Learn Spanish Wines & Regions
Part 1- History of the Spanish Wine Industry
Spain & Wine
Much like the rest of Europe, the Spanish people consider wine an essential part of life and a
nourishing food more so than a simple beverage. Spanish culture revolves around family, food and
enjoying all that life has to offer, but at a relaxed pace. At lunch Sangria and lighter wines are served,
and in the evenings fuller bodied reds and whites are served in the cafes, restaurants and homes.
What we now know as Spain has a long and prestigious wine history. 3,000 years ago the ancient
Phoenicians prized the wines of Xera (modern Jerez) and 2,000 years ago the invading Romans used
their “modern” winemaking techniques to make highly sought after wines from the native varietals.
Vineyards flourished under Moorish rule, but mainly for eating purposes rather than winemaking. In
1492 Spain became a united county and, as prosperity flourished, wine became an increasingly
Modern Spanish winemaking really begins with the devastation of the French wine industry during
the late 1860’s. Trade with America had introduced a root louse known as phylloxera to French
vineyards, and the destruction of the vineyards in much of France was almost complete (especially in
Bordeaux). France and the rest of the world needed a new source for their wine and nearby Spain
stepped up to fill the void. An influx of capital and winemaking talent revolutionized the industry, but
the goal was to make lots of good wine, not necessarily great wine. By the turn of the century (1901)
phylloxera had made its way to Rioja, destroying over 70% of the vineyards. The remedy to
phylloxera replanting on resistant American rootstocks had been discovered by this time, so many
French winemakers returned home to replant their own vineyards. The loss of talented winemakers,
their capital and no vineyards to work with nearly wiped out the Rioja’s wine businesses. Next came
World War 1 followed shortly by World War II, further crippling the Spanish wine industry. It wasn’t
until the 1970’s Spain’s wine industry experienced another revolution, transitioning from quantity
production to quality production.
Today, Spain has more land under vine than any country in the world, yet still ranks third in total
wine production, behind Italy and France. Many factors contribute to these low production numbers,
chief among them are Spain’s poor soils, many small vineyards and farmers, and new vineyards
severely cropped from high quality/low production.
Spanish Wine Laws
Like the rest of Europe’s winemaking countries, Spain has strict laws governing wine production. Spain’s current constitution was signed relatively recently (1978), but many of the regulations regarding wine can be traced back to the unification in the 1490s. The EU recognized 2 basic quality levels of wine, but many of the top wine producing countries (including Spain) divide things up further. Vino de Mesa – Basic grade of table wine that can come from anywhere in Spain and does not need to show vintage date or region of origin. Cheap table wines for local consumption that are not exported.
Vino de Mesa “xxxx” – Vina de Mesa followed by one of 28 certified wine regions. Means all of the
wine must come from that region.
Vina de la Tierra – “County Wine” similar to France’s vin de pays comes from certified regions that
have shown quality and character and many aspire to full “DO” status in the future.
Denominacion de Origen (DO) – The first of the Quality Wine categories, it is roughly the
equivalent of France’s AOC or Italy’s DOC designations. It applies to wines that meet international
minimal standards for varieties, production and geographical origin. DO regulations also apply to
some foodstuffs as well as wine (examples include: Vinegar, Cheese, Olive Oil, and Cured
Ham/Jamon). There are over 65 regional names with DO status. Some of the most important: Toro,
Penedes, Cava, Jerez, Rias Biaxas, Rueda, Campo de Borja, Castila Y Leon, and Monsant.
Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa) – Similar to Italy’s DOCG, this is a “super category”
reserved only for wines and regions that meet strict quality and consistency standards. Only Rioja
was granted DOCa status when the category was created in 1991. Since then, Priorat (2003) and
Ribera del Duero (2008) have been elevated to DOCa status.
New Classifications – There are two new classifications that are beginning to appear on Spanish wine
bottles. Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG) is the new name for those Vino de la Tierra
regions which appear to be nearing DO quality. Not many of these will reach American tables and shelves. The
most significant change for American consumers is the creation of Vino de Pago. A Pago is a single estate that
has proven its quality as one of the greatest in Spain and can now exist outside the DO/DOCa regulations. All
wines must be produced from estate owned vineyards and bottled at the estate, but they are now allowed to set
their own standards regarding, varietals, vineyards, ageing, vinification… There are 11 estates that have been
granted VP status since its creation in 2003: Guijoso, Dominio de Valdepusa, Finca Élez, Dehesa del Carrizal,
Campo de la Guardia, Casa del Blanco, Arínzano, Otazu, Prado de Irache, Florentino, and Calzadilla.
Other Spanish Rules/Regulations and Terms
Similar to the Chianti – Chianti Classicio – Classico Reserva – Grand Reserva system many folks are
familiar with, Spain also has specific standards set for ageing.
Vino Joven – Young wine, intended for immediate drinking. May see some time in barrel, but less
than what is required for crianza.
Vino de Crianza – literally “ wine of breeding,” crianza wines must be aged for a minimum of 2 years
before allowed for sale, with at least 6 months in oak barrels.
Reserva – Must spend at least 3 years in the bodega, with 1 full year in oak.
Gran Reserva – Permitted only in exceptional vintages and must have spent at least 2 full years in oak
and 3 years in bottle before release.
Bodega – Many/most Spanish wine companies and wineries are known as bodegas which means
“above ground wine store.”
Cava – A cava is a below ground wine storage facility. Spanish sparkling wines (and their DO) take
their name from the underground cave ageing facilities.
Cosecha – Vintage, year of harvest
Spain has many indigenous varietals and local subspecies of well know varietals, as well as
significant plantings of “international (mostly French) varietals.
Tempranillo – Spain’s main red varietal is the backbone of its most famous wine and region, Rioja.
This thick, black skinned varietal is known for its early ripening and flavors blueberry, raspberry, dark
cherry, and floral violet notes.
Garnacha – The Spanish version of Grenache is most well known is Spain for Priorat.
Monastrell – Spanish version of Mourvedre finds its main foothold in the La Mancha’s Jumilla DO.
Albarino – The wine that makes Vinho Verde in Portugal also grows above the border in Spain. A
very floral and aromatic varietal it make wines with peach and apricot notes. In Spain it can be found
in both light unoaked and fuller barrel aged styles.
Viura – This is the main white grape of the Rioja region, also known as Macabeo in France.
Verdejo – The grape behind the delicious whites of Rueda.
Perellada – Most widely grown in Catalonia, this is the main grape used in producing white Cavas, but
Chardonnay is gaining ground quickly.
Other Red Varietals – Prieto Picudo, Mencia, Bobal, Graciano
Other White Varietal – Pedro Ximinez, Xarel-lo, Godello, Malvasia, Moscatel, Palomino