Considering Spain is by far the biggest wine export country in the world, it should be no surprise a large proportion of its wines comes to the UK. But what are leading importers, wine merchants and buyers looking to source for their lists? Is it the traditional, classic regions that still rule the roost, or are buyers looking to tap into more modern winemaking styles and going out of their way to discover new winemakers and producers to work with? To find out, The Buyer teamed up with Wines from Spain to host its latest zoom debate with a panel made up of some of the most influential buyers in the premium UK wine market.
As producers and buyers look to come together for tomorrow’s Wines from Spain tasting in London (Lindley Hall, click here to register) we look to help set the scene with this report from our recent Zoom debate with leading importers, merchants and Spanish wineries.
You can download the full recording of the debate here.
Our thanks go to our panel for their time and insights into Spanish wine. They included:
- Noel Young, founder of Noel Young Wines (NY Wines)
- Bastien Martinole, sales director, Fine Wines Direct UK
- Mike Best MW, wine product manager, Boutinot
- Gerard Barnes, wine buyer, Berkmann Wine Cellars
- Carlos Moreno López, export manager, Familia Martínez Zabala
NB: The Buyer works to run diverse panels but, on this occasion, due to late drop outs for unforeseen circumstances we had to run an all-male panel.
With so many wine regions, producers, and wines to choose from there is always a danger in a country-wide debate that you fall back on generalisations and don’t identify particular growth areas and trends. But that was very much the focus for The Buyer’s Wines from Spain debate. To both look at what makes Spain such an important wine producing country, but to throw the light on the regions and styles that some of our leading buyers and importers are finding most interesting.
Gerard Barnes at Berkmann Wine Cellars was quick to put his neck on the line by declaring that “Spain has never, in my career in wine, been as exciting as it is at the moment with better quality than I have ever seen or tasted.”
Quite the start. But he was not alone. Noel Young was proud to say Spain has been a hugely important factor in the growth of his own business over the last 30 years. If anything, its significance, both in terms of volume and value he can get particularly with premium wines, was becoming more important and now sits only behind France as its biggest selling country, he adds. In fact, if you strip out the French house wines that make up such an important part of its wholesale business then “Spain probably sits at number one,” he says.
The sweet spot
(Click here for Noel Young on why Spain is now “hitting the sweet spot” for quality and value wines
“Spain is hitting the sweet spot from a quality point of view, but also from a price and value perspective,” he adds.
Which is why Young has even bought a house in Valencia and spends a good three to four months in the country a year. Which is increasingly reflected in the number of wines he has on his list from in and around Valencia. “Thankfully our customers really enjoy them,” he adds.
“Across the board people are looking for different things. Galicia is a huge area for us with Albariño and more recently Godello. With the reds, Mencia is becoming very popular and people are looking for lighter wines and different styles and that is an area that is easy to sell and communicate.”
The key for Young is that across Spain, including its big, classic areas such as Rioja, Rueda or Priorat, producers are striving to make fresher, easier to drink, fruit forward, approachable wines. That’s not to say there is still not a market for the big, bold Spanish wines, stresses Young, there is just much more demand for “the lighter, fresher, crispier styles for both white and red and Spain is doing that incredibly well”.
“It’s an easy country for us to promote and consumers are coming on board and the wines are good value compared to the rest of the world.”
Mike Best says Boutinot “is putting a bit more focus” on Spain and he and the buying and sourcing team are being encouraged to go out and bring more “of a modern perspective” to its range. Particularly where it can now go further than the important core areas like Cava, Rioja and sherry and “look at what else is there”.
He says he is “excited” by the opportunity to go out and find wines and producers “that no-one else in the UK has discovered yet, that are great value, look really good and are nice people to work with”.
Gerard Barnes concedes Spain was not historically one of Berkmann Wines’ strongest areas, but that has changed a lot in recent years. Particularly since it took on the distribution for Tempos Vega Sicilia in 2021 which has allowed it to expand and build an even stronger portfolio around it.
He believes the demand there now is in the UK for a much wider selection of more approachable, easy to drink, fresher Spanish wines has come at the right time for both sides. Particularly when sourcing wine for the on-trade, where the onus is so much on “freshness and drinkability” and finding wines that people want to drink more than one glass of.
That said there is still that “spread of styles” available and if you want big and bold then there are still lots of producers and regions to go to for those wines. The big difference now is that in a classic like Rioja there is so much depth and diversity of styles to choose from and producers are not just making “monolithic chunky reds”.
(Click here for Berkmann’s Gerard Barnes on why Spanish wines are the most exciting in his career)
What is particularly interesting for an importer like Berkmann, that has built a reputation, says Barnes, for being a “Pinot Noir specialist” is the huge choice there now is for what you might term “pale and interesting wines”. Be it in Monastrell, or Priorat “where there is Garnacha that is very Pinot influenced,” he explains, or the Tempranillo coming out of Ribera del Duero.
Barnes says Tim Atkin MW deserves great praise for really bringing these paler, more discerning styles to the fore, and promoting them in his recent two Ribera del Duero tastings. “Styles that are reflecting individuality, different winemaking and winemaker’s personality and also a bit of terroir. A bit more regionality coming in within the regions,” he explains.
Which can also be seen in the regionality and different styles of Albariño coming out of Galicia, he adds.
(Click here for Bastien Martinole on what Fine Wines Direct UK is looking for from Spanish wines)
Looking to source wines that can both cater for the classic, bolder styles of Spanish wines, whilst also expanding into fresher, crispier, modern styles is very much the approach that First Wines Direct UK takes when supplying its predominantly on-trade customer base, says Bastien Martinole.
So whilst traditionally it bought a lot of Cava and Rioja wines it now has a lot of demand for white and red wines from Galicia and lists seven Albariños compared to one 10 years ago and has been able to source different styles from across the region. Mencia reds from Galicia area also now doing well.
“Some of my favourite wines from Spain are the ones from Ribeira Sacra and their unique vineyards. They’re pretty special. You get a real sense of terroir there and provenance,” says Martinole.
But behind any buying decision lies the price and again Spain ticks all the boxes, adds Martinole, be it entry level right up to super premium. “Wines from La Mancha are still important for us as a house wine, and they can compete with the Languedoc or Chile and deliver really good wine.”
Verdejo from Rueda is also becoming more important for restaurants as it is “flavoursome, easy to understand and is well priced,” he adds.
Martinole also likes the fact that so many of the big Spanish wine regions spend a lot of money in the trade and with consumers to promote their areas, be it with Rioja Wine Month, or Albariño Day, which really helps them sell their wines.
Carlos Moreno López, export manager, of Bodegas Portia, part of Familia Martínez Zabala, that owns a number of prestigious properties in different regions – including Faustino (Rioja Alavesa), Portia (Ribera del Duero), Bodegas Valcarlos (Navarra), Bodegas Campillo (Rioja Alavesa), Marqués de Vitoria (Rioja) and Bodegas Leganza (La Mancha) – said he was pleased to hear such a positive response from the panel.
He was particularly taken by the demand for a wide selection of red and white grape varieties such as Garnacha, Monastrell, Mencia, Godello, Albariño and Verdejo. There are plenty more yet to make their way to the UK, he says.
What the UK thinks about Spanish wines is crucially important, he says. Particularly when you realise 34% of wines from Rioja are going to the UK every year.
He says it is also good to hear how quickly the UK has embraced the enormous efforts taken by producers across Spain “over the last 15 years” to tone down their wines and make them fresher, more fruit driven and “modern profile wines”.
Bodegas Portia is typical of a winery that now produces both traditional and modern, fresher styles to suit different customers and markets and the on and off-trades, he adds.
To do so wineries have had to invest time and research into sourcing and then working with the right vineyards, with the correct soil types and terroir to make the wines you want to make, he explains. In doing so it means bigger groups, like Familia Martínez Zabala, can represent and showcase the different styles being made in the main DOs.
Room for improvement
Whilst Spain is doing a lot of things right, there are still some areas the buyers and importers would like to see more work being done.
Particularly around consistency of pricing and availability, says Best, who points to the almost doubling of the price of wine out of Rías Baixas after the 2022 vintage, on the back of major producers and brand owners pushing average grape prices up, coupled with increased local demand in Spain. All of which means “the viability of by the glass Albariño” in the UK on-trade is going to be “really difficult,” he adds.
Barnes agrees and questions whether Albariño can continue as a grocery wine variety because there is simply too much demand for what are limited volumes from such a small wine-producing region.
As a result, buyers are on the look-out for white wine alternatives in other areas of Spain, like Verdejos in Rueda or white Riojas, and he would like to see a “more joined up” approach by the Spanish wine industry to make those opportunities easier to access and source.
If Spain as a whole does not respond it then risks those Albariño listings going to other well priced, fruit forward white wine styles from other parts of the world, warns Best.
Martinole says it is sad to see Albariño being “handicapped by its price” in this way and it is now “at its limit” in terms of restaurant customers being happy to list it. Godello is now also seeing worrying price increases, he adds.
(Click here for Berkmann’s Gerard Barnes on why niche Spanish grape varieties offer so much for UK wine merchants)
Exploring new areas
Noel Young, however, argues it is “slightly lazy to blame everything on price” and it is actually the role of the specialist independent wine merchant, in particular, to keep faith in these wines and to keep educating their customers into why these wines are worth buying at that price. He also thinks Albariño by the glass will still be a good option for the on-trade outside London as it operates on lower margins. “I don’t really see the Albariño thing being a problem at all.”
In terms of promoting and introducing other grape varieties he thinks it is very much merchants and importers “leading the demand” rather than the consumer.
“We are all finding exciting new things that we want to push to our public who are becoming more knowledgeable and they are more open to tasting new wines,” he explains, particularly on the back of Covid and lockdowns where people became more adventurous and willing to try new things and trading up. “There are so many DOs and grape varieties to be discovered…there are a gazillion other things that we can move people towards and I think people are very open to that.”
In order to be successful
Barnes argues these new “discoveries” don’t need to be mass volume grape varieties, but are more “niche plus” that encourage customers and consumers to keep going back to Spain for something new and different. It is up to specialist merchants and distributors like Berkmann to be creating lists that are more of “an interesting patchwork tapestry of different styles and grapes” to show what is possible from Spain. These regions, he stresses, don’t need to become the next Rioja or “power house” they just need to be able to build a sustainable business in the UK market.
(Click here for Carlos Moreno López: how Familia Martínez Zabala is making vastly different styles of Tempranillo)
Even a major grape variety like Tempranillo has so much diversity and different styles based on the climate and soils where they are grown, says Carlos Moreno López. So a Tempranillo grown in Rioja, with altitudes of around 350m to 600m, is going to be very different to one planted in Ribera del Duero where vineyards are at 800m to 900m.
“We see a big difference in terms of climate because we are more influenced by Atlantic and continental climate and we have harsh and hard winters and get a gap of 50 degrees between summer and winter temperatures. Last year we got minus 15 degrees in our vineyards and in the summer we got 45. That’s what makes the Tempranillos totally different.”
So whilst Rioja Tempranillo offers red fruits and high acidity and are more rounded, in Ribera the Tempranillo is riper, more alcoholic and full of black fruits, tannins and have much more structure, he says. “That’s two totally different Tempranillos two hours away by car. They are two totally different grapes.”
Best says that is what makes Spain the gift that keeps on giving if you are prepared to look. “There are definitely layers and layers to still work on with established regions too,” he says
He says it is interesting to see the focus on quality old vines coming through in Spain as it has in other countries and, if anything, could probably do more to market and promote those wines, regions and producers.
Garnacha: “Best Pinot Noir in Europe”
(Click here for Berkmann’s Gerard Barnes on why Garnacha is one of Spain’s most exciting stories)
Barnes says it is great to see the return of Garnacha in recent years, particularly as the styles now “chime” so well with the demand for lighter, fresher wines. Berkmann has been able to source a number of quality Garnachas from different regions, including Rioja, Priorat, be it single variety or Garnacha-driven blends.
“It’s one of the most exciting stories out of Spain at the moment,” he claims.
Berkmann’s Alex Hunt MW, he adds, even claims the “best value Pinot Noir in Europe at the moment is Garnacha coming out of Spain” with this “amazing” combination of hugely flavoured, concentrated wines that are “borderline transparent, light Pinot-style”.
Where you can get “several different styles of wine just two kilometres apart on the same mountain”. He says “it’s getting to be very Burgundian and terroir-driven” but at the same time making “great value quality wine”.
Organics and sustainability
The panel also examined the role of organics and sustainability in Spain and recognised the difficulties there are for smaller producers to be able to meet the carbon and emission targets that the major producers can.
It is, though, encouraging, says Martinole, to see the big steps those big producers are taking as sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in the wines and producers that importers like Fine Wines Direct UK can work with.
“Hopefully the big companies can lead the way for other companies to follow. But we need to understand what producers are doing. Having a wine that tastes great but is bad for the environment, then your ethics should tell you that you should not buy it in the first place,” he explains.
Best says he would also like to hear about the initiatives the big co-operatives and major bulk producers are doing to farm and make wine sustainability as they are responsible for such a large part of the Spanish wine industry.
Young says he is still driven by what a wine tastes like and in the majority of cases if it is well made then the producer is taking the right steps in the vineyard and winery. “The two seem to go hand in hand.”
The Cava and sparkling opportunity
(Click here for Boutinot’s Mike Best MW on the opportunity and challenges for Cava in the UK)
With constant demand for sparkling wine at all levels there has to be new opportunities for Cava in the UK agreed the panel. Particularly at the premium D.O. and Reserva levels.
Best says the increase in price of Champagne, and rise in popularity of English sparkling wine, could potentially help see more people be willing to trade up more premium Cavas. The challenge the category has, though, is the emergence of super cheap Cavas that are now undercutting Prosecco which must be frustrating for those producers looking to push premium Cava.
Martinole says Cava works well for Fine Wines Direct UK as you can source quality at all levels and price points which works well for its diverse customer base.
Barnes, though, says it has to get its marketing and positioning right as there is so much competition for good quality sparkling from all over the world. But again, it could well be more the niche, high end sparkling wine from Spain that can continue to push its sparkling credentials forward.
To help bring the debate to a close, and to really pinpoint what our panel thinks Spain is doing better than anywhere else at the moment, we asked them all to pick one wine from their range that they would like to champion.
Bastien Martinole, Fine Wines Direct UK
Martinole was keen promote the wines from the Balearic Islands which he believes are “some of the most interesting wines coming out of Spain”.
He explains: “We all have an emotional connection with Spain and been on holiday there and enjoyed the wine, food and culture. You can find some wines in Mallorca, for example, that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. We need to show that these wines are available rather than just have Rioja or Ribera del Duero,” he says.
His selections included a wine that is not on sale yet but is going to be listed later in the year from a project called “Lateral” in Santa Margalida in Mallorca which is a natural wine from old vine Syrah and Callet (a native grape on the island) that goes through whole bunch, carbonic maceration and is aged in old foudres with no filtration. It will retail for £19. “This is a romantic small producer in the north of Mallorca who captures the spirit of the island and what it can produce,” he says.
His second wine is Marqués de Cáceres Excellens Verdejo, Rueda, Spain 2022 (List price £11.99). 13.5%. Martinole sees this as a great example of what Verdejo can do in Rueda from one of Spain’s biggest producers.
Noel Young, Noel Young Wines
Noel Young picked out a wine from near his second home in Valencia that he believes really illustrates what that region can do from a local producer called Celler del Roure in Moixent. Its Parotet wine is made from local Arcos and Mando grape varieties which are whole bunch fermented in underground large clay amphora. He describes it as being: “A beautiful expression, its organic, biodynamic and comes from the best vineyards. It’s crunchy and bright yet with some structure and intensity. It’s delicious now, though am sure it would age well too.”
Mike Best MW, Boutinot
Rippa Dorii Ribera del Duero Tempranillo Roble 2020. (List £12.49)
Best says this is a particularly important wine for him as it was the first one he “signed on the dotted line” to bring into the Boutinot range. Rippa Dorii comes from the latin form of Ribera del Duero and is made by the Ontañón family from vineyards located in the Fuentecén area in the heart of the Ribera at altitudes of over 900 metres.
He says: “My job, Boutinot’s job in the trade is to present mainstream wines that are really good value. That is what our customers come for. So, a wine below £15 that really punches above its weight. This is £12.49 which is amazing for what I would describe as a real wine. It’s not just a simple fruity wine, it’s got some concentration and complexity and got typicity of Ribera del Duero in that it’s quite dark and got some structure, but it’s also got an elegance and drinkability to it as well.”
Gerard Barnes, Berkmann Wine Cellars
Barnes has picked out one of the new Garnacha based wines that are part of Berkmann’s updated Spanish wine portfolio. This Garnacha Tinta comes from Castilla y León in the D.O. Cebreros and made by Soto y Manrique and is aged in 10,000 litre foudres for 14 months. It comes from old vines planted at more than 800 meters above sea level on granite and slate soils.
Carlos Moreno López, export manager, Bodegas Portia, Familia Martínez Zabala
This is the top wine from Bodegas Portia made from 102-year old Tinta Fino/Tempranillo vines in the heart of Ribera del Duero and is only made in exceptional vintages. The wine is aged in 400 litre non toasted French oak for 10 months and then the wine goes into 225 litre new oak French barrels for seven months to help bring some elegance and silky notes to what is a full bodied wine. Only 3,000 bottles are made.
Wines from Spain Tastings
You can come and taste some of the wines from our panel and choose from 100s more at the 36th Taste Spain – Wines from Spain annual tasting events. It is a chance to explore and delve into the regions and niche areas highlighted by our buyers’ panel. As well as wines already in the market importers and producers will be showing their latest releases.
There are two in-person events to choose from:
- February 28, Lindley Hall, London. 10am-5pm. Click here for details and to register.
You can also sign up for four masterclasses
11am-11.45am: Campo de Borja Masterclass
12.30pm-1.15pm: Spanish Craft Beer Masterclass
2pm-2.45pm: Campo de Borja Masterclass
3.30pm-4.15pm: Spanish Craft Beer Masterclass
- March 13, Ibérica Restaurant, Leeds. 11am to 5pm. Click here for details and to register.
Sign up to two masterclasses:
12pm-12.45pm: Back to the Future, presented by Sarah Jane Evans MW (6 wines from classic regions illustrating Spain’s ability to re-invent itself)
2pm-2.45pm: Spanish Sparks, presented by Christine Austin (6 indigenous varietals lighting up Spanish winemaking)