There is so much to know about Spanish wine—I’ve only now come to realize (and appreciate) the vast diversity of the grapes grown and the wine styles produced. That being said, this is definitely one country that I’m worried will stuff me up on my upcoming exam (one month away, by the way). So let’s take a look at some Q&A and see if we can’t unravel the intricacies of this Old World wine country…

[Answer(s) and information based on WSET Level 3 material]

Per usual, I want to start out with a little introduction-slash-background information for a broad overview of the country. If you look at the map above, Spain can be divided into three climactic zones: 1) In the North (look at Rias Baixas and even Toro), the country is influenced by the Atlantic weather system—i.e., it has a moderate maritime climate. So vineyard risks here are all about the rainfall and associated issues. 2) To the East (move your eyes toward Priorat), the weather is a warm Mediterranean climate. Thus, there are less seasonal severities. Most vineyards are located where they can receive cooling influences from either the ocean or altitude. 3) In the very center, the Meseta Central is a large plateau that defines the center of Spain (take a look at La Mancha above). This plateau is cut off from any maritime influence by mountains. Thus, the climate here is hot continental and the largest issue is drought. Grape growers within the hot, arid center of Spain tend to utilize low-density bush-trained systems to capitalize on the water available and shading grapes from the heat-o-the-sun.

Another thing we should take a look at is the Spanish Wine Laws. They’re pretty straight forward, but there’s a lot of detail to memorize, as the hierarchy of PDO and PGI wines include specific aging requirements for both red and white wines in each category. Wish me luck with that… (PS: Wines that fall outside any of the below categories are simply labeled Vino. That’s not too hard to remember…)

PDO Wines: The Spanish PDO is Denominacion de Origen Protegida, or DOP. But the following three categories are traditional terms more commonly utilized on Spanish wine labels.

  • Denominacion de Origen (DO): All wines in this category are wines of a certain minimum quality and satisfy specifications covering grape varieties, viticulture, and location. (For example, Ribera del Duero is a DO for red and rosé wine only.)
  • Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa): DOs in existence for at least 10 years, may apply for this more prestigious status. Currently, there are only two DOCa’s in Spain: Rioja and Priorat.
  • Vinos de Pago (VP): Another step above, VP applies to single estates with a high reputation. The approved estates may only use their own grapes. All wines must be vinified and bottled on the estate as well.

PGI Wines: The traditional term Vino de la Tierra (VdIT) is most commonly used.

Ageing: Spanish law has specific definitions for the age categories which include minimum total aging requirements as well as minimum time in barrel requirements. Note: Many producers exceed the below expectations.

  • Joven: Does not have any minimum aging requirements. (Joven translates to young, so that makes sense.)
  • Crianza: Red Wine must age for 24 months; 6 in barrel. White/Rosé Wine must age for 18 months; 6 in barrel
  • Reserva: Red Wine must age for 36 months; 12 in barrel; White/Rosé Wine must age for 24 months; 6 in barrel
  • Gran Reserva: These wines are only made in exceptional vintages and white and rosé wines are rarely made in this style. But when they are produced: Red Wine must age for 60 months; 18 in barrel. White/Rosé wine must age for 48 months; 6 in barrel.

Ok, I think that’s all the background information for now. Let’s get to some Q&A, shall we?

1) What are the three sub-regions of Rioja?

Rioja is part of Spain’s Upper Ebro region. The three sub-regions are:

  • Rioja Alavesa: This portion of Rioja is defined by its location on the northern side of the Ebro River as well as its situation along the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains. It’s noted that the wines from this area are the lightest and have the most finesse in all of Rioja. Most vineyards are planted at altitude (ranging from 500 to 800 meters), and though the region is fairly far inland, it does receive moderating influence from the Atlantic. But due to those Cantabrian Mountains along the western border, any oceanic weather extremes are shielded.
  • Rioja Alta: This section of Rioja lies along the southern portion of the Ebro River. Like Rioja Alavesa, vineyards are planted at altitude and receive the same maritime moderating affects noted above.
  • Rioja Baja: The weather in Rioja Baja is notably different, as this portion receives less moderating affects of the ocean, and the summer and winter months experience more extreme heat and cold, respectively. It’s also noted that annual rainfall is quite low, thus the biggest issue in the vineyard is lack of water.

Grapes to Know: Tempranillo is the most widely planted grape variety and thrives best in Rioja Alavesa. It is often blended with Garnacha, which thrives best in the warmer Rioja Baja region.

2) How many white varieties are approved for use in a white Rioja?

I bet most of us think Tempranillo-based red wine when we think about wines from Rioja. But, indeed, white blends are made as well. There are currently eight varieties approved for the use in white Rioja. While the WSET Level 3 book does not list each variety, it is noted that the most widely planted of the eight is ViuraFUN FACT: Traditionally, these white blends were aged extensively in American oak, giving the resulting wines a deep golden color and nutty aromas and flavors due to the deliberate oxidation. Today, however, white wines predominantly have less oxygen influence and are made in a lighter, fresher style.

3) What grape is used for rosé production in Navarra?

It’s not on the map above, but just to the left of the Rioja is the Navarra DO, which extends to the foothills of the Pyranees Mountains. The climate here is similar to that of Rioja (Mediterranean), becoming cooler and wetter as you move toward the mountain range (makes sense). The dominant grape variety is Tempranillo, however this grape is focused on red wine production—either as a varietal wine or blended with the grapes of Rioja or international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. The answer to this question: Garnacha. Grape growers in Navarra will pick the Garnacha grapes early to ensure a higher level of acid and lower level of sugars in order to produce a dry, fresh, fruit-forward rosé wine.

4) Describe a typical wine coming from the Priorat DOQ

Priorat is found in the Catalunya region of Spain. Here the climate is warm Mediterranean with moderating influences coming from either the sea and/or planting at altitude. Catalunya itself is a generic DO for any still wine produced anywhere in the region.

When it comes to Priorat specifically, the region is found further inland with vineyards planted along foothills. The summers are long, hot, and dry, and the annual rainfall in Priorat is quite low. Thus, this is the ideal location for heat-loving and late-ripening varieties. So it is that the main grape grown is Carignan (or Cariñena). SOIL FACT: Priorat is home to a very specific soil type called llicorella (which for some reason reminds me of licorice…). It consists of layers of red slate with small particles of mica that “sparkle in the sun.” This helps reflect the heat of the sun, and the depth of the soil means that it can retain what little rain the region receives. As mentioned above, the best vineyard management means low-yielding bush vines. Put this all together and this means the answer to the question is that red wines from Priorat are very deep, intense, complex—and expensive. Besides Carignan, Garnacha is the other grape to know.

Speaking of Carignan…

5) What is the Cariñena grape called in Rioja?

It’s less widely planted, but Cariñena, or Mazuelo, is used as a blender grape in Rioja (along with the main grape, Tempranillo, the number one supporter Garnacha, and the honorable mention blender Graciano), adding tannin and color. In Priorat, as mentioned above, it is often blended with Garnacha as well.

6) What grape is grown in the Bierzo region of Spain?

I love this question because when I read it, I asked, “What the heck is Bierzo?” Yeah…wish me luck in a month…

So, Bierzo is found in the North West of Spain, it’s the area of Spain that usually brings to my mind Rias Baixas, which explains why I had no idea what Bierzo was. But unlike Rias Baixas, which is noted for its white wine production ruled by the Albariño grape, Bierzo is predominantly a red wine DO. The North West region of Spain is defined by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, thus it is notably cooler and wetter than the rest of the country’s grape growing regions. If you look at the map (below), Bierzo is located much further inland than Rias Baixas. The region actually lies in the mountains that mark the boundary between Galicia (where Rias Biaxas is located) and the Meseta Central. Thus, the climate is moderate, still receiving cooling maritime influences from the Atlantic. And, to finally answer the question above, the key grape grown: Mencia. Given the cooler climate, it’s no surprise that this grape produces a red wine that retains its acidity and fruit aromas and flavors. FUN FACT: Some producers even make an unoaked version to retain those aromatics.

7) What grape is grown in Rias Biaxas and describe that wine?

Ok, so I totally just answered that question above, but here it is in a bit more detail. As noted, the Rias Biaxas region, located in North West Spain is defined by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. As you can see from the map above, some vineyards are located pretty much on the water’s edge. So, it’s no surprise that the area is known to be wetter and colder than the rest of Spain. The main vineyard issue here is humidity which leads to mildew, rot, and fungus. So it is that many vineyards are trained on a pergola system to encourage air circulation.

With this cool environment, the name of the game is white wine production, the leader of the pack Albariño. It is predominantly made in an unoaked style in order to maintain the grape’s natural high acidity and stone fruit flavors. It is noted, however, that some producers choose to incorporate a bit of oak aging or lees stirring to add a bit of depth and mouthfeel.

FOOTNOTE: Red wine is produced in Rias Biaxas, but it is “of minor concern.” Hah.

6) What is Ribero del Duero a DO for?

Hm, if you were paying attention earlier, you probably know the answer to this question: Ribero del Duero is a DO for both red and rosé wines only. And this makes sense when you take a look at where the region is located in the country.

Ribera del Duero, located in The Duero Valley in the center of Spain is cut off from any oceanic influence by the surrounding mountain ranges. The climate here is continental: summers are short, dry and hot; winters are very cold. This location is the highest part of the Meseta Central and most vineyards are planted at altitude, some reaching over 850 meters high (almost 3,000 feet). Planting at altitude provides cooling night time temperatures to help moderate the overall growing conditions and ensuring the fruit can retain some acidity. Makes sense then that, given this environment, it will be black grapes that thrive best in these conditions. The dominant grape is Tempranillo and is “the only variety in most of the best red wines.” Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec are permitted, but rarely used. Garnacha is also widely planted and is the key variety for the production of rosé.

8) Which international grape is often blended into a Rueda wine?

Rueda is part of The Duero Valley (map above). This is a tricky question because, despite the fact that the surrounding wine regions focus on red wine production (Toro, with its similar climatic conditions as Ribero del Duero, too focuses on Tempranillo), Rueda is the one that focuses on white wine production. Like the rest of the Meseta CentralRueda still maintains a continental climate. But remember, this upper portion of the plateau has higher altitude (not as high as Ribera, though), so summer nights will be cool, ensuring a good diurnal shift so grapes can maintain their acidity. The key grape here is Verdejo and the answer to this question is Sauvignon Blanc. Both can be made as varietal wines or can be blended together. However, when blends are made, it must contain at least 50% Verdejo.

9) What style of wine does the Monastrell grape produce?

Monastrell equals Mourvédre, so if you’re as keen on the grape as I am, this is a no-brainer! Monastrell is a thick-skinned, heat-loving black grape that tolerates drought pretty well. Thus, it thrives best in the sunny south-eastern DOs of Spain, such as Yecla and Jumilla, which is located in The Levante region of Spain (south of Catalunya) and receives lots of sunlight and has a hot, dry climate. When it reaches full ripeness, the resulting wines are deeply colored, full-bodied, with high levels of tannins and alcohol, but medium (and sometimes low) acidity, and includes flavors and aromas of black fruits.

10) What region does the Valdepeñas DO in Spain lie to the south of?

The Valdepeñas DO lies just to the south of La Mancha. And talking about it wouldn’t make too much sense without providing some details about La Mancha itself. La Mancha is the largest DO in Spain. It’s southern location in the Central Meseta means the climate here is continental. The most widely plated grape: Airén. If you don’t know what that is (I don’t), it supposedly produces a “neutral white wine.” (Way to sell it…). WORD TO KNOW: Cencibel—The La Mancha word for Tempranillo. (I feel like that could come up on a multiple choice somewhere…). FUN FACT: La Mancha started the trend for top-quality pagos wines and is still where the majority of estates awarded the appellation Vinos de Pago live.

Valdepeñas is a small DO practically attached to La Mancha, thus shares similar climatic conditions (continental). However, it’s noted that the reputation and the quality of Valdepeñas far exceeds its northern neighbor’s. Airén is still the name of the grape-growing game, but Cencibal is the main red wine grape, produced either as a varietal or blended with international varieties.

11) What region of Spain grows most of the grapes for Cava production?

Ok, for those who don’t know, Cava is a sparkling wine produced in Spain produced in the traditional, Champagne method. Cava itself is a DO that covers a broad range of non-contiguous grape growing regions throughout Spain. However, the majority of grapes grown for Cava production are found in Catalunya. Traditional grape varieties: Xarel-lo, Parellada, and Macabeo/Viura for the white; Garnacha and Monastrell for the rosé. I’m not going to go into the whole description of Spanish Cava. I’ll save that for my sparkling wine post. Because there will be a sparkling wine post…

Oh my goodness. Someone turned that amp up to 11! Are you still with me? How’d I do on these questions? Anything you want to add? Any questions out there? Are you ready for a wine review? Thankfully, I have a few that depict the diversity of Spanish wine styles…

About the Wine: Bodegas Terras Gauda 2018 Rîas Baixas

Grape Variety: 100% Albariño

Purchased locally at Sonoma’s Best

Flavor Profile:

Appearance: pale lemon

Aroma: youthful, medium (+) intensity: flint, vanilla, nectarine, apricot, wet stone, chamomile

Palate: dry, high acid, medium alcohol, light body, medium (+) intensity of flavors: peach, nectarine, apricot, lemon pith, chamomile, vanilla, wet stone, flint, hit of toast

Long finish

Conclusion: Based on the WSET criteria, I concluded that this wine lacked a bit of complexity, but is very good. You should enjoy it now, as it does not have the potential for aging.

About the Wine: Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Reserva 2010

Grape Variety: 77% Tempranillo; 10% Garnacha Tinta; 8% Graciano; 5% Mazuello

Received as a gift from a friend.

Flavor Profile:

NOTE: Decanted this wine between 90 and 120 minutes before tasting.

Appearance: medium garnet

Aroma: pronounced, developing aromas: black cherry, chocolate, cedar wood, fig, prune, vnailla, eucalyptus, terragon

Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium (+) tannin, medium (+) body, pronounced flavor intensity: prune/raisin, black cherry, black plum, chocolate, cedar wood, eucalyptus, leather, meat/game, anise

Long finish

Conclusion: Based on the WSET criteria, I concluded that this wine is outstanding. You can drink this now but it has the potential to age further.

About the Wine: Arinzano Estate Vino de Pago

Grape Variety: 100% Tempranillo

Received as a sample.

Flavor Profile:

NOTE: Decanted this wine between 90 and 120 minutes before tasting.

Appearance: deep ruby

Aroma: pronounced, developing aromas: black cherry, chocolate, leather, charred wood, blackberry, licorice, black plum, vanilla, toast

Palate: dry, medium (+) acidity, high alcohol, medium (+) tannin, medium (+) body, medium (+) flavor intensity: licorice, charred wood, black cherry, blackberry, anise, smoke, toast, vanilla, clove, black pepper, leather, prune, fig

Conclusion: Based on the WSET criteria, I concluded that this wine is outstanding. You can drink this now but it has the potential to age further.

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**Please note: all reviews and opinions are my own and are not associated with any of my places of business. I will always state when a wine has been sent as a sample for review. Sending samples for review on my personal website in no way guarantees coverage in any other media outlet I may be currently associated with.**

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