Spanish Wine on the High Street

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Spanish wines have been on the UK shopping lists for some years, so you might expect that a tasting of 60 Spanish wines, selected by the buyers from the UK’s 10 main supermarket and high street retailers, would be a good indication of the state of the category. Well, maybe.

First, a statistic. Of the 60 wines at the tasting, there were 23 from Rioja. That’s almost 40%. Interestingly, 10% came from a small region called Campo de Borja, but more on that later.
First, the highlights:

Asda: not very much I’m afraid. The ‘benchmark’ Viña Sol was good as always, but we already know that. The 2009 Mitico Old Vines Garnacha was interesting, if a little alcoholic.

Coop: The Sauvignon Blanc/ Verdejo blend from Rueda, the Casa de Sol, was decent at £5.29, and they too stock a decent, known, Torres wine, the Gran Sangre de Toro – spicy, not too heavy and a decent drop at £7.99

Majestic: I was a bit disappointed here. Majestic have a broad Spanish range, but I found some of these rather uninspiring. Chief among which were the 2008 El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa Old Vines Garnacha. I’ve had previous vintages and really liked it, but I found this leafy and acidic without the ‘old vines’ concentration it promised (and had before). 

So too the 1982 Bodegas Muriel Rioja Gran Reserva. Hats off to them for showing such an old wine. I think it was Hugh Johnson who said: “There are no good wines, there are only good bottles” (or words to that effect). At this age, tiny differences in bottles and how they aged will be very marked. We tasted two bottles. One was simply past it, lots of volatile acidity and no fruit, the other more mushroomy and earthy and a hint of fruit – not unpleasant, but the kind of character few consumers are actually looking for. Worth it for the experience, but a bit of a risk.

Morrisons: Here they obviously decided that their Spanish wine drinkers like ‘classic’ styles. The Riojas had a bit of that dusty tannin, slightly musty old oak and dark fruit character of old. Generally not that encouraging, though the youthful 2009 Caño Verdejo (white) was fresh and crisp, though a touch expensive.

Marks & Spencer: One of the stars of the tasting … was a white wine. The 2009 Val do Salnes Albariño was not cheap at £10.99, but I really liked the lemon curd, honey and grapefruit character which lasted for ages. I admit I know the family who make this wine, so call me biased, but I was not alone in picking out that wine for distinction.

The 2005 Campo Aldea Graciano seemed promising, but I must admit that despite having a decent aged character for such a young wine, I found it a little unbalanced (too much tannin & acidity and lots of alcohol) which masked the purple fruit which was only apparent on the finish. Maybe worth trying in a few more years?

Oddbins: I missed their main tasting, so was hoping to see the results of the rebuilding of this business. Can’t say I picked out much from here. Many wines were decent, but unexciting, including wines like the Burgans Albariño I have liked in the past  (shame they didn’t have their Mencia I’ve been meaning to try for ages). The stand out was probably the 2009 Carchelo from Jumilla – a big, butch wine with rich, jammy flavours that tastes great, but packs a bit of an alcoholic punch.

Sainsburys: The 2009 Luis Cañas Barrel Fermented (White) Rioja seemed to be popular. I found the yeasty-ness a little over the top (but then I really don’t like cheese and it reminded me of a cheesy character). Maybe it will settle down and it is worth trying.

Once again, one of the classics was on show – the Marques de Riscal 2005, with its refined and mature American oak character (with a hint of soapiness to me – what’s that from?), but still spicy, ripe fruit and simply elegant

Spar: I kicked off the tasting with the only Cava on show (surprisingly) which was the Spar Donacella Cava Brut. This is simple, straightforward sparkling wine, for sale at £6.79, and as such it still has that rubbery character I get from cheaper Cavas, but it did have a hint of sweetness on the finish to freshen the palate. At that price it’ll probably do reasonably well.

However, it also included the 2009 Viña Albali Airen – a real stinker (on the nose), which may well best be avoided – or maybe our bottle was faulty? 

Tesco: Not a bad range on show actually. The best wine was probably the 2004 Baron de Ley 7 Viñas Reserva – with a salad-sounding smell of balsamic, tomato leaf, white pepper and lots of fruit, but then it was £16.14 (if you bought 6 bottles) so it deserved to have this much character.

More popularly, it had a decent “Tesco Finest” Old Vines Garnacha from Campo de Borja for only £4.98 (if buying 6) which had an unusual “all spice” nose but was quite drinkable.

Waitrose: Similarly, Waitrose also had a Rioja / Campo de Borja pair worth trying. The Gran Lopez Tinto (£4.79) had quite a floral character, with a hint of boiled cherry sweetie too, which might be a touch alcoholic, but was quite good. The Rioja was another Baron de Ley, the Club Privado 2006, which was quite ‘classic’ in style, more focused on the ageing characters rather than fruit flavours, but nonetheless a decent wine for £8.29

So, Rioja (at the top) and Campo de Borja (at the VERY low end of the price spectrum) do well, and maybe the other regions, except for Rias Baixas and its Albariños, not exciting the buyers enough to show them. Hopefully the next vintage will encourage them more.

How have you found the Spanish wines you have tried recently? Anything exciting on the high street, or do we need to head to the independents and mail-order merchants to find retailers doing something more exciting?

  • Andrew

    Picked up a really stunning bottle of Tomàs Cusiné Auzells, 2008, Costers del Segre, Spain £14.49 from Oddbins for the last ARSE tasting (http://www.spittoon.biz/arse_2_the_wines.html) a mammoth number of grapes in the blend but I loved it. Have a feeling it was only a ‘parcel’ rather than a regular listing but very interesting indeed.

  • Andrew

    Picked up a really stunning bottle of Tomàs Cusiné Auzells, 2008, Costers del Segre, Spain £14.49 from Oddbins for the last ARSE tasting (http://www.spittoon.biz/arse_2_the_wines.html) a mammoth number of grapes in the blend but I loved it. Have a feeling it was only a ‘parcel’ rather than a regular listing but very interesting indeed.

  • Robert McIntosh

    So good, he said it twice ;)That’s the sort of thing I would have loved to see in the tasting, but maybe there was a reason. Shame I missed your ARSE again – next time, I hope!

  • Christina Pickard

    Some good recommendations Robert–I’m always getting asked to recommend high st wines and Spain is not my strength, so I’ll keep these in mind!

  • Robert Giorgione

    Interesting article Rob, even if a little disappointing and uninspiring. How does one qualify ‘benchmark’? With regards to your recommendation of Torres Vina Sol, does this point refer to quality or ubiquity?www.robertgiorgione.com

  • Robert McIntosh

    @robert – “benchmark” is a combination of both quality & ubiquity. By being of consistent quality and having been tasted by lots of people, you can say “better/worse than x” – it gives you a known starting point for comparing quality, value, etc. Viña Sol has been consistent for years, and (particularly when on offer, as retail £ has risen a fair amount over the years) represents pretty amazing value for a quaffing wine, and that is why Torres has been so successful.

  • John Maher

    Sounds like a parallel Spanish universe, where the vitality & diversity that I find in Spain doesn’t impinge on UK high st. Nothing from Jumilla or Bierzo or Toro, etc., etc? Maybe I get overexcited with these, and the judicious supermarket buyers reject them. I too was wowed by the Val do Salnés albariño last week, at an excellent tasting of albariños from 16 Rias Baixas bodegas that really impressed. I would say that UK stores generally have a far better and wider range of sherries than can generally be found in Spain outside Andalusia. I live in hope that the same will happen to wines from the rest of the peninsula.

  • Robert McIntosh

    @John, there were a few wines from those regions (like the Carchelo at Oddbins), but they didn’t grab me, so maybe not the best examples. Supermarkets do list some, but either they didn’t trust them to the tasting OR the range they stock is at the lower price point and less interesting (most likely). As for sherry, I think it was a separate category for this tasting, though you are right that sherry quality is increasing – though still not really selling.Glad to hear you liked the Val do Salnes too

  • Ben Hodgkinson

    I’m surprised there wasn’t more variety on offer. We do well as an independent with Rioja (obviously), but also sell loads of Ribera, Priorat, Costers del Segre, Jumilla, Rias Biaxas, etc. The variety in Spanish wines is one of its biggest pluses for me!

  • Robert McIntosh

    @Ben there was greater variety, and maybe I should have published the full breakdown. It just struck me that Rioja was well represented, and that Campo de Borja was OVERrepresented at the lower end “amongst wines that I thought worth discussing”. What I lament is that the wines from other regions that were there, were not really as worthy of mention compared to the variety and quality that is out there – and obviously found at your place 😉

  • Henry Jeffreys

    Hullo, we met at the Spain tasting. Oddly enough I was in a Morrisons a few weeks later and they had an own label Rioja Reserva 05 made by Cosme Palacios. It was superb especially at £7.49 down from £12.49. I wonder why they didn’t show it at the tasting. I cannot find anything about it on their website and worry that I may have dreamt the whole thing. Also thought the Cosme Palacio 06 from Sainsburys was good. Apart from that, I agree with your selection.Henry