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In focus: Spanish wine

AT A STAGGERING 1 MILLION HECTARES, Spain has more land under vine than any other country in the world, but its parched land and resulting low yields mean that it is only the third-biggest producer globally. Currently in vogue, Spain’s ripe, approachable, fruity, good-value styles are popular with consumers, press and trade alike.

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Geographically, Spain’s main feature is the meseta, a huge central plateau, 600-1000m high – in fact, 90% of Spain’s vineyards are at altitudes higher than those of any of France’s major wine regions. The Cantabrian Mountains (a western spur of the Pyrenees), protects much of the country from damp, frigid Atlantic systems. There are three broad climates: extreme continental in the centre, balmy Mediterranean in the south and east, and warm, temperate-maritime in the north and west.

Spain’s wine regions are easier to understand than France’s or Italy’s. The most-important category is Denominación de Origen (DO), covering two-thirds of the national vineyard area and comprising 60-odd DOs, or appellations (e.g. Navarra). Also important is Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC), which includes the most prestigious appellations with a long pedigree (e.g. Rioja). Below this comes a significant volume of often-good Vino de la Tierra (IGP level), wine from a specified, but broad, area.

As noted, Spanish yields are naturally low as rain is scarce during the growing season and so a given patch of land cannot support very many vines or grape bunches. Since the scorching summer of 2003, irrigation has been semi-legalised (i.e. on a case-by-case basis) but most producers can’t afford to do it anyway, so aggregate cropping levels have stayed low. The flipside of these near-drought conditions is that disease pressure is minimal, so there is little need for spraying herbicides and fungicides in the vineyard.

In terms of winemaking, stainless steel and temperature-controlled fermentation tanks – formerly rare – are now standard, which has benefitted Spain’s white wines especially, nearly all of which are now fresh, clean and fruity, as opposed to brown, dull and sherried.

American oak, cheaper and more obviously flavoured than French, has traditionally been the preferred wood for barrel ageing. The French did however introduce its own barrique model of wine maturation to Rioja in the late 1800’s, from whence it spread to the rest of Spain. Tight-grained French oak has been gaining traction since the 1990s.

Crianza, meaning ‘upbringing’, is a general Spanish wine term referring to the maturation of wine in a combination of barrel and bottle. Oak-aged wines are indicated on the label either by the unregulated terms ‘Roble’, ‘Madurado’ or ‘Semi-Crianza’ (meaning the wine has spent a few months in barrel); or else the locally-defined, legally-controlled ‘Crianza’, ‘Reserva’ and ‘Gran Reserva’ terms. The last one theoretically represents the pinnacle of production, but has been losing influence as critics and consumers show a preference for deeply-coloured, fruit-driven, young wines over brick-red, complex, aged examples.

Six hundred grape varieties are grown throughout Spain but just 20 of these cover 80% of the vineyard area. The top five are the little-known Airén, a drought-resistant, productive white grape that covers ¼ of Spain’s wine lands and is used mostly for fiery Spanish brandy; Tempranillo (see Grape Focus, p. 12), responsible for 20% of vines; Garnacha (14%), a widely-used blending grape; Bobal (8%), which produces opaque, alcoholic wines in the Valencia area, as well as huge volumes of ‘grape juice concentrate’, used to bolster wines from further north; and Monastrell, which makes inky, potent reds across the south-east of the country.

Other important varieties include the Sherry grapes Palomino and Pedro Ximénez; the Cava triumvirate of Viura, Xarel-lo and Parellada; Albariño (DO Rias-Baixas); and Verdejo (DO Rueda). International / French varieties, which are tolerated as minor blending partners in many of Spain’s regions, are important in Cataluña, DO Somontano and a handful of other places.

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