Whose wine is it anyway?

A lot of nice sherries around these days: the sherry lists in restaurants are getting longer and longer and it sometimes feels as if there is a never ending supply line of new labels and brands. Some of them are from smaller bodegas and almacenistas that have decided, given the increased interest of the public, to sell their own wine rather than sell it to bigger houses. But others are, quite literally, old wines in new bottles.

It all started, of course, with Equipo Navazos, who in just over 12 years since December 2005 have released no less than 80 such wines. Since then though the marketplace for this kind of “marquista” wine (wine from one origin and sold under a different brand, or “marca”) has become crowded indeed. Names that spring to mind include Antonio Barbadillo’s Sacristia AB, Roberto Amillo’s Selección, the wines bottled by Alexander Jules, and most recently Las Botas.

And those are just the “marquistas”. There are more and more “selections” in general and the latest trend is for restaurants: Lustau and Aponiente have teamed up to release wines under the “Yodo” brand, Albert Adría and Gonzalez Byass have come up with “la Cala” while I was told on a recent trip up North that Nerua and Mugaritz also have their very own manzanillas, finos and all sorts. A recent high point was when I tried a manzanilla in Madrid that had been barrel selected for a wine bar … in San Sebastian!

Some of these guys – Equipo Navazos in particular – have done a grand job selling these wines around the world and educating critics and collectors in the English speaking world in particular. It is no surprise that they are highly thought of: they have quite literally created a market, and in my view have been instrumental in reviving international interest in the wines of the region. Neither do I see any problem in principle with using successful brands – be it Mugaritz or Aponiente, or Essencia or whoever, to boost the sales and awareness of these wines.

There are some drawbacks with the sheer number of selections you find around the place. It makes things tricky for the critics, who have been known to score the “marquista” selections higher than the original wines (by as many as three points in the familiar 80-100 scale) to widespread chagrin, incredulity, and elevation of eyebrows. More worryingly, the marquista wines may be crowding out the “real wines” when it comes to international recognition or even at those same tastings (I recently saw a lineup of a tasting that had been organized where no fewer than four of the eight wines were marquistas). Also on the negative side, these special selection wines tend to be candidates for the more “imaginative” kind of marketing and can feed into a “stamp collecting” mindset.

And maybe the glory years of the marquistas are over to an extent: with the pick up in interest for these wines there are not as many forgotten botas or bodegas that don’t have their own route to market. But neither are they going away any time soon, and if the bodegas don’t want to live permanently in their shadow maybe the solution is to learn from them.

Most fundamentally, it may be time to recognize that not all the botas in the solera are the same, and for the bodegas to take advantage of that fact for themselves. I have often said that one of the secrets to the Equipo Navazos success story is the limited edition nature of their wines, and you can see now how different bodegas are trying to emulate that, with “single cask” and special “bota NO” releases. Also, the marquistas, and again Equipo Navazos are the leading example, are often better at explaining what makes their wines special than the bodegas are and that too can be learned from.

But neither is it true that these special selections are always better than the original. I am the sort of contrary soul that orders the selection and the standard side by side and can tell you that the standard often wins. And let’s not forget that there would be nothing to select, and bottle, and explain, and market around the world if it weren’t for the bodegas. The bodegas are the true keepers of the flame, they are the ones making the wines and the people that, ultimately, are paying for the party with their massive investment in the productive “assets” that are their soleras and cellars.

So enjoy the special selections by all means, but never forget where they came from.




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