Everything you need to know about Spanish Wines

The Wine Guys

As the weather gets a little cooler, and wine drinkers start to back off whites and roses to look for reds, I always turn to Spanish wines. The spice, tobacco, and pepper present in so many of their reds (and the racy touch of citrus and minerals in their whites) makes me warm all over, like the sweaters I just pulled out of my closet. As a wine consultant, I find Spain has the perfect balance between Old World structure and balance, and New World intensity and richness. And you can find an amazing wine at any price range.

With France and Italy as the major players and exporters of wine in Europe, it is easy to overlook that Spain has been producing fantastic wines for about 3,000 years. Vines were introduced by the Romans, who hated going anywhere that vino was not, and cultivation was not stifled by the Islamic Mughal Empire. When France’s vines were struck with phylloxera in the 19thCentury, Spain helped to supply their thirsty French neighbors, and Rioja red became a nice substitute for Bordeaux.

Sherry (fortified wines from Spain) and Port (from Portugal) were first created when the British and Dutch added brandy to wines they exported from the region to make them last the trip home. When the wine market was over-saturated in the 1970s, Spanish wines, like Italy’s Chiantis, gained a reputation of being cheap juice. Spanish wine culture has since reinvented itself and today’s wines, from regions all over Spain, can be incredible.

When shopping for Spanish wine, where do you start? One way to ensure you make the right decision on your next Spanish wine purchase is to learn the vocabulary. For all wines in Spain, there are specific legal labels put on reds and whites that have been aged and oaked: Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Crianza red wines are aged for two years with a minimum of six months in oak. Crianza whites and rosés must be aged for at least one year with six months in oak. Reserva red wines are aged for at least three years with a minimum of one year in oak; whites must be aged for two years with at least six months in oak. Gran Reserva wines are sourced from better vintages with the red wines requiring at least five years aging, 18 months in oak and 36 months in the bottle; whites must be aged for at least four years with six months in oak.

Spanish wine will often be labeled for the region. All wine lovers can find a style they enjoy in Spain, but the most popular come from La Rioja, Castilla y Leon, and the warm regions along the Mediterranean Coast. The main grape in Spain, and in Rioja in particular, is Tempranillo, but there is also Garnacha (Grenache), Syrah, Carinena (Carignan), Monastrell (Mourvedre), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, just to name a few.

La Rioja is itself divided into Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja, and Rioja Alavesa. Alavesa’s chalky soils and high elevation lead to perfumed wines that require age to show off their best qualities. The Alta and Baja both have iron-rich limestone soil that create beautiful wines, though Baja and its lower elevation can sometimes be too hot to produce great grapes. A traditional Rioja is a blend of grapes from all three regions.  The acreage of Rioja is generally dedicated to Tempranillo, with small amounts of Garnacha and local grapes Mazuelo and Graziano.

Castilla y Leon lies along the banks of the Duero River, with high elevations that make it home to several incredible wine regions, including Ribera del Duero, Rueda, and Toro. The region’s long cool growing seasons preserve acidity, but vintages can be ruined if it’s so cold that the grapes don’t ripen fully. Ribera del Duero is  planted to 90% Tempranillo, but Cabernet, Merlot, and Malbec  are also grown in small amounts and are often added to the blend. Vega Sicilia, one of the premier houses in Spain, has been making world-renowned wines in Ribera del Duero for 150 years, and introduced the Bordeaux-style grapes to the region.  Rueda focuses on whites, and sometimes oaks its high-acid Verdejos, Viuras, and Sauvignon Blancs.  Toro is a flatter with a gentler terroir than Ribera del Duero but still creates bold and rich reds, often with century old vines; they represent  amazing values. 

Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the warm weather promotes rich, smoky reds, crisp Cavas, and dry whites.  Jumilla and Montsant have mastered the Rhone-style grapes of Garnacha, Carinena, and Monastrell, despite the warmer climate and often sandy soil. Priorat’s Garnacha and Carinena blends are big and warm, with a distinct mineral quality, due to the granite and slate soil, and alcohol levels legally required to be over 13.75%.

Even with all of this info on the regions, grapes, and history of Spanish wine, the final decision can be daunting. These are some truly delicious wines to start with, at any budget:

From Rioja:

Baigorri de Garage 2005 - $74.99 
Baigorri Reserva 2004 - $39.99
The Saint Rioja Reserva 2008 - $14.99

From Castillo y Leon:

Vega Sicilia Tinto Valbuena 5 2007 - $159.99
Pagos de Penafiel Crianza Ribera del Duero 2008 - $29.99 
Legon Reserva 2004 - $24.99 -
Nisia Old Vines Verdejo Rueda 2011 - $14.99  
Mania Verdejo-Viura 2011 - $11.99
Dehesa de Cadozos Toro 2004 - $49.99
Spada Toro 2009 - $9.99

From Priorat, Jumilla, Montsant:

Portal del Priorat Clos del Portal Somni 2009 - $79.99
Jaspi Maragda Montsant 2010 - $29.99
Merum Monastrell Jumilla 2009 - $9.99 
Jaspi Blanc 2012 - $19.99
Gran Gesta Cava (NV) - $13.99

Lilia Coffin is a Wine Consultant at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill.

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