A guide to Spanish wines

Spain's red, sparkling and fortified wines explained.

by 19 September 2012

Wine is the most civilized thing in the world and one of the natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range of enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased.” – from ‘Death in the Afternoon’ by Ernest Hemingway


Hemingway was an avid writer and observer and during his time in Spain, he readily embraced the magnificence that it had to offer. The country's varied terrain permits the cultivation of a wide range of grapes varieties to flourish, which in turn produces an impressive selection of products. Its centuries-old tradition allows for these grapes to be ‘brought to the greatest perfection’ and so it’s no wonder that Spain is one of the world's largest wine producers.

Though many things have changed since the days of Hemingway, wine has not. Nothing can be more enjoyable than a leisurely meal, in good company with a fine bottle of wine. Each label has a story to tell and the best way to unravel each one is by taking a quick journey to visit the vineyards where they are made.

Wine cellar

Red wines

La Rioja is without doubt Spain’s most prestigious area for the production of red wine. The region, located in Northern Spain, is nestled between the Ebro River and the Cantabrian Mountains, and it is perfect for the growth of the Tempranillo grapes used for full-bodied reds. Known as ‘Spain’s most noble grape,’

Tempranillo is named for its earlier ripening time (temprano) in comparison to most grapes. The intense, velvety and fruity flavour of a Rioja wine is easily identifiable. It is one of the most internationally famous Spanish wines with an average yearly production of 250 million litres.

Rioja was the first Spanish wine to be awarded the quality mark Denominación de Origen Calificada. In fact, the vintage of 1970 is widely regarded as the ‘vintage of the century’ by wine critics around the globe. The area has been known for its wine production since Phoenician times. It flourished in the Middle Ages yet it acquired its current oenological reputation when émigrés from Bordeaux settled in the area, sharing their winemaking knowledge. This centuries-old tradition is an integral part of the region’s culture, though this is best discovered with a visit to the many wineries where you can enjoy the beautiful scenery, state-of-the-art facilities and exceptional wine.

Sparkling wines

The Penedès region in Catalonia is home to Spain’s famous Cava (or sparkling) wine. Once referred to as ‘Spanish champagne,’ Cava is made using the ‘méthode champenoise.’ Joseph Raventos (credited for producing Spain’s first sparkling wine), particularly fond of French Champagne, learnt the technique and sought to produce a sparkling wine of his own in his native Penedès. Its name comes from the Spanish word for cellar, where it was placed to ferment in the early years of its production.

Unlike Champagne, which is made from Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, Cava is made from the local varieties Parellada, Macabeo (known for their acidic, fresh flavour) and the slightly more aromatic Xarel-lo grapes.

It is only in recent years that Chardonnay and other grapes have been used. 95% of Spain’s cava wine is produced in this region where its largest producers can be found in the picturesque town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. You can find different types of Cava (from brut to dolsec), so choose wisely according to the occasion.

Fortified wines

The region of Andalusia enjoys intense summer heat that is cooled by a moist ocean breeze in the mornings. Known as the birthplace of fortified wines, the most popular by far being Jerez (sherry), the fortification process was initially performed to preserve wines for longer by strengthening wines with brandy after fermentation. Over the years the practice remained, and sherry is now often considered a ‘neglected wine treasure.’

There are various types of sherry, which range from light to darker and stronger types. Light variants such as Manzanillo or Fino are produced from Palomino grapes (which have a dry and delicate flavour) and are commonly served with tapas.

Other types of sherry such as Amontillado and Oloroso are darker, sweeter and stronger in flavour because they are made with Pedro Ximénez grapes. The latter, unlike ordinary production processes, are dried before they are pressed. This allows for a higher concentration of sugar in the grapes.

Sherry has a Denominación de Origen Protegido (protected designation of origin), meaning that (like Champagne which comes only from the Champagne region), a bottle labeled ‘sherry’ must come from the so-called ‘Sherry Triangle’ which extends from Cádiz, Jerez de la Frontera, San Lúcar de Barrameda and el Puerto de Santa María.

Once fermentation has taken place it is fortified with brandy (like most fortified wines). Fortification was initially performed to preserve wines for longer. Over the years the practice remained, and Sherry is now often considered a ‘neglected wine treasure.’


Further reading:
Italian wine tour
Swiss Wines