Spain has more vineyards than anywhere else in the world: 1.5 million hectares. Also, Spain has 70 Designations of Origin and uses 235 varieties of grape. It is the third world producer of wine after France and Italy. But despite the fact that wine has been made here since Roman times and the country was liberally scattered with monasteries nurturing a wine culture since the 12th century, it seems that Spain had almost no market in quality wine by the 1960s. Nor was it a big exporter.
Evidence of grapes growing in the area as far back as the year 4000 BC. Under the Roman empire, Spanish wine was traded across Europe and the Mediterranean but was hampered during the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula from the 8th Century onwards. By the 14th Century, Spanish wine was once again being sold across Europe, especially in England where it would be shipped straight from Bilbao to Bristol in regular supply. During the colonisation of the Americas, Spanish missionaries brought vines with them and introduced viticulture to the conquered lands. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Spanish wine production benefited from the phylloxera epidemic which ravaged many of the French old vines and created a shortage in European supply. Many French producers moved to Spain bringing with them their expertise and introducing progress in the production method. For a long time, Spanish wine was considered by some of inferior quality to the wine of its neighbours, but since the late 20th Century, Spain has established itself as a serious producer with some top quality wines appreciated the world round.
Modern Spanish wine could be said to have exploded onto the scene in 1985, when the country joined the European Union with its accompanying free movement of ideas, products and services. There have since been several generations of entrepreneurs resuscitating old vineyards, nurturing them with patience and care and making great wine in the most unlikely places – including the Balearic and Canary Islands, on steep hillsides and on wasteland where nothing but the long-suffering vine could possibly survive. These wines turned out to be a pure reflection of the land, its history and the climate. And as they were produced on a small scale, they were nothing if not exclusive, with the power to wow critics and consumers alike.
It is said that a milestone in the contemporary vineyards revolution of Spain is the crusade in Spanish gourmet cuisine. In 1987, it celebrated the first triumph: the award of three Michelin stars to Zalacaín in Madrid, the first recognition of this kind for a Spanish restaurant.
Main Wine Producing Regions across Spain
There are two broad classifications of wine in Spain: vino de mesa or table wine and Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada, wines produced in specific regions and meet certain requirements of quality. Many of the names associated with superior Spanish wines refer to one of these particular regions – Rioja, Priorat or Ribera del Duero. This is equivalent of the French practice of referring to wines by the region in which they are produced, for instance Bordeaux or Sancerre. Within the general category of wines from a specific region, there are four subcategories of which the most commonly encountered (accounting for a vast majority of Spanish quality wine) is known as Denominación de Origen (DO). When choosing wine from a list, look out for the letters ‘D.O’ as an indication of the superior quality of the product. Here are some notes on the most popular Spanish wine producing regions.
Rioja: produced around the La Rioja region, the Basque country and Navarre, D.O. Rioja wines typically display oaky notes as result of maturing the wine in oak barrels. Those in search of a pronounced oaky flavour should look out for the mention ‘Gran Reserva’ indicating that the wine has been in oak for at least two years. Best known for its full-bodied reds, oaky white Riojas are also very popular.
Priorat: this is one of the highest quality wine-producing regions in Spain. Located in the region of Catalonia, the volcanic nature of the soil in which the vines are grown gives the wine a distinctive flavour; it also means that yields are much lower than in other regions due to the hardy conditions. Best known for its distinctive reds which have continued to grow in popularity since the 1990s.
Ribera del Duero: named after the river Duero which runs through the area, this is a mostly red wine producing region home to one of the most famous bodegas in Spain, Vega Sicilia. The region now rivals the Rioja region as one of the largest wine-producing regions in Spain and is growing in popularity among foreign drinkers, attracted to its full-bodied and oaky flavour.
Cava: one of the most widely spread regional appellations, the name ‘Cava’ refers to the sparkling white wine mostly produced in the region of Catalunya. Although not enjoying the same repute as French ‘Champagne’, cava is becoming increasingly well-known on the international stage and enjoys great popularity at home in Spain. Look out for ‘método tradicional’ as an indication that the fizz has occurred as a result of a natural process of fermentation.
Sherry: known in Spanish as Jerez, this is the home of the classic fortified wine generally referred to as Sherry. However there are many different kinds of Jerez, varying from syrupy and sweet (such as Pedro Ximenez) to crisp and dry (such as Fino or Manzanilla), with many in between (such as Palo Cortao, Oloroso or Amontillado in growing order of dryness).
There are many other regional appellations from which excellent wines are produced and are well-worth exploring when in the area. Anyone in Catalonia should not miss an opportunity to try a D.O. Rueda wine, just as those in Galicia should try a D.O. Rías Baixas. In any case, locally produced wines will always be the best accompaniment when enjoying the local cuisine, as the flavours tend towards a wonderful natural harmony.