Just returned from Spain with a group of exquisite wine recommendations to share with you. This post actually began as one of those before I realized that a little 101 on the basics of Spanish wine would be a better place to start. Today we'll look at Spanish wine regions, grapes, and labels to help you navigate the Spain section of any wineshop, and to help you better understand all of the great wines we'll be sharing over the next several months. This is essential reading for anyone seeking to get your arms around the basics of Spanish wine.
It's tough to precisely correlate the political, geographical, and regional wine boundaries of one country to those of another. Autonomous Communities and Provinces are, in general, political and geographic entities that have little direct relationship with wine but are nonetheless useful in contextualizing and understanding where the wine comes from. Denominaciónes de Origen (DO) are legally established wine making regions.
- Spain is a country made up of Autonomous Communities that devolve political power to a more local geographic level. Like US states, some are large, and some are small. Each has a president and a capital. They are, in decreasing order of population, Andalusia, Catalonia, Madrid, Valencia, Galicia, Castile and León, the Basque Country, Castilla - La Mancha, the Canary Islands, Murcia, Aragón, Extremadura, the Balearic Islands, Asturias, Navarre, Cantabria, La Rioja, and the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla.
- Some but not all of the autonomies are further made up of Provinces. While it is tempting for an American to think of these provinces as if they were counties, the parallels are quite inexact as some autonomies are lone cities, some have a handful of provinces, and some have only one.
- Regions with established quality winemaking traditions are designated a Denominación de Origen, while two of these regions (Rioja and Priorat) have been recognized with the more premium Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC) designation. While the DOC designation is impressive, we wouldn't recommend you necessarily favor it over wine from some of the higher end established DOs that make their own stunning wine.
This gets confusing -- and the reason we've explained it -- because the names of these places overlap. For example:
- The DO wine region called Toro is centered around the city of Toro, which is generally located in the province of Zamora, inside the autonomy of Castille and León... yet some wineries just across the border of Zamora and Valladolid are also making wine from the Toro DO.
- Different confusion arises in the DOC region of Rioja, which is located wholly in the autonomy of La Rioja, which contains but one province also named La Rioja, but whose capitol and largest city carries the completely unrelated name Logroño.
The bottom line here is to use the DO / DOC to identify the source of the wine, but to be mindful of how those regions sit within the country's geographic boundaries. Remember also that Spain produces a huge amount of generally lesser quality "table wine" that has no DO or DOC label at all. We recommend you seek out wine from some of our favorite regions located in a geographic band running along the northern third of the country:
- Rioja, the original DOC, is perhaps Spain's most famous wine region. Working primarily with Tempranillo grapes with big assists from some red varietals. Some whites are also produced here, tending to be very woody and really needing food in order to shine.
- Ribera del Duero, one of our absolute favorites in the world, is again primarily a Tempranillo producer. Riberas give us distinctly lovely blueberry notes that you don't find elsewhere. Wine from Ribera del Duero is a giveaway for us that you know something about what you're serving.
- Toro, somewhat southwest of both Rioja and Ribera del Duero towards Portugal, tends to produce bigger, warmer, more powerful but less delicate wine than the other two. Think of its big reds as the Californians of Spain.
- Priorat, the second DOC, is located in the Autonomous Community of Catalunya (Catalonia in English) nearer to Barcelona the Mediterranean coast. Priorats tend to have more bold, structured tannins that give them a bit of a bite that pairs well with food.
- Calatayud and Campo de Borja, both in the Autonomous Community of Aragón, rely on their Garnacha grapes to produce deep, dark, inky almost purple wines with robust their fruit qualities that will turn your lips purple of you're not careful. The more affordable of these bottles are generally found in Campo de Borja, though that is a huge overgeneralization.
- Rueda in Castille and León, and Rías Baixas in Galicia produce our favorite Spanish whites. More in the particulars when we talk next about grapes.
As one of the largest producers in the world, Spain is home to a huge variety of grapes grown for wine. There are a few basic varietals to be aware of, though:
- Tempranillo is by far the most famous of Spain's red grapes, sometimes known as Tinto de Toro when produced in Toro, or Tinta del País when produced in Ribera del Duero, and a variety of other names throughout Spain and the world.
- Garnacha, known as Grenache in France and much of the rest of the world, is a common red grape sometimes blended with Tempranillo and otherwise produced as its own deep dark colored wine in several DOs in Aragón such as Campo de Borja.
- A number of white varietals including the popular Viura, Verdejo, and Albariño grapes. We tend to prefer the white wines made in the Rueda DO in Castille and León, or the Rías Baixas DO in Galicia.
Age and Classification
Like the system of DOs and DOCs, Spanish wine is subject to a detailed regimen that dictates how it can be labeled based less on the vintage (year of harvest) than on the amount of time the wine spends in barrels and bottles once produced. The vintage -- sometimes labeled as "cosecha" on bottles -- is straightforward. Many wines are also classified as either Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva. I've had discussions with winemakers who themselves disagree on the precision of these classifications, and the fact of the matter is that we're seeing more and more great wine from winemakers who skip the rigmarole of the classifications all together in order to age the wines how they please to make what they deem to be the best possible end product. We've found that some winemakers even prefer to not have their wine labeled Gran Reserva for fear of depressing sales of people opting for the Reserva as "good enough". All of that said, consider the following when evaluating each bottle:
- Crianza has been aged less in oak and bottle than Reserva, which in turn has been aged less in oak and bottle than Gran Reserva.
- Gran Reserva is considered to be cream of the crop, though there are plenty of excellent and lousy bottles that carry no classification at all.
- Lower end, everyday drinking table wines carry none of these classifications because they, by definition, do not meet the Crianza standard. Therefor, it is incorrect to assume Crianza to be bottom of the barrel. It is not.
Wrap all of this information up together, and you've learned most of what you need to know in order to interpret the bottle labels and make the best possible choices evaluating and selecting Spanish wine. On each label, back or front, look for:
- The region in which the wine was produced, as long as it isn't table wine, it should be one of the DOs or DOCs. This will tell you the most about what you're getting, so keep handy some of the regional tips I shared earlier.
- The wine's varietal (grape), though keep in mind that many bottles won't list a varietal when the varietal is in reality the primary grape of the region, i.e. you can assume a bottle from "Rioja" or "Ribera del Duero" with no varietal listed is in fact a Tempranillo.
- The year or cosecha (harvest) of the wine, in my experience often more useful than the wine's classification because on the retail shelves the year is a pretty good indicator of aging in oak barrel or bottle; the older the year, the more the wine was aged.
- Classification as Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva... remembering that there are a number of reasons why a wine would have no classification, and many of those reasons have nothing to do with quality. One of my favorite wines right now (looking at you, San Román) has no classification at all, but I am here to tell you has been aged far longer in oak than is necessary to score Gran Reserva status.
We'll explore specific wineries and their wonderful wine in the coming weeks and months. For now, hang on to this 101 on Spanish wine, and go out to seek your own bottles. Enjoy!