Spain is a large country of tremendous diversity, and even the briefest glance at its physical geography, its dramatic mountain chains in particular, will serve to explain the major regional differences created by so many natural barriers.
Its history is intricate and complicated, and Spain did not even begin to come together as a nation until the late fifteenth century. The foundations of its infrastructure were essentially the creation of its two primary foreign masters: the Romans (from the third century BC to the fourth/fifth century AD) and the Moors (from 711 till 1492).
A brief history
The former provided not just roads, aqueducts, and amphitheatres but thirst and a major export market. Indeed, by the second century AD Rome alone had worked its way through some 20 million amphorae of Spanish wine - ranging from the sweet wines of Málaga, through the claretes (or light reds) of Amandi in Galicia (a favourite, particularly with spiced lamprey, of the Emperor Augustus), to the Catalan reds of Tarragona and whites of Alella. Hispanic success was such that strict new planting limitations had to be imposed on the colonies in an effort to protect native producers.
The latter, despite the prohibitions of the Koran and the consequent symbolic uprooting of many Spanish vineyards to produce raisins, were even by today's standards quite enlightened. The customs of the Christian population were tolerated, including the production and sale of wine, which, although only on a reduced scale, was enough to keep the sector active. After the final vanquishing of the Moors and the expulsion of the Jews production steadily increased as demand rose in the expanding colonies. Many foreign merchants became involved, filling the vacuum left by the Jews.
Later, in the sixteenth century, after Christopher Columbus discovered America, the Sherry town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda became an important transatlantic trading port and the wines from the area are alleged to have been the first to enter America. Thus Jerez/Sherry is to Spain as Port is to Portugal, and merits its own dedicated guide.
Later still was the French intervention in Rioja; though the true winemaking revolution comes politically after Franco's death in 1975. The early 1980s saw a veritable technological revolution with the advent of stainless steel. Recent years have some vast sums pouring into new wineries, but with Spain currently the worst recession-hit European nation, many of these look set to fold, restoring something of a natural balance.
The DO System
The main definitions of Spain's DO (Denominación de Origen), its wine quality control system, in ascending order of quality are:
Vino de Mesa: A basic table wine made in unclassified vineyards, may be blended, and bears neither a vintage nor details of grape variety.
Vino de la Tierra: The equivalent of the French vin de pays; table wine of defined geographical origin, most usually from a large, autonomous area (ie. Vino de la Tierra de Catalunya); it will show a vintage and give details of grape variety.
DO (Denominación de Origen): The equivalent of the French VDQS or AC and Italian DOC and covers wines made within the tightly defined parameters of specific Consejos Reguladores (regional regulating council).
DOCa (Deonominación de Origen Calificada): As above and seen primarily in Rioja, where some years ago it was introduced with the idea of applying it purely to the very top producers. Unfortunately, this provoked so much jealousy and back-biting that virtually all Rioja is now DOCa!
Beyond this, specific mention should be made of Cava, which is the only DO based on winemaking method (in essence these are sparkling wines made by the traditional method) rather than geography.
The final two categories worthy of note, and the most recent, are Vinos de Pago and Vinos de Pago Calificada (pago is the Spanish term for vineyard). These apply to single vineyard sites with a unique microclimate and outstanding quality record.
There are more than 70 DOs, and laudable as the system may be, there is one major downside to autonomies running the system. This is that DO status can be awarded as an encouragement rather than as a recognition of real efforts, improvement and progress. The Canary Islands, for instance, have an astonishing nine DOs, and yet surprisingly few wines of real quality and interest, beyond a handful of quite delightful dry and dessert whites made from the malvasía variety. By the same token, Rioja is now administered by no fewer than three autonomous governments: the region of Alavesa by the Basques, Alta by La Rioja, and Baja by that of Navarra.
Indigenous Grape Varieties
Spain has a plethora of native grape varieties – perhaps as many as 600 – though all major production is based on something like 20% of these.
The most important varieties are:
- Pansa Blanca
- Pedro Ximénez
- Prieto Picudo
- Tinta de Toro (tempranillo in Toro)
- Tinto Aragonés
- Tinto Fino (tempranillo in Ribera del Duero)
The best known of these is of course the ubiquitous tempranillo, which some claim to be related to pinot noir, the result of so many monastic pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela (see Galicia). It means ‘the small early one', given its size and early ripening, but it also has various different names according to where it is grown, and can behave rather differently depending on where it is planted and the soils and climate it has to adapt to.
Foreign Grape Varieties
Spaniards drink very little foreign wine (the last available statistic shows consumption of this at less than a third of 1%!). Most are more than happy to drink domestically produced cabernet, chardonnay, chenin blanc, gewürztraminer, malbec, merlot, petit verdot, sauvignon blanc, syrah or blends thereof. Whilst international styles of Spanish wine can be quite impressive, quite rightly, it is the indigenous grapes that are the focus of The Wine Society's buyers, as these make the most interesting wines.
This ancient kingdom immediately South of Navarra has Zaragoza as its major city and consists of four DOs:
Calatayud – the most westerly and highest, specialising mainly in old-vine garnacha, which is usually dark and full-flavoured
Campo de Borja – whose excellent garnachas and tempranillos are usually juicier and more supple, with more pronounced red fruit flavours
Cariñena – the southernmost and most homogeneous
Somontano – the furthest east and coolest, in the foothills of the Pyrenees; concentrating most successfully on international styles made from gewürztraminer and chardonnay, but merlot and cabernet too.
The Balearic Islands
With a total population of around 900,000, these islands – which lie immediately south of Barcelona – comprise Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, Formentera, and Cabrera, together with a few other tiny ones. The language – mallorquín – is similar to Catalan but rather thicker.
As ever with islands, individuality prospers; but unlike the Canaries, here common sense has prevailed and there are just two DOs: Binissalem (with some 15 producers) and Plá I Llevant (with some 11).
Prior to phylloxera there were some 27,000 hectares of vineyards in Mallorca but with tourism such a major industry this is now more like 700 hectares. Its black varieties - manto negro, callet, fogoneu, and fogoneu francés – produce dark, densely flavoured reds in a similar vein to garnacha. Tempranillo and monastrell and foreign varieties, notably cabernet, syrah, merlot, and pinot noir have also found their way here. For whites, in addition to the indigenous moll, prensal blanco, moscatel/muscat, parellada, and macabeo, there is also chardonnay.
The whites are equally interesting, with tremendous fragrance and often a certain minerality. But high local demand and consequent high prices mean these are rarely seen beyond the islands.
Castilla y León
Valladolid, the principal city of this region was once the capital of Spain (before the move to Madrid in 1561) and remains in many ways the spiritual, religious, and military capital of Spain. It has five DOs:
El Bierzo – way up in the north west, on the Galician border, specialises in godello and mencía, less successfully with the former, but more so with the latter. Outside the DO proper there is the truly fascinating prieto picudo grape variety, which can produce big, opulent reds with good structure and marvellous purple fruit flavours.
Cigales – to the north of Valladolid, though mainly famous for its dry, brisk rosés has a couple of tiny producers who major on spectacular old-vine tempranillos.
Rueda – to the south of the city, makes some of the best modern, commercial whites in the whole of Spain. These come mainly from the gooseberry and greengage-scented verdejo variety (literally the large green one), sauvignon blanc (it was the first Spanish region to plant this in any quantity), and occasionally viura, to fill out the middle palate.
Toro – to the south west, is perhaps the most rural with the most extreme climate and its tinta de Toro wines can be very rustic. There are a couple of top producers, mainly growing their vines on pebbly soil and producing big, low-yield, black-fruit scented wines of enormous power (usually 14.5%), which age spectacularly in the short-term.
Ribera del Duero – is of course the star DO of the region. The Duero river modifies the extremes of the climate in this high, austere region which is prone to dramatic hailstorms. Denominated in 1985, its success is due to the quality of the tinto fino which produces dark, fresh, elegant, intense wines of good structure.
Sheep, together with the local piglets (all of which can be killed in their infancy) provide the main local diet, which, with its marvellous local hams and black pudding, go so perfectly with its wines. Vegetarians will, incidentally, do better in Rueda, whereas fans of major charcuterie will be in their element in Toro.
Castilla la Nueva
An hour's drive south of Madrid lies the giant DO of La Mancha – so large that its principal white grape variety, the airén is the World's number one grape variety. Production is accordingly enormous, but, consisting as it does of Spain's central meseta, the climatology is simply too extreme to make wines of finesse (hence the relatively new Vinos de Pago DOs) and the area has therefore catered for volume and low prices instead.
Meanwhile, Valdepeñas DO lies at the southern tip of La Mancha and really is, as its name translates, a valley of stones. Here, cencibel is king making correct, value-for-money wines. Beyond this, there is of course Don Quijote and Manchego cheese; but in such a vast, relentlessly empty place it is hardly surprising that the former went mad and that the latter provides just a smidgen of tangible reality.
A whole nation and trading empire prior to its uneasy and still problematic incorporation into Spain, this autonomy comprises four provinces: Barcelona, Gerona/Girona/, Lérida/Lleida, and Tarragona. There is much to be said for the Catalans, who are hard working and imaginative, speak their own language (a cross between medieval French and Spanish) and whose culture is above all collective, centred on group activities – whether in their dancing (the sardana, for example) or fondness for building human castles (castells) at fiesta time.
Culinary specialities include butifarra (a kind of boudin blanc/white pudding), calçots (chargrilled baby spring onions) served with romesco (a puré of ground almonds, tomato and olive oil), sobrassada (an unctuous, orange-coloured, spreadable, chorizo look-alike), and of course the ubiquitous tomaquet/pan con tomate - which is simply a baguette, sliced in two and rubbed with raw garlic, drizzled with olive oil, and into which ripe, beef tomato is rubbed - though woe betide he who questions the order in which this is done, for everyone has their own, vehemently held theory!)
Alella – just 20 minutes north of central Barcelona, originally granted DO status in 1956, is the second smallest DO in the Spanish peninsula and in addition to making Cava, is home to the pansa blanca variety (a distant cousin of the xarel-lo), and makes exuberantly fruity and quite distinctive whites.
Penedès – 30 minutes west of Barcelona is the centre of the Cava industry. It’s still whites are consequently made from the same trio of local grapes, macabeo, parellada and xarel-lo together with chardonnay and are by and large clean, lemony and short-lived.
Its reds, usually made from tempranillo, cariñena, garnacha, cabernet, cabernet franc, and merlot, can often be dry and tannic.
Priorat(o) – on the other hand, originally granted DO status in 1954, is an hour south in Tarragona province and produces truly memorable, deeply scented reds made from blackberry-flavoured garnacha, grown on pure schist (or llicorella) and often embellished with cariñena, cabernet, merlot and syrah. Some fragrant quirky whites are also made here, usually from garnacha Bbanca, xarel-lo, pedro ximénez, and sometimes very old, super lemony macabeo too.
Montsant – immediately south, uses similar varieties but from totally different soil producing somewhat spicier styles.
Costers del Segre – immediately north in Lérida/Lleida province, on the other side of the mountainous backbone that forms the northern limit of Priorat(o) consists of three quite distinct zones. It has in the last decade, almost entirely due to the efforts of Tomás Cusiné, acquired a serious following for its smooth, elegant, minerally and aromatic reds made essentially from tempranillo, merlot and cabernet. It also makes some fresh, poised whites.
The final DO worthy of note, Empordà or in Spanish El Ampurdán, is in Girona province just 20 kilometres short of France. Its second largest city, Figueras/Figueres, is home to the fabulously loopy Dalí Museum and is also a good place to eat mushrooms. The beautiful, rocky coastline is largely unspoilt. Here, on limestone and sometimes slate soils, and with the aid of a brisk, all year around wind (the Tramontana) there are two types of producers. Either boutique wineries making pricey wine from foreign grapes or growers who concentrate on lively whites and reds from local varieties such as garnacha blanca, macabeo, and muscat for the whites and light, minerally, fruit led reds made invariably from garnacha and cariñena.
This picturesque area is the logical geographic extension of Portugal. Roughly the size of Belgium, it consists of four provinces: La Coruña, Lugo, Pontevedra and O(u)rense.
With its fabulous Atlantic coastline, west and north, this is a veritable fish and shellfish paradise on its extended coastline. But the interior, into which few venture, is as spectacular with huge valleys, mountains and rivers and big-flavoured culinary traditions based on pork and the traditional killing (matanza) of home-reared pigs.
The language (gal(l)ego) is a combination of Portuguese and Spanish with major Celtic influences, no doubt due to a shared fishing culture, and is reflected in its deep-rooted musical traditions which involve bagpipes and country dancing.
This is, however, a damp part of the world with more rainfall than Scotland and its vast tracts of forest – primarily eucalyptus and maritime pine – have made it the centre of important wood-based industries such as chipboard and plywood. MDF was, incidentally, invented here.
Rías Baixas DO, the home of albariño is located in five separate sub regions spread over the lower west Atlantic coast: In its heartland, the Salnés Valley in Pontevedra, the wines tend to be pure albariño, planted on granite and trained on high trellises to keep the grapes ventilated and away from the often soggy ground. But the region now stretches right down to the Portuguese border where other grape varieties such as loureiro (which has a delicious, subtle rose-petal character) and treixadura (which has a distinctive catty apple character) find their way into a myriad different blends.
The popularity of albariño is such that from perhaps 20 wineries here in the mid 1980s, the number has now swollen to over 400. The albariño grape variety, in its natural/uninterfered-with state should taste of ripe, often baked, sweet apple, although perhaps due to the influence of the Atlantic, it can have an underlying flinty, spicy character.
With bottle age, the wine becomes quite golden in colour and takes on a marked petrol character. Because of this and perhaps because of the influence of pilgrims from northern Europe to Santiago de Compostela, some have linked the grape with riesling.
Galicia: The Interior
The DOs of the interior comprise Monterrei, Ribeiro, Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra.
Ribeira Sacra (sacred riverbanks), in Lugo Province devotes itself primarily to red wines made from the very awkward mencía variety, which has yet to be properly 'tamed'. Galicia's emblematic black variety, it goes very well with the pork-based dishes beloved of the interior and is often served in small saucers or tazas and referred to as Ribeiro - the region best-known for its production. But perhaps what it does best is light, dry, appley whites made from treixadura, often blended with palomino.
Monterrei, meantime, is in a straight line east from Vigo, lies in the province of O(u)rense and is a DO whose northern extreme is virtually Mediterranean in climate but whose southern and more interesting sector is Atlantic and so far south that it's almost in Portugal. The first Spanish settlers of California came from this region taking vines with them and it is curious that this gorgeous but unassuming Galican region gave its name to Monterrey, CA.
Here, a handful of producers major on doña branca (a white variety all about pure lemon and with major acidity), treixadura, and godello (unctuous peach and greengage). Combined, they produce truly excellent wines of body, subtlety (honeyed almond, lavender and lemony apple) which truly grow with bottle age.
Finally, at the eastern-most central extreme, lies Valdeorras the homeland of Spain's best godellos, which, in the right hands makes superb whites.
This most famous of all Spanish wine producing areas now comprises some 600 wineries. Its creation is largely due to the French, who came here in the late 19th century to escape phylloxera. They revolutionised its winemaking and two of the most prestigious bodegas, Murrieta and Riscal, made Marchioneses in recognition of their achievements. Prior to this friendly invasion, the region had primarily been a producer of white wines. As Spain's primary fine-wine producing region, Rioja deserves a guide in its own right.
About the author
Carlos Read has been the Spanish correspondent for a number of wine magazines as well as the primary source of the Spanish section of Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Guide for a number of years.