Ribera re-thinks its approach

James Lawrence said that while the Ribera del Duero region has some outstanding wineries, it needs to reconsider its export strategy.

Ribera del Duero/Image by Helena Espinosa from Pixabay
Ribera del Duero/Image by Helena Espinosa from Pixabay

When the Ribera del Duero region was awarded its own DO (appellation) in 1982, it had just 14 wineries. Today, approximately 300 firms are producing concentrated reds of intense colour and flavour, almost exclusively from Tempranillo. The region’s most famous wines – Vega Sicilia and Pingus – are among the most expensive and prestigious wines of modern Spain.

This all suggests that Ribera del Duero has ridden a wave of unqualified success. Its vineyards are found on both sides of the river Duero, blanketing a broad valley which stretches from regional capital Valladolid upstream to Aranda del Duero. A combination of extremely varied soils and high diurnal temperature variation has attracted an eclectic range of high-spending investors; Vega Sicilia’s owner Pablo Alvarez is no less ambitious, having planted white grapes to achieve his goal of producing “Spain’s first Montrachet.” If critics were to solely judge a region’s health on the basis of recent dynamism, then Ribera del Duero has good prospects.

However, the picture becomes more nuanced when the subject of export success comes into focus. 

Too much domestic focus

Although brands like Pingus and Vega Sicilia enjoy a robust presence in international markets, the vast majority of Ribera’s output – over 90% according to the Consejo Regulador – is consumed domestically. The region’s export-focused wineries have achieved some traction in Switzerland, Germany, the US and Denmark, although the Asian markets remain elusive. 

“Ribera del Duero did not export much wine until 2010, since the Spanish on-trade accounted for the majority of demand,” explained Rafael del Rey, director general at the Spanish Wine Market observatory. “The presence of Ribera wines in international markets has increased, although recent higher tariffs imposed by the Trump administration has reduced Ribera’s competitiveness.” Del Rey added that the decline of the Chinese and Mexican markets is a cause for concern, but that increases in distribution across some European markets is encouraging. 

The crucial caveat, though, is that these gains are coming off a relatively small base. This is despite more than 20 years of exponential growth within the region, and major promotional campaigns spearheaded by the DO. The Consejo now has to contend with the pandemic’s devastating impact on the Spanish economy, which has left many of the region’s wineries exposed.

“There is no doubt that many of the wineries which lack distribution in export markets are really going to struggle,” said Peter Sisseck, owner of iconic brand Pingus. “The supermarkets cannot account for the loss of demand in the on-trade and the domestic demand for premium styles has plummeted.” He is, however, optimistic about direct-to-consumer channels, which some younger winemakers have attempted to utilise to offset their losses. 

Ribera del Duero is no stranger to adversity. The collapse of the Spanish economy in 2008 had a parlous effect on the hospitality industry, the traditional mainstay of alcohol sales across Spain. This forced Spanish wineries to look outwards, as exports became the best way of staying profitable. The pendulum has partially shifted back to the hospitality sector in recent years, largely fuelled by tourism. Nevertheless, the memory of the financial crash has not yet faded, and the lessons about diversifying beyond domestic demand should have been learned.

The disruption caused by Covid-19 is a painful reminder that Ribera del Duero still lives under Rioja’s shadow – at least in the global marketplace. Exports of the latter have grown exponentially to the UK market under pandemic conditions. “I do struggle to remember the last time anybody mentioned the Ribera region, let alone said anything new or exciting about it,” admits San Francisco-based sommelier Matt Cirne.“Even producers like Pesquera  are still a hand-sell in the restaurant, when compared to Rioja.”

Of course, Rioja has had longer to perfect its act. The DO was created in the 1920s and the region is far larger – approximately 66,000 hectares under vine, compared to 22,000. But after a decade of marketing campaigns designed to further Ribera’s global renown, progress has arguably been lacklustre. The question is why?

“Ribera del Duero was always going to face an uphill struggle,” said the IWSR’s research director Daniel Mettyear. “The region has been increasing its efforts in export markets, but it is a hard sell when most key importers are used to selling Rioja at far lower prices. In addition, Ribera suffered terribly from the disastrously short harvest of 2017, when volumes plummeted – it has not fully recovered from this major disruptor.”

Price not quality

Sisseck has a very different perspective. “As I always say, you reap what you sow – the appellation has expanded exponentially since its creation in the 1980s, and some producers are focusing on price rather than quality. This has arguably done the region’s image no favours,” he said. “Moreover, the Consejo could have worked harder to promote our wines abroad.”

He pointed out that over 60% of the region’s output is ‘Joven Roble ‘styles; young wines that are released the year after harvest, typically priced below €8 ($9.46). These were predominately sold in the Spanish on-trade, now struggling to survive.

“This is not the right direction for the region to be following, at least in my view,” said Sissek. “But I am encouraged by a growing firmament of younger winemakers who are producing excellent wines and not compromising on quality, or price.”

It’s also true the region does not lack innovation. Winemakers such as Isaac Fernández Montaña of Bodegas Arrocal and Pablo Rubio of Alonso del Yerro are driving ever-increasing improvements in wine quality. Fernández Montaña is also involved in the Neo project, a brand founded by three young entrepreneurs which makes use of old Tempranillo vineyards to produce modern, yet balanced and affordable wines of high quality. “The project really showcases exactly what the region can do – both finesse and power are possible here,” said Fernández Montaña.

Nevertheless, Sisseck worries that this may not be enough to cut through the noise of affordable and widely distributed cheaper styles. “The point about Pingus, and indeed the DO, is that we’re still in the brand building stages,” explained Sisseck. “The choices we make over the next decade will be vitally important to the region’s future. We need to make sure they are the right ones.” 

The appellation also operates in an increasingly competitive arena; Toro, Navarra, new wave Rioja, Penedes and Bierzo all vie for consumer attention, often with concentrated wines of a similar ilk. More than ever, the region needs a strong differentiation factor. 

According to several winemakers, the Consejo Regulador is currently debating whether to emulate Rioja’s model, whereby producers could market their wines under a stratified banner of regional, village and single-vineyard wines. Proponents of the single-vineyard initiative like Telmo Rodriguez argue that it creates added value in the eyes of consumers while helping artisan growers differentiate themselves from the volume-led producers. 

“Highlighting diversity of terroir can only be to everyone’s benefit – having Grand Cru designations has not stopped consumers buying affordable, lower-end Burgundy. In fact, it highlights the value of such wines,” said Sisseck.

Codorniu’s CEO Sergio Fuster said, “It would be interesting to devise a classification of regions or subzones to value the wealth and variety that we have in Ribera del Duero.”

Other voices

But the old Spanish proverb of “three Spaniards, four opinions” applies to Ribera del Duero’s future as much as anything else. Like Rioja, the tradition of buying in grapes and blending from across the region is strong; even Vega-Sicilia, with over 200 ha of vineyards, contracts with growers. The Consejo faces a difficult task: respond to the demands of winemakers like Rodriguez, while taking into account the priorities of brands that want to maintain the status quo.

“The Ribera del Duero appellation still has a long way to go before it is globally recognised as a fine wine region,” said Vega Sicilia owner Pablo Alvarez. “We want to run before we walk; the region grew quickly and in a disorderly way after the DO was founded in the 1980s and it’s too soon to talk about zoning and terroir classification.” He said the region’s top priority should be making better wines and making them better known. 

London-based wine buyer Peter Mitchell MW also believes that terroir references won’t yield massive rewards for Ribera any time soon. “There is a sizeable minority of high-end consumers who are very engaged with the concept of terroir and who might begin to buy into these single-vineyard wines,” he said, “but in my experience, the majority just want a lovely bottle of wine and in the case of quite a few, a bottle that reflects their self-image when they serve it to guests.” Mitchell also believes that Ribera lacks a strong identity and that it would be better off letting the world know that its wines offer both freshness and power. “Ribera should be able to capitalise on this. Of all the Spanish regions outside of Rioja, I think it is best placed to escape its shadow.”

There is also a growing consensus that the opportunity to build a stronger export base was not fully taken after the 2008 financial crisis. Covid-19 may drive a renewed focus on exports, particularly as the domestic market is once again in serious trouble. It certainly needs to happen, for the sake of the region’s future prosperity. 

James Lawrence


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