In 2013, and for the first time on record, Spain became the world's biggest wine producer. An extremely abundant harvest -especially in La Mancha- and reduced productions in France and Italy, its closest rivals in wine’s major league, were the main factors behind this surge. Many would argue that Spain’s pleasant and sunny climate makes for many comfortable armchair vintages, but to my mind that is a rather simplistic view of a country that still boasts the largest vineyard surface area in the world.
Quite a few regions certainly elude the cliché of dry and safe growing seasons. Take Ribera del Duero for instance, where vegetative cycles are short and growers may have to deal with frosts both in May as well as in September. In the far northwestern corner, and this is Albariño country, average annual rainfall is 1,600 mm, much higher than in Champagne or the Mosel. Under such wet conditions, oidium is a constant threat for Galician vine growers and harvests must be completed before the Azores high pressures give way to Atlantic storms and a sudden end to the summer. In addition, grape ripening can be a rather challenging job in the northernmost areas of Navarra, Rioja, León or Cataluña.
At the other end of the scale, heat is not always welcomed, specifically when it exceeds 40ºC. Such weather is quite common in large swathes of Spain's southern drier half such as La Mancha, Córdoba, Extremadura and Levante (Alicante, Jumilla…). In Catalonia, Priorat’s thirsty vines (300 mm might be all the rain they get in a year) have to dig their roots very deep in search of water and nutrients. Here, the combination of old vines, poor schist soils and extreme climate conditions result in concentrated, alcoholic but very distinctive reds. Nevertheless, the powerful, highly extracted bombs that prospered in the 1990s are giving way to a more aromatic and balanced style with softer tannins and a nice Mediterranean character.
Most quality-conscious winemakers are particularly concerned with achieving balance in their wines. In Spain, that requires perfect alcohol integration and looking for freshness in hot, dry areas. Winemaking techniques include whole bunch fermentations, blending with early-harvested grapes, or using specific types of yeasts aimed at lowering alcohol levels. The introduction of grape varieties with longer cycles has also proved successful in hot regions, although producers rarely disclose their names -most of these varieties are not authorized by the local regulatory councils or can only be grown on an experimental basis. Take Rioja’s Graciano. It is moving south, where it ripens beautifully and can add acidity and lively herbaceous notes to many hot jammy wines. Further south, Portuguese Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional are the best kept secrets behind Extremadura’s most exciting reds.
Moreover, Spain is a mountainous country, with a vast plateau covering a large area in the centre, so altitude can be a crucial quality factor. Planting at higher altitude ensures a longer ripening season, thus bringing freshness and balance. Some of the most exciting wines launched in the last decade come from high altitude vineyards located in Bierzo, on the slopes of Moncayo in Aragón or on the Gredos mountain ranges (Madrid, Ávila, Toledo) and Montsant (Tarragona).
Generally speaking, Spain may be the land of sun, but when it comes to wine, the diversity can be really striking. I firmly believe that the country can offer wines to match nearly all palates. Where should you look to find the ones that better suit your taste? I’ve tried to draw a mental map that divides Spain's main wine regions -not necessarily appellations- by style and type of wine. I hope this highly personal and rather general outline can be used as a practical guide to confront the shelves of your local wine store in a more relaxed way. Downloading the comprehensive map of Spanish wine regions compiled by Wines from Spain will definitely help readers locate each region accurately.
Deeply coloured, highly structured, high alcohol reds, with some good examples achieving finesse. These are what I like to call the powerful three and include: Ribera del Duero and surrounding areas; Toro, whose wines are usually heavier but with voluptuous textures as long as alcohol is well integrated; and Priorat in Catalonia. I would add the seemingly unglamorous Almansa region (Castilla La Mancha), because fans of powerful wines will love the natural strength of Garnacha Tintorera’s old vines. On its own, Tintorera is a true beast!
Rioja is still the place to go to for fine red wines, capable of aging and full of complexity and nuances. From historical Gran Reservas, which are back in the limelight, to new and recent ventures exploring specific terroirs in the appellation. The only region that could compete for this honour, although this is more wishful thinking than reality, is Navarra, in particular its central and northernmost areas.
There’s something rather magical about the way in which most good producers in this area are able to combine fully ripe fruit with freshness. It happens with Monastrell in Alicante, Yecla and Jumilla; and with Garnacha (often accompanied by Carignan) in Catalonia. A Mediterranean scrubland character (pine nuts, rosemary and/or thyme) manages to counteract the relatively high alcohol content. Many international grapes grown in the area can also be infused by this nice feature provided yields are kept under control. Those Priorat’s reds featuring a subtle aromatic style should definitely be included in this group.
This category includes regions focused on international grapes: Penedès in Catalonia, Somontano in Aragón, Navarra and some specific ventures in Castilla La Mancha, Castilla y León, Extremadura or Andalucía. While such an approach may not look very appealing at a time when local grapes are thriving, it certainly proved its effectiveness in crafting quality wines in the 1990s. Nevertheless, it may be worth keeping an eye on them given that some of these regions have also started to work with local grapes (Xarel.lo and Sumoll in Penedès; Garnacha in Somontano) or are refining their blends, as is the case in Navarra.
It used to be the most widely planted red grape and it now ranks fourth, but there have never been as many exciting Garnachas in the country as there are right now. Styles can vary significantly from one region to another: powerful in Aragón (Campo de Borja, Calatayud, Cariñena), fresher and medium-bodied in Navarra (although most of the grapes are used to make rosés) and richer in Méntrida. Garnachas from Gredos (part of Méntrida, inos de Madrid, Cebreros) are so distictively mineral that I would rather place them in the next category.
This is the result of a better understanding of local grapes and terroirs. A new generation of young and courageous winemakers and vignerons are shaking up Spanish vineyards. The recovery of ancient plots planted with indigenous vines has led to a new, gentle, Burgundian approach in the winery. In fact, Pinot Noir seems to have more in common with the natural delicacy of many heritage varieties than the extract-as-much-as-you-can style imposed by Tempranillo-dominated regions. Look out for these new wines in wine regions such as Canarias, Baleares, Gredos, Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo, Sierra de Salamanca, Tierra de León. The bad news is that most of them are made in tiny quantities, depending on the size of the vineyards they come from.
Led by the strong character of Albariño and Verdejo, and thanks to an ever-increasing demand from international markets, Spanish white wines have flourished over the past decade. Most white growing areas in Spain are closely related to a single grape variety whose name I’ve included in brackets. Rueda (Verdejo) in Castilla y León; Rías Baixas (Albariño), Valdeorras (Godello) and Ribeiro (Treixadura) in Galicia; Txakoli (Hondarrabi zuri) in the Basque Country; Terra Alta (Garnacha Blanca) in Catalonia; Albillo in different areas of Castille, and the best whites from Rioja (mainly Viura with small percentages of Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca) which offer an increasing diversity of styles and should not be disregarded.
This is sadly true for many producers in the huge Castilla-La Mancha region which covers different appellations (La Mancha, Valdepeñas, Mondéjar, Manchuela, Uclés, Ribera del Júcar and Almansa) and in Extremadura. Nevertheless, you’ll be able to find many exceptions to this rule, as some highly regarded winemakers are based in these areas.
This historical region in the south of Andalucía, along with Cordoba’s Montilla-Moriles, must have a section of its own. Their wines are unique and traditional: Fino, Manzanilla (only made by the sea, in Sanlúcar de Barrameda), Palo Cortado, Amontillado and Oloroso. All of them are tremendous bargains, incredibly food-friendly and especially suitable for impossible-to-match dishes (just think of marinades or vinegar seasoned salads).
Sweet wines are out of fashion, but as most European wine producers, Spain has its own appetising traditions, most of which have been successfully revisited over the last few years. Generally, the focus has been on natural sweet wines without added alcohol, such is the case of Moscatel from Málaga and Navarra, Alicante to a lesser extent, and Malvasías from Lanzarote. This has also been the case for other sweet wines made from red grapes such as the famous Fondillón from Alicante, and other Monastrell and Garnacha wines from the Mediterraean area. The thick, unctuous and blackish PX from Montilla-Moriles is obviously a liqueur wine (impossible for yeasts to transform the huge amount of sugar contained in these sun-dried grapes into alcohol), as are many other traditional wines throughout the country.