Getting to Know Spanish Wines and Regions

Spain is a hot, dry, mountainous country with more vineyard land than any other nation on earth. It ranks third in the world in wine production, after France and Italy.

Spanish wine has awakened from a long period of dormancy and underachievement. Spain is now one of the wine world’s most vibrant arenas. For decades, only Spain’s most famous red wine region, Rioja, and the classic fortified wine region, Sherry, had any international presence for fine wines. Now, many other wine regions in Spain are making seriously good wines.

The following regions (mapped in the figure below) are an important part of the wine quality picture in Spain today, and their wines are generally available:

  • Rioja, in north-central Spain, has historically been the country’s major red wine region. Three-quarters of Rioja’s wine is red, 15 percent rosado (rosé), and 10 percent white. The principal grape in Rioja is Tempranillo, Spain’s greatest red variety. But regulations permit another three varieties for reds — Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano (Carignan), and Mazuelo — and red Rioja wine is typically a blend of two or more varieties.

  • Ribera del Duero, two hours north of Madrid by auto, is one of Spain’s most dynamic wine regions. Perhaps nowhere else in the world does the Tempranillo grape variety reach such heights, making wines with body, deep color, and finesse.

  • Priorato, mountainous and inaccessible, and one of the world’s hot new regions for red wine, is north of the city of Tarragona, in northeast Spain. Amazingly rich, powerful red wines — made primarily from Garnacha and Carignan, two of Spain’s native varieties — have emerged from the harsh landscape of this region.

  • Penedés is in Catalonia, south of Barcelona. It’s the home of most Spanish sparkling wines, known as Cava. Penedés is also a large producer of both red and white wines.

  • The Rías Baixas region of Galicia, in northwest Spain next to the Atlantic Ocean and Portugal, is gaining acclaim for its exciting white wine, Albariño, made from the Albariño grape variety.

  • Navarra, an area just northeast of Rioja that is long known for its dry rosé wines, is an increasingly strong red wine region. Navarra's red wines are similar to, but somewhat less expensive than, the more famous wines of Rioja.

  • Toro, in northwest Spain, west of Ribera del Duero, is quickly emerging as one of Spain’s best red wine regions. Toro's climate and soil are ideal for making powerful, tannic red wines — mainly from the Tempranillo grape variety.

  • Rueda, west of Ribera del Duero, produces one of Spain’s best white wines from the Verdejo grape. The wine is clean and fresh, has good fruit character, and is inexpensive.

    The wine regions of Spain. [Credit: © Akira Chiwaki]
    Credit: © Akira Chiwaki
    The wine regions of Spain.

You might see some of the following terms on a Spanish wine label:

  • Blanco: White

  • Tinto: Red

  • Bodega: Winery

  • Cosecha or Vendimia: The vintage year

  • Reserva: Wines produced in the better vintages

  • Gran reserva: Wines produced only in exceptional vintages

Spain’s wine laws, like Italy’s, provide for a bi-level QWPSR category: Denominaciónes de Origen (DO) and a higher classification, Denominaciónes de Origen Calificada (DOC), the latter created in 1991. So far, Rioja and Priorato are the only two regions that have been awarded the DOC (also known as DOCa). Wines that do not qualify as DO fall into the table wine category Vino de la Tierra (equivalent to the French Vin de Pays).

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