A few months ago, a wine educator in Texas wrote to me asking who is “influential” in Spanish wine along the lines of writers and educators.
Liking a challenge, I started to write up a list but found myself correcting it many times over. The reason being that there’s really no one terribly influential when it comes to Spanish wines and I include myself in there.
If there actually was anyone influential, wines from Spain would exist in a far more important state upon the world stage than they do. There is after all no reason for Spanish wines to not be more popular. Spain sees plenty of tourism, the wines are approachable for any level of wine drinker, the grape names are easy to pronounce, and by and large, the entry point in terms of price is quite low.
So, what is it?
Why are Spanish wines as a whole not considered part of the upper echelon of “fine wines” you see in France, Italy, or now, California?
A problem for the books
If researching Spanish wines, you’ll find yourself in a rather tough situation as there are very few reference books that cover the country as a whole (the last complete one was a 2nd edition from 2006) and there are few regions that are spotlighted. This is in stark comparison to France where it seems a region like Burgundy has more books written about it than all of Spain.
Books are important as despite all claims of changing tastes and influencers redefining how we drink, various defenses of the wide-open web, etc., when it comes to wine knowledge, they’re where it starts in terms of education and knowledge for any region.
It’s no secret that there’s a clear French bias in most Anglophone wine texts that’s been carried down for the last 100 years or so. Instead of starting where wine originally came from (either in ancient times from Georgia and the Caucasus region, or less ancient from Greece and Italy), they start with looking at how wine is organized legally and this looks to France and their appellation system.
This was a good starting point 50 years ago when the AOCs (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée) were the arbiters of quality but this was been upended in the wine world at large.
A case could be made that this is largely coming from a British vantage into wine where their market has been dominated by French wine that forms their preferences and they look to region over variety or even producer. But if coming from an American or other non-European viewpoint, the grape variety is what’s key for consumers and ultimately sidesteps the entire rigid French system, rendering it moot. This isn’t lost on the French themselves who are now producing more and more wines under general labels such as Vin de France given that their 90-year-old appellation system isn’t changing with the times and again, the market is ultimately dictating.
Unfortunately, wine education is based upon these reference books which are crafted to support this premise. Take a look at the new Encyclopedia of Wine where there are 24 pages (out of 800 in total) dedicated to Spain and most everything in there has just been carried over from past editions, even if incorrect.
Or better yet, take a look at the 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine where there are just 18 pages dedicated to Spain (the same as the previous edition) and yet, 25 for Germany–7 more! Even the 3rd Edition of the Wine Bible suffers from this despite its being wholly reworked and coming out in the second half of 2022.
How is there so much more coverage for Germany, a country producing 9mhl (including Sekt wines which are made from largely imported juice) vs Spain at 33mhl? This is a holdover from some 50-40 years ago when German wine was one of the top regions for the UK market, but times changed quite a while ago.
Thus, from an educational point, forming the foundation of wine knowledge, Spanish wine is at a disadvantage. For anyone who has done the WSET Diploma and is already familiar with Spanish wine to any extent, you’ll know this very well. You’ll need to learn that Cava is a certain cheap, sparkling wine and no matter if you may think otherwise (say, if you’ve visited the region), that’s what it is to pass the exam. Likewise, you can simply ignore a region like Valdeorras as it’s seen as being minor despite the fact that some of Spain’s most impressive white wines emerge from there now.
Do as the experts say
So, via wine books and education, you then arrive to the wine experts in the world having built up their formative years on biased and/or out-of-date information on both the regions as well as Spain’s grape varieties.
This manifests in different ways ranging from simple dismissal to the need of a certain sector to really hit the Spain trash talk, for instance when it comes to varieties.
“It’s a fine blending variety” is a backhanded compliment that I’ve long-known as shorthand for “I believe this to be an inferior variety.” For some time, it was a Grenache (Garnacha/Garnatxa) that saw this ire but starting 20 years ago, it became Carignan (Cariñena/Carinyena) and has just remained there since.
There was a conference on Grenache Blanc in Barcelona a few years ago and a Master of Wine that had been paid to come and speak spent a great deal of time talking about how crap Carignan was. Everyone in attendance was well mannered enough to not tell him to shove it given that what he was saying was not only rude but also not true.
So “evolves” the messaging around the world on Spain’s wines.
Much like the “blending variety” comment, “good value” is another term that comes up far too often in any discussion about Spain in general, but especially in terms of the wines.
It’s incredibly disingenuous as the conversation usually stops there, typically ignoring the higher end wines from across the country or exciting new developments. It almost seems that there’s safety in dismissing Spain as “good value” as to acknowledge its true potential would mean having more work to do.
There are audible groans whenever a new region starts codifying its subregions and vineyards as, again, this means more work and disrupts this simplistic narrative about Spain. And this while France and Italy have worked in such a fashion for decades despite sharing the same history of vineyard cultivation as Spain.
The word on the street
The wine writing coverage of Spain suffers from much the same problems as it is but a mirror of the educational and in turn expert opinions that are molding the conversation.
Spain is a very pleasant place to travel, affordable (important given publication fees these days), and often people can manage better with the language than say, French.
Despite this, it’s amazing to me how much of a black hole there is in terms of on-the-ground Spanish wine coverage in English. A quick glance to the last couple of years of article archives from the top 10 or so publications in the US and the UK reveals that if there’s coverage, it’s once every few months and growing more sporadic with time. Or, whenever there’s a “Spain Issue”, it’s often chocked full of non-Spain articles as well, typically about somewhere in France that’s well-covered (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône, etc.)
The one exception of a publication that does actually have good coverage of Spain is Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and that’s because they have a critic specifically covering Spain, based in country and actively seeking out the wines across regions.
(As a caveat, do keep in in mind that it was this publication which was at the heart of the Pancho Campo scandal in 2012 wherein Campo was shaking down Spanish regions to pay for the coverage of then-critic Jay Miller. It was generally assumed that Miller and the publication weren’t directly benefitting from this, and it was Pancho’s deal, but needless to say, The Wine Advocate is in a much better state for Spanish coverage at the moment.)
But then there’s the issue that some classic wine publications have been reducing their coverage at the same time they’ve been massively increasing their sponsored articles. At one established publication, the salesperson in charge of Spain sells more sponsored posts for the country then the rest of the world combined.
This is a big issue in terms of conflict of interest as while magazines swear up and down that sales and editorial are firewalled from one another, in practice this is impossible. Pitch an article covering viticultural practices or exciting new producers in Spain and you’ll get crickets. If you make sure to include a well-known winery and heavy advertiser, then that’s pay dirt.
One incident in particular stood out as I was commissioned to write an article about the state of Spanish wines for a German publication. When I submitted it, the fact I’d included the black eye of the Pancho Campo affair was deemed as “old news” and would have been removed had I approved the changes to go to print, which I didn’t. This was merely five years after the scandal and considering that he was organizing wine conferences at the time it was arguably still pertinent.
Does it come as a shock that the editor of said publication has gone on to speak at the conferences Campo organizes?
I’m aware that these kinds of things don’t happen just in Spain, but its constant barring from entering the top tier of wine regions by various external forces makes it an extra easy target for such behavior.
Spain? Isn’t that where they have those big hats?
How did all of this get started though? Surely there’s a larger issue than just wine?
I will readily admit that the wines from Spain weren’t always great. At various points this has been the same for everywhere in the world though.
The Californians beat the French in 1976 because the French were making rather shoddy wines at the time and phoning it in because French wine has generally always sold without question. Could you imagine a region like Bordeaux that produces a “good” vintage in only 1/3 of the years flourishing like it does in any other country?
Let’s broaden the scope here. Think about all the wine regions in the world where Spanish is the national language. Now, how many of them are famous? And not, famous for “good value” but famous for top-end wines.
The list is easy to compile as it comes back with a big fat none.
Why? For the same reason as always in that there is a decided bias against Spanish speakers by Anglophones who in turn dominate the international wine trade.
Why do British lads call every guy from Spain, “Manuel”? Because he was the bumbling porter from Barcelona in the British series “Fawlty Towers” and makes for an easy stereotype for the portion of British society that sees Iberia as a party ground to get drunk, and vomit in the streets.
Why did Donald Trump get elected despite saying there are “bad hambres [sic]” south of the US border? Same reason as the “Manuel” types except to an atomic, Trumpian degree that fired up the reddest of necks in the US.
If you’re not of a mind to believe it, then do tell why so many English speakers who start up winery projects in Spain see way more protagonism than the locals in Anglophone publications? Or more to the point, how are they seen as “redefining” the region?
Spaniards see Spanish as a world language given that it’s an official language in more than 25 countries and with over 490 million native speakers. But to Anglophones (who dominate the international wine trade) it’s readily dismissed as a “lesser” language and thus Hispanophone wine regions are also seen as of lesser importance or quality.
A grape of a problem?
Spain has the largest vineyard area in the entire world. It’s also the second-largest exporter of wine… except that the vast sum of that is in bulk.
But despite all this vineyard land, how many wineries are there? The total number of registered cellars in the country is only 4,300. This sounds like a lot but it’s the same amount as Burgundy, one region in France.
There’s a massive consolidation of vineyard ownership which is an ongoing issue. With an aging population that has no one taking over vineyard work, larger corporations keep buying up the vineyards, putting grapes in fewer hands and controlling prices. Those who are independent growers have to compete with those who own large blocks of vineyards in some regions.
Cava has been incredibly guilty in this as prices paid per kilo of grapes keep going down each year despite inflation pushing all costs up. This in turn drives down the prices of the wines making them cheaper and holding less regard. Lower prices for grapes equates to lower grape quality given what unhealthy shortcuts one needs to make in the vineyard, in order to arrive at these price points.
“Wait”, you’re probably saying, “Wouldn’t that mean that Spain is in fact responsible for its image of cheap wine that the international community has given it?”
This would be the incredibly reductive conclusion to reach because the issue is that producers are in fact pushed into producing cheaper wines for the buyers of import countries who view the country as a source of cheap, “happy” wine (again, “good value”). Why would they bend to this? Because there are very large import businesses in the largest wine-drinking countries in the world and if you don’t bend to the prices they demand, you can’t move your product. This has been no further emphasized by the fact that right now a number of producers in Rioja are looking for government aid and to possibly dump their wines for distillation as they haven’t sold.
And this is a circle that continues to spiral downward as importers never want to pay more despite inflationary restraints. Britain’s average price of £6 has remained largely unmoved for years despite all the economic factors affecting it and inflation increasing production costs many times over.
Coming up for air
How does a country like Spain manage to break free of these challenges? To quote Don Draper in Mad Men, “When you don’t like what someone is saying, change the conversation.”
Firstly, Spanish producers need to stop bowing to lower and lower prices and stand fast in their wines. After all, France exports 33% less than Spain, but it earns three times more in total for their wine sales. Thankfully, some changes are afoot as some of the key import countries for Spanish wine are paying more for the wines, in other words, they’re starting to value what’s coming out of Spain.
This is key as there’s is always someone who will produce a cheaper wine and unironically, they’re often another Spanish-speaking country. Much like dirt cheap beach tourism, if your model is based upon chasing the lowest price and making money on bulk margins, you’ll eventually find yourself out in the cold no matter what you do.
Bulk sales of Spanish products need to stop or be massively reduced and let’s emphasize that this doesn’t apply only to wine.
Do you know who the biggest producer of truffles is in the world? Yup, Spain, but 90% of them are exported to France. Who’s the number one producer of olive oil? Not Italy. It’s Spain by a long margin but again, a huge amount is exported to Italy and then resold with an Italian name and “Product of the European Union” on the back.
As it is with olive oil, so too it is with wine but that’s supposedly all done legally… except when it isn’t. We’ve learned that countless tanker trucks moving Spanish wine in bulk up to France as being mislabeled and passed off as French for a great deal more money (see again the issue of prestige). This does nothing to help Spanish wine perceptions as of course English-language publications seem to always favor calling these a “Spanish wine scandal” despite the fact they’re French companies perpetrating them.
The issue is that Spain needs to start producing and labeling more of its own wines and just generally having more faith in its product, not being swayed by forces outside its borders. If need be, follow what the French have done and tear out less than optimal vineyards that drag down prestige and prices as they were planted solely for massive production. These are almost always irrigated and this isn’t going to be a sustainable practice in the future anyways.
And then we get to the education side of things.
Instead of flying in influencers to make cool Instagram videos, Spain needs to redirect this money into opening new, higher quality markets, fostering wine ambassadors in international media like José Andrés has done for Spanish food and promoting better, more accurate educational and reference texts in English.
I remember really emphasizing to a quality region in Catalunya that was left off the map in the Atlas of Wine that they needed to contact the authors and make sure to be included in the new edition. But the new edition came out and they were left off yet again. It was lazy on the authors’ part but regions need to realize that while influencers may seem sexy and of-the-moment, they’re also ephemeral and they’re shortchanging themselves in not making sure they appear on maps and references that define all aspects of wine culture.
Names, spellings, traditions, and history need to be corrected and accurately disseminated in wine books as that is where wine knowledge starts for everyone.
Amazingly, despite all these lazy stereotypes and misperceptions, the race for the bottom has largely reached the end of its game and destructive macro trends are also changing simply because they’re untenable but also because there are countries realizing what Spain holds. This is simply a country with winemakers producing some absolutely amazing wines and it’s long-past time to give them the damned fame they deserve.
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