It takes two hours to get to Félix Solís in Valdepeñas if driving from Madrid. The road goes through La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote, where windmills and tourist stops celebrate Cervantes’ fictional character. There is also mile after mile of flatlands, sometimes topped with olive groves or vines. This is the largest contiguous vineyard area in the world, subject to extreme temperatures. It’s the kind of place that produces plenty of anonymous wine – 60% of wine from La Mancha is sold in bulk.
But to Félix Solís Ramos, the company’s sales and marketing director, it’s one of the most exciting areas in the world. If he had to start all over again and build a winery from scratch, this is where he would do it. “It’s where you can innovate,” he says. “There is a great future for central Spain.”
Wine at scale
The Félix Solís winery is not only the largest single site winery in Valdepeñas, it’s one of the largest in Europe, with a production capacity that exceeds 300m bottles. About 175 wine-filled trucks pull away from the loading docks each day. “Basically, we have made a big investment,” Félix Solís Ramos says: his family’s company has poured €20m ($22.7m) into the winery, which is part of the Félix Solís Avantis group, whose 2017 turnover exceeded €300m, an increase of 6% from 2016.
Meininger’s visits during harvest and grapes are arriving. A mechanical sampler shoots out over the truck, plunges in and collects grapes, which are analysed in a laboratory booth. “During the peak of harvest, we process nearly eight million kilos per day,” says Félix Solís Ramos, speaking solely of the Valdepeñas winery, which works at 80t per hour capacity around the clock. “Seventy-five per cent of wine is vinified by us here,” he says, adding the winery buys the rest in bulk. The company owns 1,000ha of vineyards, while its growers farm another 34,000ha. Félix Solís Ramos walks past a veritable mountain of must – to be sold for distillation – and opens the door to the new bottling room. This is more or less the size of a football field, and today there is a news crew flying a drone over the line, trying to capture the scale of the facility.
The barrel halls seem to go on forever, the smell of wood so thick as to be pungent. “We are buying in the region of ten thousand barrels a year, to go up to one hundred thousand barrels for this site,” he says. As well as wineries in Valdepeñas and La Mancha, the company operates wineries under the name Pagos del Rey in Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro Rueda and Rías Baixas. It has a subsidiary in China, the Shanghai Félix Solís Winery Corporation, as well as logistical and commercial operations in seven other countries, including Germany. It exports 65% of production – which represents 15% of total Spanish still wine exports – with more than 60% of its turnover coming from exports.
In a country where many wineries struggle to be profitable, Félix Solís has become a powerhouse. The first milestone came in 1952, when Félix Solís Fernandez moved his family to Valdepeñas, the second when he founded the winery in 1968. It has remained family owned, with Félix Solís Yanez, president and CEO, currently at the helm.
Crucially, the company has always looked outwards – it was one of the first Spanish wineries to export in the 1970s, and in 1998 it formed a joint venture in Shanghai, China; a year later, it moved into the Czech Republic, where the company now sells 11ML of wine. In 2002 it expanded into northern Spain, building its winery in Ribera del Duero. In a region known for its small estates, the company decided to take a different tack, creating an 8ML capacity winery, and producing the off-trade brands Altos de Tamaron and Condado de Oriza. These are now two of the bestselling reds from the region. The Rueda winery was next, in 2004, and then Rioja in 2006. In 2008, the company bought Viña Bajoz, the largest cooperative in Toro, and completely refurbished it, making it the largest and most modern facility in Castilla y León, with a 20ML capacity.
As well as producing branded wines in volume for the export market, the company has also been forward thinking when it comes to packaging, supplying wines in Tetra Pak and Prisma Pak to supermarkets, in small formats as well as the more usual size. Today, it sells more than 1,500 brands, both its own brands, which account for 60% of sales – though the core range is about 80 brands – and private label. “Every month we have meetings and follow up every single brand to see how it’s developing. When one brand needs a push, we take a look at the price, the design, the quality,” says Félix Solís Ramos.
The company is sensitive to market signals and if a brand’s sales decrease, the team considers whether it needs a label redesign. “If it’s a core brand, we do a tasting with an external consultant. Sometimes we have used consumer groups in order to evaluate our wines against the competitors and with all that information, we take a decision.”
It also reacts quickly to new opportunities, such as the new craze for high-alcohol, high-residual-sugar reds. Félix Solís has one red blend called The Guv’nor and another called FYI. “You see that these wines are doing three times more than last year, so this is a clear trend. More expensive and much heavier, very well designed labels.”
Félix Solís Ramos is, however, concerned that too much of the innovation shaping the market comes from outside Spain, specifically from the US and the UK. “Red blends, aromatised wine-based drinks, Charmat method wines, new formats, small PETS…” He wants Spain to launch new products of its own.
One area with the potential for growth is in whites. “Godello is interesting for the future,” he says. Sparkling is another segment that he believes is ripe for disruption – including knocking Prosecco off its pedestal. “Spain, especially central Spain, can do a lot with international varieties,” he says. “Airén is a very special grape for blending that works with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.” Spain, he says, is very focused on traditional sparkling method production, while he is looking at Charmat. “Look at what’s happened with Prosecco – a lighter style that’s more fruity. That’s what we’re going to try here. We launched a Charmat project three years ago from early harvest Airén and early harvest Chardonnay, that can give you a similar style to Glera [the Prosecco grape] when done properly.”
Flavoured drinks are another growth area. “Sangria-type drinks with a wine base are increasing everywhere,” he says. Sangria drinks needs citrus flavours, but the category of flavoured drinks has opened up to include other flavours, such as peach. “You see that trend more in the UK and the US than in Europe.”
One area that Félix Solís Ramos knows needs further development is the low- to no-alcohol segment. “It’s a trend not only in the UK, but also in Germany and Austria.” It was Tesco that highlighted the consumer demand, and “we found a partner here in Spain that is working with us in de-alcoholising the wine”. Now Félix Solís makes 800,000 bottles of a low-alcohol wine, with a sugar level that’s quite high, between 20g to 40g/L. The issue for non-alcohol, he says, is that when the alcohol goes, so does the base for holding any type of aroma or flavour. “It smells like wine and it tastes like wine,” but it’s missing some crucial dimension. One way around this is to create partially de-alcoholised wines. “We are now starting to make wines a little bit lighter in terms of alcohol. We’re going to launch some eight point five per cent sparkling wines. In this case what we’re doing is stopping the fermentation.”
While such products make fine wine aficionados shudder, Félix Solís Ramos says what they all have in common is “a lot of margin”. Not only that, but they’re not cheap – the cheap wines are disappearing from the market. “What we see is that wine consumption is coming back. It’s growing, but not growing in the lower-end segments, where it’s decreasing. It’s stable in the medium segments and growing in the medium-to-high segments.”
Félix Solís Avantis is also partnering with new world producers. “There are a lot of bulk wine suppliers in New Zealand looking for distribution for the wines,” says Félix Solís Ramos. “We import bulk into Spain to take advantage of our production capability.”
It is also investing $35m in a project 100km south of Santiago, Chile, where it will begin building a winery with a capacity of more than 40ML at the end of 2018. “From day one, it will be one of the ten largest wineries in Chile.”
What’s the appeal of Chile? “Chilean wines complement our Spanish offering. We are going to do three million litres of Chilean wine, mainly for Europe.” It’s a lot of wine, but the company is convinced it can sell it, given its strong presence in the UK, US, China and Japan, where there is a big capacity to sell wines from Chile.
If that sounds like a lot, there’s more coming. The next step for Félix Solís is to invest further in digital. “We’ve been on social media since three years ago,” says Félix Solís Ramos. “We’re seeing really good results – we have a huge database of people we can influence.” The future holds an e-commerce site that will sell on-trade wines and other wines not normally sold in Spain.
And then there’s the project that may become the most important of all: an in-house innovation unit. “The reality is that most innovation is coming from ideas outside Spain,” he says. That, he says, is about to change.