Questioning the Conventional Wisdom About the Spanish Wine Industry

riscalThe conventional wisdom is that Spain is an Old World wine country (along with France, Italy, Portugal, etc.) and it is easy to see why. First there is geography. Old World = Europe. QED. End of discussion.

Old World Wine

Then there is the matter of wine culture. One of the characteristics of Old World wine countries is that their per capita consumption levels, once very high, have been falling for decades. Spain’s per capita consumption today is less than 20 liters per person, for example, but was more than 100 liters a head in the 1890s and more than 60 liters per capita as recently as the 1980s.

Finally there is the obvious factor of age. Wine has been made in Spain for a very long time. It was hard not to think “Old World” when we were in the Toro region, for example, to visit Pagos del Rey winery. Gnarly goblet-trained Tinto de Toro vines (the local Tempranillo variety) looked as old as centuries and some of them really were since phylloxera never invaded these vineyards. At the winery we were served “young wines” made with grapes from”only” 70 year old vines. Vines as old as 130+ years provided grapes for the senior wines. Amazing.

Confusing the Issue

John Kenneth Galbraith famously argued that the conventional wisdom is always wrong and there is something to be said for that in this case if we think of Spain in terms of its wine industry instead of its location, wine culture or aged vines.

One of most interesting stops on our recent tour of Spanish wine regions, for example, was at Marqués de Riscal in Elciego.  This is one of the oldest wineries in the Rioja region, although you might not realize it as you approach town, your eyes distracted by the post-modern Frank Gehry-designed winery hotel that sits on the hill above the historic cellars. Fantastic.

The winery was founded in 1858, which makes it old, but not much older than the “New World” Charles Krug winery in Napa Valley, which dates from 1861. Wine is much older in Spain than California, but the wine industry perhaps not as much.

Pagos del Rey, for example, is part of the prominent Felix Solis group, one of Spain’s most important wine producers. Their inspiring true story of how a mom and pop wine operation grew to grand dimensions reminded me of the Gallo family in the United States. But Gallo is actually older — starting out in the post-prohibition 1930s — while Felix Solis’ roots date to the 1950s.

It’s a New World After All

The modern Spanish wine industry is relatively young (much  younger than those Toro grape vines). Some might argue it was re-born in 1986, when Spain entered what is now the European Union, and began to compete head-on with wine from France and Italy. Competitive pressures, plus EU wine market reforms and adjustment aid, helped Spain’s wine industry reinvent itself for the 21st century.

The result is in some respects a New World wine industry in the Old World.  Spain is not unique in this, but it is a very good example of the successful transformation of the wine sector.  Bodega Finca Constancia in Otero is a perfect illustration of where this path has led. Founded in 2001 by the Gonzalez Byass group, it features beautiful vineyards (including several experimental blocks developed along with a university research team) and a state of the art winery that hugs the ridge line, blending into the landscape.

The wines at Finca Constacia are impressive, deftly balancing tradition and transformation. We saw several examples of this fusion during our time in Spain.  Bodegas y Viñedos Viña MayorGrupo MatarromeraBodegas Manzanos, Torres, and Campo Viejo were particularly striking, each in its own way. And the wines in all these cases display that special quality that we often call “authenticity” today, although I prefer “integrity.” (Why? Long story — I will save it for another time and place.)

Conventional Wisdom Risks

The conventional wisdom sees the adoption of international styles and techniques as the way forward, or at least one important path, and I think this is correct, which is one reason I am so optimistic about Spain’s wine fortunes. But I think it is possible to go too far in pursuit of wines that will seem familiar to global market consumers — so I urge due caution.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a seminar on Spanish wines in the U.S. It was a great experience and I learned a lot, but there was one rather shocking thing that happened that is relevant here. At the end of the first day some of the local sommeliers went out to dinner with our seminar leader and a six pack of Spanish wines from various regions and varieties, all made in an international style (stainless steel, a bit of new oak, etc.)

They returned the next morning and were more than a little subdued. It seems that they had played that “blind tasting” guessing game with the wines and, well, they really couldn’t tell them apart, even with a little cheating. The producer of the wines, it seems, had sacrificed integrity for marketability through international style.

They were nice wines — you  wouldn’t hesitate to drink them —  but it was hard to see why you would choose them over other wines on the market. It is important to make wines for today’s consumer, but not to forget the old world qualities that make them special.1982

Old World Revisited

Santiago Salinas made the argument in a different way when we visited him at Bodegas Montecillo, which is part of the Osborne wine group.  Santiago had arranged a tasting of his Gran Reserva Seleción Especial wines from the 1975, 1982, 1999, and 2001 vintages (1982 was a stellar year in Rioja and we tasted it from a magnum, so this was a treat).

He wanted us to see Rioja’s history by tasting wines made when blending of grape varieties was more important than it is at some houses today and before the impact of climate change was so strong. The wines were more subtle and elegant when, after some years in barrel and bottle, they were finally released, Santiago suggested.

The old wines were wonderful the way that old Burgundy can be wonderful and Santiago’s point was clearly made. Hopefully today’s wines will taste this good when they are thirty or forty years old, but maybe they won’t. Maybe we will find that something has been lost along the way and so perhaps we should be working hard to prevent that.

I am not one who thinks the the most important quality of a wine is its ability to age well, but a tasting like this provides valuable context and a warning not to push the conventional wisdom further than is wise.

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Special thanks to Santiago Salinas and Marina Garcia for their hospitality.

One response

  1. Glad you had such a good trip and experience, Mike! In 2014 we visited La Rioja, adn you are so correct about the Gehry, Marquis de Riscal hotel and winery – a spectacular blend of design and color. The contrast to the surroundings reminds me of a Dali painting…except without the destruction all around the subject! This winery was the first to export to the US and the wire enclosure was to prevent counterfeiting.
    As for Toro, we discovered it on a 2015 trip.I had never heard about it until we were in a wine bar and the server saw me eyeing a bottle. They are great wines…not to mention the beautiful medieval town which we later visited. The production there is pretty small and I haven’t found them here. In Spain, like Portugal, their modesty hurts them, and they have told me “they are their own worst enemy.” That is because they are not into self-promotion. The way to get to know them is what you…and I…did: visit them and see their pride and passion up close and personal.
    I hope you also visited Priorat (Penedes), and the surrounding Montsant region. It was the creation of the EU that allowed these areas to develop. I recently was at a 25-year vertical tasting of the wines of Clos de l’Obac (1989-2014, although the current release is just 2007!). All had aged beautifully, yet were fresh and vibrant. This was the first, along with four others, to develop Priorat. This and Rioja are the only two regions in Spain with a DOCG designation!
    I think you mentioned you were going to visit Ribero del Duero? Another great region and wine.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Spain is definitely under-rated and I agree not Old World.

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