Spain has always been one of the world’s biggest wine-producing countries, with a long history of winemaking. But in recent years it’s also become one of the world’s best – and most interesting. Indeed, probably no other country has made such great strides in improving the quality of its wines. While more established regions, such as Rioja, have grown in size and influence, less famous areas such as Priorato have also exploded from obscurity to become some of the most dynamic in Europe. Part of the key to Spain’s rebirth has been its use of indigenous varietals. Modern winemaking methods and better practices in the vineyards have allowed these native grapes to shine, producing a whole raft of wines that are both in tune with modern tastes and also uniquely Spanish.
For many wine-lovers, Spain is Rioja and the region’s influence extends all over the world. Typically Rioja is a blend of several grape varieties, but Tempranillo dominates. The grape is to Rioja what Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are to Bordeaux; it’s the region’s most widely planted variety, capable of making soft, fruity wines when young, and also more powerful, concentrated wines for long-term ageing.
This ageing has always been central to Rioja’s philosophy and nowhere else in the world has such stringent laws governing the time a wine spends in barrel and then bottle before release. Nonetheless, over the past decade a small but growing number of producers have been making wines that don’t conform to these rules. Modern Riojas tend to be richer and more concentrated, with bigger fruit and more obvious new-oak flavours.
Attached to Rioja’s north-eastern border is Navarra. Cooler than its illustrious neighbour, Navarra has long been established as Spain’s best rosé-producing region. But it’s also had plenty of
success with red and white wines that blend local grapes such as Viura and Tempranillo with international ones such as Chardonnay
RIBERA DEL DUERO
About 150km south west of Rioja lies its big winemaking rival. Ribera del Duero doesn’t produce anything like as much as Rioja, but it certainly makes some of Spain’s most
expensive wines. The king here is Tinta del País, a local version of Tempranillo. In this hot, high, dusty land it gives wines of real power and depth, and, when mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon,
the wines can last for many years. They’re not cheap, but they
can be exceptionally good.
While Ribera is all about red wines, Rueda, it’s near neighbour, is nearly all about whites. The local grape variety is the zingy, aromatic Verdejo, but it’s often mixed with Sauvignon Blanc to produce an exceptionally fresh, flavourful, thirst-quenching wine.
With its rolling hills and pine forests, Spain’s westernmost wine area is a long way from what most would think of as typically Spanish. This is white wine territory, where rising star Albariño has come from almost nowhere to emerge as one of the most sought-after styles in the world.
Home to Spain’s famous sparkling wine, Cava, but also a good place for reds and whites made from a wide variety of indigenous and international grapes.
This massive, sun-drenched area south of Madrid is the engine room of Spanish wine production and home to some of the most innovative plantings in the country. It’s now making good-quality, good-value wines from Tempranillo (here called Cencibel), Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Spain’s lesser-known regions are producing some of its most exciting wines. Priorato is not the place for bargain hunters, but it is the source of some thrilling wines, made from ancient Garnacha vines. Further inland, Cariñena also has plots of Garnacha, but produces wines with a more modest price tag that represent great value. Further east, Toro has its own local version of Tempranillo (Tinta de Toro) and is home to some of Spain’s boldest red wines. To the south, Jumilla is producing spectacular reds from the Monastrell grape.