Beverage Media_Feb2012

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Beverage Media_Feb2012
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New Calling Card
Reservas emerge as fastest-growing wines from Spain’s most famous region
By Kristen Bieler
R
afael 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;
Rioja’s Reservas
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.”
All photographs courtesy of Vibrant Rioja / Wines of Rioja
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 econ-
The marriage of tradition and innovation is
quintessentially captured at Marqués de Riscal’s
Ciudad del Vino—“city of wine”—completed
in 2006. The Frank Gehry-designed complex
includes a hotel, wine therapy spa, restaurant and
conference center. Inset: Tempranillo, the grape
variety that anchors Rioja.
Rioja’s Reservas
were up 44%
in 2011;
Gran Reservas
were up 90%
omy, 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.”
One-of-a-Kind Value
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.”
Rioja’s Reservas
Rioja 101
■ Located in northern Spain, on both
sides of the River Ebro, Rioja is
arguably Spain’s most established
wine region, having been demarcated
as far back as 1787, regulated in 1926,
and granted status as Spain’s first
and only Denominación de Origen
Calificada in 1991.
■ The three main subregions are Rioja
Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja.
Annual regional production currently
stands at 280 to 300 million liters, of
which 90% is red.
■ Rioja wines are typically aged in
225-litre oak casks made of American
oak, with periodic rackings, followed
by further bottle aging. New oak is
traditionally not a priority; rather, aging
in cask is intended to allow wines to
mature and tannins to integrate.
■ The different Rioja wine categories are
based on minimum aging periods,
which can vary between one and three
years in barrel and between six months
and six years in the bottle, depending
on whether the wine is to be a Crianza,
a Reserva or a Gran Reserva.
■ While Rioja reds are ready to enjoy
upon release, they tend to plateau and
can be held for many years as well.
■ Rioja is based primarily on Tempranillo
(which grows widely across Spain), often
with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo.
■ Generous in fruit (strawberry), with hints
of spice and vanilla, Rioja at all price
points is particularly food-friendly, with
structure (tannin and acidity) that helps
it pair especially well with bold foods.
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 GonzalezGordon. “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.
Rioja’s Reservas
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.
Rioja Reserva selections
Muriel Reserva 2005
(Quintessential, $20)
Crafted from 40-year old-plus
vines, this 100% Tempranillo
was aged 24 months in French
and American oak; it’s round,
smooth and velvety with equal
parts fruit, spice and vanilla
encased in ultra-fine tannins.
All photographs courtesy of Vibrant Rioja / Wines of Rioja
Dinastia Vivanco
Reserva 2005
(Opici Wines, $25)
Vivanco’s stand-out Reserva
is decidedly more modern in
style. Sourced from old vines
in high-altitude vineyards in
the Rioja Alta region, it spends
24 months in oak (50% new
French) and 24 more in bottle.
Dark, rich, fruit-forward and
smooth, it is beautifully balanced and perfect to drink now.
Ramón Bilbao
Reserva 2006
(W.J. Deutsch & Sons, $17)
Ripe blackberry and plum
flavors are balanced by mature
notes of leather and tobacco
in this layered Rioja Alta wine,
which spent 20 months in American oak followed by 20 months
of bottle aging. The addition
of 10% Mazuelo and Graciano
adds peppery spice notes.
Campo Viejo
Reserva 2006
(Pernod Ricard USA, $14)
On the fresher, fruitier spectrum
of Reservas, this ruby red wine
features bright, tasty cherry
flavors underscored by notes of
clove and vanilla.
Ostatu Reserva 2006
(De Maison Selections, $33)
Sourced from the estate’s
oldest vines (50 years plus),
this full-bodied 100% Temranillo spends some time in
new French oak and features
pronounced ripe fruit laced with
hints of anise and soft tannins
on the medium-long finish.
Marques de Riscal
Reserva 2006
(Shaw-Ross International, $18)
Founded in 1858, Riscal leans
more traditional in style with
their Reserva; it spent 24
months in American oak and
shows terrific elegance to its
plush red fruit flavors, subtle
oak notes and smooth tannins.
Look also for Riscal’s delicious
2001 Gran Reserva which is a
favorite of critics ($45).
Rioja Bordon
Reserva 2006
(Vision Wine & Spirits, $14)
Bordon’s history goes back 100
years and their wines express
a nice middle ground between
modern and traditional. Fermented and aged for 18 months in
new American oak, this deeplycolored, refined red shows notes
of fruit, earth and leather.
Remelluri Reserva 2006
(De Maison Selections, $31)
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.” ■
Founded by monks in the
14th century, Remelluri
honors the region’s heritage
by cultivating low-yielding old
vines, hand-picking all fruit
and using natural yeasts and
American oak. Refined flavors
of spice, chocolate and
stewed fruit are supported by
polished tannins.
Beronia Reserva 2007
(San Francisco Wine
Exchange, $18)
An exceptionally balanced
wine with a perfect marriage
between maturity and fresh
fruit—and a lot of wine for the
price. Less overt oak notes
make it ideal with food or own
its own. Founded in the 1970s
the Gonzales-Byass family
(makers of Tio Pepe Sherry)
purchased the estate in 1982.
Castillo Labastida
Reserva 2004
(Winebow, $20)
The talented Manuel Ruiz crafts
this vanilla- and raspberryscented 100% Tempranillo.
Stainless steal fermentation and
some French oak result in a
delicious Reserva with hints of
spice and flowers on the palate.
Rioja Antaño
Reserva 2005
(CIV, $12)
A real steal for a Reserva,
this low-priced red is a blend
of blend of 80% Tempranillo
with bits of Graciano, Mazuelo
and Garnacha; it spends 12
months in American oak and
displays the classic Rioja mix
of crushed herbs, plums, dried
cherry and leather.
Conde de Valdemar
Reserva 2005
(CIV, $20)
A rich, full-bodied Reserva
produced by one of the
region’s forward-thinking pioneers. It’s packed with spicy
cherry and vanilla flavors all
held up by bright acidity. Also
look for their stunning Gran
Reserva ($40), which spends
25 months in French and
American oak and showcases
silky fruit flavors with hints of
nuts and spice.
La Rioja Alta Viña
Alberdi Reserva 2005
(Michael Skurnik Wines, $20)
Made by one of the most
respected and significant
producers in Rioja (La Rioja
Alta has about 6½ million
bottles stored at any one time
in its cellars), this possesses
the complexity of a wine twice
its price. Dense and pure,
it offers seductive layers of
spicy vanilla, balsamic and
wild berries.
La Rioja Alta Viña
Ardanza Reserva 2001
(Michael Skurnik Wines, $29)
The winery’s top-tier Reserva
spends three years in American oak and six in bottle yet
remains remarkably bright and
balanced. Unlike the Alberdi,
it has 20% Garnacha in the
blend, and reveals silky flavors
of orange peel, leather, spice
and earth.

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