Spanish Wine Overview

spanish wine

Spanish wine can be a bit difficult to understand at first, but with a little knowledge the basics of the wine regions and bottle labels get easy to understand. Our goal is that with this article you will feel more comfortable and confident selecting a bottle of Spanish wine.

Regulations

Currently there are close to 60 designated wine growing regions in Spain.  Every region has been created and defined under the laws known as the Denominacion de Origen (DO) or Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOC).  Each individual DO(C) is regulated by its own group known as the Consejo Regulador which further defines the rules and requirements for wines within its region.  You will know a wine has met the requirements for it’s region by the labels affixed to the wine bottle.  This way you know the wine meets certain standards, but by no means does it mean you will necessarily like it.

Spanish Wine Overview of Key Wine Regions

spanish wine
Where in Spanish wine shall we go first?

For this post we will be discussing 4 regions; Penedes, Rias Baixas, Rioja, and Ribera de Duero.  A fifth region that will be mentioned but not discussed in depth is Jarez.  Jarez produces the fortified wine, Sherry.  (Any discussion of Sherry, however, would have to go into more depth than we planned on for this post to accurately describe this wine.)  All 5 of the regions are roughly displayed in the map to the right which you may expand by clicking on it for easier visibility.  Now, let’s move on to the discussion.

Penedes
Located in the Northeast section of Spain, Penedes is the primary home of the Spanish sparkling wine known as Cava.  In order for a sparkling wine to be classified as a Cava in Spain it must be made in the same way sparkling wine is made in Champagne, FR (second, in bottle, fermentation).

There are 5 grapes that are allowed to be grown/used in Cava wines and most producers use a blend of any number of them; the first 3 are the most prominent.  The 5 grapes are; Parellada, Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Chardonnay, and Subirat.

When looking at a bottle of Cava you will want to focus on how dry or sweet the wine is.  You can find this on the label with 1 of the following 7 classifications from driest to sweetest:

  • Brut Nature
  • Extra Brut
  • Brut (The most common you will find)
  • Extra Seco (extra dry)
  • Seco (dry)
  • Semiseco (Demi-Sec)
  • Sweet

Rias Baixas
On the West coast of Spain just north of the Portugal border lies the Rias Baixas region.  This is primarily a white wine region based on the Albarino grape (one of the few mainly white regions in Spain).  Most wine regions in Spain will display the region as opposed to the grape on their labels, but in Rias Baixas the grape is usually featured on the label, not the region.  These wines are unique in that they are centered between sweet and dry, and full and light bodied.  Albarino wines are generally lighter in body than a Chardonnay, very aromatic, with a flavor profile showing things like apple, citrus, melon, and/or pear.

Rioja
When it comes to wines from Spain this is where the most well known wines come from.  Predominantly red wines made from the Tempranillo grape come out of the Rioja region.  The wines may be 100% Tempranillo or may be blended with 1 or more of 3 grapes (Garnacha, Graciano, or Mazuelo).  Wines from this region also carry a classification system to inform the consumer of the quality level of the grapes and how long the wines were aged before being released.  These classifications are as follows:

    • Crianza (most common you will find)
      • Aged 2 years (1 in oak)
      • High quality grapes used to make these wines
    • Reserva
      • Aged 3 years (1 in oak)
      • Grapes of even higher quality than Crianza
      • Only made in best of growing years
    • Gran Reserva
      • Aged 5 years (2 in oak)
      • Only the best grapes used
      • Only made in best of growing years
      • Rare to find these wines

As you can see wines from Rioja will always be aged in oak barrels which will impart vanilla and a spice component to the wine.  You will find that these wines are similar in body to California Pinot Noirs but slightly drier.

Ribera Del Duero
Just West and South of the Rioja region lies the Ribera Del Duero region.  Being so close it is not surprising that the two regions have some similarities. The Ribera Del Duero region is also known for its red wines, however, here they are made from the Tinto Fino grape (believed to be a cousin of Tempranillo).  The wines follow the same 3 level classification system as Rioja using the Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva quality levels.  These wines seem similar in body to an Italian Chianti, but slightly sweeter.

Reading the Label

Spanish wine labels may seem confusing at first, but once you understand what you are looking for they are actually pretty clear.  With our new found information let’s look at a label and dissect what we see.

spanish wine
A typical Spanish wine label broken down.

 

  1. The wine is from the Rioja region, so we know it is primarily going to be made from the Tempranillo grape (if blended the percentages should be on the back of the bottle).
  2. It carries the Denominacion de Origen Calificada label so we know it meets the appropriate standards set forth by the laws of Spain.
  3. This would be the name of the winery that produced the wine.
  4. It is a Crianza so we know that it is made from high quality grapes and has been aged in oak for 1 year and bottle aged for another 1 year.
  5. It comes from the 2004 vintage
  6. Finally, it carries the seal of the Rioja Consejo Regulador so we know it will be a wine that is considered to be “true” to the regions characteristics.

We hope this helped shed a little more light on what to expect from Spanish wines.  There is, of course, a ton more information out there if you would like to continue to learn about this exciting wine region.  Our hope is that with this post you will be able to navigate the majority of Spanish wines while visiting our store or browsing a restaurant list confidently.


Jeff Eckles is a regular contributor to Vintages’ web site as well as the co-founder of We Like Drinking. He is a Certified Specialist of Wine and is currently working on his Certified Wine Educator certificate.

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