Retailers are listing a broader range of wines from Spain in the hope of attracting more customers to the country and are finding good value across the board. Patricia Langton reports.
With the exception of a few pockets of strength, regional Spain has struggled to make inroads in the off-trade, but there are now positive signs that areas outside Rioja are making an impact.
A good value proposition from a cross-section of regions seems to be underpinning this trend, according to feedback from various corners of the trade. So where should you look for both value and interesting wines?
At Majestic, wine buyer Matt Pym says: "Spain has offered some of the best value for money in the wine world for some time now. We are sourcing incredibly good value wines from regions such as Campo de Borja and Cariñena. At slightly higher prices, Galicia and Rueda are offering great white wines."
In his current listings for Spain, Pym points to a number of wines including Centellito Verdejo from Rueda (£5.99) Colmado Garnacha/Tempranillo (£4.79) from Campo de Borja and Fuentespina Granate from Ribera del Duero (£6.99). Indeed Ribera del Duero is quoted by a number of retailers for more reasonable pricing than in recent years.
He adds: "Rioja is still very dominant, but we are increasingly seeing interest in all areas of Spain.
"And with quality improving all the time, the country being so popular for UK tourists and the cuisine becoming increasingly trendy, I suspect this will continue. The only real problem is the strength of the euro, but that's an issue for all European producers."
At Thresher, wine buyer Helen McEvoy is also upbeat about Spain. She concurs that sales for the category are "largely driven by Rioja", but a recent range review has focused on other regions including Galicia, Toro, Ribera del Duero and Jumilla to maintain customer interest.
The retailer's Vineyard X Garnacha 2006 (£4.49/£2.99 as a multibuy), is positioned as its "best value red". It hails from Campo de Borja, a region which "continues to offer exceptional value for money, especially for Garnacha-based wines", according to McEvoy.
The regions of the south east, especially Jumilla, are often quoted when it comes to value for money - but reactions to sales are mixed. Pym says: "I have to admit that we find the south east the hardest. Red wines that do well tend to be Tempranillo-dominated such as Ribera, Navarra and Toro. Monastrell is a hard sell."
But Andrew Byrne at wine merchant D Byrne in Lancashire, winner of the IWC's specialist merchant of the year for Spain in 2007, does have success with wines from Jumilla (including Juan Gil, Casa de la Ermita and Casa Castillo).
He suggests that it's a question of familiarity: "These wines have to be hand sold. People don't know what Monastrell is and they are looking for different grape varieties." On the whole he sees growing enthusiasm for regional Spain, particularly for Toro, Campo de Borja and "good value Ribera del Duero".
Ben Henshaw of Indigo Wine adds: "The prospects are excellent in terms of investment in exciting new projects and ambitious winemaking in regional Spain. What is coming out of these areas can be outstanding at all price points, but you have to look for the best producers.
"For value for money I would point to Monastrell-based wines in the Levante and Garnacha-based wines from Campo de Borja and Calatayud. What these areas have in common is that there are plenty of very old vines.
"The trade needs to promote dynamic regions like these because the average consumer tends to be very Rioja-centric."
Finally, Tesco has thrown more weight behind regional Spain.
Last year's review saw new arrivals which champion alternative regions and grapes including Torronero Garnacha/Shiraz/Monastrell from Calatayud and its white partner from Rueda, The Pilgrimage Mencia from Bierzo and Monasterio de Santa Ana Crianza from Jumilla (all positioned over £5).
Finally, Tesco has thrown more weight behind regional Spain after its latest review, which saw over 20 new arrivals championing alternative regions and grapes. Significantly a good number of them pitch above the £5 level, such as Torronero Garnacha/Shiraz/Monastrell from Calatayud and its white partner from Rueda, The Pilgrimage Mencia from Bierzo and Monasterio de Santa Ana
Crianza from Jumilla.
Overall it's encouraging to see a move towards greater listings for regional Spain among the retailers. The challenge is now to get consumers to enjoy a broader choice of what Spain has to offer.
Rueda in profile
The Rueda DO lies to the north west of Madrid, with Toro bordering it to the west. The area's potential for fresh, crisp white wines of character was recognised by Marqués de Riscal in the early 70s when the producer chose Rueda to make its first white wines.
Riscal introduced Sauvignon Blanc to Rueda and encouraged the traditional local grape Verdejo to take on a new lease of life thanks to winemaking technology. This avoided oxidation and allowed the grape's aromatic fruit characteristics to shine through.
DO status was granted in 1980. The wines are based on Verdejo, Sauvignon Blanc and Viura, either as a blend or as varietal wines . Most wines are available as youthful wines to be enjoyed within a year of being made. However, some producers also barrel-age Verdejo: Montealina from Alvarez & Diez is fermented , aged in oak and released after 12 months in bottle.
Rueda's wines are increasingly offered with screwcap closures, and in terms of market positioning they sit just below Albariño wines, generally retailing at £5.99-£6.99.
Thanks to more plantings coming on stream, Rueda's 2007 vintage was up by 24 per cent compared to the previous year - but grape prices also rose, reflecting the strong demand for the region's wines. Although the region has been successful with Sauvignon Blanc, the trend is largely towards Verdejo, which now accounts for around 75 per cent of plantings.
Last July United Wineries became involved , following the acquisition of Vega de la Reina winery and 100ha of vineyards. The move is a bid to enhance its premium white wine offering.
Producers of note: Marqués de Riscal, Alvarez & Diez (Mantel Blanco and Centellito), Aura (Pernod Ricard), Nava Real and Sitios de Bodegas (Con Class).
The Levante in profile
The Levante encompasses a range of DOs bordering Spain's south eastern coast. The area features two autonomous regions: Valencia encompasses the DOs of Utiel-Requena, Alicante and Valencia, and Murcia includes the DOs of Jumilla, Bullas and Yecla.
Red wine dominates in the Levante (with the notable exception of the sweet white Moscatel de Valencia) and this is not necessarily Tempranillo country.
In Utiel-Requena, Bobal is the leading protagonist. The variety is generally associated with acidity and tannins, but quality has improved in recent years, especially where producers focus on lower yields and earlier harvesting .
A good example of the modern approach to Bobal can be seen in Bodega Mustiguillo's wines, which are made under the Vino de la Tierra El Terrerazo designation (available through Liberty Wines). Bodega Mustiguillo is situated at around 800m above sea level, allowing the vines to benefit from hot days , cool nights and slow maturation. Winemaker Antonio Sarrión blends Bobal with Tempranillo, Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot and Garnacha Tintorera for the 2006 Mestizaje, which offers rich, dark fruit and elegant tannins. (Garnacha Tintorera, native to the south east and Almansa, is characterised by its red flesh. The best examples have dense blackberry and chocolate flavours).
Moving south to Murcia, Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre in France) takes a leading role in winemaking flanked by other Spanish and international grapes including Syrah and even Petit Verdot.
Bodegas Castaño, represented by Liberty Wines, is one the leading forces in the region. Its main bodega is located in the heart of Yecla where the Castaño wines are made. In recent years this family-run producer has acquired vineyards in both the Jumilla and Alicante DOs with the aim of expanding its Monastrell-based wine portfolio.
In the Alicante DO, Castaño has headed to the Sierra Salinas Valley (650-680m) where it has acquired 85ha including 42 of old bush vine Monastrell and recently planted Cabernet, Garnacha Tintorera and Petit Verdot. The new Bodegas Sierra Salinas winery, a thoroughly modern facility , made the first vintage here in 2003 and the results are impressive.
Recent wines including MO Salinas 2006, a Monastrell-based blend and Puerto Salinas 2004, with a higher proportion of Monastrell and longer oak ageing, are characterised by their fresh, vibrant fruit and well-balanced tannins.
Moving to Jumilla, there are number of noteworthy producers including Bodegas Casa Castillo (C&D Wines), Bodegas Luzón (The Wine Treasury) and Casa de la Ermita (Bibendum).
At Bodegas Casa Castillo, run by José Mar ía Vicente, around 200ha of vineyards rub shoulders with olive groves and almond trees . The estate, which is located on El Altiplano de Jumilla (the high plateau), features old vine Monastrell bush vines dating back to 1942 and even ungrafted pre-phylloxera vines. There are also recent plantings of Syrah, Cabernet and Garnacha Tinta on trellises.
In the bodega, Vicente avoids long macerations . He says: "I try to avoid too much extraction. The work in the vineyard is more important , along with the quality of the grape. I usually have concentrated grapes, so why add more concentration?"
Vicente's excellent Las Gravas (approx £18.99), a blend of Monastrell, Cabernet and Syrah, depending on the vintage, epitomises the " Old World, but 21st century" approach of this talented winemaker.
Bodegas Luzón dates back to the early 20th century, but it metamorphosed into one of the region's most modern producers in the late 90s and it's been in expansion mode since food group El Pozo snapped it up in 2005. Its young wines, including Luzón Organic, are based on Monastrell and it also makes varietal Syrah and Petit Verdot wines with short oak ageing - both are impressive.
Casa de la Ermita came onto the scene in 1999 and works with similar grape varieties from its vineyards in the El Carche Valley. Its range is based largely on blends such as Caracol Serrano (Monastrell, Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot), available in Majestic for £5.99, and its "best seller" Casa de la Ermita Crianza (Tempranillo, Monastrell, Cabernet and Petit Verdot) aged in oak for nine months (£9.25). Viognier also makes an appearance as both a dry wine and a charming late-harvest offering.