Tapas, flamenco and sangria: those are the automatic descriptors of Spain, but the beautiful Iberian Peninsula has much more to offer! After living in Barcelona for almost three years I absolutely fell in love with the vibrant and festive culture of this country, reflected not only in its people but also in its culinary tradition. Spain is filled with flavors from the ocean, mountains and the unique Mediterranean forest, la Dehesa, combined with the aromas of thyme, rosemary, olives, garlic, peppers… and, of course, wine. Matched by the rich and varied gastronomy, the diversity of wines produced in Spain is mainly due to the numerous grape varieties, soils, regions and climates present along its territory.
In this article, I want to give my readers a summarized overview over the most representative wines of this country that I have called my home. In the future, I plan to write more detailed articles on each region, especially the ones I could not mention here.
In the eastern and southern coasts, the communities of Murcia, Valencia and Catalonia are blessed by a Mediterranean climate with mild winters, hot summers and low annual rainfall where red varieties thrive and obtain rich perfect levels of ripeness. In Catalonia the Denominations of Origin (DO) Priorat, Montsant and Empordà produce warm, powerful and concentrated Garnatxas, usually blended with Cariñena and that go from young and fruity versions to more fine and complex examples with the influence of oak. The vineyards in Catalonia are located in varied levels of elevation, from plateaus close to the Mediterranean Sea to steep slopes in the foot of the Montserrat Massif reaching heights of 610m above sea level. In these altitudes winemakers make use of cooler climates, more suitable for growing white varieties like Xarel.lo, Macabeu and Parellada (autochthonous from this region and known to be the main grapes for the production of Cava). Some well-known DO’s for white wine production are Alella and Terra Alta. In Alella, wines of Xarel.lo (here called Pansa Blanca) are light, fresh and often have some residual sugar and Terra Alta stands out for their fresh, structured and silky white Garnatxas.
South from Catalonia is the Community of Valencia, the sweetest area of Spain, known for the traditional almond nougat from Alicante and the naturally sweet Moscatel wines produced by fortifying the most from perfectly ripened Muscat of Alexandria grapes. These wines are sweet, fresh and highly aromatic: a dessert in a glass. Among some of my favorites are the ones produced in the area of Marina, inside the Alicante province. This region also produces drier versions and even sparkling wines from Muscat, allowing you to not only enjoy this grape with desert, but also as an aperitif before your meal.
Going further south along the eastern coast of the Spain we arrive at the region of Murcia, kingdom of the Monastrell grape (Mourvèdre) and home of some of the ripest and most concentrated red wines from Spain. The best examples come from the DO’s Jumilla, Yecla and Bullas, which produce excellent quality wines for very affordable prices. Top wines usually cost no more than 20€.
In the bottom part of the Iberian Peninsula lies the community of Andalucía; birthplace of Sherry wine and witness to one of the oldest winemaking traditions in Spain. Wines from the DO Jerez-Xérèz-Sherry are produced in the coastal region of Cádiz, and can only be made in the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María using the following white grape varieties: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel. Wines from Jerez are fortified wines that can undergo a biological and/or an oxidative aging (both of which I will explain with detail in other post) using a very unique system called solera. This dynamic process consists in the arrangement of several wood vessels on different levels. The level closest to the ground is called solera and is the one that contains the oldest wines. The levels on top of the solera are called criaderas with the 1st criadera being the first row above the solera. There can be any number of criadera rows above the solera, which depends on the specific producer. The highest row of the system contains the youngest wines. When wine from the solera vessels is removed, the same quantity is replaced with wine from the 1st criadera, which, in turn, is filled with the same amount of wine from the 2nd criadera and so on. The top row is then refilled with new wine. It is important to mention that only around 1/3 of the wine inside the vessels is taken out, meaning that a bottle of Sherry will normally be a mixture of all the vintages that the winery has produced since using that solera. These wines can be classified as Fino, Manzanilla (only when is made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda), Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez, going from extremely dry to lusciously sweet, in that same order.
Similar examples are produced in the Andalucía province of Córdoba, under the Denomination of Origin Montilla-Moriles where Pedro Ximénez is the main variety. The wines made in this region have the same classification than the ones from Jerez, but Finos are usually unfortified.
The climate becomes more continental as you get deeper inland, where summers are very hot and winters very cold. The most important aspect in these regions is the high variation of day and night temperatures – especially during the summer months. Cool nights help the grapes preserve good levels of acidity and very hot days allow them to reach a high content of sugar, resulting in rich, tannic wines with pleasant levels of acidity.
In the south-central area of Spain lies Castilla-La Mancha, the largest wine region in Spain and in the world, with 474,000 hectares of vineyard. Almost 30% is planted with the white variety Airén – usually used to produce Brandy de Jerez.
Above Castilla-La Mancha is Castilla y León, where the DO’s of Rioja and Ribera del Duero are located. The main variety here is Tempranillo (called Tinta del País in Ribera del Duero) and, although both areas use the same grape, their styles tend to be very different. Rioja usually has fresher red fruits aromas with a higher acidity, while Ribera del Duero tends to give riper black fruit aromas, mainly due to the warmer continental climate of the area. Close to Ribera del Duero, the DO Toro is known for producing robust and rich wines, also from the Tempranillo grape (here called Tinta de Toro). These wines are ideal to warm you up on a cold winter night or to enjoy with friends at a BBQ. These three regions offer a great variety of styles that go from young and fruity wines, some even with semi-carbonic or carbonic maceration, to richer wines with intense oak meant to age for decades and classified as Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
On the border with Galicia, DO Bierzo stands out with the grape Mencía. From here the temperature drops and the wines are fresher. Nevertheless, the profile of the Mencías of this region is riper and more intense than the ones produced in Galicia.
The white DO from Castilla y León is Rueda, famous for its aromatic, light and fresh whites of Verdejo, often blended with Sauvignon Blanc.
To the northwest part of the Peninsula lies the region of Galicia. Here, the vineyards are exposed to a strong Atlantic influence with cool temperatures and high levels of rainfall. The DO Rías Baixas is known for their white wines from Albariño They are fruity and highly acidic. Ribeira Sacra produces elegant, fresh and light bodied red wines from Mencía, great to pair with blue fishes. The DO Ribeiro makes Treixadura wines, which tend be fresh and unctuous and often made with lees contact.
We leave the Iberian Peninsula and travel to the Canary Islands, an area known for volcanic soils, pre-phylloxeric vines and a very unique landscape. In the DO Valle de La Orotava, 150-year-old vines can be found and are traditionally grown using a unique system called “cordon trenzado”, in which the plants are braided together creating beautifully braided vineyards.
Another important region in the Canary Islands is Lanzarote, where the vineyards are planted on volcanic soils and are usually protected from the strong winds of the island by stonewalls that surround groups of vines and are sometimes even built around one single vine. These vineyards really look as if they come from another planet.
The main grape varieties from the Canary Islands are Listán Negro and Listán Blanco (Palomino), which often give peppery aromas thanks to the influence of the volcanic soils.
Based on data taken from the Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OVI), in 2016 Spain had over one million hectares of vineyard, with 90 areas classified as DO and 41 as IGP (Indigación Geográfica Protegida). The wine areas are spread along every one of the 17 Autonomous Communities into which the country is divided – evidence of how important wine is for the Spanish culture!
This post only introduces you to some of the regions that are producing wines of exceptional quality and which I consider a must try if you are interested in discovering the huge variety of styles that Spain has to offer. Of course, there are many more hidden gems to be found in the smaller regions and I plan to take a closer look on some of them in future posts to come. Until then, I hope that this article will help those of you new to Spanish wines and give you a head start with basic knowledge for the next time you stand in front of them in the store. Salud!