Spain, beyond Rioja
‘Rioja’ is probably what springs to mind for many people when they think of Spanish wine. Unsurprisingly so, as it’s the Spanish wine that we tend to see most frequently on UK shelves and wine lists.
But if we look beyond Rioja, we see that the rest of the country has a lot to offer in terms of varied, quality-driven wine. Just as Spain’s different regions have their own very distinct identities, so do the country’s different wines. From effervescent Cava to complex and diverse Sherry; from the dry, aromatic whites of Galicia to the intense reds of Priorat, there’s something for everyone!
Spain has more land under vine than any other country in the world. In terms of the volume of wine produced, most years it comes in third after France and Italy (or Italy and France). The Tempranillo grape is now the country’s most widely planted, having recently overtaken the white grape Airén which is planted at low densities and covers more vineyard area than any other white wine variety in the world.
Spain’s wine industry has greatly modernised over the last thirty years with the latest technologies arriving in most regions. Spain’s accession to the EU in 1986 led to increased investment in its wine industry and the introduction of irrigation ten years later also brought great benefits, especially in the drought-prone south.
The climate in Spain’s main wine producing regions varies greatly, from a maritime climate with the Atlantic influence in the North-West, to a very continental climate in the centre and a Mediterranean climate along the Eastern coast. Altitude is another factor that affects Spain’s vineyards and their growing conditions. Mountain ranges known as cordilleras divide the country and Spain’s centre is dominated by the plateau known as the Meseta Central which ranges in altitude from about 600 to 1000 metres.
It is claimed that Spain is home to over 600 different vine varieties although its vineyards are generally dominated by only a fraction of these. Tempranillo, which has seen a major increase in plantings in the last fifteen years, is now the country’s most commonly planted grape variety; depending on where it is grown, it is referred to by a few different aliases including Tinto Fino and Cencibel. Bobal is the next most widely planted red, followed by Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell (Mourvedre). Cabernet Sauvignon is the most important international variety.
Airén, the drought resistant white variety that is planted at low density, is still Spain’s most widely planted white grape, accounting for over a quarter of Spanish vineyard area. Also important for their role in Sherry production are the white grapes, Palomino and Pedro Ximenez. Macabeo, which also goes by the name Viura, is common in Rioja and Catalonia and together with the grapes Parallada and Xarel-lo, is also used to produce Cava.
Other white grapes that are contributing to the recent success of Galician wines in particular are, most notably, Albariño and also Loureira, Treixadura and Godello. The red Mencia grape is also producing some good wines in Galicia and Castilla y León.
In terms of quality wine, the majority comes from the northern part of the country, above Madrid. From Galicia in the North-west through to Catalonia in the North-east, this northern band of Spain includes major appellations such as Rias Baixas, Bierzo, Ribera Del Duero and Priorat as well as Rioja.
Only two appellations, Rioja and Priorat have the highest classification for Spanish wines, DOC (or DOQ in Catalan) which stands for Denominación de Origen Calificada. The term Calificada translates as 'qualified' or 'guaranteed' and implies wine of consistently guaranteed high quality.
Below this is a much larger classification, DO (Denominación de Origen) which includes over 70 appellations. This classification indicates the geographical origin and the style of a wine. To gain the DO title, wines must conform to various rules concerning their production. Each DO has a Consejo Regulador, which controls and enforces its rules and regulations regarding wine production, such as permitted grape varieties, maximum yields, length of ageing and so on. The Consejo Regulador also assesses the wines in order to discern whether or not they deserve the DO of DOC classification.
Wines that don’t qualify for DO or DOC status are known as ‘Vino de la Tierra’ (Wine of the Land’) or more recently, by the European classification IGP. Below this was ‘Vino de Mesa’ (Table Wine), the most basic classification, now more commonly referred to as Wine Without Geographical Indication. Another classification is Vino de Pago, a special category granted to a small number of single estate wines of exceptional quality.
Other terms that you may see on Spanish wine labels refer to the length of time the wine has been aged in barrel and bottle. The terms ‘Crianza’, ‘Reserva’ and ‘Gran Reserva’ all indicate the length of time the wine has spent ageing, with ‘Crianza’ requiring two years, ‘Reserva’ three years and Gran Reserva requiring the longest period of five years. The exact ageing requirements in barrel and bottle differ slightly for Rioja, Ribera del Duero and the rest of Spain.
So, on to some wines …
Starting in Galicia in the North-West and the region of Rías Baixas which is predominantly a white wine producing region. In fact, around 99% of wine produced in the region is white. The major grape variety is Albariño, representing over 90% of plantings. So, our first wine is a 100% Albariño:
Alma Atlántica, 2017 ‘Alba Martin’ Rías Baixas Albariño. £15.50
Meaning ‘Atlantic Soul’, Alma Atlántica displays the Atlantic influence with a hint of salinity combined with ripe peach and tropical fruit notes and a touch of fizz. Fresh and clean with juicy acidity and a long mineral finish.
Santiago Ruiz, 2017 ‘O Rosal’ Rías Baixas. £16.50
This wine from the Rías Baixas sub-zone, O Rosal, is a blend of native grapes. Albariño plays a central role in the blend but is complemented by the high-quality Loureiro grape which is particularly associated with O Rosal as well as Treixadura and others. Peach, pear and apple combine on the palate with some floral notes and a slightly spicy finish.
Moving west, we come to Bierzo DO, situated below the Cantabrian Cordillera, where the vines benefit from altitudes of over 500m:
Cuatro Pasos, 2016 ‘Black’ Bierzo Mencia. £16.90
The Mencia grapes that form this wine come from 80 year-old vines. Living up to its name, this wine is very inky in appearance, disproving the old suggestion that the Mencia grape produces thin, dilute wines. Lots of red fruit, particularly cherry, complemented by vanilla and some spiciness. A smooth wine with a long toasty finish.
Moving west again, and slightly south, we come to the highly regarded red wine producing region of Ribera del Duero:
Finca Villacreces, 2016 Pruno. £15.90
This blend of 90% Tempranillo (or Tinto Fino as they call it locally) and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon from Ribera Del Duero, has received some rave reviews, including being called ‘the best wine in Spanish history for under $20’ by influential wine critic, Robert Parker. Well, it is pretty good! Black cherry, plum and liquorice combine with subtle oaky spice. Very well balanced with a long, soft finish.
Cop De Ma Fort, 2014 Priorat
The name of this wine means ‘lend a hand’ in Catalan and is a nod to both the Catalan tradition of the castellars who climb up on each other’s shoulders to form human pyramids and also to the group of growers who work together to produce the wine. The raised hand on the label represents that of the ‘enxaneta’ at the very top of the human pyramid, raising his or her hand with four fingers extended to represent the four stripes of the Catalan flag. This Priorat red is a blend of 40% Garnacha, 40% Carignan (known locally as Samsó) and 20% Syrah. Blackberry and red cherry combine with pencil lead to create a smooth wine with a long earthy finish.
We have a great selection of wines here from some really exciting Spanish wine producing regions, so why not pop into the shop or bar to try one or two of them for yourself?