Spanish Wine In Brief

Below you’ll find a brief overview of Spanish wines, including a general introduction, wine law, and grape varieties.  This is the more detailed info for those who are looking for some background.

I’ve also created a great practical guide to drinking Spanish wine, the styles, identifying the Spanish wines you like by grape or region, figuring the best values and where you can find them.  To get this useful guide just sign up for my monthly newsletter here.  In my newsletter, I’ll give you an update on the latest on Spanish wine and food and some top wine picks.

My Top Ten of Spanish wine

…or a total simplification of Spanish wine!  ….but useful sometimes…

  1. Super dynamic wine market
    • Getting world recognition
    • Lots of change in every corner of the country!
  2. Huge wine producer
    • Most vineyards in the world
    • 3rd in wine production
  3. Red wine country
    • Some of the top red wines in the world
  4. Whites wines
    • Attractive, great value…improving very rapidly
  5. In Spain wines ordered by region, not by grape variety
    • 70+ designated wine regions or wine appellations (Denominacion de Origen (DO))
    • Most important: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat
    • Many rising stars: Jumilla, Toro, Bierzo, La Mancha etc.
    • Aging designations on label: crianza, reserva,  gran reserva
  6. Most important grape variety: Tempranillo
    • More than 600 indigenous grape varieties…but only 20 commercially important today
    • More and more international varieties:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay etc.
  7. Spanish people drinking much less but drinking higher quality wine
  8. Exports very important…40%
    • Top customers are:  UK, Germany, U.S.
  9. Tendencies:
    • Old vines…lots of them
    • Single vineyards/terroir wines…both relatively new concepts in Spain
    • International grapes and unique indigenous grapes
    • Criticism: Blockbuster wines…high alcohol, super extracted, over-oaked
    • Criticism: Wines to win points from wine critics (Parker effect), comercial wines
    • Less appellation wines
    • Less wines in traditional categories such as crianza, reserva and gran reserva
  10. Conclusion:  Very high quality, consistency and still excellent prices. Some of the best value wines in the world!

A few more details…

  •  Long history of winemaking (3000 years!)
  • Most vineyards of any country in the world (15.5%)
    • Third in world wine production after France and Italy (13%)
  • Just over 50% of wine production is red
    • Around 60% of production is table wine, 40% is quality wine
  • More than 600 indigenous grape varieties
    • But just 20 of them account for 80% of wine production
    • Tempranillo:  most important red grape in terms of quality and quantity
    • International grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon on the rise
  • Vineyards in all 17 autonomous regions
    • La Mancha: (the greatest surface area of vines in the world)
    • Rioja:  most densely planted in Spain
  • Classification system for quality wine based on regional wine appellations
    • There are over 70 Denominación de Origen (DO) spread throughout Spain
    • DO: wine appellation with strict rules controlling viticulture and wine production
    • DO wines often have indication of oak aging:  crianza, reserva, gran reserva
    • Other categories of quality wine: DOCA, VCIG, Vino de Pago
  • Lesser classifications are now being used for some top wines
    • Vino de la Tierra and Vino de Mesa
    • Used in areas outside designated DOs
    • Also used by some winemakers looking for more flexibility
  • Over 40% of Spanish production is exported (increasing)
    • Top customers in terms of value:  UK, Germany, USA
  • Spain also has amazing cavas, dessert wines, and fortified wines at great values

Some opinions (only mine!)

Change, change and more change!

Exciting times as change touches every area of Spain’s wine industry.  New areas are up and coming and showcasing lesser known varietals, while the better known areas such a Rioja and Ribera del Duero are faced  more competition and forced to produce even better wines.  This healthy competition extends itself to styles: ultra modern, blockbuster styles, traditional styles and more restrained terroir styles must all compete for consumer approval.  Hopefully there is room in the market for the finest examples of all the styles as the diversity only benefits the consumer.

A red wine country

Spain is known for its red wines and makes some of the finest reds in the world.  It also makes tons of great value, easy drinking reds that consistently deliver.  Why so much talk of reds?  Spain’s climate lends itself towards reds, but there is an equally important cultural reason for the domination of the color red.  For most spaniards wine is red  and only red.  There is a saying in Spain that the best white is a red!  So the focus for a long time was on reds.  This is changing a bit, but most Spaniards have still not been exposed to top notch whites, or even tried a white with some oak aging!

…but don’t overlook the whites!

Winemakers are changing Spain’s whites with exciting new projects and turning out some remarkable wines, both with and without oak, from some very unique terroir sites.  There are many misses of course,  but the standard is improving all the time.  Meanwhile the simple, un-oaked styles of whites that the Spanish enjoy deserve more respect than they get.  they are consistently fresh, easy to drink, and easy on the pocket.  You just have to know the areas and grape varieties that are more reliable.  For me you can’t beat the region Rueda with its attractive un-oaked Verdejos for some good everyday value quaffing.  Perhaps that’s why it the basic bar white in most of Spain!   Albariño, the most beloved of whites to the Spanis, can also be lovely, but is not as consistent, and pricier.

Obsessed with Rioja and Ribera?

Rioja still makes up over 50% of the fine wine market and remains the go-to wine for most Spaniards.  I like to call it “Riojitis”…which sounds better in Spanish!   Unfortunately a lot of the basic Rioja served at many bars and restaurants in Spain is pretty awful stuff.  So many faces still light up at the word Rioja…even the bad stuff….

There are regional variations, but in Madrid, Ribera de Duero has become the more fashionable alternative to Rioja.  Madrid palates have taken to the more robust and oaky wines from the region just to the north.  These wines are generally much more expensive than many Riojas and have become somewhat of a status symbol in the capital as well.  Ribera del Duero reds can be excellent when not suffering from excessive oak but they are often excessively priced as well.    There are less expensive ones of course but it’s harder to find a tasty good value Ribera….Rioja is easier in that regard.

I often find it a shame that there is not a better offering of other regions on wine lists in many parts of Spain, except in wine bars or specialized restaurants.  There are so many excellent wines from regions that offer much better value…and there is something to be said for variety.  In Madrid you are often left with two choices:  Ribera or Rioja!

Spaniards don’t like wine anymore?

A worrisome trend to the wine industry is that continue a decades long trend to drinking less wine. Many factors have affected this decline.   Wine has been replaced by other drinks at Spanish meals and when drunk is often reserved for longer family meals on the weekend.  Stricter drunk driving laws has had a great impact on wine consumption in bars and restaurants.  While wine aficionados have multiplied, many segments of society, especially young people have lost touch with wine as part of Spanish culture.  All of these tendecies are difficult ones to address.

Meanwhile Spanish wine exports have been growing and thriving, reaching over 40% of appellation level wines.  It’s become a critical market for wineries as the domestic market shrinks.  Despite tough economic times, overall Spanish wine exports have continued to outperform their neighbors.  Spanish wineries need to continue to find effective ways to compete in an increasingly competitive world market.

Some beautiful things

  •  The old, old vines:  what a wonderful wealth of lovely old bush vines that abound….a goldmine!  Though blends used to be the norm, winemakers are now highlighting hese special parcels.  Some extraordinary wines come from these vineyards, including some of my favorite Grenaches
  • Great grapes:  love that Mencia, that Garnacha, that Godello! But so many more,:  Prieto Picudo, Callet, Bobal, Cariñena etc.etc. Also some fun stuff with the international varieties
  • The leaner terroir wine appearing of late:  though I love and appreciate some of those intense fruit bombs, I have an abiding love for a different more austere type of intensity….and we’re seeing it more and more with interesting projects all over Spain
  • Beautiful, cheap wines in Spanish restaurants and bars:  though I amy complain about the selection…you can’t beat the prices!  Now that I live in the States….I appreciate them all the more!

Some not so beautiful things

  • Still way too many over-oaked wines
  • More marketing needed:  Spanish wines still need more exposure.  The government-run organization Wines from Spain tries…..
  • New obsession with points by critics…it arrived late in Spain but was inevitable!
  • Better enotourism experiences needed in many areas….don’t want to lose the authenticity, but a little more thoughtfulness and practicality needed
  • Not enough recognition for Spanish wines:  the wines deserve more!

Love me some Spanish wine!

There is so much to love about Spanish wines.  Everyone can find the style they like to sip or to go with any food:

  • A rich variety of red wine styles for every occasion
  • Simple, attractive whites for everyday
  • The “new” whites, complex, mineral, age-worthy
  • Delightfully fruity, yet dry rosados
  • Fresh, harmonious sparkling cava
  • Complex, fascinating, misunderstood sherry
All of this variety and much more comes at a super reasonable price that few countries, if any, can match.  A bonus is great consistency that comes with relatively little vintage variation.
What’s not to love?

Spanish Wine Regions

There are over 70 designated wine appellations or Denominacion de Origen (DO) in Spain and for more informsation on the primary ones you can check here.

An easier way to describe Spain’s wine regions is using the regional approach taken at the Wines from Spain website.  They divide the country into 8 regions that are somewhat coherent stylistically in terms of wine.  it is a generalization, but it is useful to simplify a complex wine landscape.

See the Wines from Spain map below and my brief look at the 8 regions below that.

Wines From Spain USA Regional Wine Map

Green Spain

Called so because of the abundant rainfall, Green Spain has traditionally been known for light, aromatic whites, the most famous of which is Albariño.  Albariño continues to be a star, but there are so many other great wines from the area, including standout reds from the Mencía grape and delicious, good value whites from Godello.

The most important DOs to look out for are:  Rias Baixas, Bierzo and Valdeorras

Green Spain also includes Basque country, whose  unique spritzy wine Chacoli (Txacoli) is improving greatly in quality.  It would be most similar in style to Portugal’s vinho verde and is fun to try.

North Central Spain

Some of Spain’s top reds come from this area, much of which is situated along the Duero River Valley.  The semi-arid conditions and a large differential between day and night temperatures allow for the long, slow ripening of Tempranillo in areas such as Ribera del Duero and Toro.  These reds are intense, with deep fruit and impressive tannic structure, yet they retain good levels of acidity.  Other up and coming DOs in the ares include Cigales, Arribes, Zamora, Tierra de Leon and Arlanza.

Also important for red wine is the regional category of wines called Vino de la Tierra de Castilla Leon…some top class wines are made under this category as well as many great value everyday wines.

Whites play a definite second fiddle in the area with one tremendous exception, that of of Rueda, producing consistently delicious, mostly inexpensive, white wines from the Verdejo grape.  Albariño may be Spaniards favorite white, but Rueda is the workhorse white wine of Spain, served in every bar from coast to coast.  The more basic wines are simple, but very acceptable and the top un-oaked Verdejos can have some complex aromas and minerality paired with a wonderful mouthfeel…..lots of yummy oaked versions too!

The Ebro River Valley

Rioja is the top area in this region, Spain’s largest fine wine appellation, with an excellent, Atlantic-influenced climate that can produce some very elegant wines.  Reds are heavily based on Tempranillo, though there are some other interesting varieties such as Mazuelo, Graciano and Garnanacha.  Stylistically there is a bit of a challenge at the moment as lighter, elegant traditional styles face off against bolder, bigger modern styles.  The pletora of styles and lack of indication can lead to some confusion amongst consumers.  Rioja , based on Viura (Macabeo), have been improving greatly recently.

Navarra is Rioja’s next door neighbor and has long been in it’s shadow.  It is known within Spain largely for its lovely, cheap rosados.  This is unfortunate because both the reds and whites are deserving of a closer look.  There is an enormous variety in varietals (indigenous and international) and styles, perhaps contributing to image problems.  But the wines are top quality and amazing value.  Favorites include Chardonnays and old vine Grenache.

Also grouped in this region are the wines of Aragon, which have been gaining recognition for quality and value of late.  Long known for jug wines, the region first changed its reputation in the area of Somontano with interesting, fresh wines made largely from international varietals.  Since then the DOs of Campo de Borja, Calatayud and Cariñena have gained a reputation for interesting old vine Grenache.

The Meseta

Very hot and dry, this area is one of the biggest wine regions in the world, producing mostly jug wine.  In the last decades good value quality wine has started to change the area’s reputation, offering reliable, consistent wines at cheap prices.  Tempranillo is the most important varietal but numorous varieties are represented.  DO La Mancha is the big player but also up and coming are: Manchuela, Ribera del Jucar, Méntrida, Uclés, etc.

Also important in the area is the regional category of Vino de la Tierra de Castilla and Vinos de Pago, which are single estate appellations.

Included in the Meseta area is Vinos de Madrid, which used to be quite terrible, but has improved greatly, with some exciting old vine projects.  Unfortunately production is quite limited so prices can be high.

Finally there is Extremadura, which has a lot of potential…some interesting wines have been produced from the numerous varieties that are are planted.  Great improvements have been made,but much remains to be done.

The Mediterranean Coast

This encompasses a huge area and is very varied stylistically.

Cataluña is a huge wine region with 12 DOs alone and huge climatic variations.

Generalizing a bit….the coastal wines tend to be lighter, more elegant and international varieties have become very popular in reas such as Penedés.  The inland, or mountain wines, tend to be more intense and concentrated and are often made from indigenous grapes.  Priorat and Montsant have come to represent the mountain wines with their intense, brooding, long-lived wines, while Penedés is the top producer, qualitatively and quantitatively of the coastal areas.

Catalan are very unique and quality is often quite high, but they can be more expensive than average for Spanish wines.

Another very important category in Catalan wines is DO Cava.  Though cava can also be produced in Rioja, Valencia, Extremadura, and Aragon, 90% of it is produced in Cataluña.  Cava is Spain’s quality sparkling wine category and has traditionally beenmade from three grape varieties, Macabeo, Parllada and Xarel.lo.  Today, some producers are also making it from Champagne grape varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The second large area of the Mediterranean Coast is the Levante Region, which is one of the warmest areas of Spain and makes wines with a real Mediterranean character.  This area was known solely for jug wines only a couple fo decades ago.  Know there are some really spectacular wines made as well as some nice, inexpensive everyday wines.  Jumilla was the DO that first was recognized for quality wine and Monastrell (Mourvedre) is its quality grape, though there is an enormous variety of grapes, indigenous and international, planted.  Other up and coming DOs include:     Utiel-Reuena, Yecla, Valencia, Bullas and Alicante.

Andalucia

The traditional star here is DO Jerez or sherry, a unique fortified wine produced in 15, mostly dry styles.  It is a difficult wine to market and sell today and its currently suffering from an image problem.  Due to this, sherry cost very little for the quality of the wines.

Sherry means something different to everyone.  In Spain, most people stick to the two driest, lightest forms, Fino and Manzanilla.  To many people in the UK and the US sherry is a sweet wine, such as a cream sherry.

While in Andalucia you can still taste the traditional sweet fortified wines that remain popular in many areas, though they are rarely exported.

Many great table wines are now being made in various higher altitude areas in Malaga and Grenada… despite the heat, the higher altitude allow for some great sites.  Grape varieties are numourous, though international varieties have become very popular.

Islands of Spain

The Balearic Islands, especially Mallorca is producing some very interesting wines in the last decades.  Most wines in the area are made merely for the tourist market, but there are a few wineries doing much, much more.  The local grape varieties, such as Callet and Mantonegro,  are very interesting, and can produce remarkably elegant and fresh wines from such a a hot climate.

The Canaries also produce wines largely for the tourist hordes, but there are some great exceptions.  The whites from Malvasia, Listan Blanca, and many more, are especially good, but there are some interesting reds coming on from Negramoll, Listan Negra, and others.

Spanish Grape Varieties

There is no doubt that the great red grape, Tempranillo,  is king in Spain….it is by far the most important grape variety in terms of quality wine production and respect.  It sometimes seems people would prefer to drink a bad Tempranillo than order another grape variety! Tempranillo is a wonderful variety and offers a great variety of wines depending on the region and the local variant of the grape.  Though considering by many experts a “noble” grape”, some also would perhaps criticize Tempranillo for its lack of a distinct personality that shines trough in any terroir.

Times are changing and this is a good thing because Spain has some really interesting indigenous varieties other than Tempranillo. Spain does not have the rich diversity of indigenous varieties that is seen in italy or Portugal.  Many varieties were lost or reduced to non-commercial levels after the phyloxera blight at the end of the 19th century.  Much of the replanting was done with easier varietals and eventually with Tempranillo.  Luckily today there is some interest in reviving some of the local obscure varietals.

Meanwhile some of the great red varieties to watch out for are:  Garnacha (Grenache), Mencia, Bobal, Monastrell (Mourvedre) etc.

Outstanding white varieties include: Verdejo, Godello, Albariño, Viura, and Palomino

You can also find the all usual international grapes planted in Spain and being made into mediocre to very good wine.

For more detail on the major indigenous Spanish varietals see here

Spanish Wine Law

  • EU wine law recognizes two main categories of wine:
    • Table wine and quality wine
  • Spain has two levels of table wine:
    • Vino de mesa:  no region, grapes, or vintage on label
    • Vino de la Tierra (VdlT):  equivalent of Vin de Pays in France
      • An officially recognized area but below DO level
  • Spain has four levels of quality wine:
    • Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG)
      • New category: areas must wait five years to ask for DO
    • Denominación de Origen (DO).
      • Over 70 exist
      • Regulated by a consejo regulador (governing body) with detailed rules
      • Guarantees origin not always quality
    • Denominción de Origen Calificada (DOCa)
      • DO must wait ten years to attain
      • Only Rioja and Priorat so far: stricter rules
      • In reality does not guarentee more quality
    • Vino de Pago:
      • Single estates of exceptional quality
      • Must comply at least with DOCa rules
  • Aging requirements: national DO law…some regions set stricter limits
    • Terms generally appear on front labels
    • All have a back sticker with category
    • Joven or vino de cosecha:  no oak aging (generally should be drunk from latest vintage)
    • Roble:  Seen some oak (no legal requirements)
    • In reality categories are mainly seen only on reds
    • Many wineries are ignoring traditional categories and have only “cosecha” sticker for wines with oak aging

Crianza table