The stirring gaudiness of Gaudí’s architecture, the African-influenced art of Picasso, the lush staccato of the flamenco musicians and dancers, the roar and drama of a bullfight, the friendly buzz of the tapas bar: these are the popular images of Spain. They may well be clichés, but that makes them no less true. All these pulse with a rhythm that is uniquely Spanish.
There is a modern Spain that is still being discovered. In it, the architects Santiago Calatrava and Ricardo Bofill have reinvented the look of bridges and buildings; in the cinema, Pedro Almodóvar has morphed from wild transgressor to gentle emotionalist; in art galleries, Spain’s artists are forging new works and new media; and most importantly, Spanish cuisine now leads the culinary world, bringing not just new dishes to the table but entirely new ways of cooking and thinking about food.
Spanish wine has kept pace, generating an explosion of new wines, wineries, brands, and regions that is unprecedented in vinous history. While wine has underpinned commerce and nutrition in Spain for thousands of years, what we are seeing today is something that no other country has ever experienced, a compressed revolution in which pedestrian, paint-by-numbers wine becomes great art. It’s as if the last century of wine development in the most successful wine-producing countries has been achieved in only a few short years.
During the past decade and a half, the number of designated Spanish wine regions (Denominaciones de Origen or DOs) has grown by more than a third to a total of 69, and Spain has created a new set of laws, doubling the wine quality categories and introducing top wines from regions never known for quality wine or, more often, never even heard of at all. Understandably, this proliferation is creating remarkable confusion about what Spanish wine is, what it’s made from, and where these amazing wines are grown.
Spain’s Wine Revolution
The last few decades of Spanish wine have been as crazy a roller-coaster ride as any thrill seeker could hope to find. In the early 1980s, Rioja was the only region to garner international critical praise (much of it left-handed), Sherry was on a serious downhill slide, and Spanish white wine was invisible. Even Ribera del Duero was ignored, with pioneer Pesquera roundly ridiculed in the European press as having absurd pretensions of excellence.
But by the late 1980s, the Europeans had changed their tune; Pesquera and especially its top bottling, Janus, were all the rage. Cava began filling US grocery store shelves and displays by the thousands of cases, displacing domestic sparklers from California and New York State. Spanish white wine, dramatically improved, gained a foothold, led by Albariño. Today, the US is Albariño’s largest market, including Spain.
Before long, wines from obscure or dismissed regions such as Priorat were on fire, with prices rising faster than tempers at a presidential debate. Places known only for cheap and cheerful wines (e.g., Jumilla) were suddenly garnering lofty scores from critics. New DOs were created along with an entirely new category of wine classifications: Vino de Pago. Representing a Spanish monopole (the French term for a vineyard with one owner, producing wine solely from that vineyard), the Vino de Pago concept also suggests something akin to a Grand Cru property. Even more interestingly, the first Vino de Pago were located near Madrid, among vineyards that never had been associated with high-quality wines.
Rioja never really lost its edge. While traditional Rioja wines were blended from its three subregions and multiple grapes and aged in used American oak barrels, new Rioja wines hailed from single estates and vineyards, used Tempranillo grapes (sometimes with a dollop of Graciano), and new French oak. Power and dark color became the hallmark of excellent Rioja instead of the mellow, earthy character that exemplified Riojan wines in the decades before.
For traditionalists, confusion reigns. But if the hidebound can simply lighten up a bit, they would see that modern Spanish wine is on a brilliant ride. All those new DOs represent a lot more than bureaucratic finagling; some of these additions describe new grapes and new regions, and many nurture the most exciting new wines the world has seen.
Wine Regions of Spain
All the world’s greatest wine regions share one aspect in common: they are married to a grape or grapes that ripen slowly and exhibit differentiated and sometimes fascinating flavors in differing microclimates within that region.
We’re not sure why slow ripening makes for so many of the world’s great wines, but it does. Hot climates rarely accomplish such slow ripening, so Spain should be incapable of making great wine, right? Well, the popular view of Spain as an arid and hot place is not mistaken, just incomplete. It might be hot in many of Spain’s vineyards, but not for very long. The temperature at night often plummets, and the daylight can be slow to warm the vines.
Elevation is the explanation. Spain is an elevated plateau; little of Spain is at sea level, and while some of the vineyards are as flat as Kansas, many are nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. Many great vineyards are nestled into the creases of mountains. In the Sierra Nevada, along the southern coast, mountains such as Pico Mulhacén jolt up out of the Mediterranean Sea and reach a height of over 10,000 feet less than 30 miles from the shore.
Each of the Spanish wine regions can be defined in its elevation and in its proximity to the ocean or the sea. Some wine authorities prefer to break Spain’s geography into its autonomous regions, but that’s less likely to lead to a more thorough understanding of the places, vineyards, grapes, and styles of the wines of Spain. Rather, the country can be broken into the following climatic categories:
The northern and northwestern portion of Spain, exposed to the northern Atlantic, can be cool to cold, wet, and green—thus its name, España Verde. The sheltering fortification of the Cordillera Cantábrica, looming above Rioja, is unavailable to much of Green Spain as it stretches from Galicia to the Pyrenees. The regions of Ribeiro, Ribera Sacra, Valdeorras, and Bierzo enjoy pockets of protection from the cool, sometimes cold, and often wet coastal influences; Rías Baixas, unfortunately, bears the full force of Atlantic weather. Western Green Spain regions tend to produce high–acid white wines from tart, relatively unripe grapes, while sites in the Pyrenees generate shockingly bracing white wines under the rubric of Txakoli.
The seat of power for much of Spain’s history, this area hosts extremely elevated but easily workable vineyards along and beyond the banks of the Duero River. Some of the famed wine names in Spain reside in Ribera del Duero, such as Vega Sicilia and Pesquera, and regions such as Toro and Rueda are on the shortlists of anyone pursuing emerging Spanish brands.
The Sierra de Cantábria mountains shelter some of Spain’s most important vineyards, including those in Rioja and Navarra. Farther south, Calatayud, Campo de Borja, and Cariñena offer great value. To the east, vineyards nestled along the base of the foothills of the Pyrenees hold vineyards as well, where tributaries of the River Ebro nurture the vineyards of DO Somontano and the rare Moristel grape that charms many tasters with its tangy fruit and easy ways, along with more muscular Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other red varieties.
The “tabletop” that represents the center of the elevated plateau that is Spain is not a uniformly flat, hot, and arid place. Instead, there are significant mountainous spots that offer the possibility of making high–quality wines, based upon strong differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures (grapes seem to like diurnal temperature swings). The northern piece of the Meseta lies in Castilla y León. The southern portion of the Meseta, Castilla–La Mancha, is producing striking wines based upon dramatic diurnal temperature swings, and even more importantly, remarkably old and healthy vineyards.
The warmth of the coast from the French border to Almería can be mitigated by high altitudes, whether in Cataluña or in Valencia. Throughout most of this area, world–class wines are appearing in places such as Priorat and Montsant, as well as established areas such as Penedés. Cava, the most famous sparkling wine in the world after Champagne, makes its home near Barcelona.
With temperatures easily surpassing 100°F in the summer, this is an area ideal for fortified and dessert wines. Everything conspires to make a singularly successful fortified wine that comes in a plurality of styles. Although we call all of them Sherry, each of these styles—Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez—expresses a unique set of aromas and flavors.
With the Canaries off in the Atlantic and the Balearics lying in the middle of the Mediterranean, both groups of islands enjoy temperatures that are relatively moderate, especially in the sometimes remarkably elevated areas.
Make no mistake, these divisions defined above must make the Spanish crazy: a country barely held together for much of its existence doesn’t take kindly to this American gerrymandering. We hope the producers, growers, vintners, consejos reguladores, and bureaucrats who are responsible for these brilliant wines will forgive our tinkering. We think non–Spanish readers will be able to learn more by viewing Spain’s DOs through the prism of climate, geography, and morphology rather than through political divisions.
Spain and Wine
Spain is an ancient wine-producing country and produces nearly as much wine as the number-one and number-two wine producers in the world: Italy and France. Spanish wine History is at least 3,000 years old; vineyards in today’s Sherry region were planted by the Phoenicians around 1100 BC. Wines from vines grown along the sunny Mediterranean coast and the cooler Atlantic coast were traded and consumed by the Romans. But the arrival of the tee-totaling Islamic Moors in 711 AD put an end to legal Spanish wine commerce until the Moors’ defeat in 1492. With the Iberian Peninsula freed from Islamic rule, wine returned as part of daily life, no less important than the daily bread.
Only in the modern era of commerce has food and drink become something more than local. Though wines as far–flung as Tokaji, Constantia, and Commandaria once commanded the world’s attention, by the mid nineteenth century the French owned the spotlight. Sherry, Falstaff’s beloved drink, remained a stock character on the stage, but the rest of Spain’s vinous players stayed largely in the wings. It was only the sudden arrival of the destructive phylloxera pest among the vineyards of Bordeaux, France’s principal lead, that allowed Rioja its brief turn on that stage.
Wealthy producers such as the Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta had the wherewithal to produce Rioja wines that garnered attention, even if primarily limited to Spain. Once phylloxera was quashed, Bordeaux returned to health and prominence, and like all good understudies, Rioja returned to the chorus. Bordeaux, however, had left behind a style of winemaking that still influences Spanish wine today. We will see below just how long aging in barrel was learned from nineteenth century Bordeaux winemakers and how their ideas linger.
Spanish Wine Laws
When it comes to Spanish wine law, the first conundrum to tackle is that it is not a strict mirror image of French wine law, as is so often erroneously stated. Whereas French wine law intends to enshrine the twin issues of origin and typicity as being preeminent, Spanish statutes often focus upon the aging requirements for each of its DOs. Moreover, these requirements seem excessive compared to other wine regions around the globe and only hint at the lengthy barrel aging that has been traditional and that lingers, if only from some iconoclastic producers, especially in Rioja.
Extended barrel aging harks back to that tiny American aphid, phylloxera, which arrived in France in the 1860s and began feeding on her vines’ roots. Within a few decades, it had attacked and destroyed most of Europe’s greatest and least vineyards. The Bordelais were desperate, but not all were frantic enough to adopt resistant American vines, the most obvious cure. A significant number traversed the Pyrenees to Rioja, perhaps drawn by its reputation or by its proximity. What they found there describes winemaking typical of a pre-modern age. Grapes were picked unripe, and red and white grapes were often thrown in the fermenting pit together. Barrels were innovations only recently introduced to Rioja by Riscal and Murrieta. Unripe grapes made for tart, green wines, and according to the principles that prevailed at the time, the best way to soften the wines was to place them in barrels for a long time—sometimes for too long.
Lately, the embrace of these traditions seems perfunctory and half-hearted at best. And changes to legally binding aging requirements may have been prompted when some of Spain’s wine laws had to be rewritten in anticipation of the country’s entry into the European Community (EC) in 1986. In truth, changes were long overdue, and the adoption of EC laws meant restrictions on maximum yields, controls on blending across DO borders, and the often contentious defining of those borders.
Spain’s Focus on Oak Aging
Despite the changes, the focus upon time in oak, learned from the Bordelais and habituated in the twentieth century, remains enshrined in Spanish wine law. Compared to other countries’ rules, this concentration on oak aging has sometimes overshadowed other critical factors such as the contribution of the site and vineyard.
The terms meant to connote quality, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, really offer only a guarantee of time in barrel. Theoretically, Reservas and Gran Reservas are also better wines because they have been chosen for extended aging. But they are not necessarily richer or more powerful wines. Indeed, they may be less powerful wines precisely because they have been aged a longer time in barrel.
How long? It depends. Rioja and Ribera del Duero, viewed as top, traditional areas, require that Crianza wines be aged a minimum of two years, of which one year must be in barrel. Navarra, with its hopeful pretensions of comparable quality, asks the same of its Crianzas. The rest of Spain requires two years aging with a minimum of six months in oak. In Rioja Reserva wines must be aged a minimum of three years, with one year of that time in barrel. Gran Reserva wines must be five years old before release, and two years in barrel is the minimum, a standard often exceeded by traditional producers. The rest of the country has shortened the minimum barrel time to 18 months.
The Reservas and Gran Reservas of Spain represent some of the greatest values in the wine world; no other regions offer similarly aged wines at these prices. Their competitors at the top of the wine chain, 10-year-old or even 15-year-old wines from Napa Valley or Bordeaux, are prohibitively expensive, whether purchased from the wineries, châteaux, or auction houses.
Even today, a visit to the storied bodegas of Rioja may result in an extended tour of barrels and bottles. The visitor is supposed to understand from this wealth of glass and oak that the bodega is genuinely committed to aging its wines for as long as it takes for them to become smooth and supple. That philosophy speaks to the soul of traditional Spanish winemaking. The idea is to sell a wine when it is ready to drink—a rarity in the world’s wine market.
Spain’s Wine Quality Ladder
While the traditional Spanish wine classification was very different from France’s, since 2003 the new Spanish wine quality ladder of is evolving toward something closer to French wine law:
Vino de Mesa (table wine) This category is the lowest rung on Spain’s wine quality ladder.
Vino de la Tierra, VT or VdlT(“wine of the country”) The quality level just above Vino de Mesa, this designation emulates France’s Vins de Pays and offers a wine of a particular place, but with few requirements of grape varieties, yields, site, or, especially, aging. As of 2012, there are 46 VTs.
Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG or VC) In 2003, the revised Spanish wine laws sanctioned new categories that may perplex some observers. But these rules should be applauded for their intent, if not for their execution. This category was created to serve as a way station between those areas that were stuck at the Vino de la Tierra level and underneath the DO status. After five years as a VCIG, the region can apply to be promoted to a DO. This category is still being birthed, but soon may be strangled in the cradle. Hatched as a mirror to France’s VDQS (AOCs in waiting) or Italy’s IGT (again, a holding place for aspiring DOCs), there are fewer than a half–dozen VCIGs. New European Union (EU) rules may wipe out the notion of French VDQSs, and the rest of the EU may be expected to follow suit and “simplify” their classifications. As of 2012, Cangas, Valles de Benavente, Valtiendas, Sierra Salamanca, Granada and Legrija have obtained the VCIG appellation.
Denominación de Origen, or DO This was the top rung on Spain’s very short ladder until 1988. The term is comparable to France’s AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), and all DOs have regulatory bodies, Consejos Reguladores, that are responsible for creating the definition of each DO.
Denominación de Origen Calificada, or DOC (sometimes referred to as DOCa, or DOQ if you’re Catalan). This category was created in 1988, following Spain’s entry into the EC. The national committee determines which DOs are deserving of DOC status. For the first 15 years, only Rioja earned that title. In 2003, Priorat was awarded its DOC, fulfilling all requirements, including that its wines cost at least double that of the national average for DO wines. With this and other DOC rules in place, it may be some time before the other DOC potentials, such as Ribera del Duero, Jerez, Bierzo, and Toro, can gain this premium designation as well, should they choose to pursue it.
Vino de Pago, or VP The most important change in 2003, however, was the creation of DO Pago. The Pago concept represents not just a new rung on the ladder, but also an entirely different method of classifying quality. Pago means vineyard, so the simple explanation of what constitutes a DO Pago is that it is a single estate wine. The more significant judgment rendered by DO Pago status is that the estate is perceived to be one of the great estates in Spain and that it can exist outside of an established DO. The wine from a DO Pago must be wholly created and bottled within that domain. shows the actual 13 VPs.
There are 13 DO Pagos at the moment (see this map): Campo de la Guardia, Casa del Blanco, Dehesa del Carrizal, Dominio de Valdepusa, Finca Élez, Guijoso, Los Balagueses, Pago Aylés, Pago Calzadilla, Pago de Arínzano, Pago de Otazu, Pago Florentino and Prado de Irache. Only some of these DO Pagos have been situated within a traditional DO region, yet each has been allowed, based upon its excellence and history, to leapfrog the entire system to become a DO Pago. Each DO Pago is allowed to set its own rules, the grapes used, and the methods of viticulture, vinification, and aging, providing a flexibility not previously seen in Spanish wine law.
And the number of DO Pagos grows quickly as well, not only from regions such as Navarra or Vinos de Madrid seeking attention and acclaim, but perhaps from more established DOs or even DOCs. Should a DO Pago be designated within a DOC area, the label will read “Vino de Pago Calificado.” Rioja may decide to play along, but there seems to be little interest in the concept in Priorat.
By creating the DO Pago, Spain has come up with a way to deal with renegade wine producers, many of whom will often make great wines outside of established DOs or without adherence to a DO’s aging requirements. While it remains to be seen how well these new categories will perform, building flexibility into the system only can help Spain’s wine industry grow in the international marketplace.
The fashion today is wine of great color, extraction, and intensity. Those wines tend to come from certain well-placed vineyards, and the new wine laws offer to those vineyards prominent placement at the pinnacle of Spanish wine law. While the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva still have the greatest domestic cachet, the style of wine that they represent, a wine that is properly aged to provide immediate and delicious drinking, seems to be heading toward twilight. At a minimum, international markets are less likely to value these wines at a level commensurate with their quality and rarity. For those raised on these wines, it’s a tragedy in the making; but the marketplace can be as cruel in its rejection of the world’s traditional styles as it is passionate in its embrace of so much of Spanish wine.
Spanish Wine Terms
After the flor (see listing) dies or is killed off by an extra addition of spirit, the resulting fino is known as an amontillado after it has aged for a period of time, usually ten years or more. Most are dry, although some brands bottle them with a touch of sweetness.
A term designating any Spanish wine that has been aged a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels. The term can be applied only to a Vino de la Tierra wine or better.
A generic term meaning winery, but sometimes applied to wine shops or cellars.
The term is reserved for those sparkling wines that are made by the classic method used to make Champagne. By law, European countries can’t use the term méthode champenoise, so in Spain the terms método tradicional or método clásico is placed on the bottle instead. Cava also refers to the underground wineries that make cava wines.
Harvest or vintage.
A collection of vintage wines in barrels making up the younger part of a solera
Any DO or DOC red wine that has been aged a minimum of 24 months, with six months in barrel. In the regions of Navarra, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero, that minimum barrel time is one year. White wines must be a year old, with six months in barrel.
A powerful wine made using methods similar to Italy’s ripasso, that is, the addition of grape skins to a finished or fermenting wine.
A light, dry, aperitif-style Sherry.
The beneficial yeast film that forms inside a barrel of fino-style Sherry.
Sweet wine from the Levante region made of Monastrell or Moscatel de Alejandría grapes with 16 to 18 percent alcohol.
Any DO or DOC wine that has been aged a minimum of five years, with 18 months in barrel. In the regions of Navarra, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero, that minimum barrel time is two years. White wines must be four years old, with six months in barrel.
A term applied to any DO or DOC wine. Typically, the wine sees little or no time in oak and is sold as a fresh and fruity wine.
Another light, dry, aperitif-style Sherry. If a Fino Sherry is aged in the windy, coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, it is called manzanilla to differentiate it from other, less delicate, and more typical Fino Sherries.
A new term used to designate a wine with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels. The term can be applied only to a Vino de la Tierra wine or better.
A type of Sherry that is naturally dry but is often blended with Pedro Ximénez (PX) or other sweetening agents to produce a sweet style.
The Spanish form of grappa or marc, a distillate made from grape pomace.
Pago or DO Pago
A classification created in 2003 for a single estate, which designates that Pago (vineyard-estate) as a fine producer of wine. The Pago is allowed to set its own rules for grapes and production. All grape growing, vinification, and bottling must take place on the estate.
A rare type of Sherry, usually completely dry, with a style that lies somewhere between an amontillado and an oloroso.
A high-intensity wine with distinct oxidative flavors and usually with more than 16 percent alcohol.
Any DO or DOC wine that has been aged a minimum of three years, with one year in barrel. White wines must be two years old, with six months in barrel.
Literally “oak,” but this term can appear upon a label, most often, of a Joven wine;. It informs the buyer that the wine has spent at least a little time in barrel.
Rosé or pink wine, made from red grapes fermented with little or no time on their color-laden skins; hence the wine is white or rosé in color.
A dynamic aging process, practiced in Jerez and Montilla-Moriles, whereby younger and older wines are aged and blended together in a proscribed manner.
Harvest or vintage. Cosecha.
A wine with a minimum of three years in barrel, and showing an “oxidative” character. The term can be applied only to a Vino de la Tierra wine or better.
Vinos de Autor
Classical wines with an added dimension: wines made from selected grapes (from old vines, from a single vineyard, or from special parcels or plots), usually featuring plenty of new oak, produced in limited quantities, and sold in a special packaging. Also known as High Concept wines, Signature wines, or Flagship wines.
A new term used to describe a Spanish winemaker who is both the grower and the maker of the wine, the equivalent of the French term vigneron. Interestingly, the Spanish had to invent a new word to describe the person who is responsible for all aspects of the creation of the wine. In the past, these roles have been compartmentalized in the large companies, and small companies have not been part of the landscape of important Spanish wine until recently.
“Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum” or “Very Old Rare Sherry” is a new Sherry term used to guarantee that the wine has been aged for a minimum average of 30 years. That long time in oak causes a high degree of evaporation, so the VORS designation suggests that the wine is very expensive to produce. These wines are bottled in very limited quantities.
“Vinum Optimum Signatum” or “Very Old Sherry” is a new Sherry term used to guarantee that the wine has been aged for a minimum average of 20 years. That long time in oak causes a high degree of evaporation, so the VOS designation suggests that the wine is expensive to produce.
Some records estimate that over 600 grape varieties are planted throughout Spain but 80% of the country’s wine production is focused on only 20 grape varieties. The most widely planted grape is the white wine grape Airén, prized for its hardiness and resistance to drop. It is found throughout central Spain and for many years served as the base for Spanish brandy. Wines made from this grape can be very alcoholic and prone to oxidation. The red wine grape Tempranillo is the second most widely planted grape variety, recently eclipsing Garnacha in plantings in 2004. It is known throughout Spain under a variety of synonyms that may appear on Spanish wine labels-including Cencibel, Tinto Fino and Ull de Llebre. Both Tempranillo and Garnacha are used to make the full-bodied red wines associated with the Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Penedès with Garnacha being the main grape of the Priorat region. In the Levante region, Monastrell and Bobal have significant plantings, being used for both dark red wines and dry rosé.
In the northwest, the white wine varieties of Albariño and Verdejo are popular plantings in the Rías Baixas and Rueda respectively. In the Cava producing regions of Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain, the principal grapes of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo are used for sparkling wine production as well as still white wines. In the southern Sherry and Malaga producing regions of Andalucia, the principal grapes are Palomino and Pedro Ximénez. As the Spanish wine industry becomes more modern, there has been a larger presence of international grape varieties appearing in both blends and varietal forms-most notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Sauvignon blanc. Other Spanish grape varieties that have significant plantings include Cariñena, Godello, Graciano, Mencia, Loureira, and Treixadura.