For those raised on California and French vinos, the wines of Spain can seem like a mystery. Sure, we’ve all seen and heard the word Rioja, but what exactly is in those dark, expensive bottles? Nowadays, really all you need to know about Spain is a few regions, producers and grape varietals on Spanish labels and you can dive into a world of inexpensive and yummy wines.
Like France, Spain frequently only lists the region on the label. But aside from knowing the general grape blends and some styles in each region, you’re really gonna have to taste-test producers and examine the label for quality indicators (talked about later). There are 50-plus regions in Spain, but here’s a few highlights. Wine from Rioja, a region in northern Spain producing juice from red Tempranillo and Garnacha (aka Grenache) grapes, can be both light-bodied and fruity as well as dark and complex. Penedes, in the Northeastern part of the country, is famous for its sparkling wines called Cava, made in the same method as French Champagne. Ribera del Duero, near the northern Portuguese border, is praised for its long-lived, tannic Tempranillo wines. Although Spain hasn’t ever been known for its white wines, a region called Galicia, specifically an area called Rias Baixas in the northwest corner, turns out some inexpensive, kick-ass whites called Albariño, similar in style to lighter and fragrant Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.
Tempranillo, the main grape in Rioja, is probably the most famous and most versatile native grape. It’s found in simple reds, as well as those meant to age for decades. Garnacha, a blending grape, gives Rioja more body. White Riojas are made mostly with the Viura grape (a.k.a. Macabeo), and are refreshingly acidic and low in alcohol. Monastrell, the Spanish version of France’s Mourvedre, is popping up more often on labels, and is light and fruity for everyday drinking (and usually a great deal). Spanish vintners also plant small amounts of familiar grapes Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Pinot Noir, but you don’t see them very often on Spanish labels.
Like France, Spain is divided into districts (a.k.a. appellations), classified by the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) system of quality. The system, which also applies to products like olive oil and cheese, refers to where the government has set boundaries and requirements for wines made in a specific area, such as Rioja. It’s like a good-better-best scale: Vino de Mesa or VdM (Table Wine); Denominación de Origen or D.O.; and Denominación de Origen Calificada or D.O.C. (mostly reserved for Rioja). Look for D.O. & D.O.C. on the label.
In addition to the district classification, on each Spanish label, you’ll see designations like Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. These refer to the amount of time the wines are aged, starting with Crianza, which means two years of aging, and ending with Gran Reservas that have a minimum of four years of age (at least two in oak).