Spanish Wine Primer

Paul Blow

When it comes to wine, Spain is the most exciting country in the world right now. What’s happening all over the country is similar to what I described in Not Just Rioja recently. Across the Iberian peninsula, the Spanish are rediscovering old vineyards, old varieties, and old wine ways, and dusting them off and sprucing them up. Twenty years ago, exported Spanish wine consisted mainly of sherry, cava, and Rioja, but centuries of dormant wine diversity have been brought vividly into the present. And best of all, much of it comes at shockingly reasonable prices.


The most radical aspect of Spain’s transformation has been the emergence of white wines. The widespread availability of stainless-steel, temperature-controlled fermentation has allowed the production of zesty rather than stale and oxidized wines. Albariño is the signature grape of Rías Baixas, in the far-northwest region of Galicia. Often referred to as Green Spain, the area is lush with vegetation, and the Rías Baixas (“low rivers” in the Galician language) merge with the Atlantic in long fingerlike sounds filled with a dazzling array of seafood. Albariño is perfectly suited to this kind of food—it’s bright and crisp, redolent of melons and limes, with a tangy hint of herbaceousness.

Verdejo, Godello, and Txakoli

The rehabilitation of the Rueda region, southeast of Galicia, began in the ‘70s when the Rioja producer Marqués de Riscal, unsatisfied with Viura, the white grape of Rioja, traveled a few hours east to investigate a long-ignored variety called Verdejo. Of all Spanish grapes, it tastes most like Sauvignon Blanc, but lacks that grape’s shrill high notes, instead offering notes of stone fruits and citrus.

Spanish whites don’t end there, however. Between Galicia and Rueda are a few smaller regions where you find whites from the Godello grape: green, brisk, and sharp—perfect wines to pair with seafood or vegetables. From the tempestuous Basque country in the north of Spain we’re getting more and more Txakoli—the light, brittle white that just screams with acidity and begs for olives and fish.


Spanish reds have also resurged. In the north, Rioja has made the transformation from a tired, often unclean wine into its present technicolor incarnation. Rioja, which comes from the region of the same name, is generally a blend of grapes but is based on Spain’s ubiquitous Tempranillo grape. The expression of Tempranillo in the wines of Rioja, however, is a bit more subtle and elegant than it is in the other famous regions that employ it.

Changes have abounded in Rioja. Antiquated rules requiring the wines to spend an unnecessarily long time in barrel—resulting in flat, oxidized wines—have less sway now than they used to. Wines in Rioja are designated according to the time they’ve spent aging, with younger crianza wines being cheaper, and older riserva and gran riserva wines considered superior. In the past, however, the older wines often spent too long in old, not-always-sound barrels, which resulted in weak, more expensive wines. Now, savvy winemakers are doing what’s best for the wine, whether or not it conforms to the labeling laws. These new wines might spend less time in oak but cost more than their predecessors. They might use subtler French oak instead of the traditional American barrels. And instead of being labeled crianza or gran riserva, the new wines might have no designation of aging. The results can impressive: Whereas old Riojas were wan, rose-colored wines that often carried the dill-like aromas of American oak, new Riojas, such as the wines of Finca Allende, are crimson and bursting with fruit.

Ribera del Duero

The Ribera del Duero, west of Rioja, has become Spain’s greatest red-wine region. Like Rioja, Ribera highlights Spain’s signature Tempranillo grape, though the wines are a bit more structured and dense. Wines from here are characteristically dark, scented of black cherries and blackberries, and shot through with an earthiness that weaves between dust and leather, characteristics that emerge as the wine ages. Spain’s cultiest red, Vega Sicilia, is here but has been joined by other massive (and expensive) trophy wines, such as Dominio de Pingus and Valbuena.


The wines of Toro, an area of rolling hills northwest of Madrid in the region of Castile, were Spain’s most celebrated and prestigious during the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, though, the region fell into obscurity, and by the 1970s only about 12,350 acres of vineyards existed. Even that seems like ancient history now, though, as interest and development have exploded the total vineyard land to something closer to 148,260 acres today. The grape of note is, of course, Tempranillo, though here the locals call it Tinta de Toro. On Toro’s high plains, Tinta de Toro experiences extreme temperature fluctuations and low rainfall, conditions that encourage it to make extremely concentrated red wines of great power. These are some of Spain’s biggest wines.

Bierzo, La Mancha, Jumilla

New wines keep emerging from previously uncharted grape-growing regions. Bierzo is a mountainous region just east of Galicia. Its featured grape is the obscure Mencia, which some liken to Cabernet Franc but to me tastes like a blend of Pinot Noir and Syrah. La Mancha is a vast area filled with commercial plantings, but of late some very interesting wines have been coming from its windblown, dry plains—dusty, earthy reds that seem to embody Spain’s grittiness. Moving south, the region of Jumilla grows the Monastrell grape, capable of tolerating the hot, arid climate of Spain’s southeastern interior. Grown from old vines on barren, chalky soils, these wines are dark and brooding, with great density and power.

And More

Wine regions continue to mature: Yecla, Alicante, Valladolid, Cigales, Costa Brava, Somontano, and Calatayud, to name a few. Many are still catching up with the more established regions, but undoubtedly we will know them all better in the future.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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