André Tamers of De Maison Selections
Industry Interviews is a series of conversations with wine professionals in the area of their expertise where they can shed light on the complex world of wine production, buying, selling and drinking. I'm so pleased to share for the inaugural post a conversation with Spanish wine importer André Tamers of De Maison Selections. I had the great honor of selling his wines in New York many years ago, and traveling with him and 10 other dudes through Northern Spain, where we met several winemakers, including Emilio Rojo in Ribeiro, pictured here alongside André. Spain is a fascinating and perplexing wine producing country too often represented by cheap sub-par wine, and the novice is easily lost among grapes, regions, labels and price. André clarified for Pig&Vine why that is, how it's changing and what we need to look for so we can Drink Better.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Pig&Vine: Spain seems like in many ways a young wine making country, and yet it's one of the oldest in Europe. Why is that? Or am I mistaken?
André Tamers: No, no, absolutely. Your statement's completely correct. Spain is an old country but it's a new country in the sense that you have to understand Spain's political history and the fact that they had a dictator. *During the dictatorship, things were pretty dormant. People were just getting by. *There was a really tragic civil war. I think you're absolutely right. It's one of the oldest and in a sense, the newest.
I would even add, probably the one with the greatest potential for any sort of modern country that exists today. The thing that makes Spain so unique and so important, certainly in the European environment, is that they have one of the greatest bio-diversities that exist in a country. You can be in Galicia, which is very rainy, Celtic country. You could go down to Sanlucar or Andalucia, which is completely desert-like...
P&V: Someone asked me at a dinner party recently, Are the grapes specific to region? I said, Yes, there are laws. But some of the Spanish wine laws seem a bit ridiculous. Is that a result of the dictatorship and the political background? Who are those laws for?
AT: You have to understand the hierarchical structure that's always existed in Spain. The large concentration of land and wealthy land owners essentially dictate the terms. Those laws were written by moneyed people. They were written to benefit their economic structure and to also allow them to maintain a control over the cultural areas.
The best example of that is, up until 1997, you were not allowed to bottle Sherry unless you had 500 barrels. This law was overturned because this Sherry company was in a downward spiral. Same was true in Rioja, you weren't allowed to estate bottle and make Crianzas, Reservas and Gran Reservas up until the mid 90s. These were all laws that basically allowed the elite, wealthy landowners or wealthy industrialists to maintain control of the business.
P&V: Is that where the concept of grower Rioja was born?
AT: Yeah, this is fairly new, this concept. In fact, you should look at the guy who is spearheading this movement, Telmo Rodríguez of Remelluri. Telmo has a manifesto out under his organization called Matador. Matador is an avant-garde organization. They have a private club in Madrid. What they're doing is saying, enough of these rules, let's start focusing on growers. The idea of a grower and focusing on the grower is a brand new concept in Spain. It's just starting to make itself known.
P&V: That’s exciting.
AT: It's very exciting. We’ve promoted the idea of growers. We've also promoted the idea of villages and specific sites, especially in a region like Rioja. One of the things that exemplifies how the area was controlled by large industrial concerns is the laws of Rioja. The laws of Rioja were written so that if you held your wine for five years, two years in the cask and three years in the bottle, that was considered your best wine. If you think about that, it's an interesting law because what it does, it allows the rich industrialists who have cash flow and plenty of money, to store a wine for five years and call it the best wine.
That's part of the thing that a lot of people are now trying to break. Obviously that broke when the smaller wineries were able to make and bottle their own Crianzas, their own Reservas and Gran Reservas. Now the newest thing is actually identifying sites. Telmo Rodríguez is one of the pioneers in identifying villages through his Langaza wines, which actually specify a village name on the label, even though it's technically not allowed.
P&V: That's a little more like Burgundy and the Loire where everything is very site specific?
AT: Yeah, that is Spain's challenge. Northwest Spain is an area that, because there are no rules, we might be able to really start talking about villages much more prominently in an area like Galicia, which has the potential to be one of the greatest growing areas in the world.
P&V: In Rioja, where it's illegal for them to put the village on the label, how are they getting around that?
AT: They’re doing it. [LAUGHTER] When you have laws that don't make sense, you have to make decisions. Telmo's decision is to just put it on there. The first year he put it on embossed. The second year he put it in red ink. Nobody's complained so far.
What's fascinating to do is to check out that Lindes label from Remelluri. Take two wines from the same vintage in two separate parcels. One is called Saint Vicente, one is called Labastida. You can taste the same winemaker, the same vintage, with two different sites. It clearly indicates that sites are important in Rioja. That's what's exciting. That's why Telmo's wines are so important.
He wasn't the first one. There was a guy called Miguel, at a winery called Allende, who had separated out what he called Landscapes with roman numerals. I tasted through eight separate villages in Rioja twelve years ago. I realized this was a great project. It sort of disappeared, but it clued me into the fact that the terroir of Rioja Baja has nothing to do with the terroir of La Bastita, has nothing to do with Saint Vicente. If we can stop moving away from large industrial concerns dominating the marketplace and dominating the dialogue and start thinking about site, then that's where Spain is going to become a force to be reckoned with in the future.
P&V: We’re also talking about really small producers?
AT: That's right. Yes and no. A winery like Remelluri, that's a sizable winery. The Reserva is around 25,000 cases, the size of a chateau in France. Within the scale of Rioja, that's a small to medium sized winery.
P&V: I’m going to speculate that that's one of the reasons there's so much shitty wine coming out of Rioja.
AT: There is a lot of mediocre wine because it's based on these old laws. Essentially it's a dumbing down of the product. If you could store your wine for a year you can charge more for it and call it Crianza. If you can store it for three years, you can charge more and call it Reserva. So there's an ocean of mediocrity. The other thing that hasn't been talked about is that a lot of the wineries that the cool kids think is old school, are actually very large, industrial concerns that are making a million cases, two million cases, eight million cases.
That's another thing that we're trying to do to modernize the image of Spain, is to get out of this dumbed down discussion of old school versus new school. It makes absolutely no sense. You don't have a French wine list that says this is old school wine, this is new school wine. They're just different producers and regions and everybody has a different wine making philosophy, some which could be called more traditionalist, some less traditionalist. A French wine list is never divided into old school and new school.
P&V: Is that happening in other regions in Spain or is it centralized to Rioja?
AT: You’ve got all kinds of movements paralleling things that are going on in California or the US or in France, where people are talking about their sites. There's also natural wine being made in a lot of interesting places. Natural under the moniker that we think of as natural wines, very volatile, risky wine making. That's happening too in Spain, which is good and bad. All over Spain, in Penedes, Asturias, Galicia, there's all kinds of experimentation going on. It's actually an incredibly exciting time to be involved in Spain.
P&V: Many distributors act as importers as well, however, those wines often miss the quality mark. This is a place where you as importer have an opportunity to really develop relationships with the winemakers. How does that affect your business and the consumer's experience?
AT: That’s a good point you're making because there are very few people dedicated to grower Spanish wines. There's three, maybe four people. I think we may be the only company that only works with family-owned growers, actually. We don't do négociants, we don't do co-ops, we don't do private labels. This is a really important thing to talk about because what's happening now is there's a demand for Spain. You have a lot of distributors who act as importers, who have always acted that way, who have the right to do so. The problem is that these distributors are dumbing the market down. They're creating private labels. When you create private labels you create a very dangerous and tenuous situation where you destroy the identity of a place. There is a case in point where this happened. It's called Sherry. In fact, good example is in Denmark, 80% of Sherry sold in Denmark were private labels. What happened in Denmark, Sherry went away as a commodity. It was a spiral downward.
Distributors go to Galicia because Godello is hot or Treixadura is hot. They go to a winery and say I don't like your label, why don't you make a private label. They'll put an animal on it or whatever is trendy these days. If you're in France you put an image of a naked woman on it and have some misogynistic message. [LAUGHTER]
P&V: Naked women are always trendy. [LAUGHTER]
AT: Right, whether you're a naturalist or not. Anyway, this hurts a region because then people are thinking that Godello shouldn't cost more than $8.99 on the shelf. That's really unfair. That's like saying all Rieslings should cost $8.99. Unless you taste Godellos that are made the way great Rieslings are made, you're going to think that Spain is still in that same trap of the commoditized product that was really popular in the '90s, when the wines from these hot areas were sweet and 15% alcohol.
That's where it gets a little tricky. Yes, our role is to insist on quality and to always say, You're right that Godello sells for nine bucks, but our Godello sells for thirteen. Taste the difference. This is from a winery, it’s not a private label. It's their [winemakers] efforts. I think that's one of the things that Spain needs to be very aware of, that needs to be discussed more. People need to fight against all these private labels.
* Fransisco Franco, 1939-1975
*Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939