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Sales of Spanish wines are on the rise in the United States, despite a slowdown in the overall market. The wines have a good quality-to-price ratio, which is vitally important now as consumers pull back on their spending.
These wines are also being made using the newest technologies, moving away from Spain’s image as one of the world’s most traditional winemaking countries. Even in areas like Rioja, long the province of traditional winemaking, modernists who like to use international varieties and change the old ways of making wine have made inroads. Despite this current focus on innovation, what Spain seems to be able to achieve is a happy medium between old and new techniques, which is often quite difficult to achieve in the wine world.
Spain is also moving forward with strong attention to marketing, as numerous events planned for the U.S. market attest. Wines of Spain had its annual tour Oct. 6, while Vinos de Madrid is holding a New York event on Oct. 29 and other Denominación de Origen (Designation of Origin, or DO) areas are making a play for the United States market.
The DO system is similar to the French and Italian wine classification systems, which are separated into table wines and quality wines with specific restrictions on production methods and techniques, as well as aging requirements, among others.
Spanish wines are a natural for the U.S. market, both because of their traditional styles with big, potent wines that use American oak, familiar to the American population, but also because of the links with the ever-growing Hispanic population in the United States.
Consumers and wine educators now have classes available to them to study Spanish wines, thanks to the Spanish Wine Academy of Madrid, which holds its certification programs throughout the year. The last one took place from Oct. 7 through Oct. 9 at the French Culinary Institute. Additionally, Spanish wine bars and restaurants have been experiencing mushroom-like growth throughout major U.S. cities.
Part of the reason for this increasing interest in Spanish wines is because there are many to choose from and much to learn. Spain is the largest producer in the world in terms of land under vine, but comes in third in terms of production, just behind Italy and France, because a large percentage of the wine produced in Castilla La Mancha is distilled for Spanish brandy.
Some of the most popular wines from Spain are the Cavas, or sparkling wines. Most people who drink these wines have had Freixenet sparkler made from Xarel-lo, Parellada, and Macabeo.
Wines from this area, Penedes, are sold all over the world, and Cava is the second most important sparkling wine after French Champagne. Cava is made by the traditional method using secondary fermentation in the bottle. One of the most important innovations in the traditional method of making champagne -- the giro palettes, which help with riddling, originated in Spain.
On the other end of the spectrum are wineries in Rioja such as Lopez de Heredia, known for its traditional winemaking techniques, and bottles that can age 30, 40 or 50 years. Also in Rioja, wine tourism is at its greatest height, thanks to the ultra-modern winery designed by Frank Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Marques de Riscal, one of the oldest wineries in Spain – it was founded in 1858 -- asked Gehry to help with its new 100,000-square-meter project, which incorporates a hotel, a restaurant, a wine therapy spa and the winery itself. These types of old-new contrasts can be found all over Spain.
The Spanish regions are all quite different from one another in terms of their microclimates, soils and varieties. White wines from Rias Baixas using the Albarino grape, and made with stainless steel, are just as much an image of Spain as are the deep, heavy wines made from Mencia in Bierzo or Monastrell in Jumilla.
Just like their Italian counterparts, Spanish winemakers are looking to recoup lost autochthonous varieties as well as to plant international ones. While that may seem like a contradiction in terms, it’s not in Spain, where everyone is doing their own thing, but all are working toward improving quality and hygiene in the vineyards.
In the past, Spanish wines were all about the amount of time they spent in wood barrels. While still important, that’s no longer the only factor taken into consideration. Spain has also shown considerable interest in organic agriculture, as well as making younger, fruity wines that can be consumed immediately and delight an international palate.
While Italian wines are still easier to find, Spain is closing in through such venues as tapas bars, where small plates of appetizers are served to appeal to U.S. consumers looking to spend less money on dinner while still enjoying a night out.