With its breathtaking scenery, vibrant history, and rich cultural heritage in which wine has played an essential part for centuries, Spain is a place of contrasts. Grapevines have been planted in the Iberian Peninsula since at least 3000 B.C. Still, it was not until 1000 B.C. that winemaking became a serious business in the region, thanks to introducing a technique brought by Phoenician traders from the eastern Mediterranean. Today, Spain has more vines per square kilometer of land than any other country on the planet, and its national wine production is second only to that of France and Italy.
All seventeen of Spain’s administrative areas (Comunidades autónomas), including the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands, produce wine in some capacity. However, some of the world’s best and most famous wines are made in Galicia (Rias Baixas), Catalonia (Cava and Priorat), Andalucia (Sherry), Castilla-La Mancha (Rueda, Toro, and Ribera del Duero), and, of course, Rioja. Castilla-La Mancha has the most significant concentration of vineyards.
Geography and climate are two important factors to consider.
The terrain of Spain has a significant impact on developing the country’s numerous wine styles. The geography of Spain is exceptionally diversified, ranging from chilly, green Galicia and the snow-capped Pyrenees in the north to arid, sunny Andalucia in the south, via the dry central plateau and the arid central plateau. Seven degrees of latitude separate the country’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts (36°N to 43°N), resulting in 800 kilometers (500 miles) between the two.
Between these two very different beaches, there are many mountain ranges, each of which has its own distinct impact on the surrounding environment and climate, as can be seen below. A good example is a striking difference created by the Cordillera Cantábrica range, which stretches from the lush, green territory of the northern, Atlantic side to the dry, dusty land of Castilla y Leon on the southern, interior side.
The rivers that supply so many of Spain’s vineyards rise to the surface among the mountain peaks and plateaux. These are significant not just because they provide much-needed water but also because of their impact on the soils and climates in the surrounding area. The Mio, Duero, Tajo, Guadiana, and Ebro are the most important of Spain’s “wine rivers,” sometimes known as “wine streams.” The Minho, Douro, Tejo, and Guadiana are the first four of these rivers to flow westward into Portugal, known as the Minho Douro Tejo Guadiana (see Portugal).
In contrast, the Ebro, which flows eastward, is entirely Spanish throughout its course and runs through some of the country’s most important grape regions. It travels through Castilla y Leon, El Pais Vasco, Navarra, Rioja, and Aragon on its way to the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia after descending from the foothills of Cantabria. The Ebro is the longest river in Spain and flows across seven countries.
As the temperature, geology, and terrain differ from region to region in Spain, so do the wine styles. The chilly vineyards in the far north and northwest produce light, crisp white wines, characterized by Rias Baixas and particularly Txakoli, made in small quantities. Many of the red wines produced in the warmer, drier parts of the inland tend to be mid-bodied, fruit-driven reds like Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Bierzo. Except for higher-altitude districts where less heat and humidity allow lighter reds and sparkling white Cava production, those closest to the Mediterranean yield heavier, more full-bodied reds (e.g., Jumilla).
Sherry, on the other hand, is not easily categorized. Rather than environmental conditions, Winemaking techniques are primarily responsible for the particular diversity of styles seen in the region.
Grape Varieties are classified as follows:
The number of wine grape types grown in Spain is smaller than their European equivalents. Even though more than a hundred different types are employed in Spanish vineyards, the vast majority of Spanish wine is produced from a small number of these varieties. In that order, the most often planted red-wine varietals in Spain are Tempranillo, Bobal, Garnacha, and Monastrell. Airen, Viura/Macabeo, Palomino, and Albarino are the most widely planted white-wine types globally. Because the Spanish wine industry has only begun to demonstrate any interest in varietal-led winemaking and marketing, they also receive significantly less attention than their counterparts.
Tempranillo, which is known by various regional synonyms (including Cencibel, Tinto Fino, and Ull de Llebre), is found in both high-quality and high-quantity blends in Spain. It is notably included in some of the country’s most notable wine productions (most obviously Rioja, Toro, and Ribera del Duero). It accounts for little more than 20% of all Spanish vineyards.
Although Bobal is a lesser-known variety than Tempranillo, it accounts for an astounding 7 percent of the country’s total vineyard area. It is primarily grown in eastern Spain, particularly in Valencia, Manchuela, and Utiel-Requena.
Garnacha is prized in this region, as it is in other parts of the world, for its juicy, fruity flavor and high potential alcohol content. Navarra’s deep-colored rosés are particularly well-suited for use, although it is likely at its finest when mixed with the more-structured, darker-flavored Tempranillo grape.
When they arrived in the region, Phoenicians had brought Monastrell to eastern Spain approximately 500 BC. It was once the second most planted red grape variety behind Garnacha, but it is gradually reclaiming some territory. The wines are often full-bodied, dark, and berry-forward. Jumilla, Alicante, and Yecla are three of Spain’s most important wine districts.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the little-known Airen type is the most often planted of all. Although it produces excellent yields of white wine and is drought resistant, the grapes from this variety are often used in anonymous blends and brandy.
A significant variation in both still wines and sparkling Cava, Macabeo (also known as Viura in Rioja), is a mainstay of the region’s wine industry. Palomino is used nearly exclusively in Sherry, even though it is occasionally found in varietal table wines. Albarino is located nearly solely in the northwest of Spain. It is gaining in popularity due to the success of Rias Baixas, the region’s most famous wine type.
“International” varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are becoming increasingly popular in Spain, with plantings of these varieties increasing in a number of the country’s winegrowing regions. Regional specialties, such as Hondarrabi Zuri in the Basque Country, Marmajuelo in the Canary Islands, and Zalema in Andalucia, can be found among the most widely cultivated types.
Historically, the winemaking culture in Spain has been quite rustic and immersed in the traditions of the Old World, as can be seen in the images below. It is typical to see oxidized forms and extensive reliance on American oak for barrel aging over long periods. With the advent of contemporary technology and the adoption of New World methodologies, Spain’s wine industry has seen a significant modernization and expansion in recent decades. As a result of this modernization in the vineyard and winery, there has been tremendous progress in government offices; the nation’s wine-classification system had undergone a significant revision in the new Millenium (see Spanish Wine Label Information). In the end, there has been a considerable improvement in both quality and consistency.
The Spanish are avid consumers of Cava, the country’s trademark sparkling wine, which is produced using the same traditional method as the French sparkling wine Champagne. The greatest Cava comes from the Penedès region in the country’s northeast. Still, producers can be found throughout the country, particularly in Cava production regions, as a component of their Designation of Origin.
Sherry, a heavily-fortified wine made mainly from Palomino grapes, is one of the world’s oldest wines and is deeply ingrained in Spanish wine culture. It is one of the world’s most aged wines. The vineyards surrounding Jerez de la Frontera and the nearby coastal towns of Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda are the source of all genuine Sherry. Together, these three towns form what is known as the ‘Sherry Triangle,’ which comprises the three towns that make up the triangle.
Spain’s standing in the world of wine has been shifting in recent years. The needs of the international wine industry are being met by a growing number of producers who are demonstrating innovation while offering both customer favorites and reasonable value for money. Because Spain’s wine consumption per capita continues to decline year after year, it is increasingly important to focus on the export market. This is not the only reason for this shift in emphasis. Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Priorat are regions with robust global demand for premium red wines, which bodes well for their future.