By Rai Cornell
Wine lovers are loyal. It seems that once someone discovers that they love New Zealand wines or French wines, that’s what they stick to. But we want you to feel comfortable ordering off any wine list in any restaurant in any country.
Plus, we believe in trying all wines. Because you never know when you’ll find that special variety from the region or vineyard you’ve never even heard of.
Today’s topic? Spanish wines. What makes the bottles flowing from Spain so spectacular? And which ones should you hunt down as soon as humanly possible? We’ll tell you. Once you fall in love with Spanish wine, you’ll be asking everyone, “¿Te gustaría una copa de vino?”
Reading the Label
Like most countries, Spain puts its own spin on its wine labels. It’s nothing to fret about, though. We have your decoder right here. These are some of the common terms you’ll see on your Spanish wine labels and what they mean.
Just like their distant relatives in Mexico who serve up tequila at varying ages, Spain likes to age their wines for you.
Gran Reserva - This wine has been aged the longest in the cellar, with a minimum age of 5 years for red wines and 4 years for whites. These wines are from the finest harvests. In fact, less than 9% of Spanish wines make the cut. The long aging process gives them an incredibly complex body of flavor.
Reserva - Another high-quality grape standard, reserva wines are aged for a minimum of 3 years for red and 1 year for white. About 6 months to 1 year of this time is spent in the oak barrels. Reserva wines are earthy with hints of herbs, leather, and smoke.
Crianza - These wines have been aged a minimum of 2 years for red wines and 6 months for whites. Crianza wine has a light body coupled with an invigorating acidity.
Joven - Rare in the United States due to the lack of export demand, Joven wines are table wines made with lower quality grapes and little aging.
Spain uses a system called the Denominación de Origen (DO) to regulate and classify its wines. Each name refers to a different category. You’ll find one of these phrases on your bottle of Spanish wine.
Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC) - This label is reserved for regions of Spain producing the highest quality wine. In 1991, the Rioja region was the first to receive DOC status. The Priorat region followed in 2003, but uses the phrase Denominación de Origen Qualificada, which holds the same meaning in the Catalan dialect.
Denominación de Origen (DO) - The next step down from DOC, these wines are still extremely high-end and often carry a higher price tag.
Denominación de Origen Provisional (DOP) - Regions that are just breaking into the wine production industry and are still under review carry this label.
Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG) - This label began in 2005 and is a mid-level between DO and VdlT wines.
Vino de la Terra (VdlT) - While DOC, DO, and DOP wines are regional ratings, VdlT wines are rated based on the scale of wine produced in that particular region.
Vino de Mesa (VdM) - Akin to table wine or cooking wine, these varieties are at the lower end of the quality spectrum and may be from unclassified vineyards. However, on occasion you’ll find an extremely high-end wine that just hasn’t been rated as a DOC, DO, or DOP yet.
Their Specialties To the right of one of the above phrases, you’ll see the name of a region in Spain. Each of these regions is known for producing a particular kind of grape or, in the most agriculturally diverse regions, several types of grapes.
Priorat - One of the two highest level wine regions in Spain.
Rioja - The second of the two highest level wine regions in Spain.
Arianza - Grapes are grown and wine is produced near the Arianza river near the towns of Palencia and Burgos.
Campo de Borja - Several vineyards in this area produce Garnacha and Tempranillo wines.
Jerez-Xérès-Sherry - In the province of Cȧdiz, the grapes used to make the country’s sherry are grown here.
Jumilla - The wines coming from this region will be from high-quality Monastrell vines.
Penedès - Cava originates from this region, as do common and beloved wines from Carinena, Garnacha, and Tempranillo grapes.
Rias Baixas - Spain’s favorite white wine made from the Albarino grapes comes from this region, as do Caino Blanco, Caino Tinto, Loureira, Sousón, Torrontes, and Treixadura grapes.
Ribera del Duero - The Tempranillo grapes from this region rival those of Rioja for the number one spot.
Rueda - Many less expensive grape varieties come from this area.
Spanish wines have personalities all their own. If you’re looking to expand your geographical palette, dive into any of these fabulous options.
In northern Spain, the Navarra region holds a long and dramatic history (hint: Pamplona and the Running of the Bulls) with an equally long tradition of excellent wine making. Wines in Navarra are made from Tempranillo, Macabeo, Muscat Blanc, and Grenache grapes. We love this 2010 Alex Navarra Reserva with its vanilla-coconut, balsamic, cherry, and blackberry notes.
Of course, we have to talk about some of the best Gran Reserva produced in Spain. In a landlocked region of Spain called Castilla-La Mancha, you’ll find some of the finest Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. The best vintages are aged to perfection to create a Gran Reserva. Try this 2008 Estola Gran Reserva and enjoy its incredible depth and bold flavors of plum, blackberry, and nutmeg.
In the Castilla y León region near the Duero River is a town called Rueda. While Rueda is known for producing mostly lesser quality wines, there are some exceptions. And one of those is Verdejo.
Verdejo grapes are perfect for when you want something exciting, whimsical, and refreshing. Our Estola Verdejo 2016 is a light bodied white that will transport you to the tropics. You’ll get unexpected notes of pineapple, banana, melon, and white tea, perfect for pairing with fish dishes.
Hidden in the heart of Spain is the small inland region of Valdeorras. Keep an eye out for any bottles carrying this name because the vintages coming from this region are truly special. Wineries use Godello grapes here, which have a strikingly mineral quality combined with lovely lemon and cantaloupe notes.
Of course, we have to mention Cava because it’s Spain’s sparkling poster child. Whenever you see a bottle of Cava on the shelf, it came from Catalonia. It’s actually a law - only sparkling wine produced in Spain’s approved regions can call themselves Cava.
But in essence it’s Spain’s version of Champagne. Cava is made exclusively from Macabeu grapes, which create floral scents and taste faintly of lemons and green almonds. Cava lacks any sweetness and is refreshingly dry.
Cava isn’t the only thing with bubbles coming out of Spain, however. In the Basque region near the coast of northern Spain, wine producers make Txakoli, which is a low-alcohol sparkling wine made from Hondarribi Zuri grapes. Txakoli is known for its citrus notes and comes in sparkling white and rosé varieties.
While these are some of our favorite wines coming out of Spain recently, this is by no means an exhaustive list. One of the best things about Spanish wine making is the incredible diversity, which is directly connected to the vast and varied geographical terrain. From the coasts on the peninsula to the inland regions, Spain produces a wide variety of wines.
We encourage you to try as many as you can find and report back with your favorites. Have you found a Spanish gem? Tell us about it in the comments below!