Spainish Wine History
Archaeologists have found evidence of grape seeds in what would become Spain dating all the way back to the Tertiary period, which, for the sake of reference, is just this side of the dinosaur age. The area was home to the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and eventually the Romans, each wave of conquering heroes installing their own culture and bringing with them technology and innovation that helped push forward agriculture, and in turn, viticulture. The Romans were particularly good at exporting goods and building trade relations, thus spreading Spanish wine far bound the settlements in which it was being grown.
That growth continued for centuries, briefly derailed only by the temporary hindrance of ruling Moors and then the blight of phylloxera.
Today only France and Italy produce more wine than Spain, although Spain's more than 2.9 million acres of vine-covered land beats out every other country's planted acreage by leaps and bounds. There are varietals that are recognizable worldwide such as Tempranillo, Albariño, and Garnacha, but for every familiar grape there are dozens that have yet to see a grocery store shelf.In fact there are some 400 grape varieties planted throughout Spain, many of them native.
To try them all would be an immense if not impossible undertaking, but the siren song of Spain’s wine country is strong, and perhaps the satisfaction lies in the attempt rather than the accomplishment.
Spanish Wine Laws
Spain follows the European tradition of dividng wines into two categories: quality wines and table wines.
There are approximately 46 regions classified as the lower quality table wines, a category which further branches off into vinos de mesa (table wines) and vinos de la tierra (country wines).
Higher quality wines, or vinos de calidad producidos en una region determinadal (VCPRD), are divided into four subcategories (listed in ascending order according to quality): Vino de Calidad con Indicació Geográfica (VCIG), Denominaciónes de Origen (DO), Denominaciónes de Origen Calificada (DOCa), and Vinos de Pago (DO/DOCa Pago).
There is also regulated terminology that can be used to describe the age of a wine. Crianza or Vino de Crianza applies to red wines that have been aged for at least 2 years, and white or rosé wines that have been aged for at least 18 months. In both cases a minimum of 6 months of the aging period must be in oak barrels. Reserva wines are aged a minimum of 3 years for reds and again 18 months for whites and rosés, with 12 and 6 months in oak respectively. Finally there is Gran Reserva, a term which can only be used with red wines aged at least 60 months with 18 months in oak barrels or for whites and rosés aged minimum of 4 years with 6 of those months spent in oak barrels.
The most important takeaways regarding Spanish wine laws is that a) there is a heavy emphasis on aging, especially in oak, and b) more aging or a higher quality indication is not necessarily a guarantee that you’ll like the wine. As with everything wine related, your palate and personal preferences are key.
Northern Spanish Wine
For our purposes, the area that comprises Northern Spain runs from Galicia in the west to the Ebro River Valley in the east, but the
Northern Spain is home to a wide array of micro-climates and sub-regions that each has their own identity and a collection of native grapes that reflect similar diversity. Arguably the most important regions are Rias Baixas, Bierzo, Toro, Ribera del Duero, and Rioja. Rias Baixas produces some of the best Albariño in the world
Red: Tempranillo, Mencia, Garnacha
White: Albariño, Verdejo
Top Rated Producers:
Raúl Pérez (Albariño), Amancio Fernandez (Mencia), Vega Sicilia (Tempranillo), Emilio Moro (Tempranillo), Lopez de Heredia (Tempranillo)
Pazo de Barrantes Albariño ($20), Martin Codax Albariño ($18), Marques de Murrieta Rioja Reserva ($25), Creta Roble Tempranillo ($15)
Classic years are 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010
Mediterranean Spanish Wine
The warm, salty air of the Mediterranean and the unique terroir offered by this region’s mineral-driven soil infuse the wines made here with. The most notable areas here are Catalunya, Priorat, and Jumilla. Airén is an indigenous grape grown in bulk along the Mediterranean, although it’s used mostly as a blending agent rather than for single-variety bottlings.
Red: Garnacha, Monastrell (aka Mourvedre),Tempranillo
White: Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo (all used to make Cava), Airén, Verdejo
Top Rated Producers:
Joan Raventos Rosell (Cava, Sparkling Rosé), Gramona (Cava), Alvaro Palacios (Garnacha blend), El Nido (Monastrell/Cabernet Sauvignon), Clos Mogador (Garnacha Blend)
Bodegas Volver Organic Tarima Mourvedre ($11), Bodegas Nisia Verdejo ($17), La Cartuja Priorat Red ($17), Pere Ventura Cava Tresor Rosé ($17), Gramona Grand Cuvee Cava ($20)
Classic years are 2001, 2004, 2005, 2010, and 2012.
Central Spanish Wine
The center of Spain forms a giant plateau upon which sits the country’s capital city of Madrid. The dry, sunny climate and increased elevation create wines that are more fruit forward and that can easily develop vegetal or green notes. Areas like Vinos de Madrid, Valdepeñas, and Ribera del Guadiana are known not known for their big name producers (though there are some notable wines to be sure) but rather for accessible, “everyday” wines sold at bargain prices.
Red: Garnacha, Monastrell, Tempranillo
White: Airén, Malvar, Bobal, Albillo
Top Rated Producers:
Valquejigoso (red blend), Manuel de la Osa (red blend), Bodegas Navarro Lopez (Tempranillo)
Vinos Sin-Ley VSL Garnacha ($17), Bodegas Colver La Mancha Single Vineyard Tempranillo ($17), Bodega La Tercia Yemanueva Airén ($15)
Little variation from vintage to vintage, but 2001 and 2002 do stand out.
Southern Spanish Wine
Southern Spain is important for two big reasons: Andalucia and the Canary Islands. Andalucia is practically synonymous with Sherry; Cadiz is famous for the chalky white soil called albariza, while Montilla-Moriles is home to Pedro Ximenez (aka PX), some of the best fortified wines in the world. Vines on the Canary Islands grow in volcanic soil, giving the wines a smoky, ashy, mineral-driven quality that delivers a true sense of place.
Red: Listán Negro, Tintilla, Tinta Negra (Negramoll)
White: Moscatel, Pedro Ximénez, Palomino, Listán Blanco
Top Rated Producers:
Alvear, (PX Sherry), Jorge Ordonez & Co. (Moscatel dessert wine), Lustau (Amontillado Sherry), Bodegas Toro Albala (PX Sherry), Suertes del Marques (Listán Negro/Negro Mole)
Emilio Lustau Solera Reserva los Arcos Dry Amontillado Sherry ($16), Alvear Pedro Ximinez 1927 ($25 – half bottle), Suertes del Marques 7 Fuentes ($25)
Vintage sherry is very rare, with less than a dozen in the last century. Notable years include 1934, 1945, 1977, and 1983.
The Heart of the Matter
Spain offers wine lovers a way to experience its diverse and splendorous landscape via wines that express terroir in beautiful and interesting ways. From the acid-driven Albariño’s of Rias Baixas to the elegant peppery finesse of reds in Rioja to the essence of volcanic ash that infuse the wines of the Canary Islands, there is so much to explore.
There is also an immense sense of culture and history here, making Spain an essential part of anyone’s wine journey, be it in person or via a glass.