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Think Ribera: trading talk on the jewel in Spain's quality crown

Published:  01 September, 2020

Ribera del Duero vies for the crown of being Spain’s leading quality wine region and harbours ambitions to further grow recognition and sales in the UK. Tim Atkin MW and Andrew Catchpole co-hosted a couple of insightful sessions to find out just how this distinct and characterful region can gain more ground in the off- and on-trades. 

The Off-Trade Debate

Our talking heads:

Henry Butler, owner, Butlers Wine Cellar

Phil Innes, owner, Loki Wine

Pierre Mansour, head of buying, The Wine Society 

Archie McDiarmid, manager, Luvians Bottle Shop

Kevin Meehan, wine buyer, Tesco

Andrew Lundy, owner, Vino Wines

Paul Shinnie, wine buyer, Alliance Wine 

Beth Willard, buying manager, Direct Wines 

Pre-tasting a selection of Ribera del Duero wines proved a great talking point for kick-starting the debate, not least because of the diversity revealed in the samples. From a punchy rosado by way of differing styles of reds that spanned several vintages, to low to mid to high prices, across American and French oak, along with a range of altitudes up to 1,000m+, including wines in the UK and seeking representation, it was, said Tim Atkin MW, “looking at the total picture”. 

The panel acknowledged “an unspoken rivalry between Ribera and Rioja” from the get-go, including (generally) little use of the age designations ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’ on Ribera wines, with Atkin adding: “Ribera likes to do things its own way.” 

This led to discussion on how best to engage customers with Ribera and what its best-selling points are when trying to explain the category.

“It’s still intertwined with Rioja in customers’ minds – we find we quite often upgrade people from Rioja, as Ribera is seen as slightly more premium,” said Phil Innes of Loki Wine. 

“It’s quite an easy step for people and they enjoy the stylistic difference – Ribera tends to be a bit more ‘modern’ and my customers certainly engage with that.”

For The Wine Society’s Pierre Mansour, “Ribera is all about intensity, modern winemaking, and tasting the wines exceeded my expectations”. 

He added: “The word we use to sell these wines to our customers is ‘intensity’ – they have intensity of flavour and structure; big, powerful wines, but they can still be fresh. For me, that’s where Ribera’s identity really stands strong, as a different expression of Tempranillo.”

Kevin Meehan from Tesco added that Ribera had further pluses, both with its food-friendly nature for heartier meat dishes, and also as a modern style that “pushes away from traditional Spain and Rioja, allowing the strong identity of Tempranillo and the region to stand out”. 

All agreed that there was room to feature Tempranillo more fully on labels, with Ribera in a strong position – in contrast to its typically blended rival Rioja – to ‘own’ the variety as a quality region. 

With a relatively high entry point price-wise – Luvians Bottle Shop’s Archie McDiarmid contrasted £18 for Ribera with £8 for Rioja in his shop – much debate then centred on whether Ribera should make lighter, more accessible styles to draw in a new and younger crowd at entry level, or stick to its guns and hit big at a consistently premium-priced level.

“There’s a tendency for wines at the lower end to use more, rather than less oak, and I feel if they dropped oak and made more approachable wines, they might draw more people in at that end,” said Atkin. 

This suggestion split the panel, between those who thought variation of styles throughout the collective range is a plus, and those who believed a clear, powerful identity is the way to go.

Paul Shinnie of Alliance Wine noted that Ribera rose to prominence on the back of “some very good estates in the ‘90s and ‘00s and does a very good job at that level”.

But, he added, “those wines could be a little forbidding, especially when young, and if they could do something more approachable, more readily drinkable, that would help people to get into the region”. 

Beth Willard of Direct Wines refuted the idea that all drinkers are leaning towards lighter, leaner styles of wine, saying that as long as freshness was present and the wines were balanced, big alcohol and structure still appealed to many, with 14.5% abv reds still being the biggest sellers at Direct Wines. 

McDiarmid agreed, taking this line of thought further, saying: “We don’t necessarily find we are taking customers from Rioja to Ribera, more we tend to bring over customers that are looking for bigger, richer styles of wine, having a conversation about Argentinian Malbec, about bigger Australian styles or intense wines coming out of South Africa.”

“That big, rich style of Ribera actually keys into a lot of styles from around the world,” said McDiarmid, adding that with more “crunchiness” and Old World style Ribera could be sold as a more complex and classic premium region. 

Back to price, Innes felt the region should “stand firm”, with the higher price points setting Ribera up in a “really good position” to capitalise on its image for high quality among those (so far) in the know. 

Henry Butler of Butlers Wine Cellar agreed, arguing that you can sell Ribera from more of a top-down approach, rather than looking to dilute the message with simpler wines at the bottom rung. 

“Wines like Vega Sicilia and Pingus have a worldwide reputation as being not just the top in Spain, but top wines globally and you can use them as reference points,” said Butler.

“With all wine regions you need something sexy, or rare, so I can tell them instead of paying £200 we’ve got this £20 or £30 wine made three doors down from Vega Sicilia, and that’s helpful.”

Andrew Lundy from Vino agreed, adding: “I don’t think the region needs to be bottom-feeding the market because Rioja can do that – why can’t Ribera just sit as the premium offering from Spain? It’s certainly comparable to other fine wines of other countries and our customers tend to look for style, rather than country, anyway.”

The On-Trade Debate

Our talking heads:

Margaux Carpentier, senior buying assistant, Corney & Barrow

Robert Maynard, co-owner and wine buyer, Wild Flor

Owen Morgan, founder, Bar 44 Tapas 

Diana Rollan, group head of beverage, D&D London

Andrew Shaw, buying director, Bibendum

David Vareille, head sommelier, The Arts Club

Peter Wallbridge, buyer, Enotria & Coe

Duncan Watts, founder, Jones Family Project

Our on-trade panel kicked off with a debate about where Ribera should sit on a list, agreeing that much of the true value for quality ratio lies among the higher-priced wines, with Diana Rollan of D&D saying that was where the group’s lists “naturally gravitated” with the region.

Peter Wallbridge of Enotria & Coe also highlighted that while rival region Rioja exports 35% of its production, Ribera exports around 15%. And with UK lists already saturated with Rioja as the “Spain option”, when Ribera turned to export, the US and Spanish-speaking Americas had become the latter’s focus. 

This, in turn, as Margaux Carpentier of Corney & Barrow agreed, has meant that inroads into the UK on-trade have been more about “raising a certain profile, not volume”, with some consistency in style and of quality being important. 

Rollan added that Ribera tends to be a “sommelier hand-sell”, with few customers asking for the wines by name. “Ribera works with customers who want to drink something different, or perhaps like full-bodied California, or as an alternative to Argentina, as it’s textured and concentrated,” she said.

Andrew Shaw agreed, again citing the “minute volumes” of Ribera on UK lists compared with Rioja, suggesting that it would remain easier to sell non-Ribera wines closer to entry level, unless a Spanish specialist, with room higher up to hand-sell Ribera. 

But here, he added, the “youth of the wines is one of the biggest issues” for the on-trade, with few able to cellar until or source wines that have reached maturity, with Ribera sitting at odds with the trend to lighter, less alcoholic wines, too. 

This led to some interesting insights as to the varied experiences of differing establishments and their clientele. 

Robert Maynard, from the relaxed and hearty neighbourhood restaurant Wild Flor, revealed that his meat-eating customers want a similarly hearty wine and traditionally powerful Riberas fit that bill, with grill and fire-cooked meats also being on trend.  

Owen Morgan of the Bar 44 tapas group, on the other hand, said that a young clientele were “much more open-minded” and dive into Roble Ribera, which is available by the glass. 

Meanwhile, for David Vareille at the Mayfair-based Arts Club, where the ‘entry level’ by-the-glass wine is £45, Ribera sells from the top down, with the likes of Pingus and Vega Sicilia leading expectation.

Vareille made an interesting further distinction between Spain’s triumvirate of leading regions, saying that while Priorat and Rioja purchases tended to reach a ceiling of around £500, Ribera rarely sold beneath £300 a bottle, with £600 and even £1,000 price tags tending to appeal more.

As a Spanish specialist, so being somewhat ahead of the curve when it comes to the breadth of Spanish listings and thus better able to spot trends, Morgan said that his feedback from the wider trade was that “people are becoming quite excited about the diversity coming out of Ribera”. 

“We list a lot more of the wines, so are constantly trying to push different styles from the same region, from different producers.”

Atkin picked up on this theme, saying: “I think the diversity of terroir and vineyard parcels and villages is comparatively new – a lot of top people buy from across the region, but some of the new guys starting up are very focused on old vines, bush vines from particular parcels, so you can really see difference between parcels and sites.”

He argued that there is room for diversity at the lower end too, suggesting that Ribera could and should tap into this, just as other regions do. 

Overall, the on-trade panel agreed that Ribera would likely and probably remain necessarily niche, with the focus on quality across all price levels being paramount. However, as Atkin highlighted, the “main thing to come out of this discussion is that the region must decide what it wants to achieve [in the UK] and stick to those one or two messages”.