The latest raft of stats from wine stats maestros AC Nielsen shows that exports to the UK of Chilean wine have overtaken those of Spain. Since Chile reopened its UK office in 2002, headed by the snappy dressing, dubious dancing Michael Cox, the long thin country has enjoyed a steady rise in fortunes, and on two fronts. Firstly wine quality. There are still a lot of ho-hum bottles to be found, but the Chileans have managed to insert some passion into their wines. Sauvignon is the white trump card, Cabernet Sauvignon remains the class act for reds, but Syrah, Carmenere and even Pinot Noir are looking increasingly impressive. But there’s also the marketing. With so-so domestic consumption, Chile needs to export, but before the Wines of Chile office was set up, the campaign in the UK was rather lacklustre. Where Cox & Co have been particularly successful is in convincing both on and off trades that there’s more to Chile than cheap and cheerful, with the consequence that sales in the £5-£10 bracket have risen by 26% in the last year.
Where does this leave Spain? On the wine front, the country has never been more exciting. Established regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero are shedding the shackles of the past, and making more and more world-class wine. Meanwhile less famous regions (Bierzo, Rueda, Cigales, Campo de Borja, Jumilla etc) have discovered how to make characterful, tasty wine, usually from local grapes, but with a healthy amount of competition from some foreign imports. But when it comes to marketing… For example, Ribera del Duero is currently running an ad campaign (see inside back cover of July Decanter) of two snogging pre-Raphaelites with the strapline ‘Rounded in the mouth’. Puh-lease. It may make the Madrileños rush out for a bottle of Vega Sicilia, but it doesn’t quite translate to Scunthorpe.
It’s the same with virtually all the major European countries. Too much bureaucracy, too many meetings, too many vested interests and – it has to be said – still too much shit wine make the promotion of the country a nightmare. What make matters worse is that the promotional effort is often done by those whose roots are too close to home, and don’t have the grounding in the relevant export market. Cox has told the Chileans truths that they didn’t want to hear, but they’ve followed his advice and Chile is now reaping the benefit. Australia underwent similar treatment when Hazel Murphy headed up their UK office in the 80s and 90s. Is Spain hombre enough to give someone free rein to attempt a similar makeover job?