About Spanish Wines
A tale of two worlds is how Spain is described, modern vs. traditional. There are those, who have been producing wine for centuries (just as in Bordeaux and Burgundy) and do so in the same way their ancestors always have. There are also those, who are pushing the envelope by experimenting with more modern techniques of winemaking.
It is a great credit to Spain that even the most modern producers use its indigenous grape varietals and have thereby managed to hold onto Spain’s winemaking identity and heritage. While there are some regions that have taken to planting increasing amounts of international varieties, the focus still remains on indigenous grapes.
All in all, Spain is a warm climate located to the south of France in latitude. Parts of Spain (namely Jerez) almost touch northern Africa. However, Spain is a large country and cannot be lumped into just one type of climate. Each wine region has its own distinct microclimate. The cooler areas are the coastal ones, such as the regions along the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. The closer one gets to the center of the country, the hotter and more arid it becomes.
Grapes of Spain
Tempranillo: This is the most ubiquitous grape of Spain. It is the main stay and backbone of two of the country’s most famous wines: Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Different regions have different names for Tempranillo, it is also known as Tinta del Pais, Cencinbel, Ull de Llebre, Tinto Fino, and Tinto del Toro, among others. It makes wines of structure and age-worthiness that have aromas of dried red currant, and red cherry with notes of smoke, cedar, and leather.
Garnacha: This grape is more commonly known as Grenache, when it grows in the south of France, such as the Rhône Valley. It is a thin-skinned grape that is often blended with other varietals. In Spain, it comprises the majority of the best wines of Priorat and is also used as a blending grape in Rioja and in Cava sparkling wines. It produces dried red fruit flavors with herbal and spicy notes.
Cariñena / Mazuelo: Used all over Spain and also found all throughout the Mediterranean corridor, where it often goes by the name Carignan. It is typically used as a blending grape in Rioja and is also the other top grape of Priorat. It brings structure, weight and tannin to the wines, as well as blue fruits like plums and dried blueberry.
Albariño: This white grape is one of the country’s most famous. It grows mostly in northwestern Spain in the Autonomias of Galicia. Its best examples come from Rías Baixas DO on the Atlantic Ocean coast near the border of Portugal. The wines are tropically scented with layers of sea spray, notes of orange and bergamot oil. They brim with juicy acidity, which makes them great with food.
Viura / Macabeo: Along with Xarel-lo and Parraleda, this is one of the three main grapes used in the production of Cava, Spain’s most famous sparkling wine. It is also used as the main grape for the white wines of Rioja. It is a dense grape with flavors of green apple and pears that brings weight and texture to its wines.
Palomino: There is only one place, where Palomino is made into quality wine and that is in the southernmost part of continental Spain, Andalucía. Here, it is made into the famous oxidized and fortified wines of Sherry/Jerez. While Palomino does not make for great table wine, it brings something precious to the table when it is aged and fortified in the Sherry-making process.
Wine Regions in Spain
As with the most of the rest of Europe, Spain regulates wine production regionally, restricting which types and styles of wine can be produced from which grapes in each region. These regions are situated inside each of Spain’s Autonomias (similar to states or provinces) and are delineated into DO (Denominación de Origen), and DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada) quality levels with DOCa referring to the pinnacle of the scale. There are only two DOCa in all of Spain: Rioja DOCa (arguably Spain’s most famous region), and Priorat DOCa. The rest of the named specific regions fall into the DO category.
Rioja (La Rioja)
Without doubt, Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine growing region. People have been growing wine grapes there since the 2nd century BC. The wines are based on the Tempranillo grape variety, but are usually blended with Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo (along with a few others). Rioja is divided into three distinct growing regions: Rioja Alta is the coolest of the three and makes the finest wines, Rioja Alavesa is just southeast of Alta and makes wines of high tannin and structure, and Rioja Baja, the warmest of the three, which makes simple, everyday drinking wines.
Priorat DOQ (Catalonia)
Priorat has seen a great resurgence in production over the last decade. For a long time, many of these extremely steep slopes had been abandoned because they were too difficult, dangerous, and expensive to maintain and work. They are home to some of the oldest vines in Europe though. The black schist and quartz soil (known locally as Llicorella) is resistant to the vine disease phyloxerra, so these vines were spared when the pest ravaged the vineyards of Europe. Made from mainly Garnacha and Cariñena with the possible additions of Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon, and others. Look for these wines to be among the best Grenache based wines in the world (with costs to match).
Ribera del Duero DO (Castilla y León)
This is one of the most famous and most respected regions of Spain. It is home to Spain’s most famous winery Vega Sicilia and its wines are based on Spain’s most famous grape, Tempranillo (at least 75% of the wine must be comprised of Tempranillo).
Rueda DO (Castilla y León)
This tiny little DO between Ribera del Duero and Portugal is a region where white wine flourishes. It used to be known mainly for fortified wines, but now it is most famous for its light, dry wines made from Verdejo. You will often see a little Sauvignon Blanc blended in as well.
Toro DO (Castilla-La Mancha)
This region has seen rapid growth as of late. After becoming a DO in 1987, this region had four wineries established here. After leaks revealed that the famed estate of Vega Sicilia had been quietly purchasing land in Toro under an assumed name starting in 1997, this region exploded in growth! Now there are around 40 wineries making wine here. The Tempranillo, Malvasia, and Garnacha grapes tend to be dominant in the region.
Rías Baixas DO (Galicia)
Most known for its whites made from the Albariño grape. This DO sits right on the border to Portugal along the Atlantic coast. Its wines are lively, spicy, and highly acidic with tropical fruit flavors.
Valdeorras DO (Galicia)
This DO rivals Rías Baixas as the best white wine in the northwest of Spain. Made predominantly from Godello, the wines are fresh, light, clean, crisp, and very refreshing. The influence from the Atlantic Ocean can almost lend a saline-like quality to the wines.
Cava (Pais Vasco/ Catalonia / La Rioja / Aragon / Valencia / Extramadura / Navarra)
Cava is one of the oldest sparkling wine appellations in Europe. It is always made by the Traditional Method or Champagne Method, which stipulates that the second fermentation (creation the carbonation), always takes place in the bottle.
Cava is not actually one region but a patchwork of regions with defined borders throughout the country that are approved to make it. The allowable white grapes are mainly Xarel-lo, Macabeo (aka Viura) and Parraleda, though Chardonnay and Malvasia may also be used. The allowable red grapes are Pinot Noir, Garnacha, Monastrell, and Trepat. Trepat may only be used in the production of Rosé.
Certain terms on labels of Spanish wine carry legal definitions as to how old they are before being released and how they were aged. They can be clues to the quality of the wine in the bottle as well. Here are some of the more common ones you will encounter.
- White & Rosado (Rosé): Wine must be 1 year old and spent at least 6 months in wood.
- Red: Wine must be 1 year old and spent at least 6 months in wood. In Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Navarra it must be at least 2 years old and spent a minimum of 1 year in wood.
- White & Rosado (Rosé): Wine must be 2 years old and spent at least 6 months in wood.
- Red: Wine must be 3 years old and spent at least 1 year in wood.
- Cava: Wine must spend a minimum of 15 months on the lees.
- White & Rosado (Rosé): Wine must be 4 years old and spent at least 6 months in wood.
- Red: Wine must be 5 years old and spent at least 18 months in wood. In Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Navarra, it must be5 years old with a minimum of 2 years in wood and a minimum of 3 years in bottle.
- Cava: Wines must spend a minimum of 30 months on the lees.
Food & Wine Pairings
Rioja & Ribera del Duero (Tempranillo)
- Char Grilled Filet Mignon
- BBQ Pork Tenderloin
- Roasted Rack of Lamb
- Serrano Ham
- Braised Oxtail
- Smoked Beef Brisket
- Venison Tenderloin
- Braised Pork Cheeks
Rías Baixas (Albariño)
- Grilled Octopus
- Pan Roasted Cod
- Sashimi & Sushi Rolls
- Vinaigrette dressed salads
- Gambas al Ajillo (Shrimp & Garlic)
- Chilled Octopus
- Crab Cakes
- Poached Lobster