Dunne on Wine

Can Spanish wines raise their profiles with American consumers?

Vince Friend, shown with wife Kathleen, has specialized in importing Spanish wine since 1990.
Vince Friend, shown with wife Kathleen, has specialized in importing Spanish wine since 1990. Mike Dunne

“When’s the last time you ordered a Spanish wine in a restaurant?” asks Vince Friend.

I need a moment. When’s the last time I ate at Aioli Bodega Española or Tapa the World, Sacramento restaurants whose cellars are stocked extensively with Spanish wines?

Not recently, and even if I had I’m not sure I’d have ordered a Spanish wine. That realization got me to thinking why I don’t more often buy Spanish wine.

It isn’t cost, for the country’s wines almost invariably offer high value. And it isn’t because they are much of a gamble for quality, given that the Spanish have been making sensible and reliable wines for centuries.

Maybe it’s because I don’t know a lot about them; thus, I’m uncertain about what I will get as I scan restaurant wine lists and browse wine shop bins.

I sense that I have a fair amount of company in that regard. No country has more land planted to vineyards than Spain, which has nearly 2.5 million acres in wine grapes. Those vineyards are scattered widely about the country and yield a tremendous variety of wines, as indicated by Spain’s officially recognized 69 denominations of origin.

That mind-boggling variety could help explain why Spanish wine sales are relatively flat in the United States. Just where do you start?

In volume, the United States doesn’t even rank among the top five countries to which Spain exports wine. The Germans, French, Italians and even Portuguese drink more Spanish wine than Americans. Overall, exports of Spanish wine worldwide last year were up just 1 percent, reports Miguel Cadenas Pérez of the economic and commercial office of the Spanish Embassy in New York.

Vince Friend knows Spanish wine. He’s specialized in importing it since 1990, when he founded Colección Internacional del Vino (CIV) in Sacramento. Lately, he’s restyled that business into Cordelina Wine Co. of Gold River, still importing Spanish wines but also branching into the distribution of domestic wines. On any given day, his portfolio will amount to between 40 and 50 Spanish wines.

Early on, his imports of Spanish wine grew at around 14 percent annually, but in recent years that growth has tapered off to between 3 percent and 4 percent. He attributes the slowdown to several factors. One has been the uneven rebound of the American economy following the recession. Another has been the Spanish tradition of favoring blended wines over the naming of wines by a single grape variety, the practice that drives wine sales in the U.S. He also feels that some Spanish producers have priced their best wines unrealistically high for American consumers. And then there’s Spanish label nomenclature that has been difficult for Americans to grasp. “They aren’t marketing dreams in the United States,” says Friend of traditional Spanish wine labels.

On the other hand, the Spanish wine trade is updating its approach to the American wine consumer, notes Friend. For one, at least some Spanish producers are tailoring wines to appeal more directly to American tastes.

He’s doing his part by adding to his lineup the brand “Barcelona,” which includes wines made with traditional Spanish grapes such as tempranillo and garnacha, but finished in a style instantly recognizable to Americans – strong fruit-forward flavors, a rich mouthfeel and obvious oak, all presented in a modern package with a brand name that evokes color, history and romance.

That other producers are taking a similar tack – single-variety wines gentle and fruity in flavor, bottled with simpler, cleaner and more colorful labels – became apparent as I joined Friend in tasting through many of the Spanish wines in his portfolio. Individually, these were the most impressive I tasted, some representative of the new wave, others more traditional.

▪ Barcelona Traditional Method Brut Cava ($14): Spain long has offered bargain-priced sparkling wine, and just in time for the year-end holidays comes this decidedly modern take. Made by California winemaker Russell Smith in the Penedes appellation of Spain, and using customary Spanish varieties as macabeo, parellada and pansa blanca, the wine is softly effervescent in the vein of prosecco, appealingly fruity, a bit sweet and traditional in its notes of yeast.

▪ Condes de Albarei Rias Baixas 2015 Albariño ($12): Condes de Albarei is a cooperative involving 362 grower-owners who turn out some 250,000 cases yearly. This snappy albariño is a model of precision and fidelity, delivering a stone-fruit and floral aroma, suggestions of fresh lime on the palate, and the crisp acidity that makes it ideal to pair with seafood.

▪ Barcelona 2014 Cataluna Red Blend ($12): A friendly, unassuming, immediately likable introduction to garnacha and tempranillo, each of which constitutes half of this sweet, juicy and spicy red.

▪ Basagoiti 2012 Crianza Rioja ($20): This is the kind of wine to account for Spain’s standing as a land of high-value red wines. A blend of 80 percent tempranillo, 15 percent graciano and 5 percent garnacha, it is one elegant, layered and lingering Rioja that sets itself apart from the rest of the pack for its imminent accessibility. Its smoky, dusty and dark-fruit flavors are punctuated with a note of mint, while its structure and acidity make it fitting for a wide assortment of tapas.

▪ Tionio 2013 Crianza Ribera del Duero ($32): Few wines suggest place as convincingly as this, though the place isn’t so much vineyard as noble setting, such as the large and echoing dining hall of a Spanish castle. Failing that, the wine’s build, assurance and complexity make it fitting for at least a noble cut of beef, such as prime rib. It’s made solely with the Spanish grape tinta fina, which translates here into a wine that Americans readily can understand for its lush fruit and supple tannins.

▪ Portal del Montsant 2013 Bruberry ($25): From a relatively new denomination of origin (Montsant, recognized in 2001) and a relatively new brand (Portal del Montsant, founded in 2003), “Bruberry” sounds youthful and playful, though the name was inspired by the history of the area that plays host to the winery. The wine, however, is unapologetically modern. Bruberry is at once a firm and angular yet friendly and balanced blend of carignan (48 percent), grenache (43 percent) and syrah (9 percent).

▪ Portal del Montsant 2010 Santbru Carinyenes Velles ($45): From vines ranging between 50 and 70 years old in the Catalonia region of northern Spain, Santbru is an exceptionally alert and multifaceted blend of 85 percent carignan and 15 percent grenache. It opens with vivacious suggestions of raspberries, blackberries and cherries but moves through a field of nettles to the tack shed, where it evokes the leather and metal of a finely equipped Spanish equestrian. It’s a husky wine, with firm tannins that call for it to be set aside for a few years, but if you don’t want to wait, serve it with a well-marbled slab of beef.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.