Spanish Wine Regions: a beginner’s guide

With over 100 officially recognised wine producing regions, in can be quite a task to navigate the Spanish wine map. So we’ve put together a top level overview to help you navigate this rich and rewarding wine-producing country.

North West Spain

The north-west of Spain is a far cry from the sunny snapshots of the average holiday brochure. From lush green landscapes to windswept beaches, from mountain ranges to river valleys, this is the side of Spain you rarely see. Which is a shame, because in many ways it is the most appealing. And thanks to a new generation of talented young winemakers, it’s producing some of Spain’s most exciting wines.

Galicia, and its five DOs (Rías Baixas, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei and Valdeorras), is one of the wettest and greenest regions in Spain. Rainfall in the coastal areas reaches around 1,200 mm/year. Plots tend to be very small with vines trained on pergolas, and a new generation of producers are focused on native varieties like Treixadura or Torrontés, as well as the internationally-known Albariño, and making some of Spain’s most exciting white wines.

Meanwhile 180 km inland in Bierzo, innovative producers like Raúl Pérez or Isidro Fernández at Casar de Burbia are taking the Mencía grape and experimenting with altitude and aspect on the well-drained slate and granite soils to make balanced, complex reds which are winning recognition around Spain and internationally.

Journey 200km further south and we’re into Arribes, defined by the steep canyons of the Douro river as it weaves its way into Portugal. With fewer than 900 Ha under vine, growers have adapted to the landscape and focused on native varieties like Juan García, Bruñal or the wonderfully named Bastardillo Chico, grown on steep terraces where vines are interspersed with olive and almond trees.

North central

From the fringes of Galicia and following the Duero river basin, the meseta norte (northern plain) wends its flattish way east until it bumps into the Iberian mountain range whose peaks feed the Ebro river. The region encompasses both Rioja and Ribera del Duero, two of Spain’s most well-known and popular wine-making appellations, but there are plenty of lesser-known areas for wine-lovers to explore.

Denominaciones like Cigales are becoming increasingly known within Spain as sources of great value, quality reds. Traditionally wild and remote Toro in the west is undergoing a bit of a renaissance as new producers work with the pretty extreme climate and prevalence of old, in some cases pre-phylloxera vines to produce slightly lighter, more refined wines from the Tinta de Toro grape (a darker, richer cousin of Tempranillo). White wines too are making a comeback, thanks in large part to DO Rueda’s efforts to entice younger Spaniards away from the beer and into Verdejo.

Within Rioja itself, there’s plenty going on. With a winemaking history stretching back centuries, it was the arrival of the railway in the second half of the eighteenth century that really opened up the region as Bordeaux wine merchants fleeing phylloxera began to set up shop in the Barrio de la Estación in the town of Haro in Rioja Alta. Some of the region’s oldest producers like Marques de Murrieta, CVNE or La Rioja Alta were established around this time and began the custom of ageing wines in the 225 litre barrique brought from Bordeaux. Today, there’s a lively debate raging over the extent to which barrel ageing should be such a core part of Rioja’s trademark, with many younger producers arguing for a more Burgundian approach which would allow them to highlight the villages where the wines are produced or even individual vineyard plots.

One hundred kilometres southwest of Rioja and we’re into Ribera del Duero, the best known Spanish wine region in Castilla León and sometime rival to Rioja for top flight reds – many designed for bottle ageing – made from Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais (a local variant of Tempranillo). Ribera del Duero – literally ¨the banks of the Duero¨ – follows the river for some 120 kilometres east from Valladolid and ends in the wild and empty landscapes of Soria. Vineyards are generally high – around 850 metres above sea level – and the continental climate means harsh winters and scorching summers. While Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s most famous wineries, has been making wines here since the mid nineteenth century, the region was only awarded DO status in 1982. Its profile has been growing quickly ever since with many top flight producers such as Dominio de Pingus, Aalto or Pérez Pascuas making some of Spain’s most iconic, and expensive wines.

North East

Pushing eastwards through the Iberian mountain range towards the top right corner of the map and the first stop-off is in Aragón, which straddles the Ebro River around the city of Zaragoza and is sealed to the north by the Pyrenees. In terms of viticulture, there are two distinct regions: DO Somontano to the north of Ebro which has made a bit of a name for itself with a focus on non-native grapes, and the three, relatively new DOs of Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Calatayud which sit south of the river. Old vine Garnacha and quality cooperatives are a feature of the latter group which, in a short time, has built an enviable reputation for affordable wines of real character.

Keep pointing east, wind down the window, and as the land begins to descend towards the sea you’ll be hit with inviting aromas of Mediterranean scrub. Catalunya may be most well-known outside Spain for its sparkling cava – although it’s also produced in several other spots outside the region – but it’s also home to some wonderful white wines made from White Garnacha – a third of the world’s plantings are in DO Terra Alta in southern Catalunya – or lesser known varieties like Xarel.lo, which is also a key cava ingredient (and which you may find referred to locally as Pansa Blanca). There are some wonderful local red varieties too like Sumoll or Trepat which, in the hands of enthusiastic new producers, can produce delightfully light, refreshing wines.

But of course the big draw for many wine lovers in Catalunya are the fresh, vibrant, complex wines of Priorat made from low yield Garnacha and Carignan vines. The story of how René Barbier, Alvaro Palacios and friends arrived in Priorat at the end of the 1980s and began to revive the small, isolated hillside plots and discover the mineral magic in the llicorella soil has been well-documented. Thirty years on, new producers have moved in but the quality is still very high as those lucky enough to have tried a bottle of L’Hermita will attest.

Central

Slap bang in the centre of the Iberian peninsula you’ll find the wines of Madrid. The city’s blend of history, culture and nightlife makes it a perfect spot for a long weekend. But it’s quickly becoming one of Europe’s top wine destinations too. New restaurant openings and a lively wine-by-the-glass scene means it’s now even easier to eat and drink your way around Spain without moving far from your favourite bar stool in the capital. If you do have time to get out of the city, grab a hire car and head for areas like Méntrida, Gredos or (relative) newcomer Cebreros for breathtaking scenery and small-scale, top notch family wineries working in the main with high altitude, old vine Garnacha planted in granitic, sandy soil and producing wines which some critics have described as Burgundian, less extracted and more ethereal than many of Spain’s Garnachas.

South

Southern Spain is a big patch. It stretches all the way round from Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, through the Levante region and up into the Sierra Penibética range which runs along the southern coast of Andalusia before dumping the weary traveller in the viticultural marvel that is the sherry triangle between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. On the way, we’ve passed through the cluster of small but exciting DOs like Alicante, Bullas, and Jumilla – where vanguard producers like Julia Casado or Pepe Mendoza are squeezing freshness and complexity from local grapes like Monastrell and Moscatel – and visited some cracking projects in the hills behind Málaga where local grapes like Pedro Jiménez or Doradilla are planted in slate soil and harvested by mule to give wines crackling with minerality and expression.

Jerez itself is undergoing a revival thanks to a renewed interest in fortified wines and their huge potential for food pairing, and a new generation of producers adding some wonderful Palomino-based still wines to their fortified catalogue. In this south-west corner of Spain facing the Atlantic, the Palomino (plus some Pedro Jiménez and Moscatel) vines planted in the chalk-white limestone soil – known locally as Albariza – enjoy sea breezes from the gulf of Cádiz which help ward off temperature extremes. But of course the most distinctive feature of sherry is the specific ageing process in wooden barrels or butts, whether biological under a film of yeast – known as flor – or oxidative. For those keen to learn more, the website of the Sherry Regulatory Body is probably the best window into a fascinating world of great history and tradition.

If you’d like to find out more about Spanish wine regions, or if you’re looking for a particular Spanish wine, please contact us – we’ll be happy to talk.