Several of the wine professionals I recently interviewed about their wine cellars cited Spanish wines as an exciting new addition to their collections. It is perhaps one of the wine world’s worst kept secrets that these exciting wines offer terrific bang for the buck – and some pretty awesome flavor as well.
Here’s an overview of this dynamic region.
Despite the fact that the first vines were planted in Spain around 1100 BC, however, it wasn’t until the 1490s – a mere 30 years before the first vines were planted in the Americas – that a diversity of wine regions and styles began to emerge.
The phylloxera louse and powdery mildew plagues of the mid-19th century came late to Spain’s vineyards. As s result, proven remedies had already been established and their impact was minimal.
With their vineyards devastated, many French vignerons came to Spain in search of greener, uh, vineyards. These winemakers brought their superior knowledge and techniques – such as the use of small bariques – that helped improve the quality of Spanish wines.
The Spanish Civil War and World War II resulted in the destruction of a substantial number of the country’s vines, and many vintners lacked the resources to replant their vineyards or rebuild their bodegas. As a result, the Spanish wine market became dominated by large co-ops producing unremarkable wines.
The death of Franco in 1975 re-opened the door to capitalism and helped create an urban class interested in fine dining and wine. Spain’s induction into the European Union in 1986 furthered this transition, providing a fiscal boost that allowed the wine industry to replant, modernize and improve the quality and image of Spanish wines.
Spain’s wine laws generally follow the French model, with several classifications for table wines and two classifications for quality wines at the Denominacion de Origen (DO) level and above.
Table wines are designated as:
Vino de Mesa, the most basic level.
Vino de Mesa de [BLANK] is a step up, and is used by many experimental producers to distinguish their creations from simple table wines.
Vino Comarcal distinguishes wines from a large geographical area that are typical of the region’s character.
Vino de la Tierra comes from a smaller, stricter, more distinguished region than a vino comarcal. Often, these regions will apply to become a DO.
The first level for quality wine is Denominacion de Origen. All wines must pass inspection with the consejo regulador in order to receive the official back label with the seal and bottle’s serial number.
The second level, Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa) was introduced in 1988 to distinguish areas of special distinction. Rioja and Priorat are the only appellations to achieve this distinction.
Spain also has its own system of classifying wines by their age:
Joven indicates wine sold the year after it is harvested and spend little to no time in barrel. Designed for early drinking, they are typically light and fruity.
Crianza wines must by aged for at least 2 ½ years before they are released. In most DO regions, the wine must be in wood for at least six of those months. Ribera del Duero and Rioja require 12 months in wood for crianza wines, thus releasing them three years after harvest.
Reserva wines are all aged for a minimum of 3 ½ years. The wine must spend 1 ½ years in oak and two years in bottle before release.
Gran Reserva wines are made in great vintages or from selected grapes in very good vintages. They must be aged for five years before release, two in oak and three in bottle.
Many winemakers are allowed exceed these minimum requirements, some doing so by many years.
Although more than 600 grape varietals are cultivated in Spain, just 20 grapes account for 80% of the plantings. While many international varietals grow here, the most important are their native grapes.
Garnacha Tinta (Grenache in France) is Spain’s most widely planted red grape. It does well in the arid, windy conditions that pervade the country. The grape (pictured) is an important component of Rioja blends and is the primary red grape used for Priorat wines.
Tempranillo is the primary grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. It is less alcoholic than Garnacha and ages well. Though the grape has a lot of finesse, it also lacks acidity and benefits from being blended with spicier, richer wines. The grape has other names, depending on the region.
Albarino (Alvarinho in Portugal) is the most important grape of Rias Baixis in Galicia. It produces fresh, peachy, floral wines for early drinking.
Macabeo (Viura in Rioja) is one of three grapes allowed in Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine. It also is the main white grape of Rioja and Navarra. The other key grapes for Cava are Parellada and Xarello, both grown almost exclusively in Catalonia.
Verdejo is native to the cool, damp region of Rueda. Traditionally, it was made in an oxidized, fortified style to mimic sherry. Modern winemakers, however, have turned it into a crisp, refreshing dry wine.
MAJOR WINE REGIONS
Of Spain’s 55-plus DOs, these are some of the most important and best-known internationally:
Though next to Rioja (and overlapping a bit with Rioja Baja), Navarra’s wines aren’t quite in the same class. But to help improve their image, local regulators created some of the most liberal DO regulations in Spain.
As a result, winemakers were allowed to grow a huge range of varieties and had wide latitude to experiment. They do so with zeal, planting French and Spanish varietals and creating wine in a variety of styles, including red, white and rose, young and cask-aged, and single-varietal wines as well as blended cuvees.
Ah, Cava country! Prior to the phylloxera infestation in 1876, most of the vines here were planted with red grapes. In this case, the louse did a huge favor to the wine region. The regrafted vines were primarily white grapes, a nod to the increasing popularity of sparkling white wines.
Fully two-thirds of the region’s vineyards are planted with white grapes and the industry is thriving. Cava is Spain’s only sparkling DO wine.
Carthusian monks established Priorat in the 12th century, producing powerful red wines from Garnacha and Carinena in open earthenware vats. That was the extent of winemaking there until technical innovation took over in the 1980s, when a group of winemakers banded together to purchase land and introduce modern winemaking techniques.
Their unorthodox measures initially denied the region DO status – but then their wines started to garner international acclaim. Priorat is known for its powerful, age-worthy red wines. They are also among the most expensive Spanish wines.
This DO is located in the southwest corner of Galicia, on the northern border with Portugal. With the Atlantic influence and mild temperatures, it is the perfect region for growing Albarino.
Ribera del Duero
This area features nearly ideal conditions for growing grapes. It has schist bedrock with mineral-rich subsoil that provides essential nutrients to the vine and has high levels of chalk that help keep acid levels lower. Although daytime temperatures can enter the three figures, nights remain relatively cool, and there is a significant window when there is no danger of frost.
This was the first region to achieve DOCa status in 1981, a tribute to its greatness as a winegrowing region. But Rioja’s fame was established long before then: By 1560, the area’s winemakers forbade the use of grapes from outside the region and guaranteed their wine’s authenticity with a brand on the goat skins in which they were transported.
The first modern Rioja was produced in 1850, thanks in part to the French influence of the era which led to, among other things, the use of Bordeaux barriques instead of the enormous casks previously favored.
Located in north-central Spain, this is one of Spain’s most highly regarded white wine regions. The native grape Verdejo has been planted here since the 11th century and was used for a while to produce Sherry when the Moorish reign over Jerez significantly reduced supply of the fortified wine.
More importantly for the area, Francisco Hurtado de Amezaga y Dolagaray, the director of Marques de Riscal (a Rioja estate) thought that the region’s hot summers, cool winters and limestone soil were perfect for producing the dry style of white wine that was gaining popularity at the time, the mid-1970s. He encouraged the replantation of Verdejo and introduced Sauvignon Blanc to the region.