Rioja is the rock star of the UK wine trade. Everyone knows its name, everyone rates its quality and it’s a chart-topper in terms of consumer awareness, better known than Marlborough in New Zealand and Barossa in Australia, and sitting alongside Côtes du Rhône and Chianti in the top five best-known wine regions, according to Wine Intelligence.
But if Rioja is a rock star, crianza must be its bass guitarist. While the frontman (sin crianza), lead guitarist (reserva) and even the drummer (gran reserva) may have well-known names, the bassist tends to fade into the background.
Even the world’s most famous bass guitarist, Sir Paul McCartney, called it the “loser role” in a band: “It’s usually the fat guy who stands at the back. So I was a bit unhappy when I got that job. I wanted to be up front with the guitar.”
The UK is Rioja’s largest export market, accounting for 34% of the total, and sales are growing by nearly 10% by value and 6% by volume, according to generic body Wines From Rioja.
But while 37% of Rioja’s output is crianza, it makes up just 16% of exports to the UK.
Ricardo Aguiriano, marketing director at the Consejo Regulador de Rioja, says: “Over the past year, the crianza category has ceded some of its share of the total UK market to the broader sin crianza category, which encompasses a range of styles, from joven through to new wave modern styles, as well as aged wines which don’t fit with the normal ageing criteria.” But exports of crianza still grew by 22%, he notes.
“A large part of the UK marketing strategy is focused on educating trade and consumers on the large variety of styles coming from the region, highlighting the food-matching qualities and versatility of each category,” he adds.
“When it comes to communicating with consumers about Rioja, the quality ladder is key. Rioja is able to deliver exceptional, ready-to-drink aged wines at good value price points, something very few other regions can compete with.”
Richard Cochrane, managing director of Félix Solís Avantis UK, is concerned that UK consumers’ continuing uncertainty about crianza could end up inflating prices, which are already on the increase.
He says: “Crianza listings, although growing, remain few. By contrast the reserva segment is better understood and recognised by consumers to represent a quality step up into the aged arena.
“This is where the risk arises. The UK consumes one in every four bottles of Rioja reserva produced and only 5% of crianza. If demand continues to grow for reserva then supply and demand will fall further out of balance with the associated risk of price inflation.”
Marc Patch, managing director of Marqués del Atrio supplier GM Drinks, has found that even with big discounts, consumers aren’t buying into crianza.
“We worked with some online companies and did some very sharp promotions on crianza, at 20p per bottle more than the entry- level tinto joven. Sales of tinto outgrew the crianza and we even sold more reserva at a higher price.
“For a price difference of 20p, the difference between what you get in value from a joven and a crianza is massive.
“There is a future for crianza. It is something that will grow over the years and move on, but a lot of hard work is needed to get consumers to understand what it is and where it sits in the market.”
For Bodegas Tobía, imported by Barwell & Jones, crianza has grown to become the top- selling wine in the UK market, after the winery focused on creating a particularly high quality crianza.
Export manager José Manuel Gallego Salguero says: “There are a lot of different types of crianza, and although the Consejo Regulador de Rioja has finally graded all crianza with an official label, not all wines are the same, or of the same quality. The challenge for restaurants and shops is ensuring they are offering their customers excellent quality crianza from the wide variety in the market today.
“The main problem for Rioja wine is that the classifications only regulate ageing time in bottle and barrel, not the quality of the wine, and this is why it is so difficult to differentiate ourselves from other wines in the market.
“For the consumer, all the wines are crianza, but they are not all equal. Each wine producer can communicate their uniqueness through their labelling.”
Alison Easton, head of marketing at González Byass, agrees: “The term crianza isn’t one that is well understood by British consumers. They enjoy the light, fruity style of the wine and sometimes a lower price point, but we believe they are more reassured by label cues such as the grape variety and, for this reason, we have added Tempranillo on to the Beronia crianza label.”
So how would suppliers sell crianza? Most believe in a combination of education through retailers, especially independents, and pushing the food angle as consumers continue to be interested in Spanish gastronomy.
Carlos Delage, export area manager for CVNE, says: “I would present the crianza category as the ideal wine for tapas, the wine that can be drunk with plenty of different types of food.”
It’s time for crianza to take centre stage, leave behind its faceless bassist persona and become a Paul McCartney.