Reading an Old World wine label elegantly can be a challenge for many Britons, particularly those who can’t boast a language GCSE on their CVs. But despite the fact that “Rioja” clearly has the potential to be pronounced incorrectly, it’s a word and a wine-producing region of Spain that UK consumers have confidently embraced in recent years.

So is our love for these wines still strong and, more importantly, are we ready to become more sophisticated in our appreciation of Rioja?

Recent data shows this is already the case. Not only are UK consumers buying more wines from Rioja but it’s the premium wines – as well as those not traditionally linked to the region – that are helping to drive sales.

Rioja volume sales have grown 2.8% in the past 12 months, compared to the overall UK wine market (down 1.4%) and the Spanish wine category, which is up just 0.9%, according to Nielsen data (year to December 5, 2015).

“Rioja’s position as Spain’s flagship region is stronger than ever,” says Ricardo Aguiriano, global marketing & communication director of the region’s regulatory body, Consejo Regulador Denominación de Origen Rioja. “Rioja represents 35% of Spanish volume and 45% of Spanish wine’s value, up 3% and 5% year on year respectively.”

Driving Rioja’s reputation has been a key focus of the organisation in recent years, he adds, and this has helped grow interest in the higher price points and more premium wines.

“The average bottle of Rioja currently sells at £6.53, which is 30% higher than the Spanish average and 21% higher than the UK average, outpacing the category and the wider market.”

And Rioja specialists in the UK confirm that interest is still strong.

Pete Fairclough, brand manager at Kingsland Drinks, says increasing Rioja appreciation among UK consumers, as well as strong retailer promotions, is helping its wines in the UK. “Specifically we have seen increasing demand for aged wines, such as crianza, reserva and gran reserva,” he says. “We have seen this reflected in the sales of our Baron de Ley range, especially the reserva and gran reserva.”

Similarly, the Haciendas Company says its gran reserva wines are selling particularly well. “Our gran reserva Riojas’ sales have tripled in one year,” says Alejandra Castro, trading marketing manager for the UK & Ireland.

And Kirsty Loftus, UK & Ireland area manager for Bodegas Ramón Bilboa, says the producer’s premium range is “booming” in the UK. “Our Ramón Bilbao gran reserva was up 100% in 2015. This is a great endorsement for the fruit-driven accessible style of our wines and a willingness of the UK consumer to trade up in Rioja.”

The company recently purchased a 90ha vineyard on Monte Yerga, in the south of Rioja. “We have plans to develop wines that reflect the different terroirs available from this premium wine-growing area. We will focus on making wines with unique personality and, to complement this, we are building a microwinery at Ramón Bilbao.”

At Boutinot, product manager Jean Wareing MW says its Rioja portfolio is in growth, in particular its reserva and organic Riojas.

“Sales of reserva wines do seem to be growing at a faster pace than crianza, for example. However, organic sales have jumped more significantly over the same period. We have always had strong sales of reservas – with Ontañon and Valenciso reservas performing well from our portfolio – so the trend towards organic sales has been more noticeable.”

Chris Appleby, brand manager for premium wines at Sogrape, says the company also expects to see strong growth in reserva level wines this year “as this is where the strength in our portfolio truly lies”.

He adds: “We are experiencing double-digit growth in our LAN Vina Lanciano, A Mano, and Culmen wines, all of which are single estate and, in most cases, reserva level too.”

One of the more familiar brands waving the Rioja flag in the UK is Pernod Ricard’s Campo Viejo, which has seen sales grow 13.6% over the past year, with volumes up 9.9%.

Its Temperanillo is now the best-selling red wine in the UK off-trade, according to Pernod, while it is seeing strong growth for its premium Campo Viejo reserva (up 34.7% in value), which has an average price of £8 per bottle. “Our gran reserva, which commands an average price of £12.76, is also in value growth (up 3.8%),” says Toni Ingram, head of marketing for wine & Champagne.

“Another great example of premiumisation is the Campo Viejo limited-edition reserva Art Series, which has created a sales uplift of more than 30% in its first year,” she adds. The producer has just launched new limited-edition packaging and it has an on-pack neck tag promotion for its reserva bottles.

The growing interest in reserva wines is just one area helping to boost Rioja’s image. Alongside this there have been strong sales for lighter-style Rioja wines, including rosé and white wines from the region.

Loftus says Bodegas Ramón Bilbao has seen an increase in sales for all its Rioja wines in the UK, but the key wines driving this growth are the more innovative ones. “Our Ramon Bilboa Rosado, a 100% Garnacha from south Rioja Alta, is a very pale pink and has seen 60% growth versus 2014, reflecting the current trend for a lighter, fresher rosé,” she says.

Similarly, Wareing says Boutinot has seen much more interest in a recent rosé listing, which is a traditional, yet less well-known, style of pale rosé called Ontañon Clarete. He adds that the contemporary presentation of wines such as this appeals to younger and more adventurous wine consumers.

Carlos Delage, export area manager at CVNE, agrees that wines from Rioja are in a good position to attract younger and newer wine drinkers. CVNE has the Contino winery in Rioja, and the UK is the main export market.

“Attracting younger consumers is a challenge but we are pleased that Rioja in general is a dynamic market in the UK and we have a lot of consumers who are loyal to our wines in particular,” he says. 

Spanish wine in general is in a good position for further growth in the UK market.

Ramon Bilbao’s Loftus points to the UK’s “diverse and growing” Spanish restaurant sector, which is encouraging consumers to experiment by trying new wines from different areas. “They are discovering that Rioja can offer a diverse range of wines and styles,” she says.

Wareing agrees: “There is a thriving Spanish restaurant and bar scene, especially in and around London, which helps wine sales from that
country across the board – not just from the more traditional and better-known regions.”

And Aguiriano also notes that the growth of tourism has contributed to Rioja’s success, “with British Airways now offering regular flights to nearby Bilbao”, as well as popular wine routes being managed by local tourist boards.   

White wines from Rioja

One activity on the agenda for Rioja’s governing body has been to highlight the success of premium Rioja as well as the diversity of wines from the region.

Ricardo Aguiriano, of the Consejo Regulador, says: “In particular we are seeing white Rioja go from strength to strength – in the UK, white Rioja has experienced volume growth of 17% and grew its market share to 4.3% of Rioja as a whole, compared to 3.8% for the previous year.”

Ramon Bilbao has been concentrating on its white wines. “We are currently focusing on delivering high-quality white wines from the DO’s Rueda and Rias Baixas,” says the company’s Kirsty Loftus. “We have recently invested in DO Rueda by building a new winery and planting 60ha of Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo. Our Rias Baxas winery, Mar de Frades, has one of the most popular premium white wines in Spain and shows how sophisticated and complex wines from the Albariño grape can be.”

And Boutinot’s white Rioja sales are “consistently good”, according to Jean Wareing. “We have three white Riojas in the portfolio, each offering different styles at different price points. They all perform well and the more premium Valenciso barrel-fermented Rioja Blanco, which is in limited supply due to low production volumes, is in high demand each vintage.”

Others are investing in this area.

Contino has plans to display a 2010 white Rioja at the London Wine Fair for the first time, and it will be introducing the UK market to a 100% Garnacha rosé.

“Everyone thinks of red wines when they think of Rioja but white is doing very well,” says Carlos Delage at CVNE. “We have a high-quality white Rioja and it is selling really well. It’s quite expensive for a white Rioja but there has been a lot of interest so we are confident this will appeal to the UK market.”

And Pete Fairclough at Kingsland says its Rioja wine producer, Baron de Ley, has been planting new white varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo in recent years. “As a leading producer for Rioja, Baron de Ley is always at the forefront of innovation and new activity.”

At the Haciendas Company Alejandra Castro says the main thing for white Rioja is to avoid the old-fashioned oaky styles.

“We have done this first by introducing the Rueda Verdejo under Rioja brands such as Paternina Rueda,” she says. “And, second, we will be introducing a Rioja white Temperanillo, which is a unique and special grape variety in white Riojas.”