03-03-2018 ~ 2 Comments

The Catalan wine boycott?

It’s a trick question to ask where in Spain they produce the largest amount of wine. As Spain is always one of the Top Three producers of wine in the world (along with France & Italy), there is indeed a great deal of juice made but as to where the majority is produced, most would say Rioja. This is correct in terms of Denominations of Origin but the DOs take second place in overall Spanish wine production as most wine is produced in bulk that’s often exported to France.

Rioja is one of Spain’s Autonomous Regions and if you were to actually look at these regions or “states” of Spain, it’s only number five at 220 million liters annually. Castilla-La Mancha leads at 2.2 billion (yes, billion) liters and makes over half of all Spanish wine produced (!!!), followed by Extremadura at 400 million, and then Catalunya in third place at 330 million. Note that in most of these regions, it’s the non-DO wines that lead although in Catalunya, it’s wine with DO that outsells non-DO by 37%.

So we can safely say that Catalunya produces nearly double the amount of wine as Rioja albeit via 12 Denominations of Origin that range from micro (DO Alella) to macro (DO Cava). Historically, most Spanish wine was consumed within Spain with roughly 80% consumed locally and 20% exported 30 years ago. In modern times, this has essentially flip flopped and in terms of exports, Catalunya leads all regions with over 600€ million in sales outside of Spain. It forms an odd conundrum for the Catalans as while they’ve been exporting heavily, sales at home have never been as strong with Rioja dominating sales in Catalunya, although several years ago, Catalan wine finally bested Rioja in terms of retails sales. Then, just last year a new milestone was reached when Catalan wine sales in restaurants reached 36% of all sales compared to Rioja’s 27%. To some degree, I think we can thank a few of the curious tourists who want to taste what’s unique and produced locally as opposed to trucked in.

This backstory is needed because recent figures have come out regarding Catalan wine sales in the rest of Spain in that they seem to have remained the the same. This is worthy to note as there is an unofficial boycott on Catalan products in Spain that people were expecting to hurt wine sales given how much Catalunya produces. People seem to be of the opinion however that it’s not really happening. They think this is due to saner people arguing that if you don’t buy Catalan wine, then you’re hurting other sectors of the Spanish economy like cork and glass producers who aren’t in Catalunya. There is some sense to this line of thinking but it falls short of the much larger picture which is that there is indeed a boycott, but it’s been going on far longer than the recent 2017 independence drive by the Catalans.

Of the 12 DOs in Catalunya, it’s easiest to look at Cava. It’s the largest and it’s also the most widely consumed. It also has the best statistics as finding out where Catalan wine is consumed in Spain is amazingly difficult and most official government statistics seem to be wedded to data from 2015 that isn’t the least bit granular. You’ll note that the stats in the link above reference private survey company, Nielsen, not any Spanish figures.

Back in 1980, 89% (72 million bottles) of all Cava was consumed domestically within Spain. Nice. This appears to have peaked roughly around 2000 or a little after when production was up 240% from 1980 and Spain still drank 51% (99 million bottles) of that bubbly total. Then things started to slip with domestic share falling to 39% of production (97 million bottles) in 2010 and each year since to 2016 where it sat at 35% (86 million bottles).

What’s easy to see here is a trend that with the rise in Catalan Independence drive, there has been a massive drop off in terms of domestic Cava sales to the point where Cava is truly an export-driven wine now. It may be easy to say, “Aha, that’s specious reasoning. You can’t infer one thing from another casually!” Normally I’d say you’re right except that if there was one wine that would continue to succeed and not change in Spanish consumption, it would be Cava as while it’s mostly produced in Catalunya (95%) some is produced in the rest of Spain and it is the only DO in Catalunya that is a Spanish, not a Catalan DO due to it being multi-regional. More importantly, it’s celebratory, it’s festive, and it goes very well with food, especially Spanish food, so to see a drop off like this speaks to something greater afoot; namely a boycott of what is viewed to be a mainly Catalan product.

This in turn gets back to the original news item linked to above that there has been little effect of Catalan Independence on Catalan wine purchases in the rest of Spain. This is true when you look at the last year but in reality, this has been an event going on for several years now as illustrated by Cava. From 2010-2016 it was “only” a drop of 4% of the total but from 2000-2016 it was a much more staggering 16% drop of the total and that’s without even talking about how it’s fallen since 1980.

No one wants to officially say that a boycott taking place, but it is indeed taking place. Publicly, Cava producers stay pretty neutral on the independence question. Most non-Cava winemakers I know don’t even bother to market in the rest of Spain with many saying that sales in Spain beyond Catalunya make up next to nothing of their total. So this is why we see that Catalunya leads Spain for the export of wine with nearly 1,500 cellars now exporting as they simply must sell their wines outside of Spain.

Having a strong domestic market is crucial for any wine-producing region, which is why seeing sales increase within Catalunya has been been crucial. But it also makes the Catalan wine market one of the most dynamic as they literally export around the world and because of such a varied portfolio, they can weather a great many more storms than cellars who sell mainly to Spain and have been hit hard by “la crisis” or what should be more rightfully called, “the modern Spanish economy”.