A Beginner's Guide to Spanish Wine

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Essential info on Spanish wine regions and grapes. [Photograph: Nicole Lerner]

When I asked my mother recently what kind of Spanish wine she enjoyed, she enthusiastically exclaimed, "sangria!" Of course, Spain has much more to offer in wine than just that tasty pitcher drink. You can find so many great values in Spanish wine—delicious (and cheap!) bottles for any night of the week. But you will also be rewarded if you decide to spend a little more and explore the classic wines of Spain. If you mostly drink wines from the New World—say, South America, California, or Australia&mdsah;lush Spanish wines are a great introduction to the Old World.

Facing a new section of your local wine store can be daunting. Today, we'll help you get to know some major Spanish wine regions and grapes so you can confidently choose a few bottles to try.

What You'll See On the Bottle

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[Photograph: Imamon on Flickr]

One of the things that makes Spanish wine special is that many Spanish wineries age the wine for you, in oak barrels and in the bottle. This means you get a chance to taste cellared wines that have aged to the point of tasting their best without investing in storage space at home. When you look at a Spanish wine and see the terms Joven, Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva, they're telling you about how long the aging was: those Gran Reservas have been cellared the longest, and a bottle with 'Joven' on the label didn't spend nearly as much time resting at the winery.

Because Spain is part of the European Union, the wine labeling system is pretty similar to those of France and Italy. The category you will most often see at your local shop is Denominación de Origen (DO), which is the equivalent of an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France. Each individual DO (for example, Ribera del Duero or Rías Baixas) has its own rules for the wines, such as which grapes can be planted. If for some reason you can't find the DO on the bottle, the "logo" of the DO should be on a sticker on the back or on the capsule over the cork.

The top of the Spanish wine quality pyramid is Denominación de Origen Calificada (it has several abbreviations because of regional dialects: DOCa, DOC or DOQ). There are only two DOCs: Rioja and Priorat. Spain also has a unique category, called DO Pago, which is for single estates.

When you're looking at bottles of Spanish wine, you'll often see the primary grape front and center on the label, or otherwise, on the back. One thing you will notice is that because of regional language differences, sometimes grapes or areas may look just a little different. Garnacha in Catalonia, for example, will appear as Garnatxa.

Weather Shapes the Wine

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[Photograph: Randi Hausken on Flickr]

Since Spain is a peninsula, the climate varies widely from region to region. Most of central Spain sizzles under the summer sun and gets very cold in the winter. In the northwestern part, called Galicia, the cool ocean breezes and many rivers lead to the moniker "Green Spain." In the south, the brutal, arid land and howling winds can prove too much for most grapes. The Mediterranean to the west contributes warm temperatures and cooling breezes, while the Pyrenees on the border with France block rain clouds from making their way to the north central area.

Ready to start drinking?

Cava

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Cava is the famous sparkling wine of Spain. You'll mostly find Cava production in Catalonia in the northeast by Barcelona. Cava goes through the traditional method of secondary fermentation in the bottle to get its bubbles—like Champagne in France and Franciacorta in Italy. Cava can be white or rosé and is usually a blend of Xarel-lo, Macabéo, and Parellada grapes, but a few other varieties are also allowed in the blend. Because of extended aging with the spent yeast, most Cavas have a richness that complements crisp appley flavors. Cavas are usually dry, but like with Champagne, the amount of sugar from the dosage will be indicated on the label with such terms as Brut or Semi-Seco. If you're looking for not-too-pricey sparkling wine for a special occasion (or a weeknight dinner), Cava can be a great choice.

Spanish White Wines

Fresh and Salty

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Txakoli has a bit of light fizz. [Photograph: Jon Oropeza]

On the Northern coast of Spain near San Sebastian is Basque country. This is where you will find Txakoli (pronounced CHALK-oh-lee), a citrusy wine with low alcohol and some spritz made from the Hondarribi Zuri grape. Ameztoi and Txomin Etxaniz are two producers that are easy to find, but many more have been imported into the US recently and you should be able to find this perfect sunny afternoon sipper wherever you live. The area makes a tiny bit of red wine from the Hondarribi Beltza grape, which also allows them to make rosé. Txakoli rosé is truly one of the great joys in life. It is fun and fresh and tastes like salted watermelon.

On the western coast, north of Portugal, lies Rías Baixas. The star of this area is Albariño, with Loureira and Treixadura being the backup dancers. True to its coastal nature, you can find a briny, ocean touch to this wine, which also has hints of white flowers and stone fruit. Take a hint from the locals and enjoy a glass with seafood. A big bowl of steamed mussels, perhaps?

Rich and Textured

The tiny region of Valdeorras, just a few hours inland from Rías Baixas, makes several styles of wine. Start with the white wines, based on the Godello grape. Godello combines lemon and cantaloupe flavors with a crisp minerality. These wines have enough body to carry you through a meal from a braised octopus appetizer to roasted halibut.

Southeast of Valdeorras is Rueda, which sits on the Duero River in the Castilla y León region. A small amount of red wine is made, but the true gems are white wines made from Verdejo. If the wine is mostly Verdejo, it will say 'Rueda Verdejo' on the bottle. Otherwise, it likely has a significant portion of Viura and Sauvignon Blanc blended with it. The wines are wonderfully aromatic, reminiscent of meyer lemon and almond.

While also planted around Galicia and in Catalonia for use in Cava (under the name Macabéo), Viura is famously known as the white grape of Rioja. It can be bottled on its own or blended with other grapes, such as Garnacha Blanca or even Chardonnay. Lopez de Heredia, one of the greatest wineries in Spain, makes an aged Viura called 'Viña Gravonia' that really is in a class by itself. They cellar it in American oak barrels for years and then it doesn't hit shelves until nearly a decade after the grapes were picked. It is tannic, full-bodied and has an amazingly complex aroma of bruised apple, curry, and coconut. Not all white Rioja is made this way, though. Many that you will find, especially if they are young, will be fresh but still full-bodied, with waxy apple and pear flavors.

Spanish Red Wines

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The cellars at Muga in Rioja. [Photograph: Bodegas Muga]

If you've started exploring Spanish wine, you've likely had a bottle or two of Tempranillo. Tempranillo is the most planted red grape in Spain, and it appears under a few names, including Tinto Fino, Tinto de Toro, Cencibel, Ull de Llebre, and Tinto del Pais. The two most famous regions for Tempranillo are Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

Rioja

Rioja is in north-central Spain on the Ebro River. Wines of Rioja are a great blend of ripe fruit and earthy flavors—they have one foot in the New World and one foot in the Old World. In Rioja, Tempranillo grapes can be blended with Mazuelo, Graciano, Garnacha, and Maturana Tinta. The law also leaves a little room for winemakers to add non-traditional grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon in small proportions. Classic examples will combine ripe plum and dried prune flavors with hints of leather and sweet-and-sour sauce.

Rioja went above and beyond Spanish laws and added some time to their minimum aging requirements. And often, winemakers allow the wines to age for years beyond what is required by Rioja. For red wines, Crianzas are aged at least 2 years total (including 1 year in oak barrels.) Reserva wines are aged at least 3 years total, including 1 year in barrels. Gran Reservas spend at least 2 years in barrels and then three more years in bottles before they're sold.

You might hear people calling wines from Rioja either 'traditional' or 'modern' in style. What does this mean? 'Traditional' wines of Rioja are aged in American oak barrels, which impart hints of coconut and dill to the wine. 'Modern' winemakers tend to use French oak barrels, which add a little vanilla and baking spice flavor. While some winemakers are squarely in one camp or another, many use methods that are somewhere in between. You might find some wines that have been aged in a mixture of American or French oak barrels or even in barrels that are themselves made of both types of oak.

Want to try some great Rioja? Producers to seek out include Muga, Lopez de Heredia, and CVNE.

Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero is the other Spanish wine region known for top-quality Tempranillo, and here, the wines are usually entirely Tempranillo, rather than a blend. Like Rioja, most wine labels from Ribera del Duero will let you know how long the wine has been aged by using the terms Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva on the labels. The winemaker's use of oak has a major influence on the finished wine here, too. While you'll see mostly American oak in traditional Rioja bottlings, winemakers in Ribera del Duero often opt for more French oak, so you're more likely to taste vanilla, cinnamon, and clove. Overall, Ribera del Duero is more opulent and polished than the rustic, earthy Rioja. I think of Ribera del Duero as my shiny black pumps and Rioja is best-fitting pair of soft leather loafers.

Tempranillo isn't just limited to Rioja and Ribera del Duero, though. It's grown across the country, and regions such as La Mancha and Valdepeñas offer affordable versions that are lightly oaked and ready to drink right away.

Priorat

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Steep vineyards in Priorat [Photograph: Agricultura Generalitat de Catalunya]

Wines from Priorat are intense and muscular. If you love sun-kissed, full bodied California wines but are looking for an earthier touch, this is a great region to explore. Many of the vineyards in Priorat are so steep they necessitate building terraces—it's like making the hill into a large staircase with rows of vines on each step. Priorat's unique slate soil—called llicorella—looks like broken chalkboard strewn around the hillside. This rough terrain requires vines to dig deep in the earth in search of water and nutrients.

Most of Priorat's red wines are made from a blend of Garnacha and Cariñena with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and others. Alvaro Palacios was a pioneer in this region and while prices of Priorat in general have skyrocketed over the years, his "Camins del Priorat" bottling is still one of the best values around.

If you're curious about wines like this, but can't swing the price tag, try seeking out wines from Montsant, a region that is like a horseshoe around Priorat. The wines are full-bodied with intense red and black fruit, dried tobacco, and earth.

More Red Wine Values in Spain

If you want to try Spanish wine on a budget, it's worth getting friendly with a few more grapes beyond Tempranillo.

I've already mentioned Garnacha a few times—it appears as part of the blend in Priorat and in Rioja. Known as Grenache in France, this is the third most planted grape in Spain. Garnacha thrives in warm climates, especially in the north-central part of Spain. It is often used to make rosé, but can also make wonderfully ripe, cherry-fruited weeknight wines, such as Borsao's 'Tres Picos' from Campo de Borja.

Monastrell, the Spanish name for Southern France's Mourvèdre, can be found across southern Spain. It needs a lot of sunshine to ripen; it definitely finds that warmth on the sunny Mediterranean coast near Valencia. Often the wines will be full-bodied with aromas of ripe, juicy red fruit, pepper, and meat.

The grape Mencía makes medium- to full-bodied wines with hints of blackberry, anise, and a distinct herbal aroma that often reminds me of Cabernet Franc. While the grape is grown throughout Galicia and northwestern Spain, Bierzo is a good region to seek out.

Sherry

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Sherry and olives are delicious together. [Photograph: Krista on Flickr]

The first time I ever stuck my nose in a glass of sherry was in a wine class. All the students popped their heads up and looked around. Was there something wrong with it? We had never smelled anything like that stuff. The weird wine in the glass was Fino Sherry...and not only was it not flawed, but it was totally delicious. Sherry captures you with its intense aromatics and electrifying acidity.

Most sherry is a fortified wine that goes through a solera, a system of blending where wines from different years are mixed into each other over time. In some sherry barrels, a layer of yeast called flor will form over the top of the wine, protecting it from oxygen while imparting a distinct flavor. The freshest styles are Fino and Manzanilla (that second one is a Fino sherry made in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.) If these styles are exposed to oxygen later on in their aging, combining the taste of flor with nutty, oxidative characteristics, they become the Amontillado and Palo Cortado styles. Oloroso sherry is made without flor to protect the wine from oxygen. This gives the wine rich walnut and toffee notes. (Want to read more about sherry? We have a whole guide here.)

Dry sherries can be such a surprisingly perfect pairing for food. A glass of Manzanilla with almonds and boquerones is classic and delicious. A bottle of Palo Cortado with a crispy-skinned roast chicken will blow you away.

Time for dessert? Sweet styles of sherry, such as Pedro Ximénez and Pale Cream sherries, can be a rich, syrupy delight. They go perfectly with ice cream or chocolate cake, or served as a sweet counterpoint to a cheese plate.

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