Spain Equals Rioja – so ran the strapline on the website of a well-known wine importer a couple of years ago. The statement is obviously nonsense – but it accurately reflects the opinion of a considerable chunk of the world’s wine drinkers.
The bald truth is that, in sales terms, Rioja efficiently eclipses the rest of Spain both domestically and internationally. In the Spanish on-trade, eight out of 10 bottles of wine opened are from Rioja. The wine, whether entry-level Joven, Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva, is exported to more than 120 countries worldwide.
“Our only competition is Rioja,” says Albert Martinez of Bodegas Muriel. “All the other regions are very small in comparison.”
Rioja is one of the world’s most successful wine brands precisely because its offering is so simple. For the average consumer of any of the 400m bottles Rioja produces annually, the difference between the three sub-regions – Rioja Alavesa, Alta and Baja – let alone the names of the different villages, is irrelevant.
To all intents and purposes there is one grape that matters – Tempranillo – and three quality levels – Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The classification is based entirely on the length of time the wine spends in barrel and bottle, with Gran Reserva the top tier, the DO specifying the wines must spend at least two years in barrel and three in bottle before release.
While sales of white Rioja are very much on the increase (14.9m litres were sold last year, an increase of more than 13%), they are a fraction of sales of red wines.
Rioja has never had it so good. Sales grew by 5m bottles in 2014, making a record total of 281m litres. One third (37.6%) of sales are exports, the vast majority of them to the UK, Germany, the US and Switzerland (which between them lap up 70% of all exports). New markets such as Russia and Mexico are growing apace – sales to the latter increased more than 27% last year, making it the eighth biggest Rioja importer.
The UK remains the historic bedrock of Rioja exports (the Spanish and the British have always got on – one producer tells Drinks International: “We have more in common with the British than with the Italians”).
In 2014 we drank 36.2m litres (about 50m bottles) of Rioja, double Germany’s consumption (18.8m litres), and more than three times that of the US (10.3m litres). Rioja outperforms the rest of Spain – it grew 9.9% last year, compared with a drop of 6.4% in the wider Spanish category.
The reasons for the UK success – beyond Britain’s historic affection for Spain – are not hard to fathom. Rioja offers consistency and value for money. In March this year the editor of Decanter magazine, John Stimpfig, used his editor’s letter to heap praise on the region. Answering the question: “If you could drink only one red wine, what would you choose?” he said: “There is no red wine region anywhere in the world that overdelivers on value, complexity and pleasure quite like Rioja.”