The revolution of Spain’s fine wine sector

Major investments have revolutionised Spain’s fine wine sector, and many more collectors are now engaging in blue-chip Spanish wines, Jamie Lawrence discovers

Words by James Lawrence

“Forty years ago Spain had just Sherry and Rioja to boast about, while the luxury market was confined to my estate,” Vega Sicilia’s managing director Pablo Alvarez is fond of saying. “I used to lament the lack of Spanish fine wine.”

But times are changing – to the point that the concept of a “blue-chip Spanish wine” is no longer an oxymoron.

Real investment from pioneers such as Alvaro Palacios and Peter Sisseck – the founder of Pingus – has revolutionised Spain’s fine wine sector. Long gone is Rioja’s virtual monopoly – wines from Bierzo, Priorat and the harsh plains of Castilla y Leon are now commanding extraordinary high prices in the marketplace. There is no shortage of excitement about 21st century Spanish winemaking.

“Three years ago I noticed an important cultural shift in the level of engagement with blue-chip Spanish wines,” Joe Fattorini, head of London sales at Fields Morris & Verdin says. “The widespread popularity of Spanish gastronomy has brought younger customers into the fold – new collectors who have had their interest piqued by the excitement surrounding top Spanish chefs.”

Times are changing. The concept of a “blue-chip Spanish wine” is no longer an oxymoron

Today, a lover of Spanish wine visiting London might choose a restaurant like Lurra in Marylebone. This Basque establishment’s expertly-curated list, paying homage to the wines of Vega Sicilia and Alvaro Palacios, the godfather of Spain’s contemporary luxury movement, reads like a Who’s Who of Spanish fine wine.

Born in Rioja, Palacios worked in Priorat with his contemporaries René Barbier and Daphne Glorian, who arrived in the 1980s saw the potential of the region’s ancient Garnacha vineyards for fine wine production. Palacio’s L’Ermita is now one of Spain’s most expensive wines. It’s a powerful expression of the grape; a single vineyard that manages to stand out even in the midst of Priorat’s remarkable terroir. Daphne Glorian’s Clos Erasmus fetches a lower price, but is no less impressive and age-worthy.

The Vega Sicilia winery in Spain
The Vega Sicilia winery in Spain
The Vega Sicilia winery

Yet this is only the beginning. “In recent years, we have seen the fine wine market diversify in terms of the quantity of different wines trading,” says Robbie Stevens, an account manager at the fine-wine trading platform Liv-Ex. “This is a trend that has grown year on year, and Spanish wines have benefited from this.”

The global success – and indeed high price – of La Faraona is a example of this cultural shift. Descendientes de J. Palacios was founded in 1998 in Bierzo in north-west Spain by Alvaro Palacios and his nephew Ricardo Perez Palacios. They achieved rapid critical acclaim, particularly with the signature ‘prestige cuvee’  La Faraona.  Based on Mencia from vines that are 70 years old and more, the wine has been a hit with collectors, despite the average retail price of £800 and Bierzo’s relative obscurity. “We sell each vintage of La Faraona instantly,” says Fattorini. “There simply isn’t enough wine to meet demand.”

La Faraona Spanish wine
La Faraona

While £800 for a bottle of wine is expensive by any standards, it’s mere small change compared to the world’s most expensive wine, the €25,000 (£19,450) AurumRed Gold, a Tempranillo produced in minute quantities in La Mancha, an appellation with no association whatsoever with fine wine. Those needing to justify parting with that kind of money can reassure themselves that owner Hilario Garcia’s use of ozone therapy and pyramidal energy on his vines is unique, if not as a farming method, then certainly as a way of persuading people to spend – on a bottle of wine – a  sum that for many would be a generous annual wage.

Meanwhile, the Eguren Family has given us Teso La Monja, Toro’s most expensive wine, with an average price of £900. Rioja producers who were lured to the arid, harsh environment of Toro in 1998, the Egurens founded Numanthia-Termes that year, subsequently creating Teso La Monja in 2007 after selling Numanthia to luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. The average age of the estate’s Tempranillo vines is 50, but some are ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines that are around 130 years old. The estate’s north-facing loam and gravel soils give impressive concentration, structure and complexity to the wine.

Spain’s successes are not limited to red wines. Alvaro Palacios’s brother Rafael produces a fine range of white wines at his estate in Valdeorras, Galicia. His minute attention to detail and passion for Spain’s signature fine white grape, Godello, through his cuvées As Sortes and Louro do Bolo, has helped to transform the global perception of Spanish whites.

“Godello led me to Valdeorras, and once here, I found this unique place in the Bibei Valley in O Bolo. A landscape that conveys the winegrowing history of Galicia, a landscape of mountains and light – an exceptional terroir for white wine,” says Rafael Palacios.

Spanish winemaker Rafael Palacios
Rafael Palacios
Vega vineyards in Spain
Vega vineyards

At Vega Sicilia, Alvarez agrees white wine’s moment has come. “In I994 we planted Chardonnay, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. We were dissatisfied with the results and pulled up the vines in 2009,” he says.  They planted new clones of Chardonnay and Marsanne in 2015. “I will not rest until we produce a world-class white – something that is equal to top white Burgundy,” the owner of one of Spain’s greatest estates vows.

While domestic ambitions have given collectors an unprecedented amount of choice in the blue-chip sector, Spain has also attracted foreign investment; Bordeaux tycoon Bernard Magrez purchased vineyards in the region of Jumilla in 2014, in addition to his existing projects in Toro and Priorat. Whether this investment is capable of transforming a buoyant (if still niche segment into a wider industry of course) remains to be seen, but collectors will undoubtedly keep a watchful eye over Spain’s evolution in the years to come.

Interested in Spanish wine? Take a look at our feature on how Spanish winery Familia Torres is tackling climate change in the wine industry, or Natasha Hughes MW’s report on how Sherry is having its moment in the sun.