Posted on | February 1, 2012
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Rafael Momene of La Rioja Alta noticed a dramatic shift in his portfolio last year: U.S. sales of his Viña Alberdi Reserva wine doubled, and sales of his Viña Ardanza Reserva quadrupled. Priced at $20 and $29 respectively, La Rioja Alta’s Reservas are significantly pricier than its Crianza ($14) yet have become the winery’s fastest-growing wines in the American market.
Momene isn’t alone—dozens of Rioja producers report a similar phenomenon with their Reservas, and the numbers reveal that among aged Rioja wines, Reservas and Gran Reservas are picking up major steam.
Rioja’s wines stand out among all others—including those from the rest of Spain—by their extended aging, both in barrel and bottle. Crianzas must be aged 24 months before release, 12 in barrel; Reservas must be aged for 36 months, 12 in barrel; and Gran Reservas are required to spend 24 months in barrel and an additional 36 in bottle. (Joven—“young”—wines have no age requirements.)
Though overall imports from the region have been rising steadily for years, the growth was driven primarily from Joven and Crianza wines—until now. “The Reserva and Gran Reserva categories compose 20% of our exports but have experienced over 50% growth in the past two years,” reports Ana Fabiano, brand ambassador and trade director of Vibrant Rioja and author of the just-published book The Wine Region of Rioja.
While young wines are still fueling important growth in the value sector, when it comes to aged wines, the “consumers are clearly trading up for higher-end aged wines,” says Pia Mara Finkell, Vibrant Rioja director of communications. “More and more bodegas are now making their Reserva their flagship wine—in Rioja, Reserva is where it’s at.”
Perfect Middle Ground
Reservas expertly straddle the line between complexity and freshness. “Reservas offer the most favorable combination of aging, value and quality from Rioja,” says Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago. While they showcase the refinement that comes from age, they still possess the sultry ripe fruit of a young wine (compared with Gran Reservas which can take on nutty flavors and a tawny color). In other words, Reservas offer exactly what the increasingly sophisticated U.S. market is looking for.
“Crianza and Joven are great everyday drinking wines, but the real identity of Rioja shines in the Reservas—they display balance of fruit and oak, polished tannins, acidity and great complexity, all characteristics that consumers appreciate, especially when pairing with food,” says Felipe Gonzalez-Gordon of Gonzalez Byass USA, Inc., owner of Rioja’s Beronia estate (whose Reserva is up 40%).
Familiarity Breeds Trade-Up
The sales surge says a lot more about consumer and trade familiarity with Spain and Rioja than it does about the economy, most believe. “I’m sure the general trade-up trend is contributing, but more importantly, it’s the heightened awareness by customers of Rioja wines, particularly Reservas,” says Jeffirs. “Rioja has always held a special place at the top of the wine world with very few other regions like Bordeaux or Champagne. As soon as people have the proper introduction—or reintroduction—to Rioja, they realize that it offers what no other region can.”
According to Joel Feigenheimer, director of purchasing for China Grill, it’s simple: “As Americans become more comfortable with Rioja, they continue to move towards the better crafted Riojas. They are looking for the best combination of quality and value, which these wines deliver.”
Barrel and bottle aging is expensive, which makes it pretty amazing that most Reservas fall in the $15 to $30 range. “Rioja wines in general provide some of the greatest value among old world wines,” says Mark Tucker, director of marketing at Vision Wine & Spirits, who represents Rioja Bordon/Franco-Españolas. “Consumers demand value today—they want a $15 bottle of wine that they feel is worth $20 or $25 and this is Rioja’s calling card.”
Last year Rioja Bordon’s Reserva leapt ahead as the winery’s best-selling SKU in the U.S. It’s aged about 20 months in oak and at least two years in the bottle—that’s over 3½ years of aging for a retail price of $14-$15. Juan Carlos Llopart, export manager for Rioja Bordon/Franco-Españolas, says “I do believe the American consumer is knowledgeable enough today to compare the quality they are getting with a 2004 Reserva to a New World wine that is aged for a few months at the same price.”
There are indeed many 2003, 2004 and 2005 Reservas on the market that cost a quarter of a Burgundy or California Cabernet from the same vintage. “Retailers want to give their customers authenticity and value,” says Fabiano. “It is very difficult to find a wine at this price point that one can drink now or cellar for 5-15 years for a special occasion. Reservas fill this niche.”
Sommeliers approve as well. “I love to offer our guests wines that have some good bottle age,” says Joe Campanale, owner/beverage director at New York’s L’Artusi and dell’anima restaurants. “Our guests often comment that it is nice to find a well-aged wine at a reasonable price. With Rioja Reserva, you’re able to find wines that are ready to drink upon release and guests appreciate that.”
Sommeliers see the advantage of Rioja wines in their signature food-friendliness (high acid, in-check alcohol levels, elegance), but also from a storage/wine list perspective: “These wines can be placed on a wine list or cellared which is ideal for restaurants,” says Fabiano. Also, while the number of French and Italian restaurants still dwarf Spanish ones, Ricky Febres, national brand director for Marqués de Riscal, notes, “The popularity of tapas has contributed to the growth and appreciation of Spanish wines by the American consumer.”
A Style Evolution?
Some see a shift in Rioja wine style that may contribute to their recent enthusiastic embrace by American drinkers. The aging requirements haven’t changed since they were authorized in 1980, but there is a larger stylistic range emerging in the region: Some producers choose to age for longer than required, which imparts a more traditional taste profile, while others go with the minimum time in barrel to maintain more defined fruit flavors. Modern-leaning producers rely on new oak barriques while traditionalists use large, old casks.
Collin Williams, CSW and wine buyer for Spec’s Wine, Spirits and Finer Foods in Houston, Texas, sees Rioja producers leaning toward a style that is more appealing to the American consumer: “Oak regimens, skin maceration and extraction times, even brix levels are shifting to create wines that emphasize fruit rather than wines that are make in an oaky, dusty style.” He adds that the newer style makes them perfect for “Napa Cabernet customers that are branching out.”
Fabiano has observed a “stronger understanding of Riojan Tempranillo” on the part of winemakers, particularly evident in the Reserva wines resulting in “more concentration, fruit-forward flavors and complexity” which better meets today’s palate preferences. Jeffirs, too, sees some stylistic shifting (“a bit more modern and refined”) but believes the real change is in the broadening of offerings: “There is tremendous variety from Rioja today—this has been hugely important in appealing to the American palate.”
Most producers don’t deny the change: “Can anyone imagine dressing like our parents or grandparents?” asks Gonzalez-Gordon. “Like most things in life, Beronia has evolved and continues to evolve. In the past it was all about acidity—which is why many wines were light and thin. Growers picked earlier and aged longer in barrel, which yielded very different wines than you see in the marketplace today. Rioja has wisely adapted.”
Maximizing Untapped Potential
Spain is the world’s third largest wine producer, but roughly 70% of Spain’s wines are consumed in Europe—they only command a 5% share of the U.S. wine market. Underrepresentation like this equals tremendous opportunity for growth. “I would say practically every wine consumer is a Rioja consumer—the category offers enough diversity to suit any palate and occasion,” says Gonzalez-Gordon.
The emergence of the new, younger consumer has proved a benefit for the region, as well as the increasing sophistication of the American palate. “We know for a fact that as the wine population grows and the consumer gets more knowledgeable, the more they appreciate the sophistication of the Reserva style of wine,” says Momene. “There is more work to be done on the trade end in three areas: improving distribution, maintaining price stability, and education.”
Back in the Spotlight
Has Rioja’s boost been fueled by the growing popularity of Spanish wines across the board? “It’s the other way around,” believes Feigenheimer. “The question should be, ‘How much have Spanish wines benefited from the growing popularity of Rioja?’” Statistics over the last 25 years back him up, says Fabiano, confirming that Rioja has been a real leader in paving the way for other Spanish regions.
If anything, says Jeffirs, the Spanish wine surge has allowed Rioja to once again take center stage in wine universe: “I think it’s brought some focus back to Rioja. There is a lot of excitement about Spanish wines today, but with many, you don’t know what you are getting until you try them. Rioja has the advantage of being able to combine the new and the old—modern winemaking and a millennium of heritage—without losing its special identity with the consumer.”