Grape growing and winemaking in Spain need little introduction. Spain is an ancient wine-producing country second only to France and Italy in production. Spanish wine is at least 3,000 years old, with vines in the Sherry region planted around 1100 BC (although the Islamic Moors put a stop to it for nearly 800 years until their defeat in 1492).
But international recognition was slow to come to Spain. The Franco regime—which was rumored to have drunk mostly French wines—did nothing to rebuild the traditions or improve the quality; in fact, the regime retarded innovation and the development of modern winemaking techniques that had swept through the rest of Europe. For this reason, most American consumers have never tasted a Spanish wine and are confused by the labels and quality laws. Since the 1970s, though, there has been an influx of new thinking, equipment and winemaking.
The Wine-Growing Regions and D.O.s (Denominacion de Origen) of Spain
There are currently 73 official production areas, including 64 D.O.s and two D.O.C.s, which include Rioja and Priorat.
Situated in the extreme north and west of the country, green Spain is just that as a result of its proximity to the Atlantic, cooler temperatures and more rainfall than the rest of the country. Rias Baixas and Ribeiro in Galacia and Bierzo are regions of notable quality.
The hot and dry region of central Spain is home to some incredibly old vines and estates, especially where mountains break the plains. Very diverse, Castilla Leon in the north and La Mancha in the south are important areas.
A long and diverse coast makes for some of Spain’s most noted wines such as Priorat, Monsant and Penedes. And the famous sparkling wines of Spain originate in Cava.
Duero River Valley
Famous wines such as Vega Sicilia and Pesquera come from this region’s Riberadel Duero, as well as some impressive upstart wines from Toro and Rueda.
High summer heat in the most southerly region helps produce this area’s famous fortified (think Sherry) and dessert wines—even brandy. Local white wines are now being promoted as well.
Ebro River Valley
This mountainous region is well known for its important Rioja and Navarra. Further south, wines of high value are made from the Carinena. South of the Pyrenees Mountains brings us Somontano, where the exotic Moristel is made along with Tempranillo and some varietals, including Merlot.
Spain’s seventh region includes the Canaries in the Atlantic and the Balearics in the Mediterranean Sea, offering moderate temperatures of the local harvests.
Spanish Destinations of Quality
2003, a new classification, D.O. Pago, was added to the laws of wine quality. Pago must be wine and fruit from a single estate, deemed one of Spain’s greatest, even though it may lie outside of any specific D.O. or D.O.C. Also in 2003, “VCIG” was added as a step between VT, the second-lowest quality level and the D.O. level. Vino de Mesa (table wine) is the lowest quality rating. D.O. is above VT, and then D.O.C., the highest, requires certification by a national committee. For the past 15 years, only Rioja was a D.O.C., but in 2003, Priorat was added as the second D.O.C. of the country.
Spanish Aging Criteria
Rather than just tell us how long and how a wine has been aged, the Spanish prefer to use these descriptors:
Javen: Young wines with little or no barrel aging
Crianza: Two years of age, one year in barrel
Reserva: Three years old, one in barrel
Gran Reserva: Five years old, two years in barrel
This is an exceptional time to explore and taste the wines of Spain. Seemingly, two paths of winemaking have emerged, according to Doug Frost, wine writer and Master of Wine. A few years ago, Frost authored a comprehensive guide to Spanish wines with individual tasting notes for Wines of Spain. As Frost sees it, the larger, international companies have embraced a softer, milder style of winemaking with wines made to be enjoyed young and with food. In Rioja, the granddaddy of Spanish wines, many follow the tradition of big wines with lots of barrel aging that are intended to be drunk only when they are ready—and not before. We can only hope some bodegas will maintain these traditions.
Perhaps there is a third path as well. With the creation of many more recognized wine regions (D.O.s) now numbering 64, lots of new quality is coming from regions you may have never heard of, new even to those of us in the wine trade. Albeit a bit confusing, the world of Spanish wine is shaking up—and shipping out—some pleasant surprises to the delight of American consumers.
Suggested Spanish Wine/Travel Websites: