Want an affordable wine with lush, approachable fruit, regional distinction, and a delightful culinary custom to match? Well, look no further than sunny Spain. With some olives, bread, Jamon (ham), and a classic Spanish Tortilla, you can have a tapas party right in your own backyard.
The Old World’s New World wine region, Spain is an amazing combination of ancient heritage and modern innovation. Indeed, the wine industry’s pragmatic flexibility and fierce determination defied centuries of hostile political storms. The idyllic topography and climate didn’t hurt either.
It’s neither the majestic Pyrennes, nor the dramatic mountain ranges known as the Cordilleras that define the geography; it’s the expansive Meseta Central. This enormous plateau stretches across 40% of the country, with Madrid, (alt 2400m) at it’s center. In fact, Spain is second only to Switzerland in terms of altitude, and 90% of it’s vineyards top France’s highest vines. With a near perfect proximity to the equator, abundant sun mitigated by the great altitude, and naturally low yields due to slight rain fall, one can see why viticulture dates back to the Phonecian occupation in 3000 B.C.
As far as red grapes go, Tempranillo is by far the most significant, followed by Grenache or Garnacha, Mazuelo (Caringnan), and Monstrell (Mouvedre). International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah crossed the Pyrennes with French winemakers during the phylloxera epidemic of the 1800’s, so they are a well integrated presence.
With white grapes, wine laws now allow Sauvignon Blanc and even Chardonnay in some D.O.’s (Spain’s official wine regions), but the indigenous varieties such as Verdejo, and Xarel-lo’s are still far more significant. And speaking of regions and D.O.’s, Spain’s are quite varied so it’s worth noting a few major areas.
- On the Northwestern coast, dominated by the cooling Atlantic Ocean, is Galicia, home to spritely whites from Rias Baixas and the distinctive and lean reds from up and coming Bierzos.
- Eastward lies Castilla Y Leon, home to Ribero Del Duero, Rioja’s rival in terms of quality and popularity, and Toro, a reliable town for great everyday reds.
- The big rising star, however, is the nearby Rueda D.O. Revitalized in the 1980’s by a Rioja producer searching for the next great white, it now makes delicious bright wines from the once abandoned Verdejo grape and the more traditional Viura.
- Next over is the famed Upper Ebro region, with Navarra and Rioja, the one DOCa, the law’s hightest classification, in all of Spain. Tempranillo shines here like in no other region.
- On the Mediterrenean Coast, surrounding the city of Barcelona, comes Catalonia or Catalunya with D.O.s such as Priorat, the upstart known for its licorice colored soils and intense reds and Penedes, where 90% of the world’s Cava is produced.
- To the south, toward the meseta are the regions such as Castilla – La Mancha Valencia, and Extramedura, which grow Garnacha and Airen to varying results. Still, there are great values to be had. Andalusia, in the far southwest, is reserved for Sherry or Jerez, but that’s a whole other story.
Over the centuries, Spanish wines have veered from perfection to plonk. Even the most dedicated vintners get distracted by inquisitions and dictators and huge industry scandal, but these days Spain is a stable, democratic member of the EU that blends modernity and tradition like no other country in the world. And most exciting, the best is yet to come.