Spanish Wine 411

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I’ve written about wine before, but let me just get this out of the way:

There is more to the international wine industry than France and Italy.

I mean, Spain is the third-largest wine-producing country (after our dear friends France and Italy), but it’s the most widely planted producing nation. Spaniards drink about 10 gallons of wine per year. You know, probably way less than amount of Diet Coke I drink (I know - it’s soooo bad for me; give it a rest).

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When I first set on Spanish soil, I didn’t like wine or olives. Those two things changed – and fast. And wouldn’t you know, olives and wine make a delicious pairing!

Want to learn more? Read on, friend.

Classification

You’ll usually see the letters DO, meaning Denominación de Origen, or “designation of origen” followed by the name of the place the wine was made. There are other systems, but this is the main one you will see in places like grocery stores, little wine/food artisan shops, and neighborhood cafés. The most known DO is Rioja, and if you’ve had Spanish wine in the U.S., it’s likely Rioja or Ribera del Duero.

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  • Rioja – Rioja actually has a Denominación de Origen Calificada (qualified designation of origin). It’s actually made in the Autonomous Communities of La Rioja, parts of Navarre, and the Basque province of Álava. It has about 14,000 vineyards and 150 wineries. [1]
  • Ribera del Duero - It’s located in Castilla y León, in Spain’s northern plateau. The region follows the course of the Duero river. Here, they produce mostly red wine.
  • Rías Baixas – Located in Galicia, this region produces mostly white wines. In Gallego (the language of Galicia), rías baixas means “low ria,” where “ria” is a long, narrow tidal inlet. They mainly produce the Albariño grape. [2]
  • Jerez – Located in Cádiz, in Andalucía, this region produces jerez, or as we say in English, “sherry.” (Sherry is an anglicization of jerez.) It’s a fortified wine made of white grapes. In Spain, all wine called jerez must come from the Sherry Triangle, an area in Cádiz. [3]
  • Toro – This DO is located in Zamora (!!) and is one of my favorites. I’m biased, of course, but it produces high quality red wines and has been doing so since the end of the first century BC.
  • Others – I’m sorry to give these the shaft, but that’s not to say they aren’t great wine-producing regions: Jumilla (Murcia), Campo de Borja (Zaragoza), Penedes (Barcelona), Rueda (Castilla y León), and Priorat (Tarragona). [4]

Grapes

White wine grapes
  • Albariño – Generally produces light, high acid, distinctively aromatic wines.
  • Malvasia -Used to produce white wines, sweetened wines, this varietal can be found on the Iberian Peninsula as well as the Canary Islands.
  • Verdejo – Used to make strongly oxidized, Sherry-like wine. These grapes are generally harvested at night, which allows for less oxidation, which in turn allows for less browning of the liquid. [5]
  • Viura – Widely grown in the La Rioja region of Spain; used to make mildly acidic and young white wines.
Red wine grapes
  • Tempranillo – This is the main red grape of Spain. Its name often varies from region to region. The grape is called “tinta de Toro” in the Toro region and “tinta fino” in Ribera del Duero. It produces wines that are quite rich in color.
  • Garnacha – This grape is called Grenache in much of the rest of the world and grows well in arid conditions, making it successful in Spain’s often very dry conditions.
  • Monastrell – Originating in Spain, it is known in France as Mourvèdre. It produces strong, dark red wines as well as rosés.

Spanish Labeling Laws

In order to classify them, Spanish wines are often labeled by the amount of time they spent ageing. There are four major categories:

  • Joven – These wines have undergone very little (if any!) aging in barrels. They should be drunk within a year or so.
  • Crianza – Red wines are aged for 2 years. They spend at least 6 months in oak barrels. White wines are aged for a year and spend 6 months in oak barrels.
  • Reserva – Reserva red wines spend at least a year in oak barrels and are aged for a total of at least 3 years. Likewise, Reserva whites are aged for 2 years and spend at least a year in oak.
  • Gran Reserva - These wines are usually better quality. If red wine, they spend at least 5 years aging: 18 months in oak and 36 in the bottle. In a similar manner, if white wine, they must spend 6 months in oak and 4 years total aging.

So You’re Going to a Bar…What Do You Order?

Of course, it’s all a matter of personal taste. Some people profess to not be able to tell the difference between an $8 bottle of wine and a $50 wine. I wish that were true for me, but I do notice a huge difference. I just say no to Two Buck Chuck (although I think it’s Three Buck Chuck actually). I just can’t deal with it – the taste is so insipid.
I say – order what you like. If you love table wine, by all means order it! It’s your party. But I would recommend branching out from your typical Riojas. They are good and you can find very high quality in the region. Nonetheless, there is more to Spanish wine than just Rioja. I recommend trying the Toro region, located in Zamora. Its wine are bold, daring even, with a high alcohol content (sometimes 14.5%!) . It’s also quite tannic, which I love. Here are my recommendations for affordable quality wine from Toro:
  • Elías Mora – I admit, Mario and I love this wine and drink it a lot. If you’re looking for affordable, this is your best bet. It’s cheap (especially in Spain!) and goes down quite smoothly.
  • Bodega Numanthia Termes 2008 – I had this at Tastings, a wine bar located in downtown Indianapolis. Mario has actually never tried it, so I have one up on him! As the site says, it’s a “solid” wine.
  • Gran Colegiata Reserva - Gran Colegiata refers to the main church of Toro, which is not a cathedral. Yeah, I’ve been there. This wine is quite affordable. I drink the regular version a lot. It’s only ~$16 at this point.
  • Matsu Wines – Matsu is the name of a “trilogy” of wines. The young one shows a young man’s face; the middle one shows a middle-aged man’s face; the older wine shows an old man’s face. It’s a brilliant concept and the wine is striking. Each character embodies the characteristics of the wine that takes its name – “The Rogue,” “The Robust,” and “The Old.” The flavor is unmistakable. I remember drinking the Old Man version with Mario’s family.

Also, if you want to be truly Spanish, have some jamón serrano with your wine. Google says so.
[3] Sherry
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19 comments

  1. Great visuals as always, chica!

    I didn’t care for wine when I studied abroad, but this past year I’ve been making up for lost time. After trying Ribeiro to Somontano to Txakoli, I’m finally figuring out which wines tickle my tastes.

    I love the idea of the Matsu wine trio–I will have to watch for them!

  2. Thanks so much for this, I’ve tried googling before for Spanish wines 101 but just got wine snob mumbo jumbo. I love wine but I’m so lost here without the familiar names. Usually just go for a not-too-cheap-but-not-too-expensive-either bottle! Next time I’ll look for Elías Mora or Gran Colegiata.

  3. Awesome lesson on one of my favorite subjects :) I never really understood the difference between the different labeling laws until now. Now, if only Spanish wines weren’t so expensive on this side of the world!

  4. Would you believe I wrote a 20pp paper in Spanish for an entry-level spanish writing course about the DO Ribera del Duero? So spoiled studying there and having wonderful wine with meals.

    Also, I about rolled out of my chair seeing the search results for jamón serrano!! Qué rico!

  5. I should say that Spanish wine is much better with Jamón Ibérico (not serrano {hige difference}). The other day I just ate a dish of jamón ibérico, I think is the most delicious think I’ve ever eaten!

    Thank for that post, even I’m Spanish I didn’t knew that much about all the different wines that are produced here in Spain. In Catalonia, where I am from, we have some really well known wine and also cava: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cava_(Spanish_wine)

    This last Summer I went to Finland and I was so happy to see some of the Spanish and Catalan wine and cava there. :D

    1. while i’m at it being too bossy: try a Gurrutxaga one if you’re not as into white wines but you like some cavas, pour it from up high to get some bubbles in it, and it actually reminds me more of cava than white wines!

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