Covering most of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Pyrenees to neighbouring Portugal, Spain’s perimeter includes iconic and extremely diverse wine regions.
The country’s regional diversity translates into an equally rich array of different wine appellations and styles, from the cool Atlantic-influenced whites from Galicia to the hefty reds of Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Priorat, by way of Andalucía’s incredible sweets and fortifieds.
Vine growing on Spanish soil goes as far back as 4000 BC but it was not until the Phoenicians arrived and founded Cádiz, on the coast of Southern Spain, circa 1100 BC that winemaking gathered pace. The following settlers, the Carthaginians, also produced wines and, just like their predecessors, had intense trading routes across the Mediterranean. This not only meant that Spanish wine became a prized export but also that winemaking techniques, knowledge and grape varieties were brought from other places.
Under Roman rule, Spanish wine production increased in both quality and volume, and was highly prized by Emperors’ entourages. It travelled in amphorae from Iberian soils to Rome, with many classical writers documenting their praise for Spanish wines.
Winemaking endured the barbarian invasions that overthrew the Roman empire and even, surprisingly, the long period under Islamic occupation. The enlightened Moorish rulers had a forgiving, if puzzling, stand; although alcohol sale was illegal many of them grew wine themselves. But it was only the Christian conquest that allowed for wine production and trade to bloom, with exports, namely to England, exploding in the 13th century.
Columbus’ discovery of the West Indies opened a huge new world to Spanish trade. Acting as pivotal ports between Europe and the Americas, Málaga and Cádiz became important trading hubs. Spanish wine was shipped across the world and sherry in particular became a key English import. The English defeat of the Armada in 1588, however, destroyed much of the Spanish seafaring power and deteriorated the bilateral trade. Spain therefore consolidated exports to other markets, namely the American colonies.
(The dependence of the Spanish wine industry in export markets is still true today – the country is one of the world’s leading producers and exports more than 50% of its total production.)
At this point, however, much of the wine of exportable quality were the sweet and fortified styles of Málaga and Jerez. Even Rioja, already the leading table wine producing region in the early 19th century, had trouble penetrating markets other than neighbouring Basque country and South American Spanish colonies.
A dramatic and deep change happened when, in the mid and late 19th century, powdery mildew and phyloxera devastated most of Spanish vineyards. But because Spain was hit by both pests later than most of Europe’s key winemaking countries, namely France and Italy, there was an influx of foreign winemakers, especially from Bordeaux, trying to invest and recoup the losses incurred in their home countries. Rioja and Navarra, the regions closest to Bordeaux, benefited most from the influx of French investment and expertise. One of their lasting influences was the introduction of the barrique (‘barrica’ in Spanish), the 225-l/59-gal oak cask that is still used throughout Spain and plays a defining role in some of the country’s flagship wines.
The post-phyloxera period therefore triggered a process that effectively reset winemaking in Spain as a whole. The contribution of international expertise, on the one hand, and the need to replant most vines on American rootstock, reshaped the country’s industry and the style of the wines it produced. This did mean, however, that at this point many indigenous varieties, especially in Galicia and Catalunya, were virtually extinct with grafting of international grapes favoured instead.
The political unrest of the first half of the 20th century, with the Spanish civil war followed by the II WW, had a deep and serious impact on the wine industry. Many vineyards and estates were left to abandonment. In the 1950s, under the pacifying if stifling rule of General Franco, the industry was revived by the establishment of large-scale co-operative wineries. This marked the beginning of Spain’s position as one of the world’s main producers of bulk and entry-level wines.
On the other hand, the rise of Rioja and Ribera del Duero in international markets in the 1960s established the country within fine-wine circles.
The transition to democracy and to EU membership catalysed a number of changes, starting in the 1990s, that opened a new era for Spanish wine, the products of which we’re only starting to see. EU subsidies supported smaller growers and producers making more niche and terroir-driven wines and allowed them to recover forgotten indigenous grape varieties. Private ownership overtook co-cooperative in most regions. A new style, more fruit-forward and less heavy-handed in the cellar has taken hold, creating a wider variety of wines that speak to each region’s true character.
Geography and Climate
Spain is dominated by a central plateau, called the Meseta, the covers most of the country’s central territory. With an altitude ranging from 600 to 1000 metres above sea level, the Meseta is dominated by a Continental climate that becomes more extreme towards its centre.
South and east of the plateau there’s a marked influence of the Mediterranean, with milder Summers and Winters. The west and north, on the other hand, surrounded by the Atlantic have a classic maritime climate, with cooler temperatures and significantly higher rainfall. The centre of the country is protected from more significant Atlantic influence by the mountain ranges that run roughly parallel to the northern coast, the most significant being the Cantabrian mountains that shield Rioja from the Bay of Biscay.
Another fundamental aspect for Spanish viticulture is the topographic impact of Iberia’s five main rivers that flow through the country: the Tejo, Duero, Guadiana, and Guadalquivir, flow westewards (the former two through Portugal) to meet the Atlantic; the Ebro runs southeast to the Mediterranean.
In light of its long winemaking history and of the diversity of its growing regions Spain is of course home of a large number of indigenous varieties, some claim more than 600.
80% of the country’s vineyards are however planted with only roughly 20 of them. While mostare recognisable to all wine drinkers, some very important names might come as a surprise, instead providing the base material for bulk production simply labelled as ‘Spanish White/Red’ or iconic wines, such as Sherry, better known for style or region of origin.
Most planted Reds:
- Tempranillo – not surprisingly the most planted variety in Spain, covering 210 000 ha of vines. It is the variety producing most of flagship wines (Rioja, Ribera del Duero), as well as the most of the country’s bulk cheap reds. Also known as Cencibel, Ull de Llebre and Tinto Fino in different Spanish regions.
- Bobal – second most planted red variety with with 75,000 ha/180,000 acres of planted vineyards
- Garnacha – the traditional variety comes third with 65,000 ha/156,000 acres. High quality Garnacha, produced with fruit from impressive old vineyards, is having an important revival in Spain, especially in Sierra de Gredos.
- Monastrell (the Mourvèdre of France) is the fourth most planted variety with 55,000 ha/132,000 acres.
Most planted Whites:
- Airén – a drought-resistant white variety that until 2013 was the most widely planted grape overall, then superseded by Tempranillo. It provides, like Ugni Blanc in France, the base material for most cheap, generic Spanish white.
- Palomino – the main grape used in the production of Sherry. Also planted in Rueda and Galicia where it has shown potential for fresh and food-friendly still whites.
- Pedro Ximénez, the other important variety for Sherry production in Jerez as well as for the sweet wines of Montilla-Moriles and Málaga.
- Macabeo (called Viura outside of Catalunya) is widely planted in Rioja, where it makes beautiful Riojan whites, and Penedés
- Parellada and Xarel-lo, along with Macabeo, are widely grown for Cava sparkling production
- Albariño – Galicia’s flagship grape variety.
- Verdejo – the grape variety of Rueda, making saline, fresh and extremely good-value wines.
Classification & Labelling
Spain’s classification system was brought in line with that of most other European countries after the country joined the EU, with DOPs (Denominación de Origen Protegida) at its core.
The quality pyramid is very similar to Italy’s but it’s worth having the specific Spanish terms in mind:
VP – Vino de Pago (‘estate wine’) – new category, formed in 2003 for high quality wines produced solely with fruit from and bottled within an estate, representative of the local style and terroir. There are currently 19 Vinos de Pago.
DOCa – Denominación de Origen Calificada (‘denomination of qualified origin’) – highest category in Spanish wine regulations, reserved for regions with above-average grape prices (at least double that of the national average for DO wines) and strictly defined quality controls. The region must have had DO status for a minimum of 10 years and wine must be produced and bottled within its limits. Currently, only two regions are members of the elite category: Rioja and Priorat (the latter using the Catalan wording – DOQ, Denominació d’Origen Qualificada)
DO – Denominación de Origen – This category comprises the largest portion of Spain’s wine production. Each region is governed by a Consejo Regulador that monitors the quality standards that need to be met for an appellation to be granted DO status. These include permitted varietals, maximum yields, winemaking methods and ageing requirements. There are currently 68 DOs.
VC – Vino de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (‘quality wine with geographic indication’) – a category formed in 2003 along with Vino de Pago. The VC category is used for wines that do not fully meet the stringent standards of the DO category but are above the standards of the IGP tier. A region must spend a minimum of five years as a VC prior to applying for DO status. Seven appellations currently hold VC status.
VT (or IGT) – Vino de la Tierra or Indicación Geográfica Protegida – this tier corresponds to EU’s PGI – “Protected Geographic Indication” category. Wines must show identifiable local characteristics but have loser standards than those of DO/DOCa appellations. Due to the greater flexibility within this category, many winemakers in high-quality regions have opted to label some of their wines as VT. There are currently 42 VTs in Spain.
Vino de España/Vino – previously labelled as Vino de Mesa, these are wines without any specific geographic indication and are only authorised to mention country of origin, grape variety(ies) and harvest year. The fruit often comes from unclassified vineyards and/or wine has been declassified by blending. As such, this is the category that cover most inexpensive bulk wine. On the other hand, and similarly to what happened with Super Tuscans in the mid-20th century, many Spanish winemakers intentionally declassify their (high quality) wines as ‘Vino de España’ in order to apply more innovative winemaking methods.