Until recently, most wine drinkers outside of Spain associated the country primarily with Rioja, which was saddled with the reputation of being simply cheap and easy drinking. The country’s winemakers have worked hard to ratchet up quality as well as awareness of their products, and it’s paying off. Tighter standards for Denominación de Origen status (a quality control system which guarantees the origin of grapes), along with modernizing their approach to both winemaking and marketing has catapulted Spain into second place behind France as the world’s largest wine producing country.
Regions are very important to Spaniards who tend to order a wine not by varietal, but by region. (ie. Rioja versus Tempranillo) The most popular wine growing regions are:
Rioja in Northern Spain along the Ebro River. Rioja was Spain’s first DO, established in 1926, and in 1991 became the first and only region to receive DOCa status (a higher standard classification). Riojas tend to be made in the Bordeaux style, influenced by French winemakers who migrated to the region, with heavy oak influences and primarily using Tempranillo grapes. Garnacha Tinta (Grenache) is also commonly used. Red wine is the star here but white Riojas, made primarily from the Viura grape (or Macabeo), are noteworthy for their fresh citrus and mineral flavors and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Ribera del Duero along the banks of the Duero River (ribera means shore) is known for its structured, elegant red wines, particularly those from Bodega Pesquera, which were one of the first to gain acclaim in the 1980s. This regions has a long growing season, which encourages grapes to develop intensity and structure.
Priorat, near Barcelona on the Mediterranean coastline, was named for the Priorato de Scala Dei, a 12th century monastery. Vineyards are planted on steep, granite-laden hillsides below towering cliff faces of the Sierra de Montsant. Mainly using Carinena (Carignan) and Garnacha (Grenache) grape varietals, Priorat produces wines that are earthy and richly concentrated.
Rias Baixas (ree-AHSH buy-SHUS) makes some of the best white wines available in Spain today. Rias Baixas is a lush region with high amounts of rainfall, located across the border from Portugal along the Atlantic coast. The best-known varietal in Rias Baixas is Albarino, rumored to be related to German Riesling but with a flavor that’s more like Viognier or Sauvignon Blanc. Rueda is another region that is known for producing good Spanish whites.
Jerez-Xérex-Sherry y Manzanilla de Sanlucår de Barrameda, a.k.a. Jerez, in southwest Spain is the region in which authentic sherry is made due at least in part to its chalky soil, which produces the best grapes for this renowned fortified wine. Sherry is not commonly drunk in Spain, but it is a very popular export.
Catalonia, in northern Spain bordering France, is at the center of the Cava DO, known for its sparkling wines. Spain’s sparkling wines are made using the méthode champenoise, the traditional method used in French champagne making. Cavas are meant to be drunk young and fruity, and are usually a great bargain.
If this 60 Second Wine Course has you curious to try some Spanish wines, join us at the DWO’s April 26 Wine Down Wednesday at Sangria in Royal Oak.