Wine Region Spain

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Spain is a hot, dry, mountainous country with more vineyard land than any other country in the world. 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 vivid area. For decades, only Spain’s most famous red wine region, Rioja, and the classic fortified wine region, Sherry, had an international reputation for fine wines. Now, many other wine regions in Spain are are starting to produce good wines. Besides Rioja, the following regions are an important part of the wine quality picture in Spain today:

  • Ribera del Duero: now famous for its high quality red wines, has helped to ignite world interest in Spanish wines.
  • 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.
  • Penedés is a large producer of both red and white wines, as well as being famous for its sparkling wines, known as Cava.
  • The Rías Baixas region of Galicia is gaining acclaim for its exciting white wine, Albariño.
  • Navarra, an area long known for its dry rosé wines, is an increasingly strong red wine region.
  • Toro is quickly emerging as one of Spain’s best red wine regions.
  • Rueda is known for well-made, inexpensive white wines.

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Denominaciónes de Origen (DO) and a higher classification, Denominaciónes deOrigen Calificada (DOC), the latter created in 1991. So far, Rioja and Prioratoare the only two regions that have been awarded the DOC (also known asDOCa). Wines that do not qualify as DO fall into the table wine category Vinode la Tierra (equivalent to the French Vins de Pays).


Rioja, in north-central Spain, has historically been the country’s major red wine region (even if today Ribera del Duero and Priorato are catching up — fast!). 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. Regulations aside, some producers now also use Cabernet Sauvignon in their red Rioja.

The Rioja region has three districts: the cooler, Atlantic-influenced Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta areas and the warmer Rioja Baja zone. Most of the best Riojas are made from grapes in the two cooler districts, but some Riojas are blended from grapes of all three districts.

Traditional production for red Rioja wine involved many years of aging in small barrels of American oak before release, which created pale, gentle, sometimes tired (but lovely) wines that lacked fruitiness. The trend has been to replace some of the oak aging with bottle aging, resulting in wines that taste much fresher. Another trend, among more progressive winemakers, is to use barrels made of French oak along with barrels of American oak — which has traditionally given Rioja its characteristic vanilla aroma.
Regardless of style, red Rioja wines have several faces according to how long they age before being released from the winery. Some wines receive no oak aging at all and are released young. Some wines age (in oak and in bottle) for two years at the winery and are labeled crianza; these wines are still fresh and fruity in style. Other wines age for three years and carry the designation reserva. The finest wines age for five years or longer, earning the status of gran reserva. These terms appear on the labels — if not on the front label,
then on a rear label which is the seal of authenticity for Rioja wines.

  • The following Rioja producers are particularly consistent in quality for their red wines:
  • CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España), commonly referred to as CUNE
  • Bodegas Muga
  • R. Lopez de Heredia
  • La Rioja Alta
  • Marqués de Murrieta Ygay
  • Marqués de Riscal
Most white Riojas these days are merely fresh, neutral, inoffensive wines, but Marqués de Murrieta and R. Lopez de Heredia still make a traditional white Rioja, golden-colored and oak-aged, from a blend of local white grape varieties, predominantly Viura. We find both of these traditional whites fascinating: flavorful, voluptuous, with attractive traces of oxidation, and capable of aging. They’re not everybody’s cup of tea, true, but the wines sure have character! They have so much presence that they can accompany foods normally associated with red wine, as well as traditional Spanish food, such as paella or seafood.

Ribera del Duero
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. For many years, one producer, the legendary Vega Sicilia, dominated the Ribera del Duero area. In fact, Spain’s single most famous great wine is Vega Sicilia’s Unico (Tempranillo, with 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon) — an intense, concentrated, tannic red wine with enormous longevity; it ages for ten years in casks and then sometimes ages further in the bottle before it’s released. Unico is available mainly in top Spanish restaurants.
Vega Sicilia is no longer the only renowned red wine in Ribera del Duero. Alejandro Fernández’s Pesquera, entirely Tempranillo, has earned high praise over the past 15 years. Pesquera is a big, rich, oaky, tannic wine with intense fruit character. Three other fine producers of Ribera del Duero are Bodegas Mauro, Viña Pedrosa, and Bodegas Téofilo Reyes, who all make red wines that rival Pesquera.

Back in the twelfth century, monks founded a monastery (or “priory”) in the harsh, inaccessible Sierra de Montsant Mountains, about 100 miles southwest of Barcelona in the Catalonia region, and planted vines on the steep hillsides. As time passed, the monastery closed, and the vineyards were abandoned
because life was simply too difficult in this area (which in time became known as Priorat, or Priorato).
Cut to the twentieth century — in fact about 25 short years ago. Enterprising winemakers, among them Alvaro Palacios, rediscovered the area and decided that conditions are ideal for making powerful red wines, especially from old vines planted by locals early in the twentieth century. No Spanish wine region has been in the spotlight lately more than Priorato. And yet Priorato hasn’t become a tourist destination, because it’s so inaccessible. The region’s volcanic soil, composed mainly of slate and schist, is so infertile that not much other than grapes can grow there. The climate is harshly continental: very hot, dry summers and very cold winters. The steep slopes must be terraced; many vineyards can be worked only by hand. And grape
yields are very low. Amazingly rich, powerful red wines — made primarily from Garnacha and Carignan, two of Spain’s native varieties — have emerged from this harsh landscape. Many are as rugged as the land, with high tannin and alcohol; some wines are so high in alcohol that they have an almost Port-like sweetness.
Because winemaking in Priorato isn’t cost-effective, to say the least, and the quantities of each wine are so small, the wines are necessarily quite expensive.
Priorat reds to look for include Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Alvaro Palacios, Clos Martinet, l’Hermita, Morlanda, Mas d’En Gil, and Pasanau.

Five other Spanish regions to watch

The Penedés wine region is in Catalonia, south of Barcelona. It’s the home of most Spanish sparkling wines, known as Cava. Any discussion of Penedés’ still wines must begin with Torres, one of the world’s great family-owned wineries. Around 1970, Miguel Torres pioneered the making of wines in Spain from French varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, along with local grapes, such as Tempranillo and Garnacha.
All the Torres wines are clean and well made. They start the red Sangre de Toro (Garnacha–Carignan) and Coronas (Tempranillo–Cabernet Sauvignon) and the white Viña Sol. The top-of-the-line Mas La Plana Black Label, a powerful yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignon.
Freixenet, the leading Cava producer, is now also in the still wine business. Its wines include the inexpensive René Barbier brand varietals and two fascinating wines from Segura Viudas (a Cava brand owned by Freixenet). Creu de Lavit is a subtle but complex white that’s all Xarel-lo, a native grape used mainly for Cava production. The red Mas d’Aranyo is mainly Tempranillo.

Rías Baixas
Galicia, in northwest Spain next to the Atlantic Ocean and Portugal, was not a province known for its wine. But from a small area called Rías Baixas, tucked away in the southern part of Galicia, an exciting, new white wine has emerged — Albariño, made from the Albariño grape variety. Rías Baixas is, in fact, one of the world’s hottest white wine regions. We use “hot” to mean “in demand,” not to describe the climate, because Rías Baixas is cool and damp a good part of the year, and verdant year-round. This region now boasts about 200 wineries, compared to only 60 just a decade ago. Modern winemaking, the cool climate, and low-yielding vines have combined to make Albariño wines a huge success. This white wine is very lively, (mainly) unoaked, with vivid, floral aromas and flavors reminiscent of apricots, white peaches, pears, and
green apples. It’s a perfect match with seafood and fish. The Albariño grape — known as Alvarinho in northern Portugal (south of Rías Baixas) — makes wines that are fairly high in acidity, which makes them fine apéritif wines.
Albariños to look for include Bodega Morgadío, Lusco, Bodegas Martin Codax, Fillaboa, Pazo de Señorans, Pazo San Mauro, Pazo de Barrantes, and Vionta.

Once upon a time, the word Navarra conjured up images of inexpensive, easydrinking dry rosé wines (or, to the more adventurous, memories of running the bulls in Pamplona, Navarra’s capital city). Today, Navarra, just northeast of Rioja, is known for its red wines, which are similar to, but somewhat less expensive than, the more famous wines of Rioja.
Many Navarra reds rely on Tempranillo, along with Garnacha, but you can also find Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and various blends of all four varieties in the innovative Navarra region. Look for the wines of the following three Navarra producers: Bodegas Julian Chivite, Bodegas Guelbenzu, and Bodegas Magana.

El Toro
The Toro region in northwest Spain, west of Ribera del Duero, made wines in the Middle Ages that were quite famous in Spain. But it’s a hot, arid area with poor soil, so winemaking was practically abandoned there for centuries.
In Spain’s current wine boom, Toro has been rediscovered. Winemakers have determined that the climate and soil are actually ideal for making powerful,
tannic red wines — mainly from the Tempranillo variety — which rival the wines of Toro’s neighbors in Ribera del Duero. Toro producers to buy include Bodegas Fariña, Vega Sauco, Estancia Piedra, Bodegas y Viñas Dos Victorias, Gil Luna, and Dehesa La Granja (owned by Pesquera’s Alejandro Fernandez).

The Rueda region, west of Ribera del Duero, produces one of Spain’s best white wines from the Verdejo grape. The wine is clean, fresh and has good fruit character. The Rioja producer Marquis de Riscal makes one of the leading and most available examples.

  • Decoding Spanish wine labels
  • Blanco: White
  • Bodega: Winery
  • Cosecha or Vendimia: The vintage year
  • Crianza: For red wines, this means that the wine has aged for two years
  • with at least six months in oak; for white and rosé wines, crianza means that the wines aged
  • for a year with at least six months in oak. (Some regions have stricter standards.)
  • Gran reserva: Wines produced only in exceptional vintages; red wines must age at least five
  • years, including a minimum of two years in oak; white gran reservas must age at least four years
  • before release, including six months in oak.
  • Reserva: Wines produced in the better vintages; red reservas must age a minimum of three
  • years, including one year in oak; white reservas must age for two years, including six months
  • in oak.
  • Tinto : Red