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All white on the night?

Published:  23 July, 2008

Well, not if it's Spanish and over a fiver - and especially not in the on-trade, according to the latest figures. However, John Radford has been finding some areas of growth and optimism in the Spanish white wine business

I did a straw poll among the major importers of Spanish wine, asking the hackneyed question: "If Rioja is the classic red wine of Spain, what's the classic white?" Interestingly enough, I had asked the same question about ten years ago for one of the consumer glossies and there were four candidates - Rioja, Peneds, Ras Baixas and Rueda. This time around there were only two, and the winner by a length was Albario, Ras Baixas in front of Rueda (and specifically Verdejo- rather than Sauvignon-based Rueda). Indeed, if we define "classic" to mean a wine that is inseparable in the public mind from its country of origin, it is probably fair to say that Spain does not have a "classic" white, but we have to start somewhere, so I will begin by looking at the state of the market. By far the largest proportion of Spanish white in the UK takes flight from supermarket shelves and is still hovering around the 2.99 price point. The prime sources have always been La Mancha and Valencia (Utiel-Requena and Alicante included). There is not very much classic here, but at least the wines are clean, well made and quite a lot better than they were ten years ago, thanks to investment in the wineries and better husbandry in the vineyards. There is even a small but discernible trend towards the "around 4" zone apparent in La Mancha, which seems to be conjuring something slightly magical from the formerly-despised Airn grape as well as experimenting with "international" varieties with modest success. This market is pretty static, however: white wine accounts for 50.2% of all wine sold in the UK, but white Spanish wine accounts for only 28.7% of all the Spanish wine sold in the UK, so if there is growth to be had it will be in the sector which heads north from 4.99. Everybody to whom I spoke admitted that it was very hard to get people - the trade as well as the public - to "think Spanish" when they are looking for white wine. There is, after all, a mind-boggling choice from France, Italy, New Zealand, Chile, Australia, California and just about everywhere else already on the shelves. Two current successes, however, are good examples of how to stand out from the crowd.

Slow but sure

Ras Baixas got off to a slow start, largely because it was and is a low-production area, despite the relative bounteousness of the Albario vine itself (up to 75hl/ha on good sites). Inevitably the best grapes come from the oldest vines in the most inaccessible sites (this often is true - think about the Mosel and the Douro) and the result is prices that were considered prohibitively high as recently as the late 1980s (the region got its own DO only in 1988). If proof were needed, however, that the way to succeed is to stick your neck out and keep running, this was the wine mentioned the most as a candidate for the title, simply because it has consistently proved to be value for money despite its high price (not helped by a small harvest in 2000). Lagar de Fornelos (Laymont & Shaw) is nudging the 10 barrier but still selling out, and Flix Benito (C&D Wines) reports considerable interest in Albario and says he can sell every bottle of his allocation despite the increased prices. Meanwhile Tony Brown MW at Meridian Wines is awaiting his first consignment of a new "super-Albario" which will go on to the shelves at 13-plus but, significantly, the entire production is only 1,500 cases. So, as has happened in so many other places (I discussed "oaky-Tempranillo" wine in the style of red Rioja in Harpers, 11 May), Albario has not only achieved wide renown but also become the "flagship" of the Galician "navy" of wines. A number of importers have been poking about the neighbouring DOs looking for something which offers a glimpse of the quality of Albario without the penalty of the price. One of the main hunting-grounds is neighbouring Ribeiro, with its high-quality varieties such as Torronts, Loureira, Treixadura and particularly Godello. Philip Rowles at DWS and Andrew Connor at A&A both mentioned Godello wines as something they were investigating, although Godello is almost as expensive as Albario. However, Brown at Meridian reports that Bodegas & Bebidas is in the middle of a project in Ribeiro to make a wine with Godello and Torronts which will sell into the under-a-fiver price point. The secret, it seems is Palomino (or Jerez as they call it in these parts). A good deal of Galicia is planted with the heavy-cropping Palomino, a practice which dates back to the Franco era when the Government would buy any and all surplus wine for distilling. In this climate the variety produces a light, neutral base wine with very little character but good acidity, and B&B believes that it can make a wine with 80% Palomino and 20% of the expensive varieties, which tastes like Godello but is closer to the price of Palomino. If it succeeds, no doubt others will follow suit - indeed, B&B has been here before. Ten years or so ago one of the supermarket chains was selling Palomino-with-a-bit-of-good-stuff wines from obscure areas of Galicia (most notably the VC Betanzos) at eye-popping prices from about 1.69 a bottle. Our local branch was cleared in less than an hour. Of the other DOs in Galicia, there has been little sign. Andrew Connor said that he has been looking in Valdeorras, but that it is very difficult to get the bodegas up to speed on quality control. There are a couple of examples on the market, however. Benito is bringing in the award-winning Guitian, whose 100% Godello is probably a half to two thirds of the price of an Albario of similar quality, and John Hawes is bringing in Valdesil. To give an example of the price differentials, Valdesil Supremo (100% Godello) sells in Spain at exactly double the price of the same bodega's Montenovo (50/50 Godello/Palomino). It seems likely that Valdeorras will be the next pale-gold-rush area in Galicia.

Fast mover

The other front-runner for classic status was Rueda, and by comparison Albario's rise to fame and fortune has been meteoric. Paco Hurtado de Amezaga from Riscal in Rioja started the ball rolling as long ago as 1978, when he founded Vinos Blancos de Castilla and pioneered the sort of kid-glove grape-handling, inert-gas-blanketing and cold-fermentation which is commonplace now throughout the region. Here, though, price is not so much of a factor. John Smith of Private Liquor Brands said he can sell Rueda into the mass market, but only up to the 3.99 price point, after which the supermarkets lose interest, although they have had some success with Cerrosol up to 5.99. John Comyn of Vinexcell expressed similar doubts. His Via Mocen sold well at first but many retailers had trouble shifting it at the price and did not buy again - he sees the cut-off point as 4.99 and, with Australia and Eastern Europe throwing everything they have into that bracket, it is hard to compete. Katie MacAulay at Bibendum reports some recent requests for its Belondrade y Lurton, which sells well into the 5-plus market, Nick Burridge of Burridge's of Arlington Street is doing well with Cascarela and Rowles has been making vinous hay with Mantel Blanco ever since the new regime at the bodega took over. Most commentators agreed that there is growth in the white wine market, but it is hard work and, even in Ras Baixas and Rueda, it is coming up from a very low base. However, nearly all were agreed that it is the Verdejo wines which are making the running in the UK. Sauvignon is too closely associated in the public mind with the Loire, or New Zealand, or, increasingly, Chile. The taste for Sauvignon in Rueda is slightly perplexing at first glance. A few years ago I was escorting a party of wine tourists around northern Spain and we tasted two of the Sanz family's wines: Palacio de Bornos (100% Verdejo, 700pta) and Bornos Sauvignon (100% Sauvignon, 990pta). The tourists (all middle-England, middle-aged, copper-bottomed wine consumers) preferred the (cheaper) Verdejo wine by a large majority. I asked Ricardo Sanz why the Sauvignon was so important. He replied: "I can sell a wine called Sauvignon in any country in the world. If they like it, then I can sell them my Verdejo. But if I go in with only Verdejo, nobody knows what it is" - another example of the globalisation of varietals, no doubt.

Enthusiasm of the few

So what about the rest of Spain? Most importers were fiercely protective of their own particular patch, but it does seem as if there are isolated pockets of enthusiasm for white wines in other parts of the country, which does not always seem to be shared by the whole region. I visited Bodegas JA Mega e Hijos in Valdepeas about 18 months ago and saw what it is managing to do with Airn - a grape written off as totally useless as recently as ten years ago. The wine (Corcovo) is handled by Andrew Connor at A&A and he is very pleased with how it is being received at the 3.99 price point. He is also looking at a Rhine Riesling from Poveda in Alicante and reports a sighting of a "stunning" Gewrztraminer/Riesling in Bierzo which is not currently imported here. He mentioned Peneds - and Catalunya generally - as well, and I was reminded of how wines from there dominated the conversation the last time I investigated the issue of Spanish white wine. Catalan whites seem to be in two distinct markets. Wines such as Ramat and Torres' Milmanda are not really in the "Spanish white wine" market but in the "global Chardonnay" market. To succeed in that you need boundless energy, enormous confidence and a lot of cash, but fortunately Torres and Codornu have never shown a lack of those characteristics, and Lorne Gray at John E Fells reports continuing growth. In the other Catalan market there is growth, too, again from a pretty low base in most cases. Once again Torres is keeping the flag flying with Via Sol, but others such as Fransola and Esmeralda (at well over a fiver) are doing well. Hawes is pleased with his Marqus de Alella, a sentiment shared by Carlos Read at Moreno's who is also doing well with Con Class. Other regions which received a mention all came from specialists who have access to their own, "aficionado" customer base. They included a new white wine from Piqueras in Almansa (Burridge) made from Verdejo/Macabeo/Airn, dry-fermented Muscat from Alicante (Rowles), and barrel-fermented Viura from Navarra (David Gill of Bottle Green and Andrew Connor). And Read is still the flag-carrier for the obscure-but-delicious Getariako Txakolina. He insists that his customers want individual flavours from indigenous grape varieties and that, although the market is still small, good wines will sell. Sorry, what was that? Rioja? Oh, yes, white Rioja - one of the major candidates ten years ago. I rang La Rioja Alta a couple of years ago when it stopped making Ardanza Reserva white (one of my favourites), and was told that it felt red wine was the future in Rioja. Maybe it was right. I leave to the last word to Georges Barbier. I was talking to him recently about Spanish wines generally and not white wines in particular, but he said something which rang very true. "I've built up my Spanish wine business by selling quality wines to quality Spanish restaurants," he said. "That was the easy bit. The next challenge is to sell quality Spanish wines into quality non-Spanish restaurants." According to the clearance figures for 2000, all Spanish wine has 0.0041% of the on-trade, and white Spanish wine has 0.0019%. A challenge indeed.