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Small regions, big story

Published:  23 July, 2008

For a wine produced by a co-op in a region little known in the UK outside of the trade and wine enthusiasts, it is quite a result: Via Bajoz's Cao brand, from the DO of Toro in Castilla y Len, sold 13,000 six-bottle cases in Tesco during a single week last month.
The main reason for this sales spike was, as always, a hard-and-fast discount that saw the retail price fall from 4.49 to 2.99 for the blend of Garnacha and Tinta de Toro (the local version of Tempranillo). A general Tesco promotion that gave a further 20% discount on any six-bottle cases coincided with the Cao promotion, meaning bulk buyers could have a bottle for as little as 2.38.
Price, however, doesn't tell the whole story. Cao's success is also about PR. As Ben Smith, who runs Bibendum's PR department, explains: I sent out a couple of bottles to
the major newspaper journalists, and the response was fantastic.

It all went a bit silly really. I didn't expect the response we got.'

These responses include Jane MacQuitty of the The Times urging her readers to buy, buy, buy', Jamie Goode at the Express declaring the wine was probably the best sub-3 I've ever tasted', and Victoria Moore over at The Guardian advising her readers to fill their boots.

One promotional success doesn't a category make, but Cao's success does suggest that the wines from Castilla y Len - and particularly those from its three main DOs of Ribera del Duero, Toro and Rueda - are finally doing what they've threatened to do for quite some time and have started to make an impact on the UK wine scene.

It's a success that isn't just about the UK, however. In 2004 (the most recent year for which reliable figures are available), sales to the United States jumped 53% from the previous year, and those to Mexico increased a massive 153%. Indeed, over the past four years, exports from Castilla y Len have grown four times faster than for any other Spanish region.

As so often is the case in modern Spain,this commercial success comes on the back of a quite-extraordinary turnaround in wine quality. Little more than 20 years ago, producers in Toro were turning out massively alcoholic monsters (with ABVs of anything up to 17%), good for little more than blending; Ribera del Duero was a producer of cheap rosado (with the exception of forward-thinking estates such as Pesqueara and Vega-Sicilia); while bodegas in Rueda were almost exclusively concerned with producing imitations of Sherry. Similar movements have occurred in Castilla y Len's other wine-producing areas - as yet not commercially important in the UK - such as DO Bierzo, DO

Cigales and the various Vinos de la Tierra designations.

Ribera versus Rioja

It was undoubtedly Ribera del Duero that was the first region in the area to garner attention from the wider wine world, and now the region's finest producers - Alin, Aalto, Alonso del Yerro, Emilio Moro, Vega-Sicilia et al - fetch some of the highest prices of any Spanish wines. In terms of volume, the DO is no slouch either, being the fourth-largest producer of denominacion wine behind Rioja, Navarra and Valdepeas.

The Spanish bug for all things Ribera, which has made it ubiquitous on any Spanish wine list alongside Rioja, however, has never really translated into sales in the UK. Although Alex Canneti of PLB, which represents one of the region's larger producers, Fuentespina, argues that conditions could be right for a Ribera revival. They first tried selling Ribera in the UK in the early '90s, but the problem was that it just sold so well in Spain, Germany and the US that prices went too high and the UK trade said, "Thanks but no thanks." The price wasn't matched by the quality. You had five or six guys, the famous names like Vega Sicilia and Alin, making great wine, while a lot of the other stuff was frankly rubbish at the price. That's all changed now. Prices have come down and quality has improved. You've also got a situation where some of the main Spanish groups, like Felix Solis and Carrin, have come in and are producing wines at lower price points. That's helping to create a market. Ribera is moving for us now. We have one listing in Majestic for Fuentespina and have just had a new one in Majestic. Other retailers are now looking to move up from having just one Ribera.'

Charles Elms at Free Run Wines, the UK importer for Felix Solis, is moderately excited about the success of Altos de Tamaron, the Ribera del Duero brand launched by Free Run last summer. We launched the brand in July, and since then we've sold nearly 30,000 cases, which we're pretty pleased about,' he says. The brand has two listings, in Tesco and Threshers, both at 5.99, and a Reserva is being launched at this year's tasting. So does this relative success show signs of a consumer desire for Ribera del Duero wine? To be honest, the average consumer thinks it's just a modern Spanish wine brand rather than "a Ribera". But, saying that, it's made in the Ribera tradition, so it has some power and good fruit without being over the top. And, importantly, it's good value, which we

haven't always seen from Ribera in the past.'

Interestingly, visitors to the region soon became aware of something of a backlash against Felix Solis and Carrin (which is selling a Ribera for as little as e2 a bottle in Spain), with some producers in the region feeling that the influx of bigger wine groups is bringing prices down across the region. Elms, however, is forthright in Felix Solis's defence. Some growers in Ribera might grumble, but Felix Solis has a history of making good commercial decisions and producing a commercial product,' he says. We're creating a market. That's already been done at the top end, and now we are doing it at the premium [in UK off-trade terms] level.'

Altos de Tamaron is part of a wider project by Felix Solis to produce wines from various Spanish premium regions named Pagos del Rey. The next wine to hit the UK is a DO Rueda wine, Analivia, consisting of two cuves: a Virua/Verdejo at 4.99 and a Verdejo at 5.99. A Rioja should follow next year.

The bull

If Ribera is starting to move in the UK, then Toro is hot, very hot' according to Canneti. PLB's main brand is Sobreo, which sells around 10,000 cases in Majestic and Waitrose' (RSP 7.99) and is typical of the product of the region: full-bodied wines with good fruit, plus a certain stony complexity and tannic kick that moves the wines above the ordinary. Toro is relatively small, with just 6,000 hectares (mostly of Tinta de Toro) in production, although vineyard area has been increasing steadily year on year at about 5% for the past few years. It also lacks producers with enough size to make a really big splash on international markets: only Faria at 1.2 million litres (limited UK distribution through wholesalers) and Bajoz at 3.5 million litres have any real scale. Nevertheless, Toro's importance in the UK specialist sector is growing - almost every major premium on-trade supplier has added a Toro to its range in recent years - and its robust (dare I say New World?) flavour profile is of particular interest to liberal' Anglo-Saxon wine drinkers.

Ian Muggoch, the buyer responsible for Bajoz at Bibendum, is a particular fan. At Bajoz we've got access to fruit and the facilities to make top-end styles and to fight at the entry level. Most of the vines are relatively old and naturally low-yielding, so you get good concentration, even at lower price levels. And with the ability to price promote, you can get people drinking Toro who would never normally pick one off the shelf. At the opposite end, we are launching a single-vineyard wine, Finca Le Meda (RSP 15.49) this year, of which we have just 250 cases for the UK.'

Joel Lauge, trade sales director at Great Western Wine, which has listed the Toro producer of Viaguarea (with a joven at 5.95 and a crianza at 7.95, available in the UK) is also full of praise for Toro's precise fruit flavours', saying, You get a great intensity.' He adds, We've only just listed the wine, but we have already had some enquiries. There is a danger that Toro can be a bit over the top, too severe, particular tannin-wise, but when it is done right, with some elegance and a nice fleshy middle palate, you have a very commercial wine at the price.'

The white stuff

Unlike for most of Spain - only Galicia and Catalunya are clearly exempt from this - Castilla y Len has a white-wine region of international quality. The fresh white wines of Rueda - driven by the Verdejo grape with able support from Sauvignon Blanc and, to a lesser extent, Viura - have taken Spain, if not export markets, by storm since the quality changes of the 1970s. Rioja's Marqus de Riscal is widely credited as the catalyst for this transformation, setting up the region's first modern bodega in 1972 (with the help of legendary French consultant Emile Peynaud). It was also the first company to introduce Sauvignon Blanc into the region. Exports, however, have been harder to drive for Rueda than is the case for its red-wine-based neighbours. Even Riscal sells just over 10,000 cases in the UK (with listings in Majestic and Sainsbury's), despite an annual production approaching 200,000 cases. Nevertheless, overall exports to the UK are growing, increasing from 472,000 bottles in 2004, to 683,000 last year. The signs are that the on-trade has accepted Rueda as a challenger to Albario as the leading Spanish white-wine-producing region, and in the off-trade most bottles can come in at around 5-8, showing a significant price advantage over most Albarios from Ras Baixas. The presence of Rueda also lets producers in Castilla y Len have wine ranges that include white wines from not too far afield alongside the reds. Of the companies mentioned previously, Fuentespina, Bajoz and Felix Solis all have wine coming out of the region.

As Burridge says, The Rueda market is still small, but it is growing. As the market moves further towards unoaked styles of wine, I expect this to increase. Rueda's strong point is freshness.'

The wines of Castilla will never achieve a presence in the UK market to rival Rioja - volume and price constraints, as well as the strength of the Rioja brand', will see to that - but Castilla y Len should make more of an impact over the coming years as quality catches up with price and Spain's presence in the premium sector increases. Although, whether any brand can sell 13,000 cases a week without a promotional offer remains to be seen.