Spanish wine. A complete guide
In this guide, we are going to cover the types of Spanish wines, the regulation for wine production, and an introduction to many aspects that will help you understand the wine reality in Spain. Wine has been present in what we know today as Spain since at least 1,100 BC. It was around this moment in time that the Phoenicians, those great traders of the Mediterranean sea, arrive to the coasts of Cadiz in Andalusia and established the city of Gadir. We can say for certain that Spanish wine dates back to at least those days.
History of Spanish wines
When the Phoenicians arrived they brought wine from other parts of the Mediterranean. Why travel wine from so long if it could be produced there? Not far from the coasts of Gadir Phoenician traders found a perfect place to harvest grapes and this gave bright to the “triangulo de Jerez de La Frontera”, the golden triangle of Jerez, which consists of San Lucar de Barrameda, Jerez de la Frontera, and El Puerto de Santa María and which today the sherry wine route.
After the Phoenicians, the Romans ruled in most of Spain and Romans enjoyed the pleasures of Baco so much… vineyards were planted, wine was produced in many different areas of Hispania. Romans invaded areas where local Iberos and Celts lived and Romans introduced the fermentation of wine in stone troughs (rests of such throughs can be still found in many areas in Spain), and the conservation of wine in clay containers like amphoras.
The Godos followed Romans after the Western Roman Empire fell in the VI century but at around 711 Spain was invaded by the Moors that arrive from Afrida and that by 722 had occupied most of what we know today as Spain. It took seven centuries to reconquer the territories and during those centuries wine was still produced by local farmers but alcohol was mainly used for medicine, perfumes, or cosmetics. As the Reconquista progresses from north to south the role of wine increased all over the country.
The first wines produced in Spain were strong. We can think of them as either sweet or rancios (rancid). Rancios wines were totally oxidized and heavily reduced, becoming safe in terms of storage. Wines were heady to following the Mediterranean tradition. But the wines that were produced inland, far from the Mediterranean coast (more driven towards commerce) could have had a bigger resemblance with wines we know today.
In all cases, oxidation posed always a great problem. A solution for this problem, the most obvious one, was to develop rancio style wines and to acquire a taste for those. Problem solved!
But there were other possible solutions. The Greeks had already thought of sealing the amphorae wine pine resin. In Spain, wine was put in clay in what we know as tinajas (made famous by Cervantes in Don Quixote´s book). Tinajas have narrow openings on the top which leave a very small surface in contact with the air, and oxygen. Tinajas are part of the Spanish wine culture, and despite they were neglected for decades, some young wine makers are reintroducing tinajas to once again make wine in Spain with them.
Spanish wines. Topography
The most common image people have of Spain´s landscapes could be summarised as “sandy”. Over 80 million people arrive every year in Spain and most of them seek to relax at one of Spain´s sandy beaches.
Spain is the third most mountainous country in Europe (fi we consider the percentage of mountains over the total surface) and the second-highest after France.
This is very important when we think about wine. Both latitude and altitude need to be considered to understand Spanish vineyards and wines.
Spain consists of a large central plateau known as la Meseta. Madrid sits at the center of this plateau and the capital city is located at an average of 600 meters above sea level. As we get north the Meseta gets higher. On the South, in Jaen, it is located at 570 meters (1,800 feet). On the northern city of Burgos, it gets as high as 850 meters (2,800 feet).
The Spanish Meseta is surrounded by mountains: Sierra de Cantabria and Pyrenees on the north, Sierra Morena on the South in Andalusia, the Sierra de Gredos to the west, and the Sistema Iberico on the east.
Such a wide diversity produces lots of microclimates and different terroirs in the Spanish wine regions. Anyone who considers Spain as one single wine reality should just look at a map and explain how from such diversity only one sort of wine could be produced.
Another item of major importance to understand Spain´s topography is its rivers. The Ebro waters the regions of Rioja, Navarra, Aragon, and southern Catalonia where it ends at the natural park of Delta del Ebro in Tarragona. The Duero River flows westwards through old Castilla and bathes the wine regions of Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Cigales, Toro, and Arribes de Duero before it enters Portugal and becomes the Douro river that reaches the Atlantic in Oporto.
South of Madrid, we encounter the Tajo, Spain´s longest river and which flows through la Mancha and Extremadura and ends in Lisbon, Portugal. The smaller Turia, Júcar and Segura rivers flow eastwards to the Mediterranean and bathe the wine regions in Valencia, Alicante, and Murcia.
The Guadalquivir in Southern Spain flows through Cordoba and Sevilla before it ends in San Lucar de Barrameda, near Jerez de la Frontera.
Spanish climate and wine production
We have covered above that Spain´s wine regions are in most cases the result of microclimatic conditions. It is however interesting to provide an overall quick picture of what Spain looks like from a climate perspective.
Three main areas can be differentiated. Northern Spain which would encompass from the Portuguese border in the northwest till the Basque country bordering France (and to a certain extent part of Navarra, Aragon, and Catalonia). This area is normally referred to as “Green Spain”. Rainfall above 1,000 millimeters in many areas, warm summers, and mild, humid winters. You can find all details about the weather in Northern Spain and its main cities in this post.
La Meseta, south of the Sistema Cantadrico, brings a very different reality that could be described as pure continental weather. Very hot summers with averages above 30 degrees, low rainfall level (less than 500 millimeters typically), and cold winters.
The Mediterranean weather would be found from southern Catalonia to the Portuguese border in the province of Huelva in Andalucia. The hot summers are alleviated via the sea breezes and winters are really mild. Rainfall is very scarce. You can find more details on Southern Spain´s climate here.
Spanish wine regions
Different from the broad picture of the Spanish climate shown above, Spain shows a very complex reality in terms of wine regions. In 2020 there are 96 DOPs (denominación de origen protegida) which are split as follows: 67 Dos (denominaciones de origen), 2 DOCs (denominación de origen clasificada – Rioja and Priorat); 8 areas with a VC status (vinos de calidad), and 19 pagos or single vineyards recognised as areas with specific characteristics.
To the list shown above of Denominaciones de origen we should add the IGPs , 42. IGP is derived from indicación geográfica protegida (vinos de la tierra) .
The main difference between DOPs and IGPs in Spanish wine regulation is that at a DOP all processes of wine production (from vineyard to bottling basically) need to take place in the same area. This is not the case for IGPs.
Lastly, we should also mention the table wines, which do not need to meet any restriction derived from geography.
In order to simplify this somehow messy reality, we have prepared a sectionto explain in detail the different wine regions in Spain. You will find in there information about the top wine regions in Spain, plus their main features, as well as information on some of the key wineries, wines, and wine tourism options available in the main regions.
Despite for many wine amaters Spain equals tempranillo in what grape varietals is concerned, the number of local native grapes is big and a young generation of vineyard owners and wine makers have decided to get the best out of many lesser-known Spanish grapes. International grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot. Or sauvignon blanc have been planted in most Spanish wine regions and are present in many Spanish wines, both for wines devoted to the export market, but also for wines for local consumption.
You can encounter many more details of the Spanish grapes landscape in this section.
Spanish wines. Laws, regulations, defintions and labels
Regulations in the wine landscape are introduced with the objective to make it simpler for consumers to determine what is inside a bottle of wine at the moment they are about to purchase it. This is a simple idea, a good and logical objective, but an area in which deployment of legislation does not always meet the target it was aimed at. Changes in regulation aim at clarifying and supporting consumers in their buying decisions. But at the same time, they may also create some misunderstandings when introduced, something more likely to happen if regulation changes often.
Much of the regulation around wine in Spain is derived directly from Europe. Wine is segmented into different categories, each of which is defined by a set of criteria that ultimately shape what we can refer to on a daily basis as the main types of wines in Spain. Let´s go with it
Wine. As simple as this. What used to be table wine should now simply be referred to as “wine”. Their labels should not include regional names, nor varietal names nor vintage dates. These wines can be blends from wines from different regions. This category is at the lowest level of the wine pyramid (if we understand quality goes from the bottom to the top of the pyramid)
As step above “wine” is IGPs. These IGPs are all “vinos de la tierra”. An IGP stands for “indicación geográfica protegida” (protected geographical indication). The IGPs are different from the DOPs, which are the next type of category for Spanish wines. The difference is the following one: not all grapes need to arrive from the geographical area.
This is almost the same as a DOP but it is not. To better understand let´s think of an IGP like Vino de la Tierras de Castilla. This geographical notion is wider than DOPs like Toro, Ribera del Duero, or Rueda. The IGP serves the purpose to refer to a geographical area that does not however need to be that of a DOP.
Not simple and maybe a bit confusing! That is how regulation works sometimes!
Already mentioned in the previous comment, at the next ladder in the pyramid we find DOP wines. DOP stands for denominacion de origen protegida. These wines in Spain used to be referred to as Dos (denominacion de origen). The Dop is the main quality classification for wines in Spain. There are as we write 67 Dops, and each has a regulatory office (Consejo regulador) which end role is to provide with the back labels that certify a wine as a specific Dop.
A step higher in Spanish wines is occupied by the DOCA. There are only two: Priorat or Priorato and Rioja. This category was awarded to Rioja in 1991 and to Priorat in 2002. A winery in a DOCA can only bottle wines that will get the label of the DOCA (no table wine for instance could be bottled at none of the wineries in a DOCA)
There is a last special category which is known as Vinos de Pago. This category was introduced in 2003 and since then there are 19 Vinos de Pago. Avino de Pago may or may not be part of a DOP or DOCA. The classification is reserved for single Estates that have a high international reputation and which must only use their grapes from the single estate they represent. This category has been used by “maverick estates” that wanted to be out of the regulation and limitations inherent to the DOPs in terms of grapes used for instance.
The aging factor in Spanish wines
Consumers of Spanish wine can make decisions based on the geographical origin of a wine, the year grapes were harvested, the name of the producer, and the brand of the wine. This comes with a guarantee in the shape of a seal from the Consejo Regulador in the case of Dops.
There is an extra important element related to aging in oak barrels. You may have heard of “crianza”, “reserve” or “gran reserve” wines, and you may have seen these concepts in bottles from Spain. Let´s cover his interesting topic next to get a full picture of the way wines from Spain are to be understood.
One way to understand a lot about the misconceptions the general public has about Spanish wines is to listen to the way customers describe Spanish wines during wine tours run in the country. It is especially interesting to see how perceptions change during the course of a wine tour and moreover once the tour is finished. This is especially the case in wine tours in Rioja. The Rioja wine region has played a very important role in the overall image of Spanish wines worldwide. The same can be said of other regions and wineries that tried to emulate the success of Rioja and apply similar winemaking techniques to their own wines, no matter where the regions were. This, generally, implied American oak and long aging periods.
We could claim that since the XIX century Spanish red winemakers had a love affair with American oak. American oak large pores and vanilla content defined several generations of Spanish wine.
Since the 1970s many things started to change though, starting with the increasing introduction of French oak, smaller aging periods, use of new oak, and mixing of new and older oak during the production process. Winemakers have also developed a better understanding of the advantages of aging in the bottle.
In order to simplify descriptions and let consumers grab a correct understanding of what they purchase the following classification is in place. But to complicate things “a bit more” aging times could vary from wine region to wine region.
Vinos jovenes. These are wines with little or no time spent in cask. Light, fruity wines made to be enjoyed soon after they are produced. These wines include the famous vinos de maceración carbonica (the same fermentation process used for Beaujolais wines in France).
Roble. This applies to wines that can spend a maximum of 6 months in the cask. This type of wine has become increasingly popular and are frequently used at tapas bars.
Crianza wines. A minimum of 24 months of aging (in both cask and bottle) A minimum of 6 months should be spent in oak barrels.
Reserva wines. Wines must spend a minimum of 36 months of age with at least 12 months in oak barrels.
Gran Reserva. A minimum of 60 months in the winery, with at least 18 months spent in oak barrels
What we have shown above are the general rules which may be increased in the requirements needed at certain Dops. The general trend in Spain in recent years has been for a decrease in Gran reserve wines, an important increase in Crianza (at the expense of reserve wines), an important growth of “roble” wines, and the emergence of an increasing number of wine labeled as Joven in which the winemaker decides not to put the wine under any of the other categories since they would not apply. This applies to an increasing number of expensive wines known as “vinos de autor” or signature wines.