Spain has long been the underdog of the viticulture world, with many oenophiles looking down their noses at wine that originated within the country’s borders. Since Spain is a dry, arid climate, it was hard for critics to comprehend that any Spanish wine regions could produce anything worthwhile. For awhile, it was assumed that while Spain might be the authority on sherries, there was little else it’s vineyards could offer. Well, that point of view has changed quite a bit now, with more and more wine coming from Spain with each new decade. In fact, Spain is the third highest wine producer worldwide, right after France and Italy. Lovers of wine everywhere are returning the verdict; there’s a lot to love about Spanish wine!
If you are new to the great wide world of wine, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of it; the classifications, the pairings, the vintage…it’s enough to make your head spin. Luckily, it isn’t too hard to catch up; learning all about the ins and outs of tasting, pairing, purchasing, and–best of all–drinking wine is easy enough with the right information. Consider this a crash course on Spanish wine regions: everything you need to know about Spanish wine and where it comes from.
Wine Classification in Spain
There is a lot that goes into qualifying wines from any country, and there are laws that dictate how wines can be qualified. These laws can be pretty stringent and a little convoluted, when you factor everything from single-estate winery requirements to the specific grape types that can be used in each wine class. We’ll keep it basic though–there are essentially six Spanish wine qualifications. We’ve listed them here, from the highest quality to the lowest. The first four are especially pertinent because they have to do with the wine from specific regions.
Vino de Pago
Sometimes abbreviated as VP, this is the highest quality of Spanish wine, restricted to very limited geographical areas, and only 11 estates currently make wine of this quality. If you fancy yourself something of a wine conoisseur, this is the wine that you would splurge on.
Denominacion de Origen Calcifada
To meet the DOCa qualification, wine must come from Spanish wine regions that consistently make quality wine. There are two regions that currently produce DOCa wine.
Denominacion de Origen
Mainstream wines come from regions that are qualified under the DO label, and it comprises the majority of Spanish wine. There are 66 wine regions that produce Denominacion de Origin wine.
Vino de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica
There are two Spanish wine regions that produce wine of this quality, and this qualification usually denotes a region that has just begun to produce wine, thus having an as-yet unproven reputation. You’ll find the up and comers here, so don’t shy away from wines in this category.
Vino de la Tierra
“Country wines” fall under this label, meaning that they do not meet the regional specific quality standards laid out in the first four categories, but that they can still use a regional name when labeling their wine.
Vino de Mesa
“Table wines”, as they are known, are the wines that may only label their origination as “Product of Spain” and may not use a regional wine. While it’s true that not every wine in this category is as good, it’s important to know that some vintners will voluntarily classify their wines as such in order to experiment with different wine making techniques or grapes.
Further Wine Classifications
Though these next classifications have less to do with the Spanish wine regions themselves, any conversation regarding Spanish wine labelling laws would be wholly incomplete without them. These each have to do with the aging and oaking process in regards to certain vintages. Again, from highest quality to lowest:
To be labelled a Gran Reserva wine, a red wine must be aged for at least 5 years, 18 months of which must be spent in oak, and 36 months of which must be spent in the bottle. Similarly, white and rosé or rosado wines must be aged for 4 years, with 6 months of oaking.
Reserva red wines must be aged for 3 years in order to label themselves as such, and 1 year of that time must be dedicated to oaking the wine. Whites and rosados, on the other hand, must be aged for 2 full years, with 6 months of that time in oak.
Crianza reds are aged for 2 years, with 6 months of that aging time being dedicated to oaking the vintage. Crianza whites and rosados must be aged for one year with 6 months in oak.
“Vino joven” literally means “young wine”. If you encounter a Spanish wine with this kind of label, or one that says sin crianza, that means that the wine is unaged, with little time spent in oak, or that the wine is unoaked entirely. Recently, unoaked wines have enjoyed a little piece of the spotlight as a sort of trendy libation, so there’s no need to turn your nose up at younger wines. Some of them are quite good, actually!
Now that you know the basis for wine classification in regards to Spanish wine regions and wine age, let’s move on to the regions themselves. If you were keeping count, then you know there’s no way we could talk about each and every one–there are too many! Instead, we’ll explore some of the more well known Spanish wine regions, many of which are popular tourist destinations for people who love wine. Who knows, maybe you’ll see one on this list that sounds so appealing you’ll want to hop a plane and see it for yourself!
Rioja is by far the most popular of all the Spanish wine regions, with viticulture cred that goes all the way back to the Phoenecians in Iberia. The region itself is made up mostly of the Spanish autonomous community of La Rioja, but also occasionally used grapes from Navarre as well. While some of the wine coming out of Rioja are white or rosado, deep-bodied, rich red wines are what made the Spanish wine region famous. Tempranillo grapes are primarily used in the wines that come out of this region, that varietal being native to northern Spain, where the arid climate with its hot days and cool nights is absolutely perfect for its cultivation. The majority of wines that come out of Rioja are of the DOC or DOCa variety. Rioja makes excellent white wines too, so don’t overlook them! The most common grape varietal for Rioja blanco wines is the Viura.
Remember those age classifications that we went over in the previous section? You will most often see them applied to Rioja wines, with wines available in Rioja sin Crianza, Rioja Crianza, Riojo Reserva, and Rioja Gran Reserva. Rest assured, wines from this region are favored for a reason: they are very, very good.
Navarra is another big name in DOC red wines, but instead of the Tempranillo grape varietal, the Grenache, or, as it is called in Spanish, Garnacho reins supreme, a varietal that is particularly useful in the production of some especially spectacular sweet Navarran rosados, where the grape’s lack of coloring compounds and distinct sweetness make for a perfect medium bodied wine. Just because Navarra is known for its roses, thought, doesn’t mean you should discount its red or white wines. This Spanish wine region is really coming in to it’s own.
After Rioja, Penedès is the next most fames of the Spanish Wine regions. Why? One word: Cava. Cava is Spanish sparkling wine, and you are probably already familiar with the most famous Spanish cava: Freixenet. Penedès is actually located within one of the larger Spanish wine regions, Catalonia, which is only one of eight Spanish wine regions permitted under Spanish law to label Spanish sparkling wine as Cava. The other seven are Aragon, the Basque Country, Castille and Leon, Extremedura, Navarra, Rioja, and the Vallencian community. Since 95% of all Cava comes from Penedès alone, you can see why it is so important to the production of champaña.
Guijoso is one of the only Spanish wine regions that produces coveted Vino de Pago classified wines. It is a private estate located in the province of Albacete, and is made up of just one vineyard, called a bodega on a staggering 75 hectacres of land. According to Spanish law, the grapes that go into Guijoso wine must be grown only on the Guijoso estate, where Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Merlot, Tempranillo, Cabernet sauvignon, and Syrah varietals thrive. If you have a little money to spend, try the estate’s prized Magnificus Syrah, perfected in Guijoso’s pebbly, diurnal climate.
A lot of the criticism leveled at Spanish wine was targeted at the country’s lack of white wine before the 1980s. And while it is true that much of the wine from Spanish wine regions are rich, deep red wines, it just isn’t true that there aren’t a variety of white wines to choose from. Enter Rías Baixas, located in the Galician autonomous community, home of the Albariño grape varietal. Albariño has a distinct, fruity taste that make the wines from this region particularly refreshing. This particular varietal is grown using granite posts, which is different from the grow methods used in famous Spanish red varietals like Tempranillo, which use trellises and drip irrigation. Try a Rías Baixas white vintage, and you won’t be sorry, we can promise you that. Over 90% of the wine coming from this Spanish wine region is white, and of those, the vintages that use the Albariño grape varietal predominately rein supreme.
As noted, these are just a few of the many, many Spanish wine regions that produce the wonderful Spanish wine that the world has come to appreciate. There is so much more to explore, all across the country, that it would be absolutely impossible to cover them all here. If you’re intrigued, maybe you’ll look into learning some basic Spanish to make navigating all of the information about Spanish wine regions an absolute cinch. After all, Spain, like the wines it is famous for, is a diverse and fascinating country, one which can be more easily understood in its native language. Of course, Spain is only one of many, many countries that produce the wine that has captured the hearts of oenophiles everywhere, so perhaps you would like to explore the vintages of California. Certainly, you can use what you’ve learned here, along with a simple course in how to best pair wine with food, to entertain your friends and family with a delicious wine flight. ¡Aplausos!