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“Da vino al que tiene amargo el corazón”  (Spanish proverb)

Give wine to a person with a bitter heart. There are plenty of Spanish proverbs that reflect on how wine can cloud the brain and clarity of thought, but the Spaniards also clearly see its healing effects. Heavy drinking seems only to make people more jovial and outgoing. During a memorable evening in San Sebastian, during the festival of St James, I saw 250,000 people on the street drinking and having fun, and only a handful of policemen were there to keep things under control. There was no need as there was no trouble. People just seemed happier the more pintxos and red wine they consumed.

Macroeconomic Overview

Spain’s economy has been in the doldrums for several years, and it suffers from the same population drain as Greece, although not as severely. The GDP is $1.45 trillion, and the population is 47 million. The country has the largest land mass in southern Europe and produces large volumes of wine, the quality of which varies but which at its finest can compete with the best wines of France and Italy. Agricultural products make up about 17.5% of exports and about 12% of imports, and of the exports, wine is the fourth biggest category accounting for more than $3 billion worth in 2019, according to WTO data. (Interestingly, the second biggest import category was of cigars, which accounted for about half the value of the wine exported.)

Viticulture, Climate and Terrain

The climate of Spain is generally hot and dry, and ranges from the cooler coastal area, particularly in the north east where the foothills of the Basque region go down towards the coast, to the hot and desert-like climes of parts of the central plains.

There are three broad climate zones. The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) identifies three main climate zones: 1) the moderate maritime climate zone in the north and northwest, 2) the warm Mediterranean zone along the east coast; and the hot continental climate zone of the Meseta Central, the vast plain which stretches inland across most of the southern half of the country.

The north and northwestern zone extends from the Rias Baizas area in the northwest through rainy Galicia and all the way across to the foothills of the Pyrenees. The eastern part of this area is like an extension of the Languedoc and Catalonia, which is home to some of the best slopes and most interesting soils, has a separatist movement that wants to be independent of the government in Madrid.

The warm Mediterranean coast is the region best known to tourists. Spain recorded more than 83 million tourists in 2019, making it the second most visited country in the world, and the British are top of the list. The travel writer Noman Lewis wrote about the impact of tourism on fishing villages along this coast in his book Voices of the Old Sea. The vines here run all the way from Catalonia down to the Levante region around Valencia.

The Meseta Central refers to the huge plateau at the heart of the Iberian peninsula. Meseta is the Spanish word for “plateau” and this extends for more than 200,000 square kilometers at an average height of around 650 meters. The capital Madrid is at the heart of this region, but it extends all the way to the hot dry plains of Andalusia in the south.

Heat and the lack of water define viticulture styles. The hot dry climate means that most viticulture is centred on the country’s many rivers, most importantly the Duero and the Ebro. The country has a number of mountain ranges, both in the north and the south of the country, and these are sometimes important for viticulture. Typically low density bush vines are used to optimize water use, although wire training is increasingly used to shade grapes from the sun to preserve freshness.

Phoro of red and white grapes in back of truck

Black Grape Varieties

Black grapes are generally used to make red wine in Spain, known as Vino Tinto, but rosé wines are also produced. Tempranillo and Garnacha are the best known grapes, and the most widespread black grape varieties.

Spain is best known for its indigenous grapes, and of these, Tempranillo has the best reputation; it has been exported and is known under a variety of different names. This is a thick-skinned grape with medium acidity and smooth tannins. The grape is grown throughout north and central Spain, and acidity can be a problem in hotter regions. High altitude regions and those close to the sea are best for this varietal. Tempranillo is used in Rioja and is the mainstay of Ribera Del Duero wines.

Garnacha (often called Garnacha Tinto) is also widely grown. The latter is the same as Grenache in France, but the grape is native to Spain, hence the Spanish spelling is appropriate. Garnacha is an early ripening variety that produces wines of high alcohol and solid tannins. It is mainly used for making red wines, particularly in Priorat, but in Navarra it I also used in rosé production.

Tempranillo and Garnacha are often blended with other grapes to create balance and interest in the wines. They are made in a range of styles from inexpensive, fresh and fruity “joven” wines, often made using semi-carbonic maceration, to complex high quality wines matured in oak with ageing potential.

Other black grapes include Monastrell, Carinena, Graciano and Mencia. Monastrell is the same as the French mourvedre grape. It is thick-skinned and drought resistant, It produces full-bodied wines, but needs plenty of sun to ripen. Carinena is identical with Carignan in France, and its high tannins make it suitable for blending, particularly in Priorat with Garnacha. This grape is known as “mazuelo” in the Rioja region. Graciano is a grape that produces wines with high tannin and good acidity. It is often used for blending, particularly in Rioja. Mencia is a grape that is sitable for moderate climates. It producs wines with herbaceous flavours.

International varieties used in Spain include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which are used In the Northeast of Spain.

Photo of bunch of black grapes hanging on vine

White Grape Varieties

The most widely used white grape in Spain is Airen, although plantings have been reduced in recent years under the direction of the government. This grape was planted all over the Meseta Central, particularly in La Mancha, and has been used to make cheap white |”plonk” wines as well as for distillation to produce Brandy de Jerez.

The Albarino grape is currently the most trendy white grape in Spain. It is originally associated with light acidic white wines produced in the far northwest of the country in the Rias Baixas region, but the successes there have made it popular in other regions. Its thick skin makes it resistant to fungal diseases, and its high acidity makes it suitable for light easy-drinking wines, although it can be made in fuller styles.

The other grape that has attracted attention in recent years is Verdejo. This makes wines with melon and peach flavours, and it is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. The problem with Verdejo is the risk of oxidation, so it needs to be protected from oxygen while it is being made.

A number of other white grapes for making Cava, the sparkling wine made in Catalunya. These include Malabeo, Parellada and Jerello grapes.

Finally, the Viura grape has been used in the past for making white Rioja. This grape is being used less now, but used to be made with an oaky style.

International varieties used in Spain include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay which are used mainly In the Northeast of Spain.

A huge range of styles is achieved using white grapes. Typically wines are mad ein stainless steel tanks and with a fresh, fruity style, but more complex wines can be achieved through the use of oak and less stirring.

Photo of bunch of white grapes hanging on vine

Regional Analysis

 

There are many different ways of categorizing the wine-making regions but in the following I have separated Spain into northern, central and southern regions and then broadly used the WSET classification which identifies the six main zones for DO wines: Upper Ebro, Catalunya, Duero Valley, Northwest, Levante and Castilla La Mancha. The Upper Ebro, Catalunya, Duero Valley and Northwest region all lie in the north of the country. The Meseta Central and Levante regions are in the Central region, while Castilla la Mancha is in southern Spain. Note that wine quality and wine volumes are not the same thing in Spain. The north produces many interesting wines in different styles, whereas the central and southern area typically produces more generic wines, albeit with some exceptions. The region of Castilla y Leon is also where much of the country’s Vino de la Tierra is made.

  • Northern Spain

Upper Ebro

The Upper Ebro region includes the regions of Rioja and Navarra. Rioja is without doubt Spain’s most famous wine, and the region has DOCa status. Navarra DO makes good quality red wine but also significant volumes of rosé.

The Rioja region is centred on the town of Logrono, and is sub-divided into Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. Rioja Alta is to the northwest of Logrono, at altitudes of 500-800 meters, and is often seen as making the best quality reds. Alavesa to the west of Logrono lies mainly south of the Alta region, and also has some quality regions. The Rioja Baja region lies to the south and east of Logrono and lies adjacent to Navarra. This region is hotter, often suffering from drought, and the wines are often a blend of grapes. Tempranillo is widely used but Garnacha can provide alcohol and body, with Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano acting as support acts.

Rioja reds often use semi-carbonic maceration to make fruity, easy-drinking wines but there are also more complex styles in which the skins are pressed under pressure and crushed to maximize the extraction of tannins. Active cap management and the use of oak are also characteristic of these more complex styles. Although American oak was widely used I the past, nowadays French oak is preferred to give softer, more subtle falours.

White Rioja used to be popular in a nutty, oxidised style, but this has given way to more fruity styles. Eight different white grapes can be used for white Rioja, but Viura has been the traditional mainstay.  

The Navarra region lies to the northeast of Rioja, in the cooler mountanous regions. Tempranillo is the most planted grape variety, but Garnacha is also widely used, and is picked earlier to produce acidic lower alcohol wines. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also grown. White Navarra wines are made using the Viura grape, but with international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also used.

Carinena and Catalayud are in the southern Ebro region. This region has a warm contental climate and produces cheap wines, mainly from Garnacha but also using Mazuelo and Carinena grapes, but it should be noted that this is not the main grape varietal used in the eponymous DO. Both of these DO regions also makes wine from grapes grown on older wines that have higher quality.

Catalonia

The Catalunya DO is around 300 km across and covers the whole region around Barcelona and Tarragona, allowing grapes from across the denominacion to be used. This large region is also where Cava is produced.

This region has three main climate zones:

  • The coastal plain, which has a hot climate
  • An inland region at slightly higher altitude, still with a warm climate
  • The hills inland rising to 800 meters, which have a moderate climate

This varied terrain allows for wines of different styles. The region is known for Cava, but red and white wines are produced from international grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, as well as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo,

Priorat

The best quality wines are those of Priorat, the only other Spanish region outside Rioja to have DOCa status. This region lies outside Tarragona, and wines produced are from Garnacha and Carinena grapes, often supported by international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon. This region comprises steep, high slopes with bush wines that are impossible to harvest mechanically, and produce low yields of fine quality wine. The soil is a special type called “llicorella” from red slate and mica, which conserves both heat and moisture. The red wines have a deep colour, high tannins and intense flavours of black fruit, often rounded by contact with French oak. Small volumes of white and rosé wine are also made.

Cava

Cava is made in the same manner as champagne, but typically using indigenous Spanish grapes rather than the Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay used in Champagne.

Other Regions

The Alella region is in the far northeast of Spain, and has built a reputation for subtle fruity white wines.

The Duero Valley

The Duero river extends from the southern flanks of the Rioja region westwards into Portugal, where the Duero river is called the Douro. The Duero Valley has short hot summers and long cold winters, and this climate yields some of Spain’s finest reds. The Ribera del Duero area has slopes that are as much as 850 meters above sea level. This region produces delicious fruity wines from Tempranillo grapes, with good acidity and complex flavours from long maceration and ageing in oak. Nowadays, as in other regions, French oak is generally preferred to American, and oak ageing is often kept fairly short so that the wood flavours are subtle and interesting.

The Duero Valley primarily produces red wine, but Garnacha is used to make dry rose wines. Some use is made of international grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot.

Toro

Wines from the Toro region have been imported by UK supermarkets. These are typically “joven” wines from the Garnacha grape, but the region also produces intense, high acid red wines from Tempranillo. These can be blended with Garnacha to make high tannin, ageable wines. The region also produces rose and some white wines.

Rueda

The Rueda region lies between Ribera del Duero and Toro, and is known for its white wines. The region has a cool continental climate, and produces excellent white wines from the Verdejo grape, as well as Sauvignon Blanc. The whites are made in a range of styles, often blended, but always with a minimum of 50% Verdejo in the blend.

Northwest Region

The Northwest Region is the home of Albarino, a high acid white grape that makes wines with fresh stone fruit flavours. Contact with oak and lees stirring are occasionally used to give character and complexity. Rias Baixas is the best known DO. The Northwest region lies on the Atlantic ocean and so the climate is moist and damp, so there is a risk for the vines of fungal infection through rot and mildew. Because of this, pergolas are used to maintain air circulation.

To the east of Rias Baizas, the Bierzo region is located where the Galician hills meet the Meseta Central. Here, the Mencia grape is used to make wines in a range of oaked and unoaked styles. This region has a cool continental climate.

  • Central Spain

Levante Region

Valencia is the main city of the Levante region, and the hills behind the city have an extraordinary culinary reputation. The region’s warm Mediterranean climate produces red and white wines in various styles. Valencia DO itself has a reputation for good value for money red wines based on the Monastrell (mourvedre) grape. White wines are made from Mercaguera and Muscat of Alexandria, the latter being used to make Muscatel de Valencia.

Jumilla and Yecla

Monastrella is also used in the Jumilla and Yecla region, making good value low acid wines.

  • Southern Spain

Castilla-La Mancha

This region’s cultural claim to fame is the novel Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes. The main character of the novel is a knight errant, who tilts at windmills and gets into various scrapes, to the consternation of his beleaguered valet Sancho Panza. This huge region also produces one-half of all the wine made in Spain, much of which is exported.

The Airen grape is most widely used, producing generic fresh white wines with little claim to distinction. Charodnnay and Sauvignon are also used for making white wine. The main red grape is Cencibel, the local name for Tempranillo, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah also getting in on the act.

Although generally of middling quality, Castilla La Mancha is also where Vinos de Pago were first made. These wines are from single estates with a high reputation, and among the best of Spanish wines.

The Valdepenas region are also better than par for the region. Although made from the same Airen (white) and Tempranillo (red) grapes, these are fruity and more concentrated, and are often sold abroad as Reserva or Gran Reserva styles. International grapes are also used.

In the southwest corner of Spain, the Jerez region is the home of sherry.

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