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  • What makes Spanish wines different?
  • What makes Spanish wines different?
  • What makes Spanish wines different?
  • What makes Spanish wines different?
  • What makes Spanish wines different?
  • What makes Spanish wines different?
1. Inspiring slopes in Priorat. 2. Old vines. 3. A stone wine press. 4. Slate. 5. Mountains. 6. Volcanic landscape. Photo credits: Amaya Cervera.

In depth

What makes Spanish wines different?

Amaya Cervera | May 12th, 2020

The fifth edition of André Jullien’s Topographie de tous les vignobles connus, revised and expanded by his son and published in 1866, introduced Spain and its wines as follows: “A supplier of highly valued wines to Rome in the times of Pliny, Spain has figured prominently among Europe’s wine regions and still retains its dominance for some of its products. Mountain ranges traverse the extensive coastline and border its main rivers offering the most fortunate exposures and the best land to grow vines; finally, the warm climate helps fruit to ripen fast and thoroughly. As a result, in those regions where wines are properly looked after, they distinguish themselves for their complexity, bouquet, strength and longevity; but the bad methods employed routinely ruin these advantages in many vineyards.”

With the due nuances, most of his observations remain largely valid, criticism included (a large number of vineyards in Spain follow industrial, high-yield principles). It is also fair to say that Spanish wine has lost some of its prestige since the times of Jullien. Fortunately, considerable efforts have been done over the last 30 years to make up for lost time.

So what makes Spanish wine different? Here are some key elements.

Diversity

This is Spain’s most treasured feature and its stronger differential factor. It is present in almost every single element that influence the style and characteristics of any wine: soils, climate, grape varieties, winemaking techniques…

In terms of its climate, almost all types and styles of wines can be produced in Spain except for those of extreme cold regions. The mid latitude of the Iberian Peninsula within the temperate Northern hemisphere results in an intriguing crossroads of influences.

Global warming permitting, wine lovers can enjoy the sharp acidity of txakoli from the north and the crisp freshness of many wines made across “green Spain” including reds, the region’s ultimate discovery. Galician reds are light years away from the natural ripeness of Mediterranean regions but also stand in sharp contrast with the austere, structured wines that result from extreme conditions in the Duero valley. Rioja prides itself on its versatility with producers increasingly distinguishing between Atlantic and Mediterranean vintages as their interest in exploring specific areas also grows. 

Soils can vary notably in Spain, a differentiating factor that is increasingly mentioned on wine labels as is the case with Gredos, where Garnacha is grown on granite or slate soils. Other areas with these two types of soil include Sierra de Salamanca in Castilla y León and Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras in Galicia, even though granite is usually associated to Galicia. Priorat in Catalonia is undoubtedly renowned for its slate soils and if we think of chalk, Jerez and its dazzling Albariza soils soon spring to mind. 

With many wine regions traversed by rivers, alluvial soils are also relatively widespread in Spain. Whereas the sedimentary process of the Duero river basin has created a complex set of layers, Rioja boasts alluvial soils but also variable proportions of limestone and clay. The layer of ash that covers the breathtaking landscape of many vineyards in the Canary Islands makes visitors fall in love with the wines even before tasting them, yet these soils require painstaking work in the vineyard. Ash protects the fertile soil and retains water, the most precious asset in areas with very little rain.

Generalising about Spanish wine is challenging. Simplification is a mistake. The renaissance of obscure, forgotten wine regions during the past 20 years (let’s hope that the coronavirus crisis does not slow it down), has brought more diversity and exciting styles that go well beyond those established in the minds of international and local consumers. There is much more than Rioja, Ribera, Galician whites, Cava or, for those who went a bit further, Txakoli or Mencía.

Mountains

Spain is one of Europe's most mountainous country. Mountains play an important role in shaping the landscape: they set the boundaries for different wine regions (or contribute to a certain degree of isolation that emphasizes local identity), act as protective barriers, hold back winds and breezes and provide passageways that favour grape growing.

Hillsides provide better exposure to the sun or, just the opposite, allow producers to seek colder, north-facing conditions. Vines grown on slopes benefit from better drainage and are more likely to avoid frosts in contrast with those on the valley.
Some of Spain’s most stunning wine landscapes (worth visiting at least once in a lifetime) are found in rugged regions of dramatic beauty. Ribeira Sacra, Priorat, Gredos or Axarquía are the most notable, but many other wine producing areas in Spain boast hillside vineyards. Some examples include the slopes of Sierra de Cantabria or Monte Yerga in Rioja, mountain vineyards in Calatayud and other areas in Aragón or high-elevation vineyards in Bierzo. Right now, many of Spain’s most exciting wines come from mountain vineyards.

Elevation, on the other hand, provides a corrective, refreshing effect that offsets the southern latitude of many grape growing areas. It contributes to significative day-night temperature differences that slow down the ripening process. This is particularly noticeable on Spain's central plateau and a key quality feature in the Duero valley.

So many grape varieties to taste

The fact that two grapes, red Tempranillo and white Airén, account for almost 45% of Spain’s surface under vine should not prevent from being aware of the great diversity of varieties grown in Spain.

The recovery of plant material has been a priority for Spanish viticultural research centres in recent years. A great deal of work has also been done privately, particularly by Familia Torres in Catalonia. On a different scale, producers large and small are working to preserve the wealth of biotypes among dominant grapes, explore the potential of less widely planted varieties or plant those which are being recovered in their respective wine regions.

Following the trend of varietals beyond Tempranillo in Rioja and the return of forgotten varieties in Catalonia (Sumoll, Malvasía Aromática, Cariñena Blanca, Xarel.lo Vermell, Morenillo…), Galicia (Brancellao, Espadeiro, the several Caíños, Branco Lexítimo…), Levante (Giró, Mandó, Forcallat, Bonicaire, Castilla-La Mancha (Tinto Velasco, Moravia Agria) and many other wine regions across the country, new trends await around the corner. In recent weeks, we have learnt about the recovery of Berués, an ancient, early-ripening red variety from Navarra that was used to make the legendary and extinct Rancio de Peralta, and the planting of Gajoarroba, Tinto Jeromo or Puesta en Cruz, obscure grape varieties formerly grown in Castilla y León, by a producer in Aranda de Duero.

The future of wine grapes in Spain looks both varied and exciting. 

Organic vineyards and wines

Spain is home to the world's largest surface of organic vineyards. The dry and airy conditions of vast areas in the country are a natural advantage in this regard. 

Organic vineyards almost reached 113,500 hectares in 2018 representing 11.8% of the country's surface under vine. Over 1,000 producers were certified at the time. In Bullas (Murcia), 80% of the vineyards in the DO are organically certified. 

Since many producers and growers are in the process of obtaining organic certification, these figures are expected to increase in the near future.

Old vines

According to the Vineyard Survey carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2015 there were upwards of 390,000 hectares of 30+-year-old vines in Spain. The country's grape growing heritage is truly remarkable.

Old vines are a source of biodiversity, provide a location for traditional growing sites and reflect local practices in vineyard management. They often carry the legacy of several generations. Old vines are naturally balanced, less vigorous and have lower yields.

Depth and persistence are distinctive features of wines produced with old vines; they offer a unique expression of a territory. In Spain, Bierzo and Toro boast high concentrations of old vineyards. Ungrafted vines are relatively common in Toro, an area with a wealth of phylloxera-resistant sandy soils. Pre-phylloxera vines can also be found in this region, as well as in neighbouring areas in the province of Zamora, several villages in Rueda that lie in the province the Segovia, the Atauta valley in Ribera del Duero and some isolated vineyards in Galicia.

An old country with plenty to do

History distinguishes Old World countries. Iberians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs... left their mark in the Iberian Peninsula. The Mediterranean Sea served as a major trading and cultural exchange vehicle as wine flowed in both directions. In the Middle Ages, the Way of Saint James brought new cultural exchanges including grape varieties. With the discovery of America, vines and wines made their way to the New World. Wine has been part of the culture and the way of life of the Iberian Peninsula throughout the centuries.

The top-rated Spanish wines mentioned by André Jullien in his quality classification featuring five categories included the dry whites from Jerez and Pajarete, a legendary vineyard in Cádiz that no longer exists, and three top liquor wines: Alicante, Tintilla de Rota and Pajarete. However, the Frenchman did not find high quality reds to rival those of his country. Rioja was under development at the time.

In the 20th century, the two top quality areas in Spain that bottled wine were Rioja and Jerez. The growing importance of cooperatives and the increasing weight of bulk wine (which is still notable) delayed the development of brands and quality wines in other regions.

In 1979, regulations on the use of ageing indications resulted in the generalisation of the terms Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, categories that give prominence to ageing times over vineyards and landscapes. Driven by a desire to lift the region’s terroir, the renaissance of Priorat in the late 1980s set new rules and the area was born free of these ties. In the 1990s, the dominance of Rioja was challenged by a new rival. With Ribera del Duero emerging as a new red star, Rioja embraced modernity and looked back to its vineyards. The rediscovery of its vast terroirs, which is still ongoing, goes hand in hand with the rise of the area’s classic, long-aged Gran Reserva wines.

The 21st century is more about stories, forgotten regions, the return to classic styles, local traditions or mountain vineyards. The journey has just begun, there is much work to do and plenty of obstacles to overcome. But if the present crisis does not prevent it, Spain could finally manage to develop a superb mosaic of wines that do justice to its wine landscapes.

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