Interview with Jens Riis

We interviewed our friend and colleague Jens Riis, a US wine importer who’s been living in Spain and running a successful Spanish wine business for several decades. He’s one of Spain’s premier connoisseurs so we wanted to get his take on how the Spanish wine scene has changed over the last 20 or 30 years or so and look ahead to some of the challenges in the future.

Watch the full interview on video

Matthew: Jens, you've been a long-term Madrid resident since the 1970s. What first brought you to Spain?

Jens: Well, I was working in the computer-aided design trade working on first-generation CAD/CAM systems. My company, an American company, took me to Europe and Paris and then to England and then they offered me a job in the same company here in Spain. It sounded interesting so I came and here I am.

I left that company about seven or eight years later, because I wanted to do something else. I started poking around the web based on what I knew before, and I discovered that Spain was virtually non-existent as a wine producer on the web. And that somehow upset me. I just said, ‘this can't be’ and I spoke with a guy who had a website out in the west coast in the US - Seattle I think it was - and I said, “why isn't Spain represented?”. Hungary was there and everybody was, but there was zero from Spain. And he said, “well why don't you do something about it?” and it changed my whole life, that one comment.

“So, I said “well why not?”. I had free time, I was making good money as a consultant, so why not delve into that? So, I made a website about Spanish wine. Then I had to get myself knowledgeable about wine. So, I went to wine shows, I met people, I went to tastings and bought some books and got myself up to speed.

Then I did a couple of websites for wineries. I actually did the first website for a winery in Spain, from Rioja Alta, way back in 1994-95. That got me started and through that I got connections with the wine trade here in Spain, with the press. I started working with, which was quite a big deal. We were publishing about wine in Spain - tastings and so on. And in parallel with that I got hooked up with an importer in the US who was looking for somebody to take care of his interests here and build a portfolio. Because he had nothing from Spain at that point in time. So, we worked together starting 21 years ago to find stuff that was interesting for his market.

We started with zero we now have 28 or 29 wineries and 60 or 70 references, and we ship a lot of wine to the US every year. So, it's worked out very well.

When you started with the importer into the US what kinds of wine were you looking for?

So, we started with some Garnachas from Calatayud. We started with 2 or 3 Riojas. We got a couple of Albariño wines from northwestern Spain. We found a Rueda, which was beginning to get popular in Spain - not what it is now, it's very popular in Spain now - then it was almost an unknown. But it worked for the American market. We got some sparkling wine from the Cava country. And since then, we’ve branched out. We've got quite a few Garnachas from different parts of Spain, which is one of the wines that seems to work quite well for the US market. The Riojas continue to work well. People in the US like wines where there’s a noticeable amount of oak in them.

So, is that the influence of Robert Parker?

To a certain degree, yes. But Parker always liked balanced wines. I actually had the opportunity to taste with Robert Parker a couple of times, and I respect the guy greatly. I think people misinterpret what he was looking for. The wines that he rated very highly were potent wines with lots of everything, but they were balanced. And what people started trying to respond to, that supposed style of wine, was wines which were totally out of balance - over ripe grapes, over extraction, too much alcohol, too much wood - and not integrated into a decent bottle of wine.

I think the thing that I want to pursue personally over time is to generate more information, more knowledge about other regions in Spain. I mean there are some wonderful wines from Ribeiro, there are some wonderful wines from Alicante and from Jumilla. We have two Jumillas on our list and they're working quite well. But they're relatively unknown, even in Spain. We've got some good sherries now, which we didn't have in the beginning. But there's still a world of wine out there in Spain and these regions which, even to the Spanish, are almost unknown.

I was going to ask you that because, as you said, there over 70 denominations and lots of other different categories of wine regions, and that's something that's really developed in Spain. You started at a very interesting moment when Priorat was taking off and the revolution was happening and now you can get great wines from all over Spain.

I think that's what really has changed dramatically in the last 20-30 years since I’ve been involved with this. The overall quality of the wines has improved drastically. That’s due to better training, the wine makers are much better schooled. In the old days it was a family business and you learned from grandpa. Not that they did it badly, but technology has now come into play. Technology allows for more control over the winemaking process. The tools are there now. You can measure the grapes in the field and get the potential alcohol levels, you can check the acidity. In the old days, you tasted a grape and if you were good at it, you could get it, but it wasn't easy. Nowadays technology makes a big difference.

For your customers in the US particularly, what is it that sets Spanish wine apart? What makes Spain different from a wine consumer’s point of view?

Well, Spain has three things that make it different based basically on the climate. With the exception of the northern fringe areas, you get nice ripe grapes and nice easy drinking wines at good prices. The grapes ripen well in Spain’s climate. The soil’s primarily limestone across most of the country. And the altitude - Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland. People don't realise that. Altitude is important, particularly in the warmer parts of the country where you can keep acidity which means the wines stay fresh, but the grapes ripen properly. So, you've got a nice juicy rich tasting wine which isn't flabby. It's got that nice little acidic punch which makes it drinkable. Also, you've got some grape varieties that are pretty much unknown outside of Spain. In the beginning it was an obstacle but now I see it as becoming actually a plus.

I was going to ask you about that because there seems to be a renewed focus on native varieties in Spain and in lots of other countries. So, what varieties would you recommend to people reading this for example?

Of course, the key red variety is Tempranillo. It’s the primary grape of Rioja, the primary grape of Ribera del Duero, almost the only grape in Ribera del Duero. It's also grown in La Mancha and other places, but in red grape terms it's the key. Next one down, which I happen to like a lot, there are the Garnacha based wines. Those are grown pretty much all over Spain actually. And then on the white side you've got the Verdejo grapes which are pretty much unique to Spain. And of course, we've got other things coming down the pipe like Mencía from northwestern Spain, Godello a white grape also from northwestern Spain. All of those are starting to get onto the radar.

The other thing in Spain, because of the climate, most wines are very environmentally friendly. Even if they're not rated organic, most wines in Spain are produced organically - you know that from your own work. What does that mean? That means that trend toward biodynamic and organic wines has become ever stronger. In Spain many wineries, in fact I would say most wineries, grow grapes organically but the certification process is a bit of a nightmare. And getting that certification process transferred to the USA officially so you can put it on your label and say this is an organic wine is a bureaucratic nightmare. So, many times the wines don't say organic which is what people are looking for. But the bureaucracy in that case is kind of an impediment.

Which makes it all more important to tell the story of the winery.

Exactly. If you look at the wineries that we work with, virtually all of them are 99% organic in every way, shape or form. They use organic fertilisers, they've used very little chemical products in the fields. If they have an outbreak of some horrible disease like mildew, sometimes they're required to treat it with copper or something like that. But it's rare.

And this is something that consumers, certainly in the UK or here, but I guess in the US as well, are increasingly interested in - the environmental impact of what they're drinking?

Exactly. All of that has become important. In fact, on the website that my client maintains, we say on the wines if the wines are organically produced, or the grapes are organically grown, or if they're environmentally friendly. But the wines aren't certified. Sustainable winemaking is one of the things that's becoming important even if you don't have the official labels.

And even in the logistics chain people are starting to talk about things like the packaging and the weight of the glass of the bottle. Is that going to change the way, for example, wine crosses the Atlantic to the US?

Well, I think a lot of wineries are already using pretty much minimal weight bottles. The ones who want to show off are still using big, heavy bottles. But I think that's fading. I can see that there's a new generation of bottles that look big and heavy but actually don't weigh very much. Which is what I think will become the trend over time. Glass is getting expensive because glass requires a lot of energy. And the more glass you have, the more energy you use to make the bottle in the first place. Then the more it weighs, the more it costs to transport it. So yeah, that's certainly a factor as well.

Can I come back to something you said before talking about lesser-known varieties. Do you think there are some interesting comparisons there? When people come to you and say, “I like Pinot Noir what would be a good equivalent?” or “I like to drink Chablis from France what would be a nice equivalent in Spain?” how do you answer that question?

I think there are good Pinot Noirs here but not very many because that grape hasn't done well in the Spanish climate. But many of the Garnachas, particularly from the Madrid of Gredos, are very like Pinot Noir. I’ve talked to people who don't like them because they're not rough enough and rich enough. They're more delicate, ethereal kind of wines. But those wines would be perfect for a Pinot drinker. The Verdejos from the better producers can be a nice alternative to Chablis. There are also some good Chardonnays coming out of Spain, there are some very interesting ones particularly from Navarra and from the Barcelona area - from Penedès. It's not widely planted, but there is quite a bit of Chardonnay in Spain so there are alternatives on that side. And for people who like heavier, heftier wines, you've got the Monastrells from Jumilla. Those are meaty, muscular wines. Toro has Tempranillo but it's a Tempranillo clone which is much richer, thicker, darker. Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers would like Toro I think because it's got that rich, dark approach to wine. Also, if you like Chablis, which can be quite acidic and bright, some of the Albariños up from northwestern Spain can be interesting for those particular taste buds.

I wanted to ask you about that because that's a corner of Spain where you do find lots of weird and wonderful native grapes that people perhaps know less about like Treixadura, Torrontés or Loureira, and the red varieties as well.

With the exception of the Albariño, the rest of them are relatively unknown. Godello is starting to show well. Ribeiro was a region which produced a lot of bulk horrible wines - watery not very interesting. Now they're making some magnificent wines, both white and red. They’re based on grapes like Treixadura, but you also have a series of other grape varieties. You have red grapes like Merenzao and Mencía, some of which are related to French grapes some of them are not. I love French wine by the way - I shouldn't say that.

You're a big French fan. It was always southern Rhone you liked.

I’m a big fan. When I started early on, Bordeaux was my thing. But the problem with Bordeaux is that they get expensive, the good ones, and you have to wait a long time before you can drink them. Because fresh out of the winery they're really not very useful. Southern Rhone I like, and I champagne of course, who doesn't?

And how would you how put Cava alongside Champagne for all those champagne drinkers out there who want to maintain quality but perhaps not spend quite so much? Is Cava a good alternative?

Well, I hesitate to compare the two, for a couple of reasons. One is that the climates are totally different. Champagne is way north. It's very cold, the grapes don't ripen, and you've got chalky soils. So, it's a different kind of environment - and different grape varieties generally, although you do get Chardonnay in some parts of Spain. The climate is quite different as I said. You're almost at sea level in most of the Cava producing areas whereas you're just south of Paris in northern France and it's totally different. But yeah, there are some excellent Cavas out there now.

So, we've looked back over the last 20 to 30 years. If we look ahead to the next 10 years, what are the strong points that Spain has in its favour?

Well, I think the future looks quite good. Spain has reliability. We don't get huge vintage-to-vintage variations in Spain because of the climate. Unlike places like Bordeaux and others where you can have a bad year and the wine is terrible. Some Spanish vintages come up short because of things like frost, but the quality levels have been pretty reliable across the board. And that's primarily because it's a warm dry climate and moisture is the big enemy of the of the plant.

If I had to say one thing about what makes wine interesting, for me anyway, it's called pleasure. If it doesn't give you pleasure, why bother drinking it? And I think Spanish wines, from my experience, offer that pleasure factor more than many other areas.

Jens Riis, thank you very much for joining us.

You can read more from Jens Riis on his website