Spanish viticulture has made enormous progress in recent years, becoming the new favourite of wine lovers. Spain is the third largest producer and exporter of wines in the world, and is well known for its high quality wines: sherry, Cava, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat … As with the rest of the Mediterranean, the vine was introduced to Spain more than 2000 years ago by the Phoenicians, who founded the commercial port of Cadiz in the south of the country. The Romans then took over : they expanded the vineyards, produced more elaborate wines, and widely exported their products throughout the Empire. The German invasions in the fifth century, then the Muslim conquest in the eighth century, put a end to wine production. But the culture of winemaking was reborn in the fifteenth century when Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile put an end to the Reconquista, chasing out the last Muslim ruler of Spain. Religuious groups began to cultivate vines in the grounds of abbeys and monasteries, from Rioja to Catalonia through to Galicia. The Ribidavia, as drunk by the pilgrims to Compostela, became renowned throughout Europe.
The organisation of the vineyard in the nineteenth century
It is only in the nineteenth century that Spanish wine-making became organised, thanks to … phylloxera. This aphid that ravaged the vineyards of northern Europe forced some French winemakers to take shelter in the Spain, which was spared this, bring with them their know-how and their grape varieties: they planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache … mostly in the regions of La Rioja and Ribera de Duero. At the same time, Spanish winemakers open important bodegas such as the well-known Vega Sicilia and Marqués de Murrieta, and invent new wines such as Cava in Catalonia, a sparkling wine similar to Champagne. And when phylloxera finally reaches Spain, they have a proven way to fight it, learnt from other European countries: uprooting and grafting.
An “appellation” system similar to France
Spain committed to protect the reputation of its wines at an early stage, and in 1936 the “Consejo Regulador” was created in Rioja, implementing a Denomination of Origin label to protect the reputation of its wines. Nowadays, Spain has a similar system to the one used in France, with wines divided into several categories. At the very top of the scale are the DOC (denominación de origen calificada), followed by the DO (denominación de origen) and the “DO de pago” which are attributed to wine produced on a single property. The “vino of calidad con indicación geográfica” is applied to a wine of a lower quality, followed by “vino of the tierra” and finally the vino of mesa (table wine).
A country with over a thousand grape varieties
There are more than 1,000 grape varieties in Spain, but around 20 take up almost all of the planted surface of vineyards. In terms of white grape varieties, the most widespread is airén (over 450 000 ha), followed by Maccabeu (used to make Cava), and Malvasia in the Canaries. In terms of red grape varieties, most of the production comes from four grape varieties: Grenache, Monastrell (or Mourvèdre), Bobal and Carignan. Spain uses indigenous grape varieties, such as Mencia from the Duero Valley or Tempranillo and Graciano from the Rioja. Nevertheless, international grape varieties (cabernet, chardonnay, syrah, merlot …) are developing rapidly in the new wine growing areas.
World class Spanish wine
Who would know that Spanish wine-making is currently breaking records? It has the largest area dedicated to viticulture with 1 million hectares (13.7% of the total world vineyard area). It is also the 3rd largest producer and exporter in the world, and even took first place ahead of France and Italy in 2013, after historic grape harvests. The French Institute of Vine and Wine sees in Spain a serious competitor: “Renewal of facilities with the support of private investors and European aid, liberalization of grape varieties, modernization of the style of wines, sober and attractive packaging, excellent value for money and commercial dynamics are the assets of the new Spain”.
Disparate production techniques
Does quantity rhyme with quality? The largest vineyard in Spain, in Castilla-La Mancha, a large region in central Spain, only uses 12% of its surface for “appelation” wines (La Mancha, Valdepeñas, Mondejar, Manchuela …).
This region, which has over 45 different grape varieties, follows a very competitive and liberal model, offering wines at unbeatable prices, which does not always guarantee quality.
In contrast, a new generation of winemakers, using biodynamic or organic methods, relies on excellence. Thus, Peter Sisseck, a Dane who settled in Spain in the 90s in the Ribera del Duero, produces a prestigious vintage: the Pingus. Exactly like Alvaro Palacios, who settled in 1989 in the Priorat hills, and developed the Ermita variety. Two rare wines, from old vines, sold at a little under than 1000 euros a bottle.
Sherry, Cava, Rioja ... are all famous wines
Between these two extremes, there are many affordable and quality wines, which are sold all over the world. La Rioja, in the north of Spain, is perhaps the most famous vineyard, well known for red wine aged in American oak barrels: it has more than 500 famous producers and wine estates (Vega Sicilia, Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal, Marques de Cáseres …). Castilla y León wine also benefit from a similar international recognition with five appellations of origin on both sides of the Duero River: Rueda, Toro, Cigales, Bierzo and above all Ribera del Duero. Catalonia is also another region much appreciated by wine lovers. Priorat and Montsant are two red wines made from vines of Grenache and Carignan that bloom on these steep hills.. But the main specialty of this region, more precisely in the Penedès, is Cava, the sparkling wine produced in the same manner as Champagne. Andalusia, is another internationally recognised region due to its famous sherry, a Spanish wine fortified with brandy and aged in casks, made in the region around Cadiz and Montilla Moriles, south of Cordoba. From the dry to sweet, and light to the robust, there are many types of sherry: Fino, Oloroso, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Moscatel … It is typically enjoyed in the taverns (tabancos) of Jerez de la Frontera. Regardless of the destination you choose in Spain there will be a local AOC wine to sample: Rías Baixas in Galicia, Txakoli in the Basque Country, Alicante in Valencia, Jumilla in Murcia or Gran Canaria!