Recently I was at a Grand Spain tasting at one of the great wine spots in the Tampa, FL area… B-21’s Wine Warehouse. I’ve been patron there for about 15 years and about every quarter they host an abundant informative tasting event. It’s one of the definitive wine stores in the Southeast USA; probably the prototype for Total Wine.
This tasting got me rethinking the major Spanish grape varieties and wine laws a bit, because they are imperative to the wine and the country. So, I am going to go through this a bit right now and break it down according to the wines we tasted that afternoon.
Spain has a somewhat large number of distinctive wine producing regions, more than half taking the classification Denominación de Origen (DO) with the most of the rest being classified as Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT).
There are only two regions nominated as Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa). The Rioja and Priorat regions are the trophy and flagship regions of Spanish winemaking.
For Instance, familiar wine places such as Jumilla, Ribera Del Duero, Rias Baixas, Toro, Navarra, Campo de Borja, Calatayud, Costers de Segre, Yecla, La Mancha and Penedes are all Denominación de Origen (DO).
The Oxford Wine Companion says that there’s an estimate of over 600 grape varieties are planted throughout Spain but 80% of the country's wine production is focused on only 20 grape varieties.
Spain grapes have always developed with winemakers reworking things to the wide-ranging and extreme climate of the region. Yet, the dry weather in many parts of Spain eases the threat of common viticultural problems . There is always the other side of things.
In Spain the vineyards are several decades old, with the old vines producing lower yields of fruit. This is an issue that has being constantly addressed and is a main reason for the Spanish wine boom these days. In the 1990s, the use of irrigation became more popular after droughts hurt the harvests; so the practice of using irrigation in all Spanish wine regions was legalized with many regions quickly adopting the practice. The widespread use of irrigation has encouraged higher density of vine plantings and has contributed to higher yields in some parts of Spain which has led to an abundance of good wine.
As the Spanish wine industry becomes more modern, there has been a larger presence of international grape varieties appearing in both blends and varietal forms, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Other Spanish grape varieties that have significant plantings as well including Cariñena, Godello, Graciano, and Mencia(which is similar to Cabernet Franc).
The red wine grape Tempranillo is the most widely planted grape variety(really the top honor goes to Airén the Spanish brandy grape…). Tempranillo has recently eclipsed Garnacha(Granache) in plantings. Tempranillo is known throughout Spain under a slew of different names including Cencibel, Tinto Fino and Ull de Llebre. So be on the lookout for that.
Both the Tempranillo and Garnacha(Granache) are used to make the full-bodied red wines linked with the Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Penedès regions. The Garnacha happens to be the main grape of the Priorat region. The Garnacha blended along with Cariñena and some international varieties is creating some of the great age-worthy cellar wines in the world today in the same way the Super-Tuscan is doing that for Italy.
Further,In the Levante region(the eastern region of Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish Mediterranean coast), Monastrell and Bobal have significant plantings and they are used for both dark red wines and dry rosé.
In the northwest of Spain , the white wines Albariño and Verdejo are popular plantings in the Rías Baixas and Rueda regions respectively.
In the Cava producing regions of Catalonia(sparkling wines produced in the Champenoise Traditional Method may be labeled Cava)and elsewhere in Spain, the principal grapes of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo.
And lastly in the southern Sherry and Malaga(in the Costa del Sol) producing regions of Andalucia, the principal grapes are Palomino and Pedro Ximénez.
With all this wine Spain is the most widely planted wine producing nation according to researchers, but it’s the third largest producer of wine in the world behind France and Italy and this is due, in part, to the very low yields of the old vines planted on the dry, infertile soil found in many of the Spanish wine regions.