The Illustrated Guide to Spanish Wines
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Learning about the finer points of wine can be a delightful and vibrant experience. However, with the vast array of wines available in the market, it can be difficult to know where to start. You may even find yourself staring at label after label, unsure of what to expect until you finally decide on a bottle. So, where does one take the first step in the journey to exploring the wines of the world?
This illustrated guide will touch on the basics of Spanish wines and the range of options that its different regions have to offer. By the end of this article, you'll be able to pick out a bottle you're sure you'll enjoy.
Why Spanish Wines?
Spain may just be the third-largest producer of wine in the world, but Spanish wines are the most popular on the planet. The country's geographical features as a peninsula create a variety of climates across its numerous wine regions. The result is a diverse selection of wines that, in a way, reflect the unique climate and cuisine each region has to offer.
Additionally, each region is steeped in tradition with its winemaking, resulting in distinct and consistent wines.
Another aspect of Spanish wine is its accessibility. Many Spanish wineries will age the wine in oak barrels and bottles before selling them. This provides many beginners the opportunity to sample cellared wines without the investment for the storage space. These wines are great for beginners as they are modestly priced compared to French or Italian wines.
Key Terms to Know
Denominación de Origen (DO)
Denominación de Origen (DO)
Denominación de Origen or "Destination of Origin" is the equivalent of an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France. As Spain is part of the European Union, this label allows consumers to identify the geographical indications for wine easily.
Each individual DO approaches wine differently—from what kinds of grapes are planted to how the vines are maintained and harvested. DO is usually shown on the bottle, sometimes represented by a logo sticker on the back or the capsule over the cork.
Some Spanish wines may bear labels such as "Joven," "Crianza," "Reserva," or "Gran Reserva." These labels are used to indicate the length of time the wines from the Rioja region have been aged. Joven is the least aged, followed by Crizana, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. These categories will mean different levels of aging, depending if the wine is red or white.
The body of wine can go from "spritzy" and light-bodied to medium, "round," and full-bodied. This is determined by the combination of different aspects, including residual sugar and alcohol by volume (ABV). More residual sugar and higher alcohol concentration can make a wine taste fuller, for example. If the taste lasts longer in your mouth, it is rounder.
Sweetness is determined by how sweet or not sweet—better known as 'dry'—the wine is. Aside from the obvious indicator of flavor, a sweetness can affect its viscosity.
When sampling a wine, try to focus on the flavor at the tip of your tongue. A tingling sensation would mean the wine has a slightly high level of residual sugar. Swirling it should cause a delay in the 'swish' due to the fullness of the body.
Acidity refers to the tartness and zestiness of wine, often confused with alcohol content. Higher acidity causes a tingling sensation on the front and sides of your tongue. It can also make your tongue feel gravelly when you rub it on the roof of your mouth. A higher acidity wine can feel more light-bodied than a less acidic one.
Tannin is the chemical compound that gives the wine its bitter taste. The skin and seeds of the grapes and the bark of the oak used for aging produces this compound.
For wines, tannin adds balance, complexity, and structure to its flavor. A bitter taste on the front inside the mouth and sides of the tongue indicates high tannin content. It also leaves a lingering bitter or dry feeling on your tongue and mouth.
A wine's alcohol content can affect many different taste receptors, making its taste hard to describe. Despite this, alcohol can create a warming sensation in the back of the mouth and throat once swallowed. On average, a glass of wine contains anywhere from 11 to 13% alcohol. Wines can range from as little as 5.5% ABV up to around 20% ABV.
Spanish Red Wine Varieties
This is a common variety of wine grape from the regions of Rioja, Ribera del Duero Roble, Valdepeñas, Tinto de Toro, La Mancha, Castilla-León, and Extremadura.
The younger variety lends itself to notes of sour cherry and plum, making the flavors spicy, fleshy, and tart. Aged Tempranillo is bolder and high tannin, with complex flavors of brown spices from the oak aging.
The grape that originated the Grenache in France, Garnacha from Calatayud, Somotano, Navarra, Cariñena, Campo de Borja, La Mancha offers a fresh and juicy bouquet of red fruits with an iced tea-like finish.
High-end Garnacha from Madrid is single-variety with high tannin and darker raspberry flavors due to longer aging and older vines. The Priorat region, meanwhile, produces Garnacha blended with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cariñena. These blends are often bolder and deliver notes of blackberry and licorice.
This typical grape from Murcia and the south of Valencia is the original wine behind the French Mourvèdre. A typical Monastrell is intensely bold and high in tannin, with notes of black plum, chocolate, and smoky black pepper. These wines are powerful, with a slightly higher-than-normal strength and structure.
The regions of Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei, and Valdeorras offer this unique medium-bodied wine. Flavors in this bouquet include red fruit, black licorice, and moderate tannins, wrapped up in floral aromas.
Bierzo and Monterrei wines will tend to fall on the fuller size, while Valdeorras wines are often lighter. Monterrrei and Ribeira Sacra will often offer Mencía blends that incorporate other local grapes.
The typical grape from the Rueda region, Verdejo wines are aromatic with a tropical quality to them, featuring notes of melon and citrus. They are often characterized by high acidity with a bitter finish. Often drank young, oak aging Verdejo brings out a rich structure and nutty flavors. They are also used to add body to blends with Sauvignon Blanc or Viura grapes.
Spain's most popular white grape variety, grown in the region of Rias Baixas in Galicia, wines made from this grape often have aromas of grapefruit and lemon. Other notes in the bouquet include peaches and almonds, with a light and fresh taste. Despite the high acidity of Albariño wines, they often have relatively high alcohol levels of anywhere between 11 to 13%.
A unique white wine produced on the Northern coast of Spain, Basque Country, this low-alcohol white wine is produced from the Hondarribi Zuri grape, making its flavor profile bright with a citrus tendency. Txakoli wines also feature some spritz in their body, with some slight roundness to its crisp, tangy, and slightly mineral bouquet.
Cava / Corpinnat
The famous sparkling wine of Spain, with production concentrated in northeastern Catalonia. Like the French Champagne and Italian Franciacorta, Cava undergoes the traditional method of secondary fermentation in its bottle to get its bubbles.
This white wine is often a blend of Xarel-lo, Macabéo, and Parellada grapes. The extended aging allows Cavas to have a certain richness in its profile, alongside faint floral aromas, citrus flavors, and slightly bitter finish.
Spain's natural climates and rich winemaking traditions are what keep their wines at the height of popularity worldwide. With this knowledge, you can begin exploring the diverse and exciting flavors of Spanish wines. Who knows? You may find yourself a few favorites and become a Spanish wine connoisseur in the process!