Learn Spanish Wines and Regions
Part 2 – Spain’s Top Regions and Their Wines
Rias Baixas (REE-ez BUY-shez), a small region of Galicia in the northwestern corner of Spain, is
responsible for the countries’ most exciting, sought after, and expensive white wines. For centuries,
the Spanish palate has preferred their wines well aged in oak barrels, even for white and rosé wines.
This practice yielded what many wine consumers considered dried-out, oxidized, earthy, musty and
flat wines, unpalatable years ago and utterly unfathomable to modern consumers used light, crisp and
fresh fruit flavors. Rias Baixes led the charge in modernizing the white wine industry in Spain with
their stainless steel fermented Albarinos.
Catalonia is one of the most dynamic regions in all of Spain, and the same holds true for its wines.
Equally praised for reds, whites and SPARKLING wines, everything in the region is dynamic: politics,
language, art, food & wine. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and
Pinot Noir have their largest foothold here in the Penedes region of Catalonia. The most well known
wine to come out of Penedes is by far the sparkling Cava, Spain’s word for sparkling wines made in
the traditional champagne method. While Cava can be made in any of 6 different regions spread over
a wide area of Spain, Penedes accounts for 95% of Cava production.
It might be a toss-up between Cava and Rioja as to which Spanish wine is more well known the
world over, but for red wine drinkers, the answer is clear – Rioja. When phylloxera wiped out the
vineyards of Bordeaux, French winemakers travelled south in search of grapes, and quickly found the
Tempranillo of Rioja to their liking. Beefed up with small amounts of the native Graciano and the
freshly imported Cabernet Sauvignon, they found it could make outstanding wines that were
comparable to the elegant and earthy wines of Bordeaux. They also found that it took very well to the
new American oak being imported from the States.
While the French winemakers quickly tired of the sweet, bold, vanilla flavored tannins imparted by
American oak and completely abandoned it once they returned home as their own vineyards
recovered, the Spanish winemakers could not get enough. For many years Spanish winemakers and
consumers also seemed to prefer wines that had the complex, dried out flavors of wines aged for
extended periods in these American oak barrels, even for white and rose wines.
Since the early 90’s, many Bodegas have seen the profitability of making wines for the international
palate and begun to produce wines with more fruit forward flavors, less American oak influence, and
shorter time in barrel.
The Rioja region sits in north-central Spain and is comprised of 3 sub-regions: Rioja Alta, Rioja
Alavesa and Rioja Baja, with Rioja Alta being the most well regarded. The region is most famous for
its wines based on Tempranillo (usually 65-95%) blended with lesser amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo,
Graciano and/or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ribera del Duero
To the south-west of Rioja, running along the banks of the Duero river in Castilla Y Leon is the
Ribera del Duero DOCa. This was the 3rd Spanish growing region to be elevated above DO status to
DOCa. Vega Sicilia is the winery that made Ribera del Duero famous with powerful wines based on
Tempranillo that rivaled the quality of Rioja even before Ribera del Duero had achieved DO status in
1982. Here Tempranillo is known as either Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais and produces wines that have
more dark fruit than Rioja wines, yet still retain the rustic earthy and tobacco flavors.
Further west along the Duero river lies Toro. As one gets away from the river banks, Toro becomes
a hot, high plain wasteland at an elevation around 740m. The dry red soil is perfect for making big,
powerful red wines again based on the Tempranillo grape, known here as Tinto de Toro. The long
sunny days on the high plain create intense red wines that are typically done in a modern style that
appeals to California Cabernet drinkers. Toro producers are still fond of using American oak barrels
for their wines.
Montsant and Priorat are in Catalonia of Spain’s north-east corner. Montsant and Priorat are
Spain’s answer to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Rhone Valley wines. The Montsant DO is made up of the
hills that surround the high elevation vineyards of Priorat, similar to the Chianti/Chianti classic
configuration. The black slate soils here yield wines with intense black fruit flavors and big tannins.
Garnacha is the main grape here, with lesser amounts of Carinena, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and
In south-east Spain’s La Mancha region we find Jumilla. Monastrel is king here and represents over
85% of vineyards planted. While there are still many old vine Monastrel vineyards left, phylloxora
finally hit the area in 1989 and wiped out almost 60% of the vineyards. This mixed blessing has
allowed for replanting with modern techniques and clones, but nothing can replace the complexity
that old, deep roots provide.
Jerez is home to one of the world’s most well know, yet misunderstood wines, Sherry. This is
partially due to the fact that Sherry is fortified (16-22% alcohol achieved by adding brandy spirits),
made in a wide array of styles (from bone dry to the sweetest of the sweet), and somehow has
garnered the reputation that is the preferred tipple of little old ladies. Sherries are made exclusively
from white wine grapes, mostly Moscatel, Palomino and Pedro Ximenez. Sherries fall broadly into
two categories: finos, which are light, dry and crisp; and olorosos which are medium to full bodied
and have some sweetness. Sherries also have a unique range of flavors unlike anything else in the
wine world, primarily due to the unique solera ageing system used to produce them.