Wines of Spain

The two most important things to know about Spanish wine are that it is good and it is inexpensive (compared to New World wines of similar quality.) From a wine tradition perspective, Spain and the rest of Europe are considered the Old World. But contrary to this stodgy-sounding designation, Spain has a very modern wine industry and is aggressively taking on New World wine producers in the world market. This is good news for wine drinkers because it means continuation of the aggressive pricing (read that as low prices) Spain is willing to extend to gain market share.

Spain has nearly 3 million acres of vineyards, more acreage than any other country, but is only the third largest wine producer. This is due in part to the poor soils and correspondingly low yields found in many of the Spanish wine regions. Spain cultivates more than 600 varieties of grapes, but only twenty varieties account for eighty percent of production, and only a handful, including Tempranillo, Albariño, Garnacha and Palomino are exported in any quantity.

Arguably the most important and best known wine producing region in Spain is the Rioja. In terms of importance, the Rioja is Spain’s Napa Valley. Located in the north central area of the country, the Rioja is roughly equidistant between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. With mountain ranges providing protection from harsh Atlantic weather and the Ebro river providing both moisture and microclimates, the Rioja is extremely well suited to viticulture. The region is subdivided into the cooler Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa districts and the warmer Rioja Baja district.

Rioja is the principal source of Spain’s highly acclaimed Tempranillo red wines. Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo and Graciano, often blended with Tempranillo, are also grown here. Rioja wine classifications are very straight forward, indicating how much time the wines have spent aging before they were released. The Crianza designation indicates a fresh, fruit-forward youthful red wine that has been aged in oak for a minimum of one year and in the bottle for another year. The Reserva designation requires a minimum of one year in the barrel and another two years in either the barrel or bottle. Gran Reserva wines represent the best of the Rioja reds. Gran Reserva.wines must be barrel aged for two years followed by a minimum of three years in the bottle. Adding to their reputation, Gran Reserva wines typically are made only in exceptional vintage years.

The Penedes wine region is located near Barcelona on the Mediterranean coastline. The area is framed by the coastal hills of the Serra del Garraf and the higher inland mountains which skirt the Catalan Central Depression. Long considered one of Spain’s best wine-producing regions after the Rioja, it is also one of the most ancient viticultural areas in Europe. Although red wines are produced here, Penedes is best known for Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada, the three traditional grape varieties found in cava, Spain’s food friendly and inexpensive sparkling wine. Freixenet and Cordoníu are the two large producers of cava.

The Jerez wine region incorporates the three towns of Jerez, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. This is Spain’s Sherry-wine producing region, and these three towns form what is known as the Sherry Triangle. The region’s soil is chalky limestone and provides just the right conditions for the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes that are used in making some of the world’s finest Sherries. In southern Spain’s Andalusia region, just south of Seville, this is the home of many of the better known Sherry producers including: Osborne, Emilio Lustau, Gonzalez Byass, Hidalgo.