Robust Rioja reds are just the beginning. The real Spain is all about diverse regions, a range of indigenous grapes, proprietary styles, and production methods not used anywhere else.
(4 min. read)
When people talk about how much they love Spanish red wines, more often than not (even unknowingly), they’re referring to the wines of Rioja. But Spain is much more than the robust, food-friendly wines from this powerhouse region. Spain has been making wine since Roman times and has evolved into a world power with many important regions, dozens of native grapes, and proprietary production methods and styles that have cemented its lofty place in the wine world. If you love Spanish wine, you’ll love it even more when you learn just how much there is still to discover.
Barrel ageing allows the wine to soften and smooth out as it interacts slowly with oxygen.
The legal terms Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva refer to the minimum ageing requirements of each quality level of Rioja’s wines: little or none, two, three, and five years, respectively. Barrel ageing allows the wine to soften and smooth out as it interacts slowly with oxygen. The barrels introduce tannin and texture, as well as flavours such as spice and toast. Historically, Rioja has used American oak, which imparts flavours such as caramel and vanilla as well as a distinctive balsamic note that is a benchmark of Rioja. Today, producers are using more French and Hungarian oak, which impart subtler tones. Some are even creating blends that use all three.
There’s no denying that Tempranillo is the wine king of Spain.
It’s extremely versatile, capable of producing a wide range of flavours including spice, tobacco, leather and strawberry. Tempranillo can create approachable wines best consumed young, as well as wines of great intensity and structure with superb ageing potential. But Spain is home to more than 100 native varieties as well as many international grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Local hero Garnacha is often blended with Tempranillo and produces spicy wines with ripe dark fruit and herbal tones. Monastrell is used to make robust, dark, spicy wines with lots of black fruit.
Calatayud (pictured above) is a hilly region with a striking mixture of Roman, Moorish and Christian architecture that reflects its storied history.
Garnacha is the top red grape in Calatayud, and the wines are characteristically dark and intense. Rías Baixas is a humid region where vines were traditionally grown on pergolas (raised trellises) to allow more air circulation and protect from rot. Rías Baixas is where we get the refreshing, super-trendy white wine Albariño. Campo de Borja is a small area in northern Spain, close to Rioja and Navarra. The region is named for the Borgia family and is best known for Garnacha, often blended with Cabernet and Syrah. Jerez is home to the iconic Sherry wines, but like Spain itself, there’s exciting diversity to be found here, with producers crafting world-class examples of brandy and vermouth from the same grapes used to produce Sherry. Penedès is most famous for Cava, but the region has a wide variety of climatic areas that permit a great range of styles to be made, including Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and powerful, oak-aged reds from Garnacha and Monastrell. Other Spanish regions of note include Priorat, Toro, Bierzo and Yecla.
One of the oldest, most recognizable styles produced in Spain, Sherry is crafted from three white grapes: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Muscat of Alexandria.
You’ve no doubt seen photos of the solera: the iconic pyramidal stack of barrels that are used to age and blend the wine and assure consistency and complexity. These barrels are stacked with younger wines above and older wines below. The newer wines are blended into and aged with the older wines. Wines from the lowest level are then bottled or taken and added to another solera as the “young” wine for further ageing. The principal styles produced are Oloroso – aged with little or no flor (the naturally occurring yeast that limits the interaction of the maturing wines with oxygen); Fino – aged with flor; and Amontillado – aged initially with flor then allowed to age further without. “Cava” is the Catalan word for cellar and is used to describe Spain’s traditional-method sparkling wine. As with Champagne, the second fermentation for Cava takes place in the bottle; this produces the CO2 that creates the bubbles. The Spanish process is similar but less rigorous than that used in Champagne, and though Chardonnay is permitted in the blend, the principal grapes used here are Xarello, Parellada and Macabeo.
Red wines, Cava and Sherry are the styles most commonly associated with Spain, but across this complex, varied country a wide range of white wines are also produced.
Albariño creates fashionable, aromatic wines with intense notions of peach and apricot fruit, and Verdejo produces wines with crisp melon and peach tones. Barrel-fermented Verdejos have greater richness and body. Many people may have encountered Viura (Macabeo) as a heavily oaked mainstay of Rioja, but the grape also creates crisp, refreshing unoaked wines with touches of herb and spice. Many international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also thrive in suitable mesoclimates.
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