Each country’s winemaking history is unique, but Spain’s is one of the most diverse and eventful. Its wines are equally diverse, and its grape-growing terroirs are found from north to south, in coastal regions, lush valleys, and the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Wars, laws and a strict military regime have all left their mark on Spanish winemaking – but it remains one of the largest global wine exporters in the world, and its wines offer so much to explore. From rich reds to dry whites, sparkling cava to the driest sherry, there is something for every wine taste – and so much to relish.
A brief history of Spanish wine production?
Spanish winemaking goes back 3000 years, and been subject to strict rules, harsh restrictions on how it could evolve, and even a serious decline under 700 years of Moorish rule – and yet it has survived, grown and flourished into producing the rich, varied and unique wines that makes it the second largest global producer and exporter today.
Winemaking in Spain can be traced to 1100 BCE, and it flourished through those early centuries of Roman occupation. In 711 CE, the country fell under the rule of the North African Moors. Spanish winemaking diminished significantly under its new Muslim regime, only beginning its revival as the “Reconquista” began in the 12th century, and Cistercian monks (renowned for their winemaking expertise) travelled across the Pyrenees to settle. As the Moorish regime fell in 1492, and King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile came to their joint thrones, monastic and local winemaking was ready to boom once more with the Renaissance.
The importance of Spanish wine in the global wine industry
As the Renaissance took hold, Spain joined the rest of Europe in seeing a general revival in winemaking traditions and exports, and Spanish winemaking continued its evolution alongside neighbouring France and Italy, under the 1930s. Franco’s dictatorship shut down most international trade, and new regulations prevented Spanish winemakers from adopting exciting new practices that were spreading elsewhere across the world. The old, traditional methods continued – and even after the military regime fell in the 1970s, many producers continued to shun stainless steel and new grape ripening practices.
Spanish wine is now regarded as some of the best quality in the world, with excellent ageing potential – and Spain is consistently in the top three producers and exporters of wine in the world.
Spanish Grape Varieties
Spanish White Wine Grapes
Grown on the northern Atlantic coast, the Albariño makes delicious dry whites with citrusy notes.
This is quite a rare grape that is grown almost exclusively in Spain. It produces wines that are similar to Sauvignon Blanc: grassy, herbal, and sometimes quite acidic.
Viura / Macabeo:
known by both names, this is the most widely-grown white grape in the Rioja area, and is the foundation for much of the cava that Spain produces.
he grape that is the foundation for 90% of Spanish sherries, the Palomino is widely grown in the Sherry Triangle
Spanish Red Wine Grapes
Largely found in the Rioja region, Tempranillo wines are rich and flavourful. The name derives from the Spanish word for “early”, because the grapes can be harvested earlier than most others.
These are native Spanish grapes, although they are well known in French winemaking as Grenache. They offer a fruity wine with raspberry aromas, and are low in tannin, which gives a smooth and easy-drinking wine.
Known as Mouvedre in France, Monastrell has been part of both countries’ winemaking tradition for centuries. This grape produces a dark and rich wine, with fruity berry notes.
What are the top Spanish Wine Regions?
Perhaps the best-known of the Spanish wine regions, Rioja sits across 54,000 hectares of land in northern Spain, taking in the La Rioja area, Basque Country and Navarra. The chief grape variety grown in Rioja is Tempranillo, which is usually aged in oak to produce deep, rich and sophisticated red wines.
Ribera del Duero
In the north of Spain, Ribera del Duero follows the course of the Duero river, which nourishes this rocky but fertile terrain. Mainly a red wine grape growing region, the authorised varieties here are Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Garnacha Tinta.
High above sea level – between 100-700m – this region of Catalonia in the north east corner of Spain doesn’t give the highest yield, but does produce some of the best quality, most intense and full bodied Spanish wine. A blend of Ganacha and Carinena grapes is the typical foundation for Priorat wines, but some of the most renowned are made from Ganacha alone.
On the north west coast of Spain, the Rias Baixas region enjoys the cool winds of the Atlantic, and is lush and green. The nearness of the sea gives the wines from this region a salty, citrus flavour, and it’s widely acknowledged to be Spain’s top region for white wine. This is largely a white grape region, with the most common by far being the Albariño.
In the north east of Spain, but one hour south of Barcelona, Penedès is best know for its sparkling Cava – although dry reds and whites come out of there too, and the Macabeo grape is the prominent variety.
Chiefly known for red wine, Toro can be found in Castilla y León, in north-western Spain near the Portuguese border. Fed by the same Duero river that flows through the Ribera del Duero region, the grapes it produces are predominantly Ganacha and Tinto de Toro.
In the south east on the Mediterranean coast, Jumilla is a small region with a distinct terroir – hot summers and cold winters, limestone soil with excellent moisture retention, and the perfect height above sea level for harvesting grapes when they’re ripe. Most Jumilla wines are red, and mainly from Ganacha, Tempranillo and Monastrell grapes.
In the north of Spain, with the foothills of the Pyrenees to the east, Navarra is traditionally renowned for its dry and fruity rose wines, usually made predominantly with the Ganacha grape. Navarra’s winemakers have boldly adopted non-native grape varieties in recent years, and it also produces excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir wines.
The Sherry Triangle: Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María
In the province of Cadiz in the south west, the Sherry Triangle is formed by the three cities that sit at its vertices: Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. Sherry from this region must be created from three primary grape varieties grown in its boundaries: Palomino fino for dry sherries, and Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel for the sweeter ones.
Special Spanish Wine Styles
Sherry has been produced in Spain for centuries, and exported to Britain for almost as long – Sir Francis Drake first brought it here in 1587 after his sacking of Cadiz, and just 10 years later, Shakespeare refers to it as “sack” in Henry IV…and the British love of sherry began.
Much like champagne, which can only be called that if it comes from a defined area, a sherry can only be called such if it must has been made within the Sherry Triangle in Andalucía.
It’s always a white wine, always aged, and always made from three grape types: Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. There’s a sherry for every palate, from extremely dry to very sweet – and it is produced in a very different way from other wines.
Overview of Sherry production
Sherry is made and blended using a method that is quite distinct from regular winemaking, called solera y criadera. The solera is a base layer of casks, with casks above it called the criadera. Portions of the sherry from the criadera casks pass gradually into the solera ones, so that fractions of different ages of sherry are blended together. A little of the contents of the solera are bottled each year to create the final product, leaving room for more of the criadera to blend in and create the next batch.
Sherry is fortified with the addition of a spirit. Similar to the brandy which fortifies port, this is distilled from grapes and aged in old sherry casks, and is called Brandy de Jerez.
Different styles of Sherry
90% of sherries are made with the Palomino grape, which produces a dry sherry. Some examples of sherry varieties:
Fino de Jerez – this is the driest and youngest sherry, usually between 3-5 years old. It’s made in Jerez and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
Manzanilla – also a young, dry sherry, this one comes only from Sanlúcar
Amontillado – this sherry goes on a journey, beginning as a Fino or Manzanilla. After 3-5 years it gets more fortification and oxidative ageing in a barrel, which gives it a browner tinge.
Oloroso – this sherry is produced from the second wine pressing, and is fortified immediately to 18%, and put in barrels – where it can stay exposed to oxygen for over 40 years.
Pedro Ximenez (PX) – one of the sweetest varieties. After picking, the PX grape dries out in the sun so that its juices concentrate, before they are pressed.
Cream Sherry – one of the most popular British varieties, this is also one of the sweetest and is a blend of Oloroso and PX
Food Pairings and Serving Suggestions
The driest sherries always work very well with a snack alongside, which is why they make a good aperitif. Something salty is the perfect accompaniment, so seafood, nuts and olives are a great choice. They also go well with tomato-based dishes, like gazpacho soup and pizza.
Medium dry sherries go well with rice dishes, beef and asparagus.
There’s an old saying in Spanish for dryer sherry pairings – and it’s excellent advice:
If it swims: Fino and Manzanilla
If it flies: Amontillado
If it runs: Oloroso
For sweet sherries, the best pairing choices are puddings and citrus fruits, strong cheeses, and coffee – perfect for the final course of the meal.
Cava is Spain’s delightfully sparkling wine, whose production methods originated in France’s Champagne area. It’s largely produced in the Penedès area.
Overview of Cava Production
Production begins with a still base wine in a bottle, which is combined with yeast and sugar. This creates a second fermentation within the bottle, trapping the carbon dioxide within it – and the bubbles are only released with the cork.
Cava must be aged in the bottle for at least nine months. Cava Reserva is laid down for longer (15 months), and Cava Gran Reserva is in there for 30 months.
Styles and Grape Varieties
Three grapes – Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo – are chiefly used to produce Cava, but others can appear too, and not all of them white. Others that are permitted in Cava blends are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Garnacha, Monastrell and Subirat.
As well as the differences in the duration of ageing, there are also various styles of Cava based on the amount of sugar in it per litre:
Brut Nature: 0-3 grams per litre
Extra Brut: 0-6 grams per litre
Brut: 0-12 grams per litre
Extra Seco (Extra Dry): 12-17 grams per litre
Seco (Dry): 17-32 grams per litre
Semi-Seco (Semi-Dry): 32-50 grams per litre
Dolç/dulce (Sweet): 50+ grams per litre
Food Pairings and Serving Suggestions
Cava is characteristically dry, which works very well with stronger flavours. We’d recommend pairing your cava with mature cheeses, salads with vinaigrettes, seafoods dressed with garlic – and of course, tapas and paella.
Decoding Spanish Wine Labels
Spain’s wine labels have become more complex since 2000, with the introduction of new classifications, ageing categories and regions. Each winemaking region holds one of the Spanish wine quality classifications.
- Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa): the highest level of quality in Spanish wine. “Calificada” means qualified or guaranteed, which means the quality is officially certified. Only two regions currently hold this classification: Rioja and Priorat.
- Denominación de Origen (DO): this shows the geographical origin and style of a particular wine, which must abide by various conditions of grape growing and winemaking in that area – including grape varieties, vine yields, the density of vine planting and ageing regimes. This is the largest quality category, with around 70 regions holding the DO title.
- Vino de Pago (VP): this classification is for high-quality wineries who are unable to claim a DO – perhaps because they are outside a DO area, or because the wine styles do not conform to DO requirements – but they are of high quality nonetheless.
- Vino de la Tierra (VdlT): this classification focuses on the origin of the wine rather than its style and quality, indicated by the name which translates to “wine of the land”. It’s a category that can embrace a wide range of wines, which can be varietals (made of one single grape) and blends of various grapes too. There are around 46 VT regions.
- Vino de Mesa (VM): literally, “table wine” – any wines that do not qualify for the above categories. They do not need to include a region, grape or vintage on the label.
- Crianza: a young wine, probably no more than 12 or 18 months old.
- Reserva: a little more time in the barrels, usually up to around 2 years
- Gran Reserva: wine that is aged for the longest, usually between 2 and 5 years
A typical Spanish Wine Label
They usually follow this formula:
- Winery name
- Appellation / Region title (eg Rioja)
- Appellation / Region status (eg DOCa)
- Vintage (e.g. 2017)
- Ageing category (e.g. Gran Reserva)
- Producer name and location
- Bottle size
Spanish Wine Terms
- Barrica: cask or barrel
- Bodega: wine cellar or shop
- Cepa: lineage or root
- Cosecha: crop or harvest
- Espumoso: sparkling
- Joven: young
- Roble: oak or oak barrels
- Vendimia: grape harvest
- Vino: wine
- Vino tinto: red wine
- Vino blanco: white wine
- Vino rosado: rose wine
Spanish Alternatives to Popular Grape Varieties
There are similarities between many Spanish grape varieties and their global counterparts. We’ve collected some Spanish alternatives to other, better known varieties to help you choose against your own wine tastes.
Pinot Grigio alternative: Albariño
Sauvignon Blanc alternative: Verdejo
Pinot Noir alternative: Mencía
Merlot alternative: Tempranillo
Malbec alternative: Garnacha
Pinot Noir alternative: Mencía
Shiraz/Syrah alternative: Monastrell
Merlot alternative: Tempranillo
Malbec alternative: Garnacha
Pairing Spanish Wine with Food
Nothing unlocks the hidden richness and depth of wine like food, and vice versa – so here are some of our suggestions for enjoying your Spanish wines to their fullest, with Spanish dishes and international cuisine as well.
Traditional Spanish dishes and wine pairings
Paella: rich white wines go beautifully with a seafood or mixed paella, and lighter red wines such as Rioja Crianza and Garnacha work well with duck and sausage paellas. Spanish rose wines go well with both!
Tapas: this term covers a wide range of foods, from aperitifs like olives and cheeses to tomatoes, peppers and charcuterie boards. Dry white wines and sherries work well, but so does a cava, as the acidity and oils are balanced by the flavour and bubbles. The flavours of tomato-based dishes match well with roses and light reds, such as Garnacha. Meat-based tapas tend to be cured meats and quite salty, so while red is usually paired with meat, white can work even better to balance the flavours.
Gazpacho Soup: the rich tomatoey flavours of this chilled soup work beautifully with Albarino white wine or a Manzanilla sherry.
Tips for pairing Spanish wines with international cuisine
Rich reds: Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines are full and flavoursome, and pair very well with hearty meat dishes like roast lamb, beef and turkey – so could be a great choice for the Christmas table. They can also be the perfect complement to steak.
Light whites: salad, chicken, seafood and risotto go perfectly with Spanish whites Albarino and Verdejo.
Cava: seafood dishes like prawns and linguine, anchovies and dressed lobster are even more delicious with a glass of dry, sparkling cava beside them.
How to Buy and Store Spanish Wine
When looking for a good-quality Spanish wine, start with the quality classification. If the bottle says DOC or DOCa, you know it’s going to be good (see the Quality Classification section for more detail). The letters VP are a safe bet too, because the wine has earned a quality standard but doesn’t fully meet the strict DOC and DOCa requirements.
VdlT is more of a gamble, but still worth a try as the classification relates more to the blend than the quality. VM really can vary widely in quality – so if it’s high quality you want, stick with the three classifications above. The more adventurous may wish to explore what VdlT and VM have to offer.
Storing and Serving
As with most wines, it’s best to keep Spanish wine protected from temperature extremes. A cellar is perfect if you’re lucky enough to have one, but failing that, a cool, dry wine rack is fine.
White wines and cava should be served chilled, but not too cold; anything below five degrees can increase the sense of acid in the taste.
Red wine does not need to be chilled to the same degree, but like most reds a bottle should be slightly lower than room temperature to get the most from the flavours.
The dryer sherries should always be chilled, and should be even colder than white wine – so make sure your Manzanilla and Fino spend time in the bottom of the fridge before serving.
Spanish wines which age best in the bottle are the ones that have been aged for a while in the barrel – those are the ones designated as Reserva or Gran Reserva. Tempranillo, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro can develop in maturity and flavour for 7-15 years, and some Gran Reservas can mature for more than 20. The effects of this ageing is usually a mellowing in the forcefulness of flavours, but a deepening of the richness – so many wines develop a smoother taste, and fruitier aroma.
There is a whole world of flavour, variety and quality to explore with Spanish wines, backed up by centuries of history and fascinating winemaking customs. Spanish wine has so much to offer, and to many great food pairings.
Explore the many Spanish wines we have to offer at Handpicked Wine Box – and let us know about any new food pairings you discover…