As the most widely planted wine producing nation with over 2.9 million acres under vine, Spain vies France and Italy as a powerhouse producer of wine. Spain’s location on the Iberian Peninsula means it’s climactically diverse—soggy and wet to hot and dry—but over the course of its 3000 year old viticultural history winemakers realized planting in higher altitudes produced the best results.
Over 400 hundred varieties of grapes are grown within Spain’s borders but 80% of the country’s wine production is from only 20 grapes. With the exception of Sherry, Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine of international acclaim but through modernization, wine enthusiasts now the chance to explore the future of Spanish wine. Let’s learn the about what’s make Spain a diverse and fascinating wine producing region.
Rioja Reigns in Spain
Spain’s ancient history of winemaking began when Phoenicians planted vineyards around 1100 B.C., but it was the investment from French wine proprietors in the 1850’s that established La Rioja in northern Spain as the country’s first traditional area of quality. The phylloxera epidemic had all but decimated France’s vineyards, and the nearby Ebro River Valley--just south of the Cantabrian mountains-- provided the resources and market to revive the dwindling French wine industry. As a result, red wines from Rioja’s native grapes Tempranillo and to a lesser extent, Grenache, have become the most famous of Spain’s wines.
Rioja wines have four quality classifications based on increasing years of aging in American oak barrels, a practice that began when Spain colonized the New World. In recent years, however, winemakers are opting for more subtle softening of Tempranillo’s tannins through use of French oak. Regardless, Rioja is still known for more savory and vanilla characteristics and remains the king of Spanish wines. The best Riojas are as complex and age worthy as the same Bordeaux from where Rioja’s tradition is so closely linked.
Sherry Stays Hot and Cava Keeps Cool
It’s hard to believe anything could grow in Andalucía’s hot and arid landscape, but Jerez (Sherry) is home to Spain’s next most famous wine by the same name. In reality, the area receives more rain than other areas of southern Spain, which is then trapped in chalky, limestone-rich soils. Mainly produced from the white Palomino grape, Sherry undergoes a fortification and aging process using a complex system of barrels called a “solera.” Contrary to popular belief, most Sherry is dry and delicately salty--not cloyingly sweet—and is a wonderful accompaniment to many foods.
The coastal Penedès region, where 95% of Spain’s traditional method sparkling wine Cava is made offers more climactic diversity than Andalucía but is no less prestigious in its reputation for high-quality wines. Located in the autonomous region of Catalan along the Mediterranean coast , white grape varieties dominate including Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Macabeo—the traditional trio of grapes used to make Cava since the 1850’s. Spanish for “caves” where the wines are cellared, Cava from higher altitudes vineyards rival the best Champagne for its minerality, acidity, and food-friendly characteristics.
Albariño Brings in the Green (Spain)
Green Spain—the nickname given to the cool, lush northern region of Galicia—is a shining example of the future of Spanish wine. Ambitious wine makers and savvy marketing have exposed international drinkers to the region’s standout whites, with Albariño being the most ubiquitous. Highly aromatic, crisp, and bone dry, the best examples hail from the Rías Baixas (“lower fjords”) region which bears a strong resemblance to coastal Ireland. Until recently, the indigenous varietal was unknown but now the United States is the wine’s largest consumer. Rooted in tradition but with eyes on the future, let’s toast Spain’s wine potential!
Want to learn more about Spain’s royal line-up of wines? Vámanos! Join Wine Educator and Sommelier Erlinda A. Doherty on 14 June from 6:00-7:30 in the atrium at the Arcade Mall on Columbia’s Main Street. Explore the basics of Spanish regions, varietals, and emerging styles. While we journey through the curated selection enjoy a variety of imported cheeses and appetizers. Tickets are available at www.thevinicola.com or email email@example.com for more information.