I recently posted a Spanish wine Q&A, which did, indeed, cover a lot of information about the country’s wine region. Alas, when writing such posts, there are always a few details that get left behind, and it is those few details that one must be ready for when studying for the WSET Level 3 exam. So, I’m going to do a full wine region overview here.
INTRODUCTION TO SPAIN:
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.
KEY GRAPE VARIETIES:
- Tempranillo: This is the main red wine grape grown in Spain. While it is grown throughout the country, it thrives best where summer temperatures are moderated by either the sea or altitude. Grown in too hot a climate, the grape will lack acidity and, thus, balance. BE CAREFUL: This grape has regional names, such as Cencibel in La Mancha and Ulll de Llebre in Penedés.
- Garnacha Tinta: The dominant use of the Garnacha grape is blending with other black grapes as well as the production of rosé wines. NOTE: Priorat is home to some old vine Garnacha that is used to produce complex, structured red wine blends.
- Monastrell: Monastrell equals Mourvédre, 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.
- Graciano: Mainly grown in Rioja, this red grape is used as a blender in many of Rioja’s wines. It adds concentrated black fruit aromas, acidity and tannins.
- Mazuelo/Cariñena/Carignan: Another blender variety that provides tannin and color. NOTE: Mazuello is the name given to Cariñena in Rioja.
- Mencia: Yet another blender variety in Rioja wines, providing fresh fruit, acidity and herbaceousness. However it is the key grape grown and wine produced in Bierzo.
- Verdejo: This white grape variety is highly susceptible to oxidation, but with protective winemaking, can produce a light-bodied, high-acid, melon- and peach-flavored wine. It is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. NOTE: In Rueda, Verdejo-Sauvignon Blanc blends must contain at least 50% Verdejo.
- Albariño: Predominantly grown in the north west of Spain (Rias Biaxas), Albariño is a thick-skinned grape that is fungus-resistant, thus can withstand the damp conditions of the region. The grape is naturally high in acidity and produces wines with flavors of citrus and stone fruits
- Airén: This is actually the most widely planted grape in all of Spain. Most is grown in La Mancha and is predominantly used for the production of grape brandy, Brandy de Jerez.
- Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Macabeo: These three white grapes are widely planted in Catalunya and are the main white varieties used in the production of Cava.
THE UPPER EBRO
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—thus, I believe would define it as a Mediterranean climate. 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.
- White Grapes: There are currently eight varieties approved for the use in white Rioja, which is, like its red wines, usually a blend of varieties. While the WSET Level 3 book does not list each variety, it is noted that the most widely planted of the eight is Viura. FUN 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.
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 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 region is also known for its rosé of 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. White wine production is small in Navarra, but includes Viura, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Cariñena and Calatayud
Sorry, this part didn’t make it onto the map above either, but just south of the Rioja region, you’ll find the neighboring DOs of Cariñena and Calatayud. The climate here is warm Mediterranean and the name of the grape-growing game is Garnacha. The region’s wines are typically inexpensive, early-drinking styles, however it is noted that these two DOs are home to some old vine Garnacha and Cariñena plantings that can produce more structured, age worthy expressions of these grapes.
NOTE: Unlike any other region in Spain, Catalunya has a generic DO for still wines that covers the entire region. This DO exists to enable blending opportunities in the pursuit of producing large volumes of branded wine. ALSO NOTE: While Cava is a DO that covers several, non-contiguous Spanish regions, most grapes for Cava production are grown in Catalunya. Grapes for Cava production include: Xarel-lo, Parellada, Macabeo (for the whites), Monastrell, and Garnacha (for the reds).
As you can see from the map, Penedés is located right along the coast, extending inland quite a bit. As such, the region is divided into three climatic zones:
- The hottest is on the coastal plain where the climate is Mediterranean
- Inland, in the valleys, the climate is actually slightly cooler than those coastal plains. (I believe it will be the cooling air rolling off the hillsides that border the inner-most portion of the region. See below.)
- The furthest inland locations includes vines planted at altitude, thus moderating the warm climate quite a bit.
So it probably comes as no surprise that the grapes grown and wines produced vary quite a bit. Most of the white grapes grown are those used for Cava: Parellada, Xarel-lo, Macabeo. It’s noted that there are also quite a few international varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer (now that’s interesting…). The most planted reds here are: Ulll de Llebre, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir.
Priorat 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 most important grapes are old vine Garnacha and 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 that red wines from Priorat are very deep, intense, complex—and expensive.
THE DUERO VALLEY
Ribera del duero
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 ensures 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.
NOTE: Ribero del Duero is a DO for both red and rosé wines only.
Toro has a similar climate to Ribero del Duero (warm, continental) and the wines are predominantly made using Tempranillo. High daytime temperatures and with a lot of sun means resulting red wines are full-bodied and high in alcohol. It’s noted that the Joven wines (see the Spanish Wine Laws below) are often blended with Garnacha.
Rueda sits between Ribera del Duero, but unlike its neighbors, the wine region is focused on white wine production. Like the rest of the Meseta Central, Rueda 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, as mentioned above, is often blended with 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.
THE NORTH WEST
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.
You can see on the map how close Rias Baixas is to the ocean and it is because of that proximity that the region has a moderate and damp climate. Indeed, these humid conditions mean that the main vineyard concerns revolve around mildew, rot, and fungal diseases. It’s for this reason that many vines are trained on the pergola system, which promotes airflow and keeps grapes off of the damp soils. Albariño is the king of the grapes here, producing wines with naturally high acidity and ripe stone fruit flavors. It is predominantly made in an unoaked style in order to maintain those qualities, however, 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.
Unlike Rias Baixas, Bierzo is predominantly a red wine DO. If you look at the map, it’s not shown, but 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. 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. It’s noted that some of the “best wines” come from old ivines grown on the region’s steep, stony slopes. FUN FACT: Some producers even make an unoaked version of this red wine to retain those aromatics.
I don’t have a good map of this area, but it is the region along the Mediterranean coast found just south of Catalunya.
This large DO spreads (a bit non-contiguously) from north to south along the coast and is a source of “value-for-money wines. There’s a large variety of both local and international grape varieties planted throughout the region, but Monastrell is the most widely planted red wine grape. The most widely planted white grape is something called Merseguera (anyone know what that is?), but Valencia is also home to Muscat of Alexandria, producing the local Moscatel de Valencia (a fortified sweet wine.)
Jumilla and Yecla
Jumilla and Yecla are a wee bit further inland and have hot, arid climates. Again, the dominant variety is Monastrell, here created in a youthful and fruity style.
FUN FACT: Almost half of Spain’s total wine production comes from this central area of the Meseta Central.
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…). It’s noted, however, that plantings of this white wine grape are in decline (maybe it’s that lack of enthusiasm), to make way for the ever popular Tempranillo, aka Cencibel, as well as international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
INTERESTING SIDEBAR: “Significant investment in technology and expertise has ensured that La Mancha is now an excellent source of inexpensive, well-made red and white wines for the export market.” So, I guess keep an eye out for those at your local grocer…
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. (See Spanish Wine Laws below.)
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.
Last but not least, let’s review those Spanish Wine Laws, shall we?
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.
Aging: 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.
No wine reviews today, but check out three very different Spanish wines I recently tasted in my Pop Quiz(es): Spanish Wine post. And, as usual, I’m throwing it back to you. Anything I forgot to cover in the HUGE country that is Spain? Any wines you’ve tried that you’d like to recommend? Let’s hear it.
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