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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The debt crisis in Europe is taking a toll on Spain's wine market. Many Spaniards can no longer afford their own beloved Rioja, so the country's winemakers are looking abroad for a much-needed bump in sales. Lauren Frayer reports.

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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Judging from the crowds in Spain's tapas bars, you might wonder where the economic crisis is. But there's been a subtle change. Many are drinking less wine, or switching to beer.

MARTA JUAN SEVA: It's more expensive to have a good wine. And you can get two beers for the price as you can get one wine.

FRAYER: Marta Juan Seva sips a cerveza at a sidewalk cafe in Madrid. Her friend Carlos Zavala chimes in. He's unemployed, but he says staying home is not an option.

CARLOS ZAVALA: In Spain, everyone socializes in bars and restaurants. Every, every single block at least, there's a bar.

FRAYER: And the bars measure the economic tides in Spain. Wine used to be just for the dinner table, but after the euro and Spain's construction boom, fancy wine bars started popping up. Spain's foremost wine expert, Jose Penin, says those bars became cool.

JOSE PENIN: (Spanish spoken)

FRAYER: But unfortunately that's also coincided with the economic crisis, he says. So we've seen no growth in domestic consumption. That's hurt even the oldest wineries in Rioja, the Spanish region famous for shipping grapes to France in the 19th century when a plague wiped out Bordeaux's harvest. Legend has it aristocrats couldn't tell the difference between French and Spanish grapes. And Rioja has flourished since then. Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia runs Rioja's Vina Tondonia winery, which her great-grandfather founded. On a tour of its cavernous cellar, she explains her business model.

MARIA JOSE LOPEZ DE HEREDIA: The problem is that the restaurants was demanding for dropping the prices. And I told them no way because my costs are the same. I started to sell more abroad.

FRAYER: She's hoping to sell half her wines overseas this year, up from 30 percent a few years ago. Spanish wines go mostly to Germany, the U.K. and America. But now a neighboring vintner, Simon Arina, is learning Chinese.

SIMON ARINA: China drinks wines because it's prestigious. Buy the most expensive wine in China.

FRAYER: China ranks fifth for Spanish wine exports, but it's the biggest growth market. And there's volume here to export. Spain has the most wine acreage in the world. But economist Pankaj Ghemawat says Spanish winemakers face stiff competition.

PANKAJ GHEMAWAT: If you think of the number of new wine growers around the world - Australia, Chile, South Africa - and how low costs are in some of these locations, especially the ones who've gone in for an industrial approach to winemaking, competing head-to-head with them, doesn't sound like a great idea.

FRAYER: Back at the Vina Tondonia winery, owner Maria Jose strolls past oak barrels, reassuring herself that the family business is strong enough can take on new challenges.

HEREDIA: My grandfather died when I was 17. He was 96 years old. And he told us a lot of stories about the war, and my father started from zero after the war. So, I'm aware in my family of what it is, suffering and going through very difficult times.

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FRAYER: Outside in the fields, workers are pruning the same grape vines Maria Jose's great-grandfather planted. Inside, she pops open a bottle of red...

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FRAYER: ...and wonders where next year's harvest will end up. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Rioja, Spain.

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MARTIN: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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