If you’re not familiar with Spanish wines, then you may be surprised to know that this is the third-largest wine producing country in the world and Spain is said to have the largest area of land dedicated to planted grapevines.
Over the years, Sherry was really the only Spanish wine known to most wine drinkers but this has changed to include many great wines including Rioja, Cava, Ribera del Duero and Penedes (along with many more). Traditional varietals include the red grapes Tempranillo, Garnachoa, Carinena and Monastrell and the white grapes Macabeo and Parellada among others. Yet, Merlot, Muscat, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are also part of Spain’s repertoire of wines with some fantastic blends as well.
Levels of quality
Similar to the French system, Spanish wines are regulated by quality levels which start at vino de mesa (VdM) the lowest category of table wine and cannot be sold under the name of a region or vintage. The next level on the quality scale is Vino Comarçal (VC) which is a regional wine, followed by Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) which is a country wine with a slightly higher quality than Vino Comarçal. At level four, we have Vinos de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica (VCIG), Denominación de Origen (DO) is like the AOC level in France and at the top of the chain is the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa or DOQ) which is the highest classification.
The first region to receive the highest honor of DOCa is Rioja. Rioja is the most famous red wine from Spain made from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuela grapes. White Rioja is the Maçabeo plus Malvasia Riojana and Granacho Blanca grapes. Red wine Rioja is typically aged in oak casks and is best paired with strongly flavored food dishes. White Rioja wines are dry or medium sweet with a range of heavy to mild oak aromas.
Priorat was the next region to receive the DOQ classification with this region producing of some very powerful dark high alcohol reds including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Tempranillo.
Ribera Del Duero is another region in Spain that produces some exceptional red wines. It is known for producing one of Spain’s most expensive wines called Vega Sicilia; matured at least five years in oak. This area produces reds from the Tempranillo grape including Pesquera which is made from 100% Tempranillo as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
La Mancha is the largest DO in Spain and produces one third of all light wines including reds, whites and rosé. These are high in alcohol content and used often to blend with other wines in Spain. Other noteworthy wine growing regions include Rueda, known as one of the best white wine producing regions of Spain. Penedès having a great reputation for producing many good sparkling wines especially Cava. Cava is a sparkling wine made from local grapes. The wine is fermented using the same techniques as the way Champagne is produced. The local grape gives the wine a more earthy flavor than Champagne. Freixenet and Codorníu are both Spanish wineries that are known for producing quality Cava.
Other terms to know
Joven (formerly known as Sin Crianza) means that the wine was not aged in a cask. Vino de Crianza are red wines that must be matured for two years following harvest of the grapes plus six months in barricas which are smaller oak casks. Therefore you will not be buying any vintages from 2004 until 2007. Reserva red wines must be matured for three years plus one year in the barricas. Gran Reserva red wines must be matured for five years plus two years in barricas. Similar requirements apply to rosé and white wines for each aging criteria. You may also see other terms describing aging designations for the VdM, VC and VdlT wines such as Noblé (matured 18 months in cask), Añejo (matured 24 months in cask) and Viejo (36 months aging in cask).
History in the Canaries
One area outside of continental Spain is the Canary Islands. There are some spectacular and other worldly vineyards to discover here specifically the El Grifo winery on the island of Lanzarote. With the presence of volcanoes on the islands, wineries are surrounded more by moonscapes of black rocks and ash colored soils. This area has a reputation for being a top notch wine in Europe back in the 16th and 17th centuries even receiving accolades by Shakespeare who often received an allotment of wine as a form of appreciation for his role.
Spanish wines deserve to be explored for they have an impressive history as much as the French and Italian wines. This fantastic microcosm of old world wines brings a whole new world of experiences.