Spanish wine and Spaniards, not surprisingly have a lot in common. Both tend to be spunky, friendly towards food, epitomize quality and honor tradition. If you had to summarize Spanish wines in a single word, it would have to be, hands down, value, you simply get much more for your money with Spanish wines as a whole than you do from any other New World or Old World wine producing country. Not only, are Spanish wines able to boast on the value front, but also on the quality, tradition and technology fronts. Spain captures third place, worldwide, for its wine producing capacity. The U.S. imports of Spanish wines have seen a 75% increase in the last five years, and will likely keep gaining steam over the next five years.
Key Wine Regions of Spain
Rioja Spanish Wine Region: The Rioja region is certainly the “sweetheart” region of Spanish red wines. There are actually three sub-regions or unique districts that compose the Rioja: the two cooler climates of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa and the balmier region of Rioja Baja.
Strategically placed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Rioja region produces the majority of its acclaimed red wines from the Tempranillo grape in addition to growing and utilizing Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano – which are often used for blending with Tempranillo. Viura is the dominant white grape grown in the Rioja region, but keep in mind white wine only accounts for about 10% of Rioja’s total wine production. With both the Cantabria and Demanda mountain ranges adding physical protection and the river Ebro winding through the region providing both moisture and creating various microclimates within the area, this region is truly set up for winemaking success!
Spain's Rioja wine classifications are “user-friendly” - allowing consumers to easily identify their favorite Spanish wines. Rioja wines are classified by the time they have spent aging in-house and are not released until they are ready to drink. This makes finding a very drinkable, food-friendly wine upon purchase much more likely. The three Rioja red wine classifications, as found on the front or back Spanish wine bottle labels are:
- Crianza – This is a fresh, fruit-forward youthful red wine that is aged in oak for a minimum of one year and then spends another year aging in the bottle. The Crianza is a well-priced Spanish wine and averages around $10 a bottle. Crianza has a reputation for being a perfect partner when it comes to pairing with food – give it a whirl with novel Spanish commodities like tapas. This is an easy-going, everyday wine that will not disappoint and offers good, consistent value year in and year out.
- Reserva – The Reserva ups the ante a bit from the Crianza both in complexity and in price. Again, Spain's beloved Tempranillo is the dominant red grape and makes its presence known with commanding cherry flavors. The aging requirements for a Reserva are a minimum of one year in the barrel and another two years aging in either the barrel or bottle. The price point for a Reserva ranges from around $15 to over $35, with super value packed into every dollar. Reserva is a very versatile red wine that eagerly complements an assortment of food options. Consider pairing it with grilled dishes, fish, beef, lamb and it’s made for ham (or jamón as the say in Spain).
- Gran Reserva – The creme de la creme of Spain's Rioja red wines is the appropriately named, Gran Reserva. These wines require barrel aging for two years and must have an another three years (minimum) of bottle aging before they are released, making them a terrific wine find as they have already enjoyed 5 years of aging before they may even grace the merchant shelves. The Gran Reserva is not made every year, but enjoys its high status because it is only made in extraordinary vintages. The Gran Reserva boasts both depth and body, intrigue without pretense and elegance without breaking the bank, as it starts at around $20 a bottle and rivals many New World reds that are asking triple the price.
Key Producers to try: Montecillo, La Rioja Alta, Marques de Caceres, Baron De Ley, Muga, Campo Viejo
Link: Rioja Wine Region
Ribera del Duero Spanish Wine Region – This is another major red wine producing region of Spain that continues to gain recognition for its vibrant, red wines, made predominately from the Tempranillo grape. The region is situated north of Madrid, but south of Rioja, smack in the middle of northern Spain. With a climate that is marked by intensity and extremes (hot summers and harsh winters), the grapes have typically had to fight against a myriad of climate conditions to bear a bold bottle of red wine. As a result these reds typically exemplify both intensity and strength - ultimately telling their own unique stories of place and time, year after year.
Key Producers to try: Pesquera, Vega Sicilia and Condado de Haza (connected to Pesquera)
Penedes Spanish Wine Region – The Penedes wine region is close in proximity to Barcelona on the Mediterranean coastline. This unique region is known for its sparkling wines as well as prominent reds and whites. As far as Cava, or Spanish sparkling wines, go Freixenet and Cordoníu are the big names to know. They both produce great wallet watcher sparklers at around $10 a pop. If you are interested in red and white wines from Spain’s Penedes region, then Torres is a great place to start. They make consistent, well-distributed wines that won’t bust your budget, yet are easy on the palate and continue to be party pleasers.
Key Producers to try: Torres, Freixenet, Cordoníu
Link: Penedes Wine Region
Rias Baixas Spanish Wine Region (pronounced Ree-ahss By-shass) – This region resides in Spain’s northwestern Galician region. Rias Baixas has become well-known and loved for its rich source of Albarino grapes, that translate into very engaging and refreshing white wines. These dry, medium-bodied white wines are beloved for both their acidity and their tropical fruit-forward flavors. The U.S. is currently the leading importer of Spain's Rias Baixas Albarino wines.
Link: Rias Baixas Wine Region
Key Producers to Try: Lusco, Valminor, Burgans, Salneval
Priorato Spanish Wine region – This Spanish wine growing region is in the rugged mountainous zones of northeastern Spain, close to Penedes. The wineries producing in this region receive recognition for producing robust reds (largely from Garnacha, Carignan, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes) that are high in alcohol and tout fairly macho tannin levels. That said, they are among the most expensive wines from Spain and are fairly hot newcomers on the international wine scene.
Key Producers to Try: Pasanau, Clos Mogador
Link: Priorato Growing Region
Navarra Spanish Wine Region– Located in northeastern Spain, close to the southern border of France, this Spanish wine region is known for both its rosado and red wines – full of flavor, food-friendly and well-priced to boot. It is also home to the famed “running of the bulls.” Garnacha and Tempranillo are the grapes of choice in Spain's Navarra growing region.
Key Producers to try: Bodegas Julian Chivite (reputed as the oldest winery in Navarra), Las Campanas
Link: Navarra Wine Region
Jerez Spanish Wine Region – The three sunny towns of Jerez, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda make up Spain’s Sherry wine producing region, also fondly referred to as the “Sherry Triangle.” The soil is chalky, limestone based, and provides the right conditions for growing both the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez (PX for short) grapes that are used in making the world’s finest Sherries. Well placed in southern Spain’s Andalusia region, just south of Seville, this is the Sherry making hub for many well known producers including: Osborne, Emilio Lustau, Gonzalez Byass, Hidalgo.
Link: Sherry Wines