellations, terroirs, varietals, history and production and market structures.

Mario Battali once said that there is no such thing as Italian food, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy, which is why Italian food is endlessly interesting. I suspect that the same can be said about Spain and its wine. There is no Spanish wine, only the wines of Spain – and American wine enthusiasts have a lot to learn about them.

Mastering the Spanish wine vocabulary will take work, but it should be pleasant work. I am hoping to be invited to participate in the Seattle workshop (Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen invited me to the Riesling Rendezvous last year and I found that experience very valuable) so that I can report on it here and write about the Spanish industry with more authority in my book. I hope to gain a better understanding of the wines of Spain and where they fit into the future of wine.

* The working title of my new book is The Future of Wine: Globalization, Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroiristes.

Special thanks to Steve De Long of delongwine.com for alerting me to this interesting and ambitious program.

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