Guide to spanish Wines and wine producing regions of Spain

Date: December 26, 2010

Leading wine supplier in Philippines discusses wine related topics
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Spain has a long history of producing fine wines, particularly the red wines of Rioja. Surprisingly, however, this famous name is just one small region among many, some of which produce equally good wines, although many produce huge quantities of uninteresting dross. Some of these regions are huge, and account for the fact that Spain has the largest area of land dedicated to viticulture of any country in the world. Unfortunately for lovers of fine wine, much of these vines are Airén, an undistinguished white grape responsible for some of the worst wines I have ever tasted.
Spain has a similar classification system to France and Italy, with all classified wine regions regulated under the Denominación de Origen (DO) system. Red wines are often labelled as Crianza, Reserva or Gran Reserva. In Rioja and the Ribera del Duero, Crianza wines are two years old, with at least twelve months spent in cask (elsewhere the oak ageing may legally be restricted to just six months). Reservas are three years old (at least one year in cask), Gran Reservas five years old (two in cask, three in bottle).
A wine guide for a whole country in just a few hundred words is a difficult task, and as usual I try to pick out the best regions and producers, based on my own personal experiences.
Northern Spain
White Rioja, as I have suggested, can be awful stuff, but there is some good white wine to be found in Spain. In Galacia, the most north-western part of Spain, Rias Baixas can be very drinkable. The wines are made from the Albariño grape, and many are cold-fermented to maintain freshness, the antithesis of old white Rioja.

My top wines: Lagar de Cervera.
Further to the east, and just a little south, is Rueda. The reputation of this DO once rested on the flor-influenced sherry-like wines it produced, but it is now the home of some more examples of drinkable Spanish white, this time made from the Verdejo grape.

My top wines: Marqués de Riscal.
Coming further across is the Ribera del Duero, a region of vineyards situated around the Duero river, which, as it flows west through Portugal, becomes the Douro, home to the vineyards that give rise to Port. Despite Rioja’s reputation, it is in fact the Ribera del Duero that is home to Spain’s most expensive wine, produced by Vega Sicilia. There are some splendid wines to be had in this region, based on a mixture of international (Cabernet Sauvignon) and indigenous (Tempranillo) grapes.
My top wines: Vega Sicilia (Unico, as well as second bodegas Alión and Valbuena), Pesquera, Pago de Carraovejas.
Further east, and back to the north a little, is Rioja. The epitome of fine red Spanish wine for generations, Rioja can still be superb. Styles vary, from easy drinking Crianzas and some Reservas, to the Reservas and Gran Reservas of the top estates which may cellar and improve for decades. The grape of note is the Tempranillo, although there are some plantings of lesser grapes, including Garnacha Tinta (known as Grenache in France). Rioja is divided up into three regions, by far the most important of which is the Rioja Alta (which is also the name of one of the top estates). Slightly to the east are Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja, the former producing some drinkable wines, the latter less so.
It is worth noting that much of Rioja’s character depends on the long ageing in American oak, with Gran Reservas having the longest contact (as explained above) and also the best cellaring potential. For an alternative to Rioja, just to the northeast is Navarra, often cited as an up and coming rival. I’ve yet to discover any wines that should trouble the inhabitants of Rioja.

My top wines: Artadi, La Rioja Alta, Marques de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, Muga, Marqués de Cáceres, López de Heredia. With careful selection good value wines may be had from Baron de Ley, Berberana, Faustino, Montecillo, Marqués de Grinon and Marqués de Villamagna.
Moving across to the Mediterranean coast there are a number of DO regions, such as Priorato and Somontano, which for many years produced nothing of great interest. Quite recently, however, Priorato has been making waves, with big, age-worthy and exciting wines from the likes of Clos Mogador and Clos Erasmus. Penedès is also worth a mention, not least because it is home to one of Spain’s most well known wine makers, Torres. This company, led by Migual Torres, produces a vast array of styles using a number of indigenous and international grapes, from sparkling Cava through to Gran Reserva reds. They also have related outposts in Chile (Migual Torres) and California (Marimar Torres).

My top wines: Torres produce some good value reds (especially Sangre de Toro, Gran Sangre de Toro and Gran Coronas reds).
Central Spain
Just one region dominates central Spain, and that is La Mancha. This is a vast million acre DO, which relies on Airén for its whites, and Cencibel (another name for Tempranillo, just to confuse you) and Garnacha Tinta (Grenache), among others, for its reds. I read an editorial recently which stated that La Mancha was going to be the next big success story, following in the footsteps of the Napa Valley and Coonawarra. I have as yet to see any real evidence of this.

My top wines: There aren’t any.
Just to the south of La Mancha is Valdepeñas, a red wine region, much less important than Rioja or the Ribera del Duero, which produces a few drinkable wines. Some of the best producers are using oak-ageing to add more appeal to their wines. Good value drinking can be found here, from one or two producers.
My top wines: Felix Solis (Viña Albali), Los Llanos.
Further to the east are the DOs of Almansa, Valencia, Alicante, Jumilla, Yecla and Utiel-Requena. There are some good value wines to be found here, and I have been particularly impressed with the efforts of Castaño.
My top wines: Castano (Yecla).
Southern Spain – Sherry
It is clear that Spain’s finest table wines are to be found in the north, for the central region has little to offer, and here in the south, within sight of the continent of Africa, there are none. But the region is not devoid of viticulture, and there are some very fine wines here. This is the home of Sherry, produced from a small region around the town of Jerez. Sherry is made principally from the Palomino and Pedro Ximénez (PX) grapes, with a splash of Moscatel. The grapes are harvested and fermented in the normal way, but the wines are then left in contact with air for a prolonged period of time. Some will simply oxidise, whereas some develop a coating of flor, a thick layer of yeast, on the surface. This yeast imparts a distinctive flavour.
The wines then pass through a solera system, a tier of barrels containing wine of differing ages, oldest at the bottom and youngest at the top. The wine in the lowest barrel is drawn off and bottled, and each barrel is topped up with wine from the one above. This maintains a steady stream of wine of similar character year after year, and explains why sherry is almost never vintage dated.
Sherries come in a number of styles. These can broadly be divided into dry, medium or sweet.
Dry: Fino is the most commonly seen dry Sherry, a flor wine generally intended for drinking young. Manzanilla is a light style of Fino from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast. Amontillado is a wine left in cask until the flor has died and sunk to the bottom, the wine then darkening and taking on a more nutty character. Wines that are halfway between the Fino and Amontillado stages may be termed Fino Amontillado or Manzanilla Pasada. Oloroso is a wine which did not grow the flor yeast (the opposite of Fino), and it may be used as the base for medium or sweet Sherry. It may also be sold dry (Oloroso Seco).
Medium: The most common medium sherry is a sweetened Amontillado, but they may also be created from Oloroso wines.
Sweet: At their best these are made from Oloroso wines, sweetened with PX. In modern times they are just as likely to be poor Finos sweetened up with some Moscatel. Sweet Sherries made from just PX can be astounding. At the sweet end of the spectrum we also have the cream and brown Sherries, which I shall discuss no further.
Sherry – My top wines: Emilio Lustau, Valdespino, Barbadillo, Garvey, Gonzalez Byass, Osborne and Hidalgo.
As a final point, it is worth mentioning the regions of Montilla-Moriles and Málaga, which lie east of Jerez. Both produce some wines of note, very much in the style of Sherry. Some similar wines, as well as some dry whites, originate from Condado de Huelva, to the west of Jerez.
Vintages are obviously of no importance to Sherry, but in the north of Spain they are of greater significance. Recent good vintages for Rioja include 1996, 1995, 1994, 1991, 1989, 1987 and 1985


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