With its varied, expansive landscape and pockets of differing climates, Spain is home to a broad spectrum of grape varietals and, by extension, an interesting spectrum of wine types and styles. Even more impressive is that the country exceeds all others – including France and Italy – in the amount of land dedicated to vineyards, and can boast of a fairly prolific volume of wine production. Perhaps this is due to Spain’s long history of viniculture: while archaeologists believe that indigenous grapes existed on the Iberian Peninsula as far back as 4000 B.C., the origins of Spain’s serious winemaking are credited to the ancient Phoenicians who founded the trading hub of Cádiz around 1100 B.C. With their settlement came a more sophisticated approach to the joys of the vine.
In the millennia that followed, Spain’s wine industry was greatly impacted by foreign conquests. The Romans opened the door to
Spain is divided among seventeen autonomous regions, and remarkably, each one of them participates, to lesser or greater extents, in winemaking. While the greatest number of vineyards are found in central Spain’s La Mancha region that extends south and east of Madrid, the most desirable hail from the coastal regions. The cool, damp Galicia region, nestled in the country’s northwest corner, is home to Rías Baixis, known for its delicious whites driven by the Albariño grape; the warmer Castilla y Leon, located east of Galicia and featuring the Toro and Ribera del Duero’s Tempranillo-based reds; Andelusia to the south, where Sherry production dominates the sub-region of Jerez; the northeast corner’s Catalonia, famous for its popular Cava, Spain’s best version of sparkling wine; and La Rioja, whose wine most closely represents the influence of Bordeaux.
Although Spain cultivates hundreds of varietals, the dominant grapes found in Spanish wines are few. In the most popular reds, Tempranillo, which comprises one-fifth of Spain’s vineyards, dominates, followed by Garnacha, Bobal and Monastrell, all used for mid- to full-bodied blends. Leading whites include the native Airén, which accounts for close to 25% of the country’s vineyards; Palomino, used primarily for Sherry production; and Albariño, which is at the heart of the crisp, vibrant and highly popular Rias Baixas. And unlike neighboring Portugal, which has remained quite faithful to its indigenous flavors, Spain has also become more open to embracing international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and even Sauvignon Blanc, all of which are enjoying higher numbers across the country’s vineyards.
Spain’s modern winemakers have come to appreciate the need for, as well as the benefits of, modern winemaking techniques. No longer timid or resistant to change, they are replacing outdated protocols with new technology and leading-edge innovations. The result is the production of more competitive wines that, with their higher depth of quality and character, are getting noticed by critics, connoisseurs, consumers and investors alike. Government transitions have also helped, including the rollback of irrigation restrictions and revised quality control guidelines. In fact, Spain has instituted a unique classification system that includes nearly 70 designated quality wine regions named as Denominación de Origen (DO), with only Rioja and Priorat honored with the premium status of Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC or DCOa). A third designation, Vino de Pago (VP), has been given to only thirteen wines, all of which must be grown and bottled at an esteemed Spanish winemaking estate. In tandem with these classifications, both the DO and DOCa offerings are further identified via one of four additional aging distinctions: Joven, which are young wines with minimal if any barrel aging; Crianza, aged for at least two years; Reserva, aged for three years; and Grand Reserva, aged for five years. A key attribute of Spanish wines is the fact that they are aged prior to being placed on the market, translating to nearly zero “cellar time” prior to peak consumption.
Now that Spain is well on its way to becoming a truly viable contender in the global wine marketplace, it is determined to keep refining its production style and quality. With a sharp eye on continued exportation, its future stature, like its wines, looks rich, robust, vibrant and very much in demand.