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 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 9, June 2003   
SpainSpain  Contents 
Issue 8, May 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 10, Summer 2003


The long enological tradition has always marked this country, here wine and grape have been witnesses of the history of these lands for more than two thousands years

 Spain is, indisputably, one of those countries that made both history and success of European wine in the world, a role which certainly has since many centuries. For many centuries Spanish wines, in particular, the renowned Jerez, or Xérès, as it is called by French, or Sherry, the usual name known in England and in the English speaking countries, have lived moments of glory that made these wines famous in many countries. The first thing that is amazingly observed in Spain, as a wine country, is its high vocation for local grapes, in this country seems the huge “invasion” of the so called “international” grapes did not have a clear success, as opposed to other countries of the world. An aspect that, alone, makes Spain a special country, not only for the good wines produced there. Despite of the fact wine is part of the traditions of these lands since thousands years, in case we do not consider the fame and the peculiarity of Jerez, however quality production is something which was adopted by Spain only in recent times. The new and reborn Spanish wines are fully expressed in its generous red wines, in particular the ones from Rioja, and, as always, in the confirmation of that extraordinary wine, Jerez, unique and enchanting in its genre.


 The history of enology in Spain has pretty ancient origins. First evidences about viticulture are dated back to a period from 4000 BC to 3000 BC, whereas the first productions of wine are dated back to the era of the Carthaginian occupation, in the second century before Christ. When Romans conquered the lands of Spain occupied by Carthaginians, in 206 BC at the end of the second Punic war, there also are the first evidences about wine trading from Spain to the city of Rome. At those times Spanish wine was also traded, besides Italy, in France, in the Loire Valley, in Britain, in Normandy and in England, mainly distributed to Roman soldiers in charge of guarding the borders of Germany. Spanish wine was also mentioned, in their writings, by Columella, Publius Ovidi Nasonis in his Ars Amatoria and, in particular, by Pliny the Elder and Martial who particularly exalted the wine of Tarragon.

 After the fall of the Roman Empire and the consequent occupation of Visigoths, there are not sure evidences about the viticulture and production of wine in Spain, however it is believed that it continued even during this period. After the overthrown of Visigoths by Moors in 711, the production of wine, surprisingly, did not suffered any limitation because of the Islamic Laws observed by Moors, indeed, the production of wine continued and the trade was taxed. With the conquer of Spanish lands by Christians, about the half of thirteenth century, exports of Spanish wines to the countries of Europe were resumed, in particular to England. During those times the quality of Spanish wine was rather unpredictable, from ordinary to excellent; what was interesting in Spanish wine, according to a commercial point of view, was the fact they were produced in a rather warm area and therefore they were rich in alcohol, a characteristic that made these wines to be preferred for the adulteration of wines produced in other areas and low in alcohol.


 In the beginning of the 1500's, the success of the famous Jerez wine started to increase, also thanks to the privileged position of this city, near the Atlantic Ocean and therefore an easy stop for mercantile ships, and it rapidly spread, in particular in English courts. The success of Jerez was however connected to the alternate political events both of Spain and England, the main consumer, and English, as a consequence of the harsh relations they had with Spain because of the wars between the two countries, imposed heavy taxes on Spanish wines. The fame of Jerez wine was reestablished only after 1820, thanks to the zealous work of some businessmen, after a long period of commercial crisis in the country. Malaga wines also benefited from Jerez wine's success and together they succeeded in becoming more popular than Porto and Madeira wines.

 Jerez probably was the only Spanish wine that got most the attention; around the half of 1800's, many chroniclers reported about the approximate and ordinary wine making practices related to still wines, something which identified those wines to anything but quality. Production techniques for still wines in Spain were at those times differentiated between south and north, whereas in the northern area the keeping of wine in casks were preferred, in the southern area wine was left in earthenware containers, moreover, in Spain they were used to keep wine in pig skins treated with resin which usually altered wine. These production techniques could not make anyone think about a good progress and development of the enology of the country. Just like in any other country of Europe, at the end of the 1800's appeared phylloxera and oidium, greatly devastating the viticulture of the country, damaging many areas and it took many years before the activity could be resumed. Damages of phylloxera were so high that many of the local grapes varieties of Spain extinguished.

 When Spanish enology recovered from the damages of phylloxera, they introduced in the country the production of a new style of wine, sparkling wines, made with the classic method, defined as Cava, and they become part of the most important wine aspect of Spain; currently Spain is the first producer of the world, in terms of quantity, for this type of wine. In 1926 was defined the very first region of appellation of origin of Spain, Rioja, whereas in 1932 was introduced in the country the first Spanish system for quality production. In 1933 Jerez was recognized as a region of appellation of origin followed in 1937 by Malaga. After a period of recession, during the 1930's and 1940's, both because of the internal political events and because of the World War Two, in the 1950's Spanish enology showed new signs of impulse, mainly characterized by the production of huge quantities of ordinary wines made by cooperatives. Quality production in Spain restarted in the beginning of the 1980's, when economic and political conditions allowed a solid development of opportunities in the country as well as the huge investments of wineries in the aim of starting a stable condition for the production of quality wine. During the last twenty years Spain showed the world to have great enological potentialities; its wines continue to be known and appreciated wherever in the world, in particular, red wines.


Spanish Quality System

 Spanish quality system, which is called Denominación de Origen (Appellation of Origin), abbreviated as DO, was introduced in the country for the first time in 1932 and it was subsequently revised and modified in 1970. The institute which is in charge for the regulation of production areas having appellation of origin status is INDO, Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen (National Institute for Appellations of Origin) whose headquarters are in Madrid. The system shows similarities with the analogous French (AOC) and Italian (DOC) systems, they recognize delimited production areas, cultivation practices and wine production techniques, yields per hectare, minimum periods of aging before being released in the market, as well as specific norms about labeling.

 About 50% of Spanish production belongs to the DO category and each of them is supervised by a proper Consejo Regulador which is in charge of verifying the production procedures as well as evaluating every wine with the purpose of making sure it has the right prerequisites in order to be recognized as DO. The categories of quality for Spanish wines are as follows:


  • Vino de Mesa, VdM - Table wine produced with grapes cultivated in different regions of the country
  • Vino de la Tierra, VdlT - Wine produced in a delimited area, usually larger than DOs. It is the equivalent, in general terms, of Italian's IGT (Typical Geographic Indication) or French's Vin de Pays
  • Denominación de Origen, DO - Wine produced in a region having appellation of origin status which is regulated by specific laws
  • Denominación de Origen Calificada, DOCa - (Appellation of Qualified Origin) Wine produced in a region having appellation of origin status of high quality. This is the highest level of the Spanish system and it was introduced in 1991. Currently the only region belonging to this category is Rioja.

 In the labels of red wines are usually found some indications, and according to Spanish wine laws, they state the aging period the wine had before being released in the market. Aging can be done in wood or steel containers as well as in bottle.


  • Joven - Young wine which is usually aged for one year
  • Crianza - When referred to reds, it is a wine which is aged for two years and at least one of these in cask. When referred to white or rose wines, it means an aging in cask for at least six months. The term Crianza is usually regulated by every DO and they usually set aging practices. The term Sin Crianza stated in the label indicates a wine which did not have a minimal period of aging and therefore was bottled young
  • Reserva - Indicates quality wines produced in particular and favorable years. When referred to reds, this indicates a wine which had an aging of at least three years and at least one of these was in cask. When it is referred to white or rose wines, it indicates an aging period of at least two years and at least six months of this period in cask
  • Gran Reserva - Quality wines produced in particular and favorable years. When referred to red wines, indicates a minimal aging of five years and at least two of them in cask. When referred to white or rose wines, indicates an aging period of at least four years and at least six months of this period in cask


Production Areas

 Spain has the largest area cultivated with vines of the world, however it ranks as the third wine producing country, after Italy and France, because of the high quantity of old vineyards, with pretty low yields, planted in arid or not much fertile areas. Despite of the fact Spain is mainly known for its red wines, it is however a white grape the one to be cultivated the most in the country, Airén, particularly common in the central plains of Mancha, south from Madrid, which is generally used to make rather ordinary wines. A characteristic of Spain, according to an enological point of view, is represented by the remarkable use of local grapes they do for making wine; in Spain the phenomenon of the so called “international grapes” seems not to have never had particular or evident success.

 The most representative grape of Spain, concerning red berried species, certainly is Tempranillo, which is used for the production of the full bodied wines of Rioja, whereas among white berried species, the most representative one is Albariño which is used to make interesting white wines and with nice aromas, in the Rías Baixas region. Spanish enology is still and strongly bound to its traditions, one of them consists in aging wines in casks for very long period of time, even more than twenty years. It should be however observed that because of the general changes of people's taste, and therefore of the market demands, in Spain are now common the more “modern” practices, even here, just like everywhere else, wines having a more fresh and fruity character are preferred better.



 This area is certainly the most renowned one of Spain, in particular for the production of red wines, full bodied, rich and complex. Currently Rioja is the only Spanish region which is entitled to the Denominación de Origen Calificada, DOCa status, the highest level of the Spanish quality system. Despite of the fact red wines are the ones which made Rioja famous for more than a century, in this region are also produced white and rose wines. Rioja is located to the northern area of the country, at about one hundred kilometers (63 miles) away from the Atlantic coast and goes along the Ebro river. Vineyards are cultivated in a pretty large plain which is located at an altitude of 450 meters (1476 feet), mainly cultivated, as for red grapes, with Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano, and, as for white grapes, with Viura, also known as Macabeo, Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca. Rioja is divided in three subareas, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja, the first two to be considered of higher interest.

 Most of the production is oriented towards red wines, produced with Tempranillo grape, which are usually aged in wood for rather long period of time, faithful the common enological tradition of the country, just like no other part of the world. Even though the practice of long aging in cask is getting less and less used in favor of shorter periods, some producers still prefer to age their wines for long periods, sometimes even longer than four years. These long aging times give wines the typical character, complex and “earthy” aromas as well as body. In Rioja the same procedure is also used for white wines, aged in wood for long times and followed by a further aging in bottle, however it should be observed that some producers, currently most of them, do not age their white wines in casks therefore favoring the typical crisp and fruity character.


Ribera del Duero

 In this region are mainly produced red wines with Tinto Fino, also known as Tinta del Paìs, by many considered as a genetic mutation of Tempranillo grape. The region is located north from Madrid, about 200 kilometers away (125 miles), and goes along the course of Duero river. In this area are not reported relevant production of white wine, however it should be observed that here is produced a modest quantity of rose wine, generally obtained with Garnacha grape, which is mainly consumed locally. The red wines of this region are also to be considered as the best examples of Spain: full bodied, concentrated and rich. Here, just like in Rioja, the long aging time in cask is a common and used practice. It should be however considered that casks, just like in Rioja, are never used when new and the wood used to make them is usually from the United States of America.



 This small wine region, having ancient enological traditions, is to be considered among the most interesting ones of Spain. It is located near Tarragon, in Catalonia, facing the Mediterranean sea. The region is getting more and more recognized as a quality wine area, mainly for its red wines, and its wines are often looked for more than the ones from Rioja or Ribera del Duero. The grapes mainly cultivated in the region are all red, in particular Cariñena, known in France as Carignan and in Italy as Carignano, and Garnacha, as well as small vineyards cultivated with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Wines produced in Priorato are rather full bodied and robust, alcoholic and tannic, concentrated and rich, produced with grapes coming from vineyards producing pretty low yields. Contrary to Rioja and Ribera del Duero, wines of Priorato are not classified as Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva and they are usually aged in French oak instead of American oak.


Rías Baixas

 Contrary to most of the wine regions of Spain, this area is particularly known for its white wines, as opposed to the other areas which are mainly oriented to the production of red wines. Here the most representative grape is Albariño which does not have rivals in terms of popularity. Every bottle produced in Rías Baixas practically has the name of this grape stated in the label. The considerable worldwide success of the wines of this region were mainly determined by new and modern wine making practices and, in particular, by the fact of aging and fermenting wines in steel tanks instead of wood containers, therefore fully favoring the interesting and pleasing characteristics of Albariño. The area is located north from Portugal, near the Atlantic coast and it is part of the Galicia region.

 In Spain the Albariño grape is practically cultivated in Rías Baixas only and it is almost absent in all the other regions. The main characteristics of the wines produced with this grape are a prominent and pleasing aromaticity, as well as having very agreeable flavors, are produced and aged in steel tanks and should be drunk, in order to better appreciate their best characteristics, when young.



 The region of Penedès represents, as a matter of fact, an exception in the Spanish enology. This interesting area of Catalonia, near Barcelona, is characterized by a rather varied wine production and, as opposed to the other wine regions of the country, here are found a relevant quantity of “international” grapes. The most representative wine which certainly marks Penedès is Cava, a sparkling wine produced with the classic method. The production of Cava in this region is rather old, the first sparkling wines made with the classic method were produced in 1872, and these are the wines which made this region famous in the world. Cavas are mainly produced with Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo, three local white berried grapes, although Chardonnay is getting more and more used. These grapes are also used for the production of still wines. Moreover, there also is a style to be considered as a rarity: Cava Rosé, whose color is obtained by Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha and Monastrell grapes, used alone or together.

 The Penedès region also produces good and interesting still wines, both white and red, obtained by local and international grapes. The most cultivated white berried grapes in the region are the one already mentioned for the production of Cava, whereas red berried grapes include Cariñena, Garnacha, Monastrell, Ull de Llebre, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.



 This area, located in Andalusia, in southern Spain, is famous for the production of the excellent and charming fortified wine which is named after the city where it is mainly produced. Talking about Jerez, or Xérès or Sherry, as it is commonly known respectively in France and in England, tributing this extraordinary wine the proper and right honors, which lived glorious moments in the past, would certainly need a proper and better explication. Sadly, Jerez is currently to be considered as one of the most underrated wines of the world, it is only in recent times its production is experiencing an impulse, indeed this is a wine that would certainly deserve a better consideration. These wines are incredibly complex, rich and produced with specific and amazing methods which give them truly unique characteristics. Jerez wines are available in many styles, from elegant Finos to charming Olorosos. Among fino styles, dry and crisp, there are Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado and Palo Cortado, whereas among oloroso styles, full bodied, dark and usually sweet, there are Oloroso, Cream and Pedro Ximénez.

 The production of Jerez, which generally has an alcohol by volume from 15 to 22 percent because of fortification, that is to the added alcohol, is complex and takes long period of time, by making use of the famous Solera method, as well as a specific technique which gives them the typical oxidized character known as “rancio”. The grapes cultivated in the area and used for the production of Jerez are exclusively white: Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez.


Other Production Areas

 Among the other production areas of enological interest in Spain, there are Valdepeñas, where are produced light red wines; Navarra, near the Rioja, known for the production of its rose wines; Somontano, located near the Pyrenees, which produces white wines with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, as well as good reds produced with Monastrell, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir; Rueda, mainly known for its white wines produced with Verdejo grape; Toro, near Rueda, west from Ribera del Duero, where are produced red wines with Tempranillo grape.


 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 9, June 2003   
SpainSpain  Contents 
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