Fantastic", "excellent" and "an easy sell" are the kind of reactions you get when you talk to independents and buyers in the multiple off-trade about Rioja. The region's wines, it seems, are still enjoying good growth even at higher price points, and the UK consumer's love affair with them goes on. Nevertheless, the generic spend for the region is up 35% this year to support the biggest UK campaign to date.
In March the campaign kicked off with the unveiling of a more contemporary logo and two main aims : to attract a younger consumer and to achieve a greater understanding of the styles of wines on offer - the different age classifications for reds, from young wines through to gran reserva, and the whites and rosés from the region as well.
Move over curry, here come tapas
The campaign includes two new features. The Tapas Fantasticas food festival is a two-day celebration of Spanish food, wine sampling, music and entertainment which takes place in the increasingly trendy Brick Lane in London's East End on June 28-29. (There's even talk of recreating the tapas trail of Calle Laurel, a popular attraction for visitors to Logroño, Rioja's main town.) Secondly, the Talk Rioja ad campaign will focus on the sociability of Rioja and breaks in September. Both projects aim to present Rioja's wines without the formality with which they are often associated , says Wines from Rioja.
The body has also selected around 80 wines from a blind tasting which took place in London in January to support the campaign, especially for work with the press. The wines, including four rosés and five whites, will be used for "press drops", seminars and events such as wine and food pairing demonstrations. The wines are divided into four categories: modern, traditional, boutique and commercial.
Within the trade, Wines from Rioja will take a group of 20 independent wine merchants to the region in June for bodega visits, tastings and a seminar. "The aim of the trip is to update them on all things Rioja and reassure them there are plenty of Rioja wines on the market crafted particularly for the independent sector that differ greatly from those destined for the multiple grocers," a spokeswoman said.
Ricardo Aguiriano, of Rioja's consejo regulador, added: "The UK is the main export market for Rioja and a key region for the ongoing international success of our wines. Although Rioja sales are already strong in the UK it would be remiss of us to abandon our efforts to stay at the top, especially in the light of increasing competition from New World brands. We have increased our budget in the UK to continue to attract younger consumers with modern styles of wine."
From the buyer's point of view, Rioja offers plenty of opportunity for further development.
At Sainsbury's, wine buyer Julian Dyer says Rioja represents more than 50% of sales of Spanish wines and the region is driving overall buoyant growth for the category, which is up by 30%. He believes there is "some understanding of the quality levels from crianza to gran reserva", and that the classifications encourage customers to trade up. He adds: "There is a small understanding of other styles but little customer need for them."
Dyer does not currently see a significant role for Rioja's whites and rosés at Sainsbury's, and there is just one listed of each. He says: "Rioja's speciality is for premium red wines. The average price for rosé is quite low and the region needs to be cogni sant of this. A £7-£9 rosé wouldn't sell."
A combination of strong deals, good availability and consistent quality is making the Rioja range work well at Sainsbury's, as is the strength of one brand - Campo Viejo (red, white and rosé) which "sells like a train", according to Dyer. Looking to the future he would like to see "one or two more compelling producers" coming through, particularly for the middle of the category, and a better understanding of the quality tiers.
Over at Majestic, Matt Pym is particularly upbeat about Rioja, which he says "really has motored". Rioja has turned in an increase of 17.85% for 2007 over 2006 for the warehouse retailer. Pym praises the quality improvements of recent years: "Even the traditional wines are more modern and styles in general are fresher and lighter. The right wine at the right price will fly."
Most of this success is accounted for by reds, but rosés are benefiting from the dual strengths of the Rioja brand and the buoyant rosé category. Majestic lists three - Marqués de Caceres, Cune and Muga - with price s from £5.49 to £8, and it may well extend this area .
Pym says his customers have a good understanding of producers and categories and points to the current all-round popularity of Spain . Are there any clouds on the horizon? "Currency pressures and the strength of the euro, but otherwise Rioja producers are in a great position," he concludes.
Others exploiting opportunities for a broader range of styles include Guy Anderson Wines. Its Gran Familia brand (two reds, rosé and white) has chalked up various listings for one or more of the range - Tesco lists the red (£4.99), white and rosé. Marketing manager Howard Price says: "It's true that people are often pleasantly surprised that there is such a thing as non-red Rioja, but then they are receptive to the idea. 'Brand Rioja' and the classic packaging of Gran Familia seem to appeal to those looking for a slightly more serious and 'grown-up' rosé."
Price believes there is more potential for Rioja rosés and he'd like to see greater awareness for all styles - not that he sees major problems . "We feel the joven and crianza categories are not well understood by most UK consumers, but judging by the ongoing success of the category, this is not holding it back very much." As regards the top two tiers, he adds: "I'm sure consumers are not completely clued-up about exactly what reserva and gran reserva mean, but they recognise that they indicate premium quality."
Finally Cellar Trends, armed with three styles from the Faustino Group - Faustino V, Faustino VII and Campillo Rosado - also reports encouraging progress for this area of business. Listings include Threshers, House of Fraser, Makro and various independents. Cellar Trends' marketing manager Lisa Duckenfield says: "We have seen steady performance but not as dramatic as the overall UK rosé market growth. Despite great customer interest in our rosés, particularly at our consumer shows where the rosés outperform the red, it has taken a whi le to persuade buyers to look beyond the American sweet rosé offerings. With new listings our MAT rosé sales are up 42%."
She concludes: "There is an opportunity to exploit and an opportunity to educate the UK consumer that there is more than just red from Rioja."
Rioja: ageing credentials
Joven/young: no oak or short oak ageing (red, rose and white)
Crianza: at least 12 months in oak and some bottle age, total minimum age two years before release (red and occasionally rosés and whites)
Reserva: at least 12 months in oak and bottle age, total minimum age three years before release (reds and some rare whites)
Gran Reserva: at least 24 months in oak and bottle age, total minimum age five years before release (reds only)
Most but not all premium reds fall into the specific age categories. Some producers, especially those in the modern vanguard, prefer a less rigid approach and do not use the categories indicated above, such as Marqués de la Concordia Hacienda de Súsar (United Wineries).
Sales of Rioja are up by 20% in value
Average price per bottle has increased to £5.20 - £1.19 above the total wine market
The £5-£5.99 category increased by 26%
London accounts for 26.4% of sales
Rioja sales split by colour: red 93.8%, rosé 2.2% (up from 0.8% in 2006), white 4%.
Source: Nielsen MAT to Jan 26 2008
Rioja Independent Retailer of the Year
Hennings Wine Merchants, with branches in Pulworth and Petworth in Sussex, emphasises the value of in-store promotions after being named Rioja Independent Retailer of the Year for its efforts in the Rioja in Retail promotion last October.
Hennings' efforts to push Rioja wines to its customers brought the shop a 34% sales boost during the promotion.
Marketing manager Nathan Fynes says: "We tried to get the message out by email to our main core of customers to encourage them to try a different range of wines. At tastings we provided them with cards with details on the wines - red, white and rosé." Fynes and his colleagues also liked the "reasonably classy" POS material - banners and posters - provided by organiser Wines of Rioja for displays.
"It was a great exercise - tasting is key and the promotion helped consumers to recognise different styles and empower staff," he said, adding: "These promotions can get stale but it's crucial to inject life into retail. They enthuse staff - retail staff love this sort of thing and it saddens me to see people moving away from it."
Two of the Hennings team - Fiona Caldwell, manageress at the Petworth store, and Greg Styles, customer services - enjoyed an expenses-paid trip to Rioja in March thanks to Hennings' 2007 win. Fynes says: "The trip allowed them to appreciate the styles of businesses within Rioja and they were particularly impressed by the quality and consistency in the wines."
Rioja updates in brief
New grapes on the scene
Spain's agriculture ministry has given growers in Rioja the green light to plant five of the "new" grape varieties which were approved by the Consejo Regulador in early 2007.
They are Maturana Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdejo. The remaining four - Turruntés, Maturana Tinta, Maturano and Monastel - are expected to get the go-ahead in the near future.
High hopes for 2007 vintage
Warm weather and dry conditions favoured the last stages of maturation for Rioja's vineyards and many reported an excellent balance of alcohol and acidity from the 2007 harvest. Some 391 million kg were approved for wine production by the DO authorities from a total yield of 412 million kg - 91% red and 9% white, 2.2% down on 2006.
The official rating for the 2007 vintage has yet to be declared, but it appears to be another strong vintage for the region. It follows a good run for Rioja: 2006 was classified as "very good" while 2001, 2004 and 2005 were "excellent". The 2001 Gran Reserva wines and 2004 Crianzas are now on the market.
It's all kosher
Bibendum is offering the kosher Rioja Viña Mirasol for the UK trade. The new arrival, a 100% Tempranillo from the 2006 vintage, has been produced as a youthful Rioja.
Vinification, including flash pasteurisation, and the entire production process was overseen by rabbis from Barcelona. It has an rrp of £7.65.