Sommeliers’ Take: Selling Spanish Wine

Of all the wine-producing European nations, Spain seems to be reinventing itself with the most alacrity. Every few years, another hot new Spanish region, winery, or wine style stomps and claps its way into the spotlight. Wines from areas like the Canary Islands or Ribeira Sacra would have been virtually unknown in most markets 10 years ago. But today, they are emblematic of the New Spain, a Spain that encourages experimentation among its producers and seeks to articulate the natural diversity of its countryside.

Even the establishment is getting a facelift. This is evidenced not only by the fresh style of the new brands hitting the market, but also by the changing appellation laws that are shifting focus from élevage to vineyard. Alcoholic strength and length of time in oak are no longer the primary measures of greatness. Site specificity is becoming increasingly important, even in a region such as Rioja or Sherry, where the wines are process oriented and historically heavily blended.

Why does Spain feel so especially dynamic? Perhaps it’s as Rubén Sanz Ramiro implies below: because Spain struggled under a repressive dictatorship until 1975, today’s crop of young winemakers is really the first generation to have lived exclusively under democracy. Maybe their boundary-pushing ways have more to do with their political liberties than their physical youth. But whatever the reason, the transformation of the wine landscape is undeniable. And with a greater range of styles and regions available on the market, there has never been a better time to be a consumer of Spanish wine.

There has also never been a better time to be a buyer of Spanish wine. To dig deeper into the changing Spanish wine scene and how it fits into a global wine program, the following sommeliers were interviewed: Spaniard Rubén Sanz Ramiro of PM & Vänner in Sweden, MS  of Eleven Madison Park in New York,  of Brennan’s in New Orleans, and  of Maxwell Park in Washington DC.

Clockwise from top left: Mia Van de Water, Rubén Sanz Ramiro, Braithe Tidwell, and Brent Kroll.

Kelli White: How large is your list, how global, and what percentage is dedicated to Spanish wine?

Rubén Sanz Ramiro: Our list currently carries over 5,000 references. It is global in its selection yet heavily based in Europe. Spain comes fourth in number of selections after France, Italy, and Austria.

Mia Van de Water: Roughly 5,000 selections with deep concentrations in Champagne, Riesling, Burgundy, the Northern Rhône, Barolo, and the older wines of Napa Valley. We currently have around 120 Spanish selections, or about 2%.

Braithe Tidwell: Approximately 1,200 selections. It represents almost all winemaking countries of the world, and I would say 15% is dedicated to Spanish wine, with intent to expand Spain further.

Brent Kroll: Our list is about 500 bottles. About 10% is dedicated to Spanish wine.

Kelli: When you first began working in wine, what was the general reputation of Spanish wine? 

Rubén: That was almost 20 years ago, and it seems like an eternity! Spanish wines, on a premium level, were dominated by red wines from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Priorat. The reputation was generally good, yet the wines were of a style marked by heavy use of oak, heavy extraction, and very high pHs. 

Mia: Spain’s reputation was almost entirely based on the red wines of Rioja, and Ribera del Duero and Priorat to a lesser extent; Sherry was something sommeliers were fascinated by but the average guest saw as something their grandparents drank. The quality of the red wines was considered quite high, and people were generally excited about them (or at least liked the descriptions of what they might taste like), but the entire country was thought of through the lens of these regions by most guests.

Braithe: When I started working in restaurants in 2003, the first Spanish wine I encountered was the Faustino Rioja Reserva, and it was the most reasonably priced red by the glass at the restaurant I worked at in New York's Hell's Kitchen area. The general view at the time was that it was cheap and of mediocre quality.

Brent: I remember waiting tables in Michigan in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. The reputation was that it was a bargain area for Garnacha and Rioja and Cava. Albariño was just starting to get popular as a Pinot Grigio alternative.

Kelli: How has the popularity of Spanish wine shifted in the time you’ve been selling it, and what is the perception today?

Rubén: Spanish wines are popular, and slowly consumers are moving away from the conception that Spanish wines must be red and full bodied.

Mia: The primary shift has been in the younger generation of wine drinkers, who are typically looking for value and story over critical reputation. They might not know much about Spanish wine, but they are interested in drinking it and are curious about new regions and grape varieties. The older generation is still mostly focused on the prestige appellations, and the presence of wines like CVNE Imperial at the top of the Wine Spectator Top 100 and so on has largely reinforced their preferences.

Braithe: It's completely changed. I began hearing buzz about Spanish wines in New York when a few Spanish tapas restaurants (Boqueria and Tia Pol) opened and their wine lists were 100% from Spain. I’m sure there was buzz in the somm community before that, but it seems that's when the explosion happened in New York. Now, Spanish wines are viewed as investments, and sections of value and quality on wine lists. I find that my guests know a lot about Spanish wine—they are more educated than ever before, thanks in part to wine publications that have put great emphasis on Spain, and they trust that I can choose a great Spanish wine for them. There’s no more preconceived notion that the wines are unworthy to pair with.

Brent: The popularity has a lot more diversity and has grown. I think that Galicia is a fascinating place for red wines that was virtually unheard of when I first started. Fino style has taken off as a category—although it might always be underappreciated. I think when you were writing a by-the-glass list 15 years ago, it wasn't a glaring omission if you didn't have Spanish wine, but it would be now. 

Kelli: What do you think caused this evolution?

Rubén: Spain has been able to settle down. We need to look to Spain in a broader sense and think about the fact that up to 1977, Spain was an oppressed country and depressed economically. Spain did not join the European Union until 1986. So 30 to 40 years later, Spain is in a much better position and has been allowed to rediscover and believe in itself. A new generation of growers has helped to move Spain forward toward the search for authenticity and personality.

Mia: The increased interest and trust in sommeliers (often largely due to media like the Somm documentaries) has probably had the biggest influence on guests’ willingness to try something new. I also think the spread of contemporary winemaking know-how across the more rural parts of Europe (which has raised the overall level of quality in many more rustic appellations) and the proliferation of small importers seeking new and exciting small producers has increased our access to previously unknown estates and regions. And what we’ve gained access to has been super exciting.

Braithe: First, I think from a perspective of winemaking, the Spanish modernized their style. All of a sudden, it wasn't just López de Heredia anymore. There were fresh styles coming out of Galicia, Castilla y León, and especially Catalonia—Priorat and Penedès.

Second, Cava! In New York around 2009/2010, Cava exploded. It was on every wine list, and it wasn't just cheap stuff being used for mimosas. It was delicious and somewhat more serious Cava being sold by the glass and in the fridge at every wine store in every neighborhood. I remember being at a friend's house and her feeling there was a crisis because they were out of Cava. We had to run out and buy some immediately! At some point around 2011/2012, I started to see it more than Prosecco, and that's when I realized Spanish sparkling was a force to be reckoned with.

Brent: Spain always had value, but Spain has been getting recognition in more appellations. They have a ton of diversity as a country and always have, but I think there's a better understanding now. More interesting wines from Spain are making their way into US markets, and people are aging and collecting Spanish wine.

Kelli: Do you see Spanish wines as belonging to the same club as those from France and Italy? Or do the wines tend to align more with the New World?

Rubén: Spanish wines are certainly part of the Old World and belong in the same league as France and Italy. Let’s not forget that Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Carignan are Spanish indigenous varieties, or that Sherry has been produced for centuries. 

Mia: Spanish wines, particularly those from Ribera del Duero, Priorat, and the Levante, are a perfect stepping stone for guests moving from the New World to the Old World. They have structure and minerality, but also really vibrant fruit flavors.

Braithe: I see the wines aligning with both Old World and New World. Honestly, that's why I think Spanish wine fits in so well on my list in New Orleans, [which] has a huge influence of Spanish names and cuisine, since we were under Spanish rule for quite some time. Just like the city, Spanish wine is traditional and has deep roots but now is changing into something that is more fresh and accessible. It's been able to modernize and adjust, just like New Orleans. 

In terms of winemaking advances, I feel like the journey is somewhat similar to Italy, with a lot of young producers coming up and changing the way winemaking is happening, and they've changed the perception of the wines along with the updated techniques. 

Brent: With the hotter regions and sometimes heavy use of oak, they can come off as New World at times. [But] even when these wines are heavy, they have earth notes that keep them in the Old World. They definitely belong in the same camp as Italy and France. I often see Rioja hold up better than Bordeaux for aging. The structure of Tempranillo reminds me the most of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.

Kelli: What types of Spanish wines are most popular on your list right now?

Rubén: Ribera del Duero and Rioja certainly keep being popular. Also, these are regions where there is great diversity of wines today (Ribera del Duero is producing white wine!), more than ever. The northwest has a great presence in our list: Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo, Valdeorras, etc.

Mia: Rioja remains the most popular with guests due to its international reputation. For me, however, the still wines of Penedès, the reds of the Sierra de Gredos, and both reds and whites from Galicia are more compelling.

Braithe: New Orleans is absolutely obsessed with Txakolina, particularly a wine called Rubentis from the producer Ameztoi during the summertime. It’s light, beautiful, fresh, and slightly effervescent—so basically perfect for the extreme heat here.

One of my staff members preaches the gospel of Ribeira Sacra, so we sell a lot of reds from that region, which I think pair wonderfully with Creole flavors. And since we sell a lot of bubbly at brunch, the reasonably priced Avinyó Cava Rosé based on Pinot Noir is a staff favorite. 

Brent: Aged Rioja, savory Albariño, Mencía, En Rama Sherry, Priorat, Canary Islands, and Cava.

Kelli: Does your guests’ perception of Spanish wine differ from yours? If so, how?

Rubén: Main consumers still do associate Spanish wines with power, [but] I see a great diversity of styles today and plenty of wines that are driven by delicacy, freshness, and finesse.

Mia: Most guests think of Spanish wines as bold, spicy, and powerful, whereas what is interesting to me as a sommelier are the wines coming from cooler climates, where freshness and acidity prevail over intensity.

Braithe: Not really. I like Spanish wine for the same reasons my guests do—for the money, you are really getting an incredible value. The wines are also extremely diverse region to region. There really is something for everyone. 

Brent: I think guests used to feel like they had Spain figured out, in a way someone who drinks Malbec might think they have Argentina figured out. Right now, my guests are mostly millennial wine drinkers that don't have the preconceived notions of Spanish wine people had 10 to 15 years ago.

Kelli: How does Spanish wine compare with French and Italian wine in terms of versatility?

Rubén: They are not far behind. It is true that perhaps France still may offer the greater offer of styles in the top quality range, and Italy the greatest diversity of indigenous varieties, yet Spain is catching up fast.

Mia: I find Spanish wines to be just as versatile tableside as similar styles of French or Italian wines. As a country, they produce a wide range of styles that can cover nearly every eventuality, much like their more famous neighbors.

Braithe: Spanish wine is as versatile, if not more so, than French and Italian wine—I think my guests just don’t necessarily realize it yet. In 10 to 15 years, the perception will catch up with the quality of the wine.

Brent: Those are both very versatile countries, but Spain can hang with them for various styles. I would say where Spain would have an edge is aged wine value. I think that for current release, I'm used to seeing Spain having more age than its counterparts for wines that would be priced to be poured by the glass. Especially when it comes to Tempranillo.

Kelli: How does Spanish compare with French and Italian wine in terms of value?

Rubén: I think that Spain is the country that offers the greatest amount of value-driven wines. 

Mia: At every price tier—except perhaps the lowest, most entry-level—I find Spanish wines to be more affordable than their competition from France, and dollar for dollar, I think they offer exceptional value against both France and Italy.

Braithe: I absolutely feel like you can get a better value for a Spanish wine than you can for an Italian and definitely a French wine. I think particularly as Burgundy (a huge portion of my list) reaches prices that are unattainable for a large majority of wine buyers, Spain offers an amazing outlet.

Brent: I think all countries can have very basic and cheap wine. I don't see much beating the value of an aged Rioja. Fino Sherry is ridiculously cheap compared to Vin Jaune. There are plenty more examples past that, too.

Kelli: How easy is it to find great Spanish wine? Are there the same number of resources as for finding great wine from other countries?

Rubén: The selections of Spanish wines are growing among importers and distributors, so it is becoming easier. Nevertheless, it still does fall behind other countries such as Italy or France.

Mia: There seems to be a ton of great wine being made in Spain, but the wines are not as widely or thoroughly exported as the wines of Italy or France. There are fewer importers that specialize in Spanish wines than either Italian or French, and those that bring in wines from multiple countries often have fewer Spanish selections than they do from either of those countries. That being said, there are a few importers who do incredible work in the country—there should be more!

Braithe: It can be a little bit more challenging, but I am lucky to work with a lot of distributors who value Spanish wine and promote it in their portfolios. I think that French wine will always outnumber most countries in terms of exposure, marketing, and availability, but I would put Italy just a little more readily accessible than Spanish wine. 

Brent: I think it's easier and harder to find great Spanish wine. It's easier to look up famous Champagne and Bordeaux than it is to look up the top wines in each Spanish region. In Spain, you can get a lot of the top wines without fighting for allocations, though. There is plenty of information out there on Spain, and its diversity in the market continues to grow.

Kelli: How do you display Spanish wine on your list?

Rubén: The bottle selection does keep growing, and we are always having Spanish wines available by the glass. Sherry has its own category, with over 15 selections available by the glass.

Mia: The Spanish wines come after the Italian wines in both white and red sections of the list. The whites are all listed together but ordered by variety, and the reds are split out into Rioja, Ribera del Duero, the Canary Islands, and the rest of Spain (again ordered by variety).

Braithe: I have them listed by region, northwest to northeast, and then central Spain and Southern Spain listed by DO within their own red wine and white sections of the wine list. Cava is listed with international sparkling, and Sherry is listed with aperitifs and dessert wine, depending on the style. 

Brent: If it's by the glass, it's mixed in with everything else. If it's by the bottle, it gets its own page and is organized geographically.

Kelli: Do your customers order Spanish wine on their own, or do you have to sell them on it? If you have to sell them, how do you do that?

Rubén: They normally do if they are looking for well-known regions (Ribera del Duero, Priorat, Rioja, Rías Baixas). If not, for those who are looking for a style of wine rather than a region or variety, I am able to offer wines from Spain. As an example: Valdeorras can be a good recommendation for someone looking for a restrained, non-aromatic, mid-weight white; Xarel·lo from Penedès the same, yet with crispier acidity. Certain Mencías can fit a palate looking for Northern Rhône reds or New World Pinot Noir, Bobal those looking for a Cru Beaujolais, etc.

Mia: Some guests order Spanish wines on their own, but most need someone to suggest it to them. However, most guests are curious or even excited about Spanish wines once they’re mentioned. Generally speaking, I tend to sell Spanish wines from outside the prestige appellations by describing the general profile of the wines in comparison to wines the guest has already said they enjoy; within Rioja and Ribera del Duero, I generally talk more about the history and reputation of the winery.

Braithe: Some come in knowing they want/like Spanish wine, but if I have to sell it, I discuss its importance on our list [and] being an important part of New Orleans, and then how well the wine pairs with our cuisine, which is a blend of Creole, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese at the moment. 

Brent: Guests order it on their own, but sometimes you need to talk someone into it who likes a comparable wine from elsewhere. I generally just explain how it has something similar and something different to something they already love, while considering any constraints they might have.

Kelli: What is the most exciting Spanish wine you’ve had recently, and what did/would you pair with it?

Rubén: Alberto Orte, Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz Atlántida 2017. This is a splendid wine, one of the greatest examples of the revolution of Spanish wines—a wine that comes from an indigenous variety from the Sherry region that is almost extinct: Vijiriega. A still wine, non-fortified, that also shows a new yet magnificent side of the Sherry vineyards and the potential of producing still wines. A wine that comes from well-farmed organic vineyards. 

I work frequently with this wine; any dish that has an umami quality binds terrifically with this wine that takes you directly to the seaside not far from the vineyard where the grapes are coming from, Jerez de la Frontera.

Mia: One of the Spanish wines I am currently most excited about is the Finca Cascorrales by Goyo Garcia Viadero. It’s 100% Graciano from a single vineyard in Ribera del Duero. It is an elegant and beautifully balanced wine with intense black fruits but a bright and lifted palate. It is super versatile at the table, but probably best alongside the dry-aged duck breast with blueberries and chanterelle mushrooms. In my opinion, Goyo is one of the most exciting winemakers in Spain today—not only are his other reds compelling, he makes a skin-contact white from Palomino that is rich, textural, and also precise. (It is the most impressive orange wine I’ve come across . . . although I should admit that it’s not a category I actively seek out.)

Braithe: Luis Rodriguez’s Os Pasás Treixadura Blend from Ribeiro. It’s blended with Albariño and Torrontés planted on granite hillsides and fermented with native yeast on the lees 10 to 12 months. It’s José Pastor Selections—I love the wines in this portfolio. The Os Pasás is floral yet dry and has minerality and body. It’s dynamic and pairs really nicely with some of our rich fish dishes as well as our shrimp kimchi with forbidden rice. 

Brent: 2016 Ànima Negra Àn/2 from Mallorca, Spain. The fruit on this is ripe, and the oak is mostly French, but you still feel the American oak notes. It has the right amount of weight for our lamb keftedes, and balanced fruit versus savory. The American oak notes also layer sweet flavors and an herbal component into the gamey flavor of the lamb. The acid and tannin are kind of right where I want them for the weight and fat in the keftedes. It's a pairing that's seamless enough that you really don't have to think about it, or can nerd out on it.

Honorable mention: Oloroso Sherry and salted peanut butter ice cream.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Thanks to Rubén, Mia, Braithe, and Brent for sharing their experiences and insights!

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