Think you know Rioja? Think again! A collection of UK restaurants signed up for the challenge of running a series of events aimed at exploring the region’s versatility
Everyone loves Rioja. Your customers love it, you love it, and because it’s a wine that sells quickly and easily as it does, you can bet that your accountant loves it too.
But have you ever thought that maybe you could be doing… well, a bit more with it? That with a bit of extra effort you could be selling different styles or higher priced wines?
That you could be bringing something extra to the customer experience whilst keeping them within a wine region that they love and are comfortable with?
We set four very different UK venues a challenge to ‘Think Rioja’ and come up with a series of activities and promotions that would, over a two week period, encourage consumers to make the most of a wine region that, frankly, has plenty to give.
Just take a look at the range of wines on the next four pages, and the variety of options becomes clear. There’s everything from fresh, zesty whites to silky-smooth crianzas; cheerfully juicy rosados to powerful reservas; boundary-pushing modern style reds, and classic old-school gran reservas.
Some of these wines are quintessential Rioja – what your customer would be expecting; others are not at all, and would have their eyebrows shooting upwards in astonishment.
The venues who took part in the ‘Think Rioja’ challenge were: the ETM Group, Social Eating House, Galvin and Vinoteca. At the end of the consumer-facing promotion, each venue was asked to summarise their activity and feedback on the sales impact of the promotion. Read on to fnd out who was crowned as this year’s winner...
Winner: ETM GROUP
Guillaume Mahaut, group wine buyer and trainer
What did you do? Our promotion ran for two weeks across four of our sites – The Jugged Hare, Aviary, Chiswell Street and The Botanist. All four of them took six Rioja wines in a wide variety of styles, with two different styles of white wine, a Graciano, crianzas, reservas and gran reservas. All of the venues offered three of them – a white, a Graciano and a crianza –by the glass. We showcased that selection with a little tasting booklet on the tables.
At The Jugged Hare, which is the most gastronomic and wine-focused of our pubs, we put on another six wines, as well as offering three older and rarer wines – including Tondonia Reserva, Marqués de Murrieta Gran Reserva and Rioja Alta Gran Reserva by the glass with a Coravin. It meant that, at this venue, we had 15 Rioja wines on the list, whereas we’d normally only have one or two.
Any especially good activities? We did a five-course gourmet night at Chiswell Street Dining Room pairing the wines with a rare breed British beef – that was really popular. We had 20 people in and they loved it. They knew the ‘brand’ Rioja, but they didn’t know much about the wines and the different styles, so they were very happy to learn about all the different quality levels and the stories behind them.
What was the feedback from the customers? They really liked it. The whites were especially popular. We did the promotion in June when it was really hot and it proved that customers have no problem with drinking white Rioja!
And the staff? They were really behind it from the start. We did a big training session and that was very insightful for them. I learned a lot about the region too!
And did it bring in extra money? We generated £12,000 net in revenues over the fortnight, which was a lot. It’s hard to tell if we sold any more volume than we would have done, but there was defnitely some upselling going on, either from cheaper wines into a more expensive Rioja, or up the Rioja scale. People are comfortable with Rioja, so once they’re in the category at crianza level, they’re open to being moved up to reserva or gran reserva.
Wines chosen by Guillaume Mahaut, Logan Toguri and Matteo Forcella
Bodegas Vivanco Blanco 2016
Fresh, savoury style. Lovely fruits, plum, apple and refreshing acidity. Creamy texture and a long finish. £7, Bibendum, 0845 263 6924
Bodega Classica Hacienda López de Haro Reserva 2012
Black fruits on the front but crunchy red berries in the background. Spices, cedar and pencil shaving. The firm tannins are balanced by a vibrant acidity.
£11.49, C&D Wines, 020 8778 1711
Bodegas Tobia, Oscar Tobia Reserva 2012
Quite a big wine. Fresh acidity, black cherry, ripe strawberries. Fine but firm tannic structure, with a long finish.
£15.59, Barwell & Jones, 020 3409 6565
Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Reserva Vendimia Seleccionada 2012
A slightly oxidised style, that’s quite old fashioned, with notes of sour cherry, candied fruits, and a little balsamic, volatile hint that gives a very pleasant lift.
£10.50, EWGA, 01524 737 100; Hayward Bros, 020 7237 0576
Bodegas Urbina Gran Reserva 1996
What a great wine this is! Still plenty of fruit for the age. Very fine and elegant. Plenty of freshness with notes of leather, strawberry jam and cherry. Great stuff!
£14.50, Burridges of Arlington St, 01293 530151
Bodegas Ollauri, Conde de los Andes Tinto 2013
Juicy, packed with plum, cherry and red berries. Lovely texture. Fresh. Very interesting.
£13.42, Moreno Wines, 020 7286 0678
Winner: SOCIAL EATING HOUSE
Jonathan Kleeman, head sommelier
What did you do? We had a wine on by the glass in the bar and one on by the glass in the restaurant for the full two weeks. They changed every few days to offer a wide range of wines. We also had La Rioja Alta 890 2001 on Coravin.
Any special events? Yes, we had a two-day/two-night Chef’s Counter experience. People had to pre-book, and received a cocktail made with Rioja wine on arrival, a five-course meal, with each dish paired with two wines, all presented by the winemaker from Azabache. They all got a goodie-bag as well, with a corkscrew, umbrella and cool bag. The tickets for this were very cheap – only £85 – since we didn’t charge for the wine side of it. We had eight people at each session – that’s the maximum for the Chef’s Counter – and the customers who came absolutely loved it. For all our activities, we posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
What was the feedback from the guests? They learned a lot about the wines. They were really positively surprised by the whites. Some didn’t know much about Rioja whites at all, others thought they would be bigger and oakier, so the modern, fresher wines were an education. But they also found some of the reds to be different from what they expected – fresher and juicier. It was certainly a learning experience for them.
Did you have to train the staff? Yes. We gave regular briefngs about the by-the-glass wines, explaining the blending of grapes and vineyards. We had a big variety of styles – some traditional, some modern – so it was a good grounding.
What did you learn? I was really pleasantly surprised. I thought that Rioja would need more pushing, but it really didn’t. It’s clearly still a region that really resonates with the public. People were happy to spend more without prompting from us – our biggest selling area was not £40-50 as I thought it would be, it was £60-100. They basically upsold themselves. It shows that we should have a lot more varieties of Rioja wines on lists because they’ll sell easily
Wines chosen by Laure Patry and Jonathan Kleeman
Bodegas Agricola De Labastida Crianza 2014
Black fruits and herbal notes. Structured on the palate with ripe cherries, spices and silky tannins.
£11, Carte Blanche, 01256 772233
Bodegas Roda Reserva 2012
A modern style of Rioja. Berries and chocolate aromas followed by earthy and woodsmoke notes. Persistent palate with ripe black fruits, well-balanced acidity and gentle tannins.
£23, Mentzendorf , 020 7840 3600
La Rioja Alta, Viña Alberdi 2011
Bright red fruit aromas. Juicy and savoury with ripe currants, liquorice and vanilla. Chewy tannins on the palate and a long finish. An excellent vintage in Rioja.
£12.60, Armit Wines, 020 7980 0600
La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza 2008
Perfumed with secondary aromas. Delicate on the palate with bramble fruits, leather, tobacco and sweet spices notes. Velvety tannins and a long finish.
£17.45, Armit Wines, 020 7980 0600
Bodegas Roda, Sela 2013
From the youngest vines of Roda. A fresh style. Juicy with oral and red fruits notes. Delicate tannins. Noted as one of the best vintages so far for this wine.
£14, Mentzendorf, 020 7840 3600
Finca Valpiedra Cantos de Valpiedra 2013
Aromatic with black fruits. Approachable and vibrant on the palate with spices, tobacco notes from the barrel ageing and ripe tannins.
£11.18, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711
Christian Lawendel, head sommelier
What did you do? All six wines were constantly open in the wine shop, so we could talk people through them and let them taste. As soon as people came in we could pour the wines for them. We also had them on by the glass, in food matchings and in wine fights.
Anything from that lot that worked especially well? The wine flights. We had two of them: ‘Traditional meets modern’ (£11), where we showed off the different styles of Rioja available now, and ‘Premium Rioja’ (£12) where people could try the upper-end wines. They weren’t expensive, and people got three 70ml samples. The first sight was especially good for our clients, and we sold a lot of it. We had a white Rioja on there and two reds – one fruit-driven, one more traditional. It was a great way for us to speak about the diversity of the region, but really fun as well.
What was the customer feedback on it? They loved the educational element of it. We expected to sell a lot of wine through food-matches, but actually the flights were the big talking point; they loved everything about them. On the first night we tried them, half of the restaurant had them – we were running low on glasses! People would often take their favourite wine from the flight, then drink it by the glass.
Did you learn anything? The diversity element had a big impact. People loved trying the different styles and learning more about a region that they all knew a little bit about already. Our promotion is over now, but we can still see extra sales in the region’s wines because the staff are all really engaged with Rioja.
Any particularly popular styles? The white went down well – people weren’t expecting it, so it was a nice surprise for them. But the fruit-driven reds were probably the most popular overall – even when the weather was warmer.
Wines chosen by Christian Lawendel
Marqués de Murrieta, Capellanía Reserva 2012
Lovely, refreshing, white Rioja. Plenty of stone and tropical fruit, with some hints of almonds and a smokey character. Surprisingly well-balanced spicy oak. Elegant and complex. A modern twist on an old-style Rioja.
£12.76, Maisons Marques et Domaines, 020 8812 3380
Bodegas Agricola De Labastida Cifras White 2014
Lemon, lime, grapefruit; fresh and crisp fruit yet round and mellow in texture. Well-balanced and refreshing acidity with a dry finish. Although perfect to drink on its own, it is easily matched with many dishes.
£17, Carte Blanche, 01256 772233
Bodegas Tobía, Tobía Selección Crianza 2014
Soft and juicy on the palate, with pure dark cherries and blackberries, plus a subtle sweet spice from the oak. Soft and ripe tannins with a velvety-smooth finish.
£11.26, Barwell & Jones, 020 3409 6565
Bodegas Luis Alegre Crianza 2012
Bright ruby colour. Intense, ripe, dark fruit with hints of vanilla, cinnamon and tobacco. Firm but soft tannins. Defnitely a food wine.
£8, The Wine Agency, 0151 625 8422
Bodegas Urbina Selección 1999
Traditional style with a complex nose and concentrated notes of berries, vanilla and coffee. Smooth with dried fruit flavours and hints of coconut and tobacco. Silky and elegant, well-structured Rioja.
£11, Burridges of Arlington St, 01293 530151
Rioja Vega Edición Limitada 2014
Full-bodied and deliciously dark on the palate, with piles of black fruit and eucalyptus. Attractive spice and toasty characters, with firm tannins that are ideal for food-matching.
£12.99, House of Townend, 01482 638888
GALVIN LA CHAPELLE
Andrea Bricarello, group sommelier and wine buyer
What did you do? Within our menu we have a space to include an A5 promotional page, and we dedicated it to Rioja for two weeks. There was an explanation of the region, the grapes, and of course the wines. We included tasting notes and possible food matches. We also ran the white wine by the glass in the bistro and the rosé by the glass in La Chapelle. The rosé is very pink, but its colour is deceptive – it’s totally dry. We paired it with a gazpacho and it was really popular.
What do you think this achieved? It was a really good chance to showcase the full range of styles that there are in Rioja – modern and more traditional, plus of course whites and rosés, which are styles that people are less familiar with. It was an opportunity for customers to see the kind of wines that have made Rioja famous in the past – and maybe the ones that will take it forward.
What was the feedback like from the customers? Unbelievable. They absolutely loved it. I had preconceptions beforehand that the rosé and white might not sell so well, but in fact they sold the best. It was quite hot when we did the promotion, but it still showed that people are open-minded about the region and want to learn.
And from the staff? We went through the wines with the staff beforehand, and the most surprising thing, I think, was that the white really stole the show. I love the fact there is such a range – from modern, oaky, white Burgundy-style Riojas, to more traditional oxidative ones and contemporary, fresh whites too.
How were sales? Overall, this was an amazing promotion. The moment we put the page in the wine list, people were asking for them. The bistro kept calling me to tell me they had run out of wines! You’re never sure with these kind of events how popular they will be, but it was a big success.
Wines chosen by Andrea Bricarello (Galvin Restaurants)
Finca Allende Rioja Blanco 2012
A rich and intense, modern style of white Rioja. The Viura is rich and complex while the Malvasia offers aromatic notes and a floral undertone.
£14.50, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360
Bodegas Vivanco Rosado 2016
This rosé struck me because of the rich intense summer fruit pudding notes. Packed with cherries and plums, it has a dry crisp finish showing a gentle rosehip and raspberry freshness on the back palate.
£7, Bibendum, 0845 263 6924
Ramon Bilbao Viñedos de Altura Crianza 2014
This high-altitude Rioja – a half and half blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha – has all the freshness and juiciness of ripe cherries and greengage. It shows loads of fresh, vibrant red forest fruits with whiffs of pink pepper and plenty of pomegranate.
£35, Enotria&Coe, 020 8961 5161
Bodegas Palacios Remondo La Montesa Rioja Crianza 2013
‘This wine comes from a 90-hectare vineyard planted around 500m. It’s fermented in traditional large oak barrels and in French barriques to add a whiff of spices. Made predominantly from Garnacha, it shows very ripe red forest fruit notes but also plenty of cherries and spice. Silky and elegant tannins make this wine very charming and easy to match, particularly with strong meats such as lamb or pigeon.
£10.80, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360
Bodegas Izadi Reserva 2013
Modern with plenty of American oak, this shows plenty of generous blackcurrants and blackberries, hints of jam and black pepper on the finish.
£10.20, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
Bodegas Lan Gran Reserva 2010
Traditional savoury and meaty Rioja, exhibiting some balsamic and earthy notes, followed by hints of leather and dark spices.
£16.04, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350