From time to time, the Rioja wine business experiences a period of upheaval as companies are bought and sold, often as a means for the majority shareholders to raise much-needed capital and sometimes to win market share. Examples of the first case were Mapfre’s (a Spanish insurance company) taking a stake in Muga (since bought back by the Mugas) and Banco Santander’s stake in Bodegas Riojanas (Riojanas later went public). More often, though, the reason for winery purchases is to consolidate empires. One of the most recent instances in Rioja was the buying and selling of the Domecq Wine group.
It all started with Savin, a company founded in the mid 1950s that became Spain’s largest winery group with wineries all over the country that at first specialized in selling bulk wine to Europe and the Iron Curtain countries. In the mid 1960s, Savin built a winery in Logroño and created Campo Viejo, quickly developing it as an attractively priced Rioja positioned toward the growing supermarket business in Spain and abroad.
The Bank of Bilbao took a larger and larger share in the company and in 1989, renamed the company Bodegas & Bebidas. Its first major acquisition was its biggest competitor AGE in the mid 1990s.
The bank decided to divest itself of its wine and food businesses and the wineries were sold to Allied-Domecq, a UK-based multinational drinks company, itself the union of Allied Breweries and the wineries owned by Pedro Domecq, the sherry company.
The wine brand Marqués de Arienzo was created in the mid-1980s after Pedro Domecq decided to build a winery in Rioja. The winery was actually built in the early 1970s but the first Rioja brand, Domecq Domain, didn’t fly. Arienzo was the second effort by the company to launch a Rioja brand and this time, it was a success. The brand was positioned as a premium range of crianza and reserva, sold mainly to restaurants in Spain and abroad.
The name of the consolidation game was spirits, with the wine brands dragged along for the ride. Domecq was purchased in 2005 by the French group Pernod-Ricard (the merger of Pernod and Ricard), that included the Domecq Bodegas wineries in Rioja. In 2010, PR began a process of selling off non-strategic assets to finance the purchase of the vodka brand Absolut.
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Most wineries are bought and sold lock, stock and barrel. But the sale of Bodegas Domecq was different, illustrating how the bust-up of the winery’s assets made great sense to the buyers of the separate parts.
The assets were split up and sold to two companies. Bodegas Muriel bought the winery itself, some of the vineyards and the brand Viña Eguía. Other vineyards and the brand Marqués de Arienzo were acquired by Herederos del Marqués de Riscal.
Muriel needed a bigger winery to carry out its plans to move into the high volume supermarket business around the world. Viña Eguía is a popular young Rioja that gives Muriel a foothold into this segment of the market, especially in Spain.
For Marqués de Riscal, this purchase made great strategic sense, too. The vineyards, located on some of the best sites in Rioja Alavesa, allow Riscal to decrease its dependence on outside suppliers of grapes and therefore exercise greater control over the quality of its fruit. Secondly, Marqués de Arienzo, a brand with good distribution in restaurants in Spain, is a perfect complement to Marqués de Riscal. In addition, Riscal has taken over the ‘Aula Marqués de Arienzo’, renaming it ‘Aula Marqués de Riscal’. This well-liked seminar has trained hotel and restaurant staff about wine tasting and service for many years.
Riscal’s influence on Marqués de Arienzo is evident, with a redesign of the label and a more modern feel to the wine while maintaining its image as a wine to be enjoyed with food.
I tasted several bottles over the recent Christmas holidays. My tasting note for Marqués de Arienzo crianza 2008:
Tempranillo, graciano and mazuelo. Brilliant, medium-intensity ruby. Red fruit – strawberries and maraschino cherry giving it a little sweetness. Quite a dollop of oak. Great balance, good acidity – a little tart on the palate.
I thought it went very well with our New Year’s Eve dinner when we had roast baby lamb.