A visit to the world of Spanish wine is a journey through Spain itself. Its history, its cultural diversity, its art and literature, its spirit and very life manifest themselves through this wonderful, fascinating and venerated drink. Spain and its wine are indivisible, inseparable, impossible to pull apart. It?s what the Spanish call the cultura del vino, an almost mystical world in which a land?s culture interweaves vineyards, bodegas, bottles, glasses, family, friends, warmth and conversation. If you want to look at Spain with a different slant, and I don?t mean because you?ve been tipping it back too much, join me in the enjoyment of discovering Spanish wine. You will be happy to learn that, as a consumer, never has Spain had so much to offer with such quality, and often a great prices too... especially if you are visiting or living in Spain.
First of all, you should know that being a wine aficionado does not require that you drop a couple of hundred on a fine suit or affect a ridiculously cultivated accent. Anyone who has ever spent any time in Spain will discover that wine is a drink for the carpenter and count alike. Even sherry, that wonderful drink we often associate with stiffly chuckling Englishmen, might easily find its place at the table of a taxi-driver (off duty, we hope) cursing the woes of his favorite soccer team. So, whether you are a newcomer to the world, as I was not so long ago, or an enthusiast wishing to learn more about what Spain has to offer, please roam here and there throughout this section without fear of feeling inadequate or ill-prepared. The point is to have fun and learn a little in the process. Wine is a sociable drink and the Spanish are sociable people, so enjoy yourself.
Everything Under the Sun
Wine has been produced in Spain for nearly 3,000 years, and has undergone many changes and experienced ups-and-downs along the way. The Romans were extremely fond of wine and made a point of it to establish the vinicultural tradition in just about any land they managed to subject to their authority. Numerous Spanish regions today owe their origins to the avid commercialization (and consumption) of this product during the days of the Caesars. The Fall of the Roman Empire, followed by the Barbaric Invasions and, in particular, the Muslim occupation of nearly all the Peninsula, did little for progress in that sector, but the practice persevered. They were human, after all, and the wine was good. During the Middle Ages, winemaking benefited from a comeback all over and, by the 16th Century, many regions had earned international fame. Sherry and strong sweet wines were particularly popular and exported in enormous quantities to England and Holland.
As time went by, Spain?s prestige began to slip behind the rising popularity of French wines. Then, in the 19th Century, disaster struck! For the French, that is. A teeny, seemingly harmless, louse from America called the phylloxera stowed its way across the Atlantic and reached European shores only to subsequently wipe out the French vineyards. The French could do without a lot of things, like soap, but could not spare a day without wine, so neighboring countries like Spain rushed to the rescue and filled in the power vacuum as well as their pockets. Very neighborly of them indeed! Of all the regions, Rioja seemed the most aptly fit to produce red wine that best resembled the great Bordeauxs. Hence, a legend was born from the demise of another. But what goes around comes around, and Spain got its share of the phylloxera itself. Still, a new way of looking at wine had taken hold in this country.
During much of the 20th Century, however, a notable decline in quality befell the sector, and by the 1970s we can fairly safely say Spanish wine was suffering a dubious fame for being cheap and, how should I put it, pretty mediocre. In many cases, a well-deserved reputation. It was time to do a little rethinking and a little more investing. Since then, everything has changed and the Spanish wine scene is currently one of the most exciting and active in the world, meshing international favorites like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah with local boys Tempranillo, Garnacha and Albariño.
Just like Spain?s famous tourism catch phrase, literally every kind of wine under the sun ? except for maybe ice wine - is available here. The offer is as diverse as Spain is itself. You have Catalan wines, Manchego wines, Riojan wines, Galician wines, Basque wines, Murcian wines, Castilla-Leon wines and many, many more. Each has its own color, aroma and taste, exemplifying the very individuality of these regions themselves. And they?re good too. They should be. After all, their makers have been at it for long enough.
Today, there is so much there now it is almost mind-boggling, and tackling it all is a formidable task. The first step might be to get a little understanding of what Spanish wine is all about, how it is classified, the grape varieties, and some practical tips.
I want to buy Spanish wine but I don?t know where to start
First of all, relax. You?re not alone. There?s a lot of Spanish wine out there and the offer can daunt. Many people I know back home don?t consider Spanish wine because they don?t know where to start. But, before we set off, let?s get a few misconceptions out of the way:
Sangria is a dangerously delicious wine punch which has done for Spain what Irish coffee has done for the Emerald Isle. Basically the only ones who drink it are the tourists. Heck, the word ?sangria? actually comes from English for crying out loud! Can you find it? Of course you can. Is it that common? Of course it isn?t. Unless you roam around the coast of Spain where, what do you know, all the tourists are!
80% of all sherry produced is commercialized outside Spain. That should give you an idea of who really drinks the stuff. Inside the country, it?s mostly drunk in the land where it is produced, Andalusia in the South. Yes, you can find a bottle in nearly every bar in the country, but you won?t find many people ordering it.
Now that I?ve got that off my chest, I can tell you about what the Spanish really have. Though you can find practically every kind of wine, predictably the most important are reds, whites, rosés, sherries and sparkling wine (called cava). Spain is primarily a red-wine drinking country and thus its widest array lies there, but the others are readily available everywhere too.
Most Spanish wine that we, as consumers, are concerned with is classified under a regulating system known as Denominaciones de Origen (D.O.), which translates as "Appellation" or "Official Wine-producing Region". In short, an official wine region with its own governing body and rules. It tells us that the wine we are buying is truly from the specified region and that it adheres to the characteristics which give it its fame. It may not guarantee the quality, but at least you know where it comes from and that some kind of control is behind it.
Why should knowing the D.O. be important to you? Think of it this way: the average Spaniard goes more by the region than by the grape variety. Aside from very specialized wine bars, rarely do you enter a bar to order a Chardonnay or Syrah. Normally, you?ll say a Rioja, a Ribera del Duero, a Toro, or simply ?un vino tinto?! In fact, a lot of Spaniards don?t even know what grape goes into their wine -- and often don?t care. So, it definitely helps to bear this mind whether you are at restaurant table or perusing through the shelves of your local wine store. Here?s a breakdown so you can impress your listeners at your next Spanish party:
Denominación de Origen (D.O.)
Denominación de Origen (D.O.) The standard appellation that ensures you that the wine is from the place it says it is and that it meets many of the standards that make it typical of a wine from that region. They are controlled by a regulating board whose mission is to see to it that the wine Juan is making goes by the rules and that the grapes Jorge is growing are succulent and perfect for winemaking. The board also delineates the varieties admitted into the D.O., the range of crop yield, and aging techniques, to name just a few. When buying a wine from anyone one of these official regions, look for the words "Denominación de Origen" or "D.O." (or at least the name and the official seal) either on the label, the back label, or on a smaller sticker below the back label to make sure it is what it says it is. If it ain?t there, it may not be the real McCoy!!
Denominación de Origen Calificada (D.O.Ca.)
A D.O.Ca. is an even higher category than the D.O. and for the moment only two wine regions, Rioja and Priorat, have earned this distinction.
Vino de la Tierra (or regional wine) is often a small region aspiring to greater expectations, that is a D.O. classification. The good thing about wines under this appellation is that they tend to be cheaper than water and can be delicious. Plus, some wineries use them to allow themselves more winemaking freedom, like V.T. Castilla, for example. The downside is finding them abroad may take some looking. But if you come across one, don't turn your nose up at it.
Vino de Mesa (or Table Wine) This one speaks for itself. It belongs to no specific region and may come from anywhere in the country. Actually, most wine in Spain is Vino de Mesa, but a large percentage is sold anonymously in bulk to foreign nations for blending. Ironically, some very prestigious wines in the past have been obligated to sell their wine as ?Vino de Mesa? simply because the winemakers did not wish to ascribe to any D.O. and thus had to carry this generally non-flattering term. As a whole, it?s pretty basic stuff so keep that in mind before passing judgment.
Independent wineries You can also find a number of wineries who have opted to stay clear of the D.O.'s probably for the main reason of not having to adhere to any restrictive legislation. Born Free and all that stuff! Some of these vineyards produce Spain's finest and most select wines (Two have even formed their own D.O.!!); others, though, drift on the other end of the spectrum.
Trying to give you a taste for what?s available in Spain in no easy task simply because of the immensity of the offer, but to help you get a handle on things, let?s list what kind of wine can be found in Spain and what regions stand out for their quality. This will at least help you orient yourself next time you are staring blank-faced at an imposing wall of Spanish wine at the local store:
Red Wine Regions: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Toro, Priorat, Navarra, Cariñena, La Mancha, Valdepeñas, Jumilla, Bierzo, Almansa, Montsant, Yecla, Campo de Borja, Castilla, Valdepeñas, Manchuela
White Wine Regions: Rías Baixas (Albariño), Rueda, Penedès, Ribeiro Valdeorras, Txacolí regions (Basque Country), Alella, Lanzarote
Rosés: Navarra, Cigales, Utiel-Requena
Well-rounded Regions (Reds, whites and rosés): Somontano, Penedès, Costers del Segres, Catalunya, Madrid
Fortified Wines: Jerez (sherry), Montilla-Moriles, Malaga
Sparkling Wine: Cava
Sweet Wines (Type of Sweet Wine): Valencia (Muscatel), Malaga (Pedro Ximenez), Montilla-Moriles (Pedro Ximenez), Lanzarote (Malvasía)
of the Spanish Wine page. ¡Salud!