Spain is one of the hidden gems in the wine world in terms of the quality of wines produced and great values available. Everyone knows Spain has great food! Think of Iberico, the best ham in the entire world, paella, gazpacho and tapas! It only makes sense that there are phenomenal wines to go with all that great food. Spain has three million acres of grapes, the most acreage planted in grapes of any other country in the world. It is the third largest wine producing country in the world after France and Italy. You might wonder why the largest acreage in grapes doesn’t equate to the most wine, but the difficult terrain and the hot, dry climate limit the yields possible. There are over 400 varieties of grapes grown in Spain. There are amazing varietals that are native to the country such as Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Albariño, and Palomino, as well as every important international varietal.
As in France and Italy, wine has been produced in Spain for thousands of years, but the quality has improved dramatically in the last few decades. Inclusion in the European Union has increased investment in wineries, specifically in technology and irrigation, which has only been allowed since 2003. A period of Francophilia also changed the source of much of the oak used in barrels from American to French oak, and increased the length of time Spanish wines are aged in the barrel, resulting in better red wines and a surge in popularity. Another great advantage in buying Spanish wine is that the Spanish release their wines when they are ready to drink. This means you can buy mature red wines that you do not have to cellar to enjoy at their peak.
We will divide this short study of Spanish wine into four categories: 1) the white wines of the Rías Baixas and Rueda; 2) the big red wines of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, and Toro; 3) the sparkling Cava wine; and 4) Sherry, for which it has been famous for centuries.
1. The Rías Baixas (pronounced ree-as by shuss) is a small area in the Galician Coast in the extreme northwestern corner of Spain, directly north of Portugal. This region is famous for its beautiful Albariño, white wines. This region is on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and the food of the region is focused on the fantastic fish and shellfish that are abundant there. It is no surprise that the wine of the region is a great compliment to this fare. These wines are bone dry, pale golden in color and have notes of green apple, pear, citrus fruit, melon and peaches paired with warm spice and loads of minerality. The Rueda, by contrast, is in the north central part of Spain. The local grape is the Verdejo. It is thought to have been brought from southern Spain, and is bright, refreshing and much like the Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux.
2. The big red wine regions are all in the central section of the country except for the Priorat, which is in the Northeast. The Rioja used to have the Spanish fine wine market to itself. The region’s reputation was established in the late 19th century, when the Bordeaux négociants came there to purchase wine for blending because the phylloxera epidemic had wiped out substantial portions of their vineyards. The wines of the Marqués de Riscal and the Marqués de Murrieta were a testament to the potential of the region. These wines are all predominantly Tempranillo, blended, usually with some Garnacha. They are spicy, yet supple, with layers of oak tamed fruit. They are, quite simply, delicious. The Ribera del Duero rivals Rioja in its ability to produce marvelous red wines. It was barely recognized in the 1980s, but become a powerhouse in the last few decades, largely due to the efforts of Vega Sicilia, the great Spanish wine maker, who established the regions ability to produce great wine with the native Tempranillo, initially blended with Bordeaux grapes for a more elegant, cosmopolitan appeal. The area now produces almost exclusively Tempranillo blended lightly with generally only Garnacha. These reds are full bodied with exceptional character with notes of dark fruit, plum, blackberries, black currants with supple tannins. The Priorat is a small region in the northeastern corner of the country, near Barcelona. It went completely unnoticed until the late 1990s when it became renown for producing some of Spain’s most exciting, expensive and most powerful wines. These wines are special because, of course, of the topography and the type of soil. The area is protected by a large ridge of craggy outcrops, the Sierra de Montsant, and the soil is a dark brown slate that is heavily laden with quartzite and other minerals. The grapes that are grown here are Cariñena (Carignan) and Garnacha. These are blended with some recent additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The yields here are low, the wines are intense, and the prices are often high. The Toro is another wine region that has developed recently, just in the last two decades! Several high-profile individuals have helped bring this wine region to the forefront. Again, Vega Sicilia was a factor, along with the Lurton brothers from Bordeaux, the Rollands, the expert wine consultants from St. Emilion, and the French actor Gérard Depardieu, who invested in and developed wineries in the region. The wine produced here is a local variety of Tempranillo, the Tinto de Toro. These wines are deep crimson, and explosively fruity.
3. Cava, Spain’s version of Champagne is produced in the region of Catalunya. In fact, 95% of all Cava is produced there. The method of producing this sparkling wine is the same as the method used in Champagne, but the grapes are different. Cava is made from the native varietals of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada, known as the finest of these. Chardonnay is cultivated in very small quantities, and Pinot Noir is used for the increasingly popular pink Cava. Lower yields and longer bottle aging are steadily improving the quality of the sparkling wines from this region.
4. Lastly, we come to the least understood of Spain’s great wines, Sherry. Sherry is produced in Andalucía, in the extreme southern part of the country, near Gibraltar. For centuries, this was Spain’s greatest wine region. Recently, it has lost favor in the much of the wine world. It is such a rich, wonderful, varied type of wine, there is no doubt it will one day, probably in the not too distance future, have a resurgence of popularity. Although this is a complex topic, deserving of a column all its own, we will “hit the high points” of the three basic types of Sherry. The varietals used to make Sherry are Palomino, used to make dry Sherry, and Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, both used to make dessert types of Sherry. Dry Sherry is divided into Fino, which is light and very dry, and Oloroso, which is rich and full, but also dry. These two types of dry Sherry then develop into further styles based on how they are aged.
Spanish wines are worth the time and effort to understand and explore. They are of exceptional quality and are some of the best values on the market today. There is something for everyone in this vast country!!! Explore with abandon!!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.