The Phoenicians—before the Greeks—brought winemaking to Spain by 1000 BC. Spain has extremely varied climates and terrains, from the arid central plateau, northeast to the sea spray of Rias Baixas in Galicia, south to the sunny climes of Andalucía. Although Spain lies at a lower latitude than wine powerhouse France, 90% of the country’s vineyards enjoy altitudes higher than any of the major French regions—this gives grapes cool evenings in which to rest and marshal their acidity.
Spain’s major rivers define a number of wine regions. The Duero flows west toward the Atlantic, becoming Portugal’s great river of port grape production, the Douro. The Ebro is Spain’s most important, flowing from the Cantabrian mountains in the Basque country through Castilla y Leon, Navarra, Rioja and Aragon, and finally emptying into the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia. Lack of water can be a problem in Spain’s vineyards, but irrigation is now largely allowed.
Spain has a system of quality designations that largely matches that of France, but with some distinctive Spanish twists. The EU’s standard Protected Denomination of Origin (DOP) category, AOC in France, DOC and DOCG in Italy, centers around the Spanish DO, for Denominación de Origen. There are two appellations which quality for the higher level DOCa Denominación de Origen Calificada: Rioja and Priorat. Priorat is in Catalonia, which is striving to break away from Spain, and calls the designation DOQ (Denominacio d’Origen Qualificada) in the Catalan language. Spain has an additional high quality designation called Denominación de Origen Pago used for exceptional single vineyard estates, of which there are about a dozen. The EU’s IGP Indicación Geográfica Protegida is gradually replacing the old Spanish Vino de la Terra system of regional wines. The lowest level is Vino or Vino de España, plain old wine. French winemakers have recently hijacked a tanker truck of this red liquid and vented it out over one of their roads as a protest to its importation.
Spain is divided into seventeen Autonomous Communities that are more or less consistent with larger wine regions. Examples are Galicia, Castile and León, Aragon, and Catalonia in the north, Castile-La Mancha in the center, Andalusia in the South.
Major Spanish Red Wine Grapes
- Tempranillo accounts for a quarter of all grapes grown in Spain. It goes by many local names: Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Tinta de Toro in Toro, Ull de Llebre in Catalonia, Cencibel in La Mancha, Tinto Roriz in Portugal. It has been grown in Spain since the Phoenicians settled in 1100 BC. Tempranillo has thick skin, it ripens early, hence the name (temprano means early), likes chalk soils and high altitudes, and is relatively neutral, taking well to blending with other varieties (Garnacha, Graciano, Cabernet, Merlot) and/or aging in oak.
- Garnacha (Grenache) is powerful and alcoholic, lacks tannins and acidity, is often blended, distinct in Priorat and vinified as a single varietal in Cariñena and Calatayud in Aragon.
- Cariñena (Carignan), distinct in Priorat and Montsant (both in Catalonia)
- Graciano – aromatic component of Rioja
- Monastrell (Mourvèdre) – popular tannic grape in Jumilla and Yecla in the southeast
Major Spanish White Wine Grapes
- Albariño – Rías Baixas, rich, floral, with peach and apricot notes, or minerally, tart, and bracing, like green apples and lemon peels.
- Garnacha Blanca – used in blends.
- Godello – Valdeorras, and increasingly in Ribeiro – apples, pears, texture
- Verdejo – citrus, melon, apple
- Viura – white Rioja – versatile
Rioja DOCa is the spiritual home of Tempranillo, and of Spain’s flagship red wine, Rioja. Tempranillo here is rarely single varietal. It is blended with Garnacha (for body and alcohol), Graciano (additional aromas), and Mazuelo (a range of flavors). Aging in oak is important in Rioja, leading to several possible age statements:
- Rioja – no oak contact
- Crianza – one year in oak, another year in bottle
- Reserva – one year in oak, two years in bottle
- Gran Reserva – two years in oak, three in bottle
A number of other red Spanish wines have similar systems for age-designation.
Note the spelling here, Reserva with an E, compared to the Italian Riserva with an I. In both countries, these terms have legal significance to denote aging. The American label term “Reserve” has no legal significance.
Rioja has three sub-regions. Rioja Alta at higher elevations produces a light, fruitier, more acidic wine. Rioja Alavesa produces wines with fuller body. Rioja Baja is the warmest of the three sub-regions and may often produce deeply colored, high alcohol, low-acid wines. Producers often blend wines from all three sub-regions to attain their ideal mix. When you also factor in the different proportions of grapes and the aging choices, you get great variety.
Navarra, which hugs Rioja to the east, produces largely similar wines.
Priorat DOCa in Catalonia (Catalunia) is the other “one cut above” red wine on the Spanish horizon. It is known for its distinct slate-rich llicorella soil. The roots of these Garnacha and Cariñena vines have to slither their way through faults in the underlying slate to reach deeply entrenched sources of moisture, leading to extremely low yields and proportionately concentrated red wines. Montsant completely surrounds Priorat and is known for high quality red wines, also from Garnacha and Cariñena as well as Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
Tarragona, which is divided into two sections, makes wine in a number of styles. It has long been known for its Garnacha-based late harvest sweet fortified wines as well as the lighter sweet Moscatel de Tarragona. Many of its grapes are destined for the production of Cava, whose region Tarragona overlaps. Dry varietal reds, whites and rosés round out the mix.
The Penedès region of Catalonia produces red wines from Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cariñena, but is much better known as the center of Spanish sparkling Cava production which is dominated by two giant producers, Codorniú and Freixenet. Cava is produced like Champagne but the grapes are Spanish: the strongly flavored Xarello, the floral and aromatic Macabeu, and the fresh acidic Parellada.
Costers del Segre, meaning in Catalonian “banks of the Segre river,” is a harsh arid inland area that produces grapes for Cava as well as Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot, Monastrell, Syrah, and Pinot Noir among reds, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc among whites.
Somotano on our northeast map is in Aragon rather than Catalonia. The region is in the foothills of the Pyrenees, with a continental climate and relatively high altitude vineyards. This is a modern-leaning region producing white wines from Chardonnay, Macabeo and Gewürztraminer and red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Garnacha.
Also in Aragon are the two appellations of Calatayud and Cariñena where some very old Garnacha grows on bush vines at high altitudes under arid circumstances. Large cooperatives see to the winemaking here, giving us big bold varietal Garnacha wines at often astonishingly low prices (thanks in part to significant EU subsidies). Campo de Borja just to the north has a number of cooperatives producing Garnacha and Tempranillo.
Moving west into Castile and León on Spain’s northern plateau, Ribera del Duero follows the Duero river. The appellation has a number of similarities with Rioja, and is its reputational rival. Tempranillo, called Tinto Fino here, is usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot, following the lead of the renowned Vega Sicilia winery. The aging requirements for Ribeira del Duero (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva) are identical to those of Rioja. We should note that Vega Sicilia has no connection to Italy’s Sicily. The Vega part refers to the river’s green vegetation and the Sicilia refers to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, who is revered in the region.
Further down the Duero, Rueda is making a name for itself with white wines from the Verdejo grape, considered by many to be Spain’s finest white, and a value as well.
Further downstream Toro specializes in 100% varietal Tempranillo, called Tinta de Toro here.
Cigales to the north has specialized in clarets and rosés since medieval times, producing today similar wines from Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, and Garnacha Gris as well as the whites Verdejo and Albillo.
Still in Castile and León, Bierzo is a bridge between the cool humid climate of Galicia and the hot dry climate of Continental Spain. Bierzo has great variety, producing whites from Doña Blanca, Godello and Palomino grapes, and reds from the Mencia grape with floral overtones, some unaged, some Crianza and reserva level.
Valdeorras, whose name means “Valley of Gold”, is in the Autonomous Community of Galicia. These are gentle rolling hills. Godello, Donna Branca and Palomino Fino are the white grapes, Mencia, Merenzao, Sousón, Brancellao, Alicante Bouschet, Gran Negro, Tempranillo and Negreda are the reds. The deeply savory and full-bodied white Godello has been gaining many international fans lately, some commentators likening it to fine white Burgundy. A few decades ago, Godello was obscure and nearly extinct. Nearby Ribeira Sacra also produces Godello, and the Galician white Albariño. Ribeiro specializes in the local white Treixadura grape, so often found over the border in Portugal.
The jewel of Spanish Galicia must be Rías Baixas, a cool wet region hard by the ocean. Albariño leads here. The vines are trained on granite posts called parrales to maximize sun exposure and ensure air circulation, thus mitigating the effect of the humidity.
Wee next move south, to the center of the Iberian peninsula. With nearly half a million acres under vine, the La Mancha DO in the Castile-La Mancha Autonomous Region is the world’s largest continuous vine growing area. A continental climate applies here, with cold winters and long hot summers. La Mancha grows Tempranillo (called Cencibel here), Garnacha, Moravia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah among reds, Airén, Macabeo (also called Viura), Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Southwest Spain has its own wine personality.
Manchuela in Castile-La Mancha, gives us Bobal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Garnacha, Merlot, Monastrell, Moravia Dulce, Syrah and the whites Albillo, Chardonnay, Macabeo, Sauvignon Blanc, and Verdejo. Utiel Requena next door in the Valencia Autonomous Region is a specialist in the red Bobal grape, which produces fruity wines that are low in both acidity and alcohol.
Valencia DO is divided into two different zones. The signature white wine of the region is Merseguera, but the region also produces Malvasía, Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel Romano, Planta Fina, Macabeo, Chardonnay, Planta Nova, Tortosí, Verdil, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sémillon.
Reds avail themselves of Monastrell, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Forcayat, Bobal, and Syrah. Because of the hot climate here, aging requirements are shorter. Also, the DO has a rule that allows Bobal from neighboring Utiel Requena to be added to Valencian reds.
Alicante has two separate and distinct sub-zones: in Vinalopó, along the banks of the River Vinalopó in the southern area of the province, Monastrell leads the local red wines. Along the coast in the north, La Marina, concentrates on the white Moscatel grape. Alicante is most renowned for the sweet dessert wine Fondillón, made from overripe grapes.
Yecla, Jumilla, and Bullas (all in Murcia) specialize in the tannic red Monastrell (Mourvèdre), here vinified as a single varietal.
In the south of Spain, Montilla-Moriles is best known for sweet dessert wine from the white Pedro Ximénez grape. Its variants are classified like Sherry, but they are not fortified. Jerez-Xérès is the main Sherry appellation. Manzanilla de Sanlúcar is the home of Manzanilla Sherry. Malaga is a sweet fortified wine from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes. Condado de Huelva produces heavy, full-bodied wines from the local white Zalima grape.