Curious about Spain: Variety and Quality

A vineyard in the Rioja wine region

Writing about wines in Spain is a bit like writing about the stars. If Spain were the night sky, then nearly every direction you look in wine is being made, either in clusters together or more isolated. And it’s made in a dazzling array of styles from a vast number of grape varieties. Fortunately, also like the night sky, some stars burn brighter than others, so we’ll stick to the highlights. Yes, that’s a pun.

Only two countries in the world make more wine than Spain (France and Italy, since you ask). And production is spread around the country which, due to its location and internal geography, has very varied local climates, ranging from scorching central plains to very pleasant coastal green regions around the northern and northeastern edges.

In many places, temperature fluctuations between day and night, and between the seasons, can be brutal, dropping from baking hot to freezing cold. Away from the northern and western coastlines, rainfall is sparse.

Regardless of these harsh conditions, people have been making wine in Spain for over 3,000 years, probably since the Phoenicians appeared in Cadiz in 1100 BCE. The Romans helped Spanish wines spread throughout the Mediterranean, though the invasion and occupation of much of the Iberian peninsula by the Moors from the 8th century onwards meant production slowed dramatically, as vineyards gave way to raisin production in many places.

By the late Middle Ages and early phase of European colonial expansion, however, wine production and export was back on track. In fact, Sherry is said to have been the first wine imported into the New World.

Spanish winemaking got a big boost in the 18th and 19th centuries, when many French winemakers abandoned the phylloxera-plagued vineyards of their homeland to try their luck in Spain’s less phylloxera-friendly climate. The disease did finally catch up with Spanish winemaking, but not before the fix of grafting European vines onto American rootstock had been discovered, so its impact was less severe than elsewhere in Europe.

Despite the resulting boost in winemaking skills due to the influx of French winemakers, Spanish wine was long considered inferior. Mostly because it was. But for the last 40 years or so, the country has been steadily gaining ground as one of the world’s finest wine-producing nations—helped not least by the efforts in the Rioja region to increase the quality of the wines made there.

Consequently, current-day Spain produces not only a lot of wine, but quite an amount of stunningly good stuff too. And in a much broader range of styles than many people realise. Turns out, there is more to Spanish wine than Rioja, Sherry and Sangria.

A vineyard in the Rioja wine region

The Rioja wine region is one of the most recognised names in Spanish winemaking, and known for quality reds from the Tempranillo grape. Image: Bodegas Corral

Categorically speaking

There are two ways in Spain in which wine is categorised. Firstly, by how good it is, or how good it thinks it is. And secondly, by how long it has been stored prior to release.

At a national level, wine quality in Spain is determined by denominación de origen protegida or DOP, which is an appellation system similar to the one in France. There are 138 regions with some form of regional identification under the DOP system.

The lynchpin of this system is the denominación de origin or DO. It guarantees a relatively high standard of wine made in accordance with the local laws that govern winemaking in a particular region.

Below that are indicación geográfica protegida (IGP) wines and vino de mesa (VdM) wines, essentially table wines

There is a class above DO wines called denominación de origen calificada (DOCa) in Rioja in northern central Spain or denominació d’origen qualificada (DOQ) in Priorat, which is in northeastern Spain (or southern Catalonia, depending on who you ask— it’s a complicated relationship). These are the only two regions with wines of a high enough standard (and some say egos big enough) to qualify. Though you’d hardly know it in Rioja, where internal politics means practically every Rioja is classed as DOCa wine.

You may also see DO Pago, which is a designation for single estate wines, most of which are found in the Castile-La Mancha administrative region in central Spain.

The other way Spanish wines are classified, especially wines from Rioja in north central Spain and Ribera del Duero in the far northwest, is based on how long the wine has been aged in oak barrels and bottles before being released into the wild.

Joven: barely aged and hardly introduced to oak barrels, if at all.

Crianza: aged a minimum of two years, at least one year of which is in an oak barrel, the other in a bottle.

Reserva: aged a minimum of three years, at least one year in an oak cask or barrel, the rest in a bottle.

Gran Reserva: aged a minimum of five years, at least two of which is in oak, the rest in a bottle.

In Rioja, in particular, winemakers will sometimes age their wines much longer, releasing them when they feel they are ready. That can make it hard to know how long a bottle of wine will store for once bought. Our advice: very briefly in your glass. That said, some will store for decades.

Tempranillo grapes being harvested by two people in the Toro wine region of Spain

Tempranillo is the dominant red wine grape variety in Spain. Image: Bodega ViñaGuareña

Sherry & Cava

Before we get into Spain’s main wine regions, let’s clear up two of Spain’s most famous styles of wine: Sherry and Cava.

For a long time, Sherry was probably synonymous with Spanish wine, in Ireland and the UK especially, and particularly if you had a grandmother.

Sherry is a fortified wine from the southern tip of Spain. It comes in a range of styles, from light, bright and dry (Fino and Manzanilla), through medium heavy sweeter wines (Amontillado and Oloroso) to dark, unctuous and sweet (Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez). It’s made by blending wines of different ages to maintain a consistent style and character—a method known as the solera process.

Cava is most commonly associated with northern Catalonia, though it is made in various places throughout Spain. Traditionally, it’s a dry sparkling wine with crisp apple-like flavours that’s made from a blend of Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada grapes using a second-fermentation process similar to that of Champagne.

A whirlwind tour of Spain’s wine regions

Right, hold tight, because we’ve got 138 recognised wine regions and 600 grape varieties to get through.

Only kidding. Let’s pretend to be American tourists and stick to the highlights.

Rías Baixas, in the northwestern area of the country that sticks out over Portugal, has a cooler climate than most other parts of Spain. This results in zesty whites, commonly from Albariño grapes. Ditto País Vasco, the region around Bilbao at the foot of France.

Ribera del Duero, in the Castilla and León administrative region, which covers much of north central Spain, is home to excellent Tempranillo-based reds, aged in French oak. Also in Castilla and León is Rueda, which specialises in oaked and unoaked white wines and a Sherry-like wine, all using Verdejo grapes.

Rioja is one of the most recognisable names in Spanish winemaking. It is typically associated with robust reds made predominantly from Tempranillo grapes, traditionally aged in American oak, though French oak is also used. If you want to start a fight among Rioja winemakers, ask a group of them which oak is best. Despite its famed reds, white wine is also made here from Macabeo grapes.

Garnacha is a grape often associated with the wine regions of Aragon, Campo de Borja and Calatayud especially. These are arid, barren places, but Garnacha thrives here.

Catalonia is known for Cava and for the high-quality red blends from the Priorat wine region, which are often referred to as Spanish Bordeaux-style wines. Garnacha, Carignan, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are all used to make quite beefy wines.

The central plateau of Spain includes the wine-making region around Madrid, as well as the La Mancha region. Here traditional Spanish grapes like Monastrell and Garnacha are cultivated alongside French varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

Valencia and Murcia on the eastern coast of the country are where Monastrell-based reds shine.

Southern Spain is really Sherry country. Literally. It’s made in the areas around the city of Jerez which, if you pronounce it really badly sounds like Sherry, and is how the wine got its name in the English-speaking world. Sherry is made mostly from Palomino Fino grapes. Sweeter Sherries are blended with Pedro Ximénez grapes, for that dark, deep, luscious experience.

While we’ve left out so much in this article that we’re expecting a stern email from the Spanish Wine Federation, we hope this short introduction will have shown you the immense variety of Spain’s wines. Maybe you’d even like to buy some? (Please do, because it will help get us out of trouble with the Spanish Wine Federation.) We’ve got some suggestions below.

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