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Spanish wine regions: a beginner’s guide

The impressive Spanish wines map can be overwhelming, so we decided coming out with a simplified guide of the main regions and grapes, while sharing some interesting data.

By Valeska Idarraga

Wine, the power of ubiquity

Those who have had the opportunity to dine at CÚRATE Tapas Bar in Asheville, NC know the their wines list is made exclusively of Spanish wines, and their great selection made them being named as one of the “100 Best Wine Restaurants in America” in 2018 by Wine Enthusiast magazine. There are many wine shops and Spanish restaurants across the USA, but from a real Spanish point of view CÚRATE is probably the most genuine of them all, the atmosphere, the service mood and pace, every dish and every glass transport you to Spain.

And that’s precisely one of wine’s most attractive factors: its power of ubiquity. From your armchair, you can enjoy the state of being everywhere with every sip, while planning your next escape or appreciating memories in full. Let’s satisfy our wanderlust and transport our minds to Spain with a beginner’s guide to Spanish wines.

The world’s vineyard

Spain is literally the wordl’s vineyard. Spain contains the largest area under vine in the world (969 million hectares) but small yields make it the second or third in volume every year, behind France and Italy. And if you look at the map, the yellow central area corresponds to Castilla La Mancha; only this small area accounts for 13,4% of the total world vineyard. You might be wondering which is the most widely planted grape in Spain; it is the white “airén”, followed by tempranillo, bobal, grenache noir, viura and monastrell. Outstanding figures, right?

On our CÚRATE Trips until now (we are planning to extend it) these are the wine regions from Spain visited: Empordà, Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, Txakolina, Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Bierzo. Let’s go more into detail.

Spanish wine regions

The extensive wine country is also encompassing 90 production areas with Protection Designation of Origin and 70 different appellations (DO’s), across a vast and complex geography that we will simplify. Just to let you know, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland,  Sierra Nevada is the highest sky resort in Europe reaching 3.300 meters (10,826 feet) above the sea level and there are deserts too. With such a biodiversity and climate contrasts, from hostile environments to fertile lands, Spain presents one of the most suitable territories for vine growing. Let’s take a look to the most remarkable denominations of origin classified geographically:


INDEX


Northern Spain

Txakoli wines from Northern Spain, CÚRATE Trips

From West to East we traverse the mysterious Galicia region, then go across Asturias – the unexplored destination home to the oldest National Park in Spain Picos de Europa, and homeland of the widest range of cheeses in the world -, we continue to the lovely and intimate small Cantabria to finally reach the Basque Country. Finally we reach Navarra, a scenery that can go from the most fertile lands to the most inhospitable corners.

Galicia

D.O. Rías Baixas: Albariño – the native grape varietal – is one of the most known white wines from Spain. If you get an opportunity to visit the region, don’t think it twice. In northwestern Spain vineyards are facing the Atlantic ocean, mountains sink into the sea and green valleys take you inland to monumental cities and centuries-old forests that extend as far as the eye can see through sneaky roads across vineyards. Slow mood reigns in this remote corner of Spain.

D.O. Valdeorras: godello, a Spanish white grape that by the mid-20th century had almost disappeared, has grown steadily more popular. As has happened many times, a small group of growers and producers revived the grape in Spain. Now, many producers make the wine, largely in Valdeorras but in other areas of northwestern Spain too. But Valdeorras, that extends only 35 km along the rivers Miño, Sil and Bibei is homeland of other great grape varieties and the wine appellation is now the object of desire of many national and international reputed winemakers.

D.O. Ribeira Sacra: Romans carved terraces on slopes in Ribeira Sacra that rose at precipitous angles from the rivers below, over the centuries, monks cared for the vines. The impressive scenery is breathtaking; it’s the perfect example of heroic viticulture. Reds prevail, made mostly with mencía, are expressive, elegant wines with great acidity. Whites, majorly made from godello and albariño, have a great volume in mouth and show the fruit.

D.O. Ribeiro: one of the oldest wine appellations in Spain is making its comeback. The Romans planted the first vines, and O Ribeiro lived its Golden Age when it became the main wine supplier to England in the 16th and 17th century, before Sherry and Porto reached the British. Nowadays, under a smallholder model, the Ribeiro wine region is attracting great winemakers from other regions in search of unique wines made from unpronounceable native grapes.

D.O. Monterrei: the region produces both reds and whites in limited quantities. Only a few hundred hectares of vineyards remain, scattered seemingly randomly in tiny plots amid forests of lichen-covered trees. Again, a small group of 23 vine-growers boosted the recovery of this magical area.

 

Castilla y León

♦ D.O. Bierzo: popularly named “the Spanish Burgundy”, Bierzo has emerged to the rest of the world as a wine region only in the last 20 years or so, and has quickly turned itself into a desirable brand. The reds  from mencía have that Atlantic fresh character sought after by world wine personalities. Join us on this great ay trip and visit this far-off wine region.

 

Asturias

D.O. Cangas: even if cider is king in Asturias, they have one wine appellation: Cangas, made in the so called town of Cangas de Narcea and surroundings. The scenery is rugged and mountainous, and wine is produced in the area from the 10th century, but it was a group of reckless entrepreneurs who started recovering wine in Asturias, and finally the the appellation was set in 2011. Vibrant fresh reds that are a perfect excuse for a day tour while in this green paradise.

 

Cantabria

♦ D.O. Vinos de Cantabria: in Cantabria wines production areas are divided into two: Liébana Valley (inland) and the coastal area of the Bay of Biscay. With a humid and rainy climate, this lush and mountainous region is has historically made high-acid and low alcohol wines txakoli-style.
There are hardly six wineries but the potential of the area generates curiosity and little by little the vineyard surface is being recovered. In any case, the stunning scenery well worth a visit.

 

Basque Country

♦ D.O. Txakolina: txakoli or txakolina is the native Basque wine, and is divided into three appellations: DO Getariako Txakolina (from Getaria area, the largest one), DO Bizkaiko Txakolina (around Bilbao) and DO Txakoli de Alava (the smallest of the three, in Alava region, where also belongs Rioja Alavesa). Mostly drink in the Basque Country, you’ll find txakoli in every bar and restaurant you step in. Its light body and natural fizziness in some of them (Getariako txakolina) makes it perfect to pair with the wide fish options while in Basque Country. Ninety percent of its vines are hondarrabi zuri, a white grape grown virtually nowhere else but in Basque country. Rosé and reds ara rare but really good. Experience it in full in one of our Basque Country journeys.

Duero River Valley

Ribera del Duero Spanish wine region visited with CÚRATE Trips

Over 460 miles the Duero river flows through Spain from East to West, and crosses the border with Portugal to end in the Atlantic ocean. The so called Duero River valley is a great world wine region, in fact it is homeland of Spain’s most famed winery, Vega Sicilia, icon of Ribera del Duero appellation.

D.O. Ribera del Duero: relatively new (1982), Ribera del Duero appellation cannot be understood without the enormous contribution of Vega Sicilia, and of Alejandro Fernández, a true revolutionary in the sector. The main grape is tinta fina – better known as tempranillo – and her it develops more pigment and better fruit acidity than in other Spanish climates, qualities that give birth to more elegant, better structured and very rich wines. Get a taste of it visiting one of the most successful bodegas in Ribera del Duero.

♦ D.O. Rueda: the native grape verdejo is now pronounced all over the world. This is a grape with identity, offering juicy citrus and floral flavors, growing at 2,624 feet altitude and giving a very good acidity. The whole set of cultural heritage sites and the yummy roasted lamb might be two more excuses to plan a visit.

D.O. Ribera de Arlanza: the DO (denomination of origin) was recognized in 2007. Arlanza derives its name from the Arlanza River, which flows through the region and is an affluent of the Duero river. Set between Palencia and Burgos, Arlanza wines share a unique, surprising and peculiar wine route running across valleys, gorges, history, heritage and fauna of great wealth and uniqueness. Main grape is tempranillo, planted in gobelet with very low yields has attracted prestigious flying winemakers in the last times. A region with a great potential.

D.O. Cigales: still very underrated and only known for the rosés, the area is on the Saint James Way and for centuries many pilgrims were transporting vines in their backpacks. When an ampelographic study was carried out a few years before the area became a denomination of origin in 1991, around thirty varieties were still found in total, including the white Chasselas from lands as far away as Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It’s one of the regions with the widest variety of grapes. New entrepreneurs are pioneering interesting changes.

D.O. Toro: Vega Sicilia extended in 2001 its reach westward. Here the grape name is tinta de toro (basically it is the same tempranillo, but adapted to the soil and a much hotter and drier climate). In fact Toro is known for being extreme producing strong and concentrated stunning reds.

D.O. Arribes del Duero: the area lies on the Duero, where the river meets the Portuguese border. The region is dominated by a national park, surrounded by a natural paradise. Its main appeal is on the native varieties (bruñal, rufete, juan garcía, etc.) and the beautiful wild area where they are located, with very small productions. Climate and soil give to these wines a distinctive fresh character.

Ebro River Valley

Rioja, Spain's most famous wine region, CÚRATE Trips

This time the Ebro river goes from North to South, it is the second longest river in the Iberian peninsula after the Tagus. Around the Ebro the landscape varies from rich farmland to almost desert, to mountain ranges. The fertile Ebro river valley is planted with a panoply of vegetables and fruits – it is one of the main gardens for Spain -.

D.O. Ca Rioja: only one Spanish region has achieved an international reputation that lasted through the entire 20th century up to the present: Rioja. Rioja itself has three sub-regions — Rioja Alavesa (in Basque Country province of Alava), Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja — and while each has distinct differences, there is no hierarchy of quality between them. Tempranillo is the most distinctive grape, but indigenous graciano, garnacha and mazuelo are gaining terrain in new style wines. In our Basque Country trip we visit one of the well rooted family run Rioja wineries.

D.O. Navarra: vine and inhabitants of Navarra have an intimate relationship that dates back several centuries. Its strategic location as one of the entry routes to the Iberian Peninsula from Europe made it a place visited by merchants from every corner, all nationalities and cultures, which allowed the entry of foreign grape varieties and the development of an intense wine trade. Religious orders, like the Benedictines contributed greatly to the development of the vine throughout the environment. Reds are very interesting -we’ll go more into details in the specific post- but as defined by Karen MacNeil at The Wine Bible: “French rosés may be more famous, but the best Spanish rosés are usually better – lighter, fresher, less weighty, more elegant. […] Many of the best known come from Rioja and Navarra”.

D.O. Somontano: at the foot of the Pyrenees, they have been making exquisite high-quality wines for centuries. Fifteen grape varietals, medieval villages, cave paintings and the canyons carved and polished by the Vero River make Somontano a unique spot. Two iconic wineries to keep in mind: Enate and Viñas del Vero.

D.O. Cariñena: the DO gives the name to the grape cariñena (carignan in France, mazuelo in Rioja), proving the strong relation between the region and viticulture. D.O.P. Cariñena was named by Wine Enthusiast as a region to watch in 2016. Being the second-oldest recognized wine region in Spain after Rioja, it is also home to its own varietal and appellation and is renowned for having the most plantings of old vine Garnacha in the country.

D.O. Campo de Borja: south of Ebro river, with an average age of 30 to 50 years, the low-yielding vines in Campo de Borja are treasured for producing some of the best examples of Garnacha wines. Keep an eye on them.

Central Spain

Central Spain wine region, CÚRATE Trips

Central Spain corresponds to Castilla La Mancha region, it is a vast plateau; almost two-thirds of all Spain’s vineyards are on these arid plains, and 50% of the wine from Spain is produced in this region. And remember, it accounts for 13,4% of the total world vineyard. Too often known for its volume against its quality, that’s a mistake. Undoubtedly a personality plaid a key role, Mr. Carlos Falcó, an aristocrat, engineer and entrepreneur whose passion for wine was awakened in the 1960’s as he followed his studies in the University of California at Davis. He was pioneer and created in Toledo some of the best Spanish wines and even, a new appellation DO Vino de Pago (VP) to identify single vineyard wines. The first wine classified as Vino de Pago was Dominio de Valdepusa in 2003. It is nowadays a non-profit association that brings together 32 prestigious wineries from all over the national territory with a common goal: to produce excellent wines in harmony with the soil, nature and climate of each vineyard. Let’s see what central Spain has to offer.

 

D.O. Méntrida: this area lies northwest of Toledo, it is a landscape of gentle hills that rise into the Sierra de Gredos natural reserve. Méntrida produces high quality wines – in fact it here where the above mentioned Domininio de Valdepusa is made. The terroir is excellent to grow an excellent garnacha. Climate is tough and yields are low, so these are wines in short supply and hard to find.

D.O. Vinos de Madrid: southern Madrid city there is a wine area with an accentuate continental climate, with extreme temperatures ranging from 17.6 ° F in the winter to 105.8 ° f in the summer. The native grapes are tempranillo (also known as fine red or cencibel) and red grenache for reds,  and white malvar, airén and albillo. Impressive wines to discover in your next trip to Madrid.

D.O. Uclés: definitely an unexplored wine region. It is a small designation at 800 meters (2,625 feet) altitude with huge temperature contrasts and old vines. We love the wines of this boutique appellation. On top of that, it is a great excuse to visit the amazing Cuenca – just at a 50-minute drive – and see the famous and beautiful hanging houses.

D.O. Manchuela: bobal is the local grape, probably you never heard about it before. It was mainly used to make bulk wine until a group of brave winemakers decided to elevate the native grape they found has a great potential to make both distinctive and delicious wines. Definitely, wines to explore.

Mediterranean Spain

Emporda Spanish wine region, CÚRATE Trips

The vineyards in Mediterranean Spain, whether near of far from the coast, benefit from the warm winds of the Mediterranean, and can range from mild climate by the coastline like in Alella – facing the sea -, to more extreme when inland like in Priorat. These territories cover several “counties”, from North to South: Catalonia, Valencia, Alicante and Murcia.

 

Catalonia

D.O. Penedés: just one-hour drive from Barcelona – a mere 20 miles west -, Penedés is worldwide known for cava, but also produces great still wines. This wine-growing area hosts from century-old Art Nouveau wineries to new exciting projects, most of them organic. A good 60% of the grapes are white, including the three required to make cava: parellada, macabeu and xarel·lo. By the way, we will talk about xarel·lo down the road. But reds like garnatxa, sumoll and monastrell are defining a new wave.

D.O. Alella: hidden amongst the northern suburbs of Barcelona (at a 15-minute drive), it is one of the oldest wine designations in Spain. Only nine cellars and a queen grape: pansa blanca. So while in Barcelona, there is no excuse to not visit a winery.

D.O. Empordà: in the far north-eastern corner of Spain, and borders the South of France. Perched vineyards facing the blue Mediterranean are beautiful, and wines are of a great identity. It’s a dream spot and should be on your bucket list. We give you the opportunity every year to join us on the Catalonia & Andalusia trip with a specific day in the Empordà wines region.

D.O. Conca de Barberà: in a region traditionally known for whites and rosés, the native red grape trepat is getting more attention, a variety mostly used to make cave in the region. Wines here are light, fresh and well balanced, and it’s a great area for cava. Historically speaking, the wine growing tradition is linked to the monastery of Santa María del Poblet that represents the heart of the Cistercian route.

D.O. Plà de Bages: this fascinating region occupies the valleys of two rivers, the Llobregat and the Cardener, and is the smallest of Catalonia’s wine regions. The microclimate is a harsher continental style of torrid summers and freezing winters. Wine-wise, the warmer sites benefit red grapes, while the cooler ones, often at a higher altitude, are ideal for whites. There are sparkling wines here too, made under the Cava DO. The grape picapoll is native to Plà de Bages, and new projects are giving to the region a new boost.

D.O. Q. Priorat: probably the most desired wines from Catalonia. Priorat has been a source for wine for nearly a millennium, since Carthusian monks established in the area. Priorat as we know it today was boosted by French and Spanish wine makers in the late 1970’s, who released full bodied, high alcohol and elegant reds made from cariñena and garnacha. The spectacular landscape with terraced vertiginous vineyards makes it a must for any wine lover.

D.O. Montsant: many think of Montsant as the little brother of Priorat. They are neighbors, but their terroir is different, and so are the wines. Montsant, from a lower altitude and less challenging natural conditions, it shares nevertheless the energy of its neighbor. Slowly, the reputation of Montsant wines is spreading, and international investors who see the potential have set. Not to miss.

D.O. Terra Alta:it is the most southerly wine DO wine region in Catalonia, southern Priorat, it shares with it a similar winemaking history. Terra Alta literal translation is “high land” and natural conditions here are quite extreme, being garnacha blanca (white grenache) what we call a born survivor and the queen of grapes. The indigenous red varietal is morenillo (meaning slightly brown), recovered in the recent times. The region could also be on the previous block Ebro River Valley since it is close to the Ebro river Delta and fine almost deserted beaches, rice fields, ancient olive trees … The fascinating landscapes of the Ebro Delta are the origin of high-quality products and enjoying a paella with a glass of wihite garnacha is a one of those pleasures hard to describe.

D.O. Costers del Segre: the name means ‘the banks of the River Segre’. Integrated by about 40 wineries, this wine appellation is located inland in the province of Lleida. It is a border territory between Montsant and Priorat. Mountainous, full of olive trees, scarce in rains, lots of sun and large temperature fluctuations between day and night allow great reds. And there is something very unique: they are recovering old wineries carved in the rocks to ferment in stone.

 

Valencia

D.O. Valencia: in addition to heritage, culture, gastronomy, festivities and the blue Mediterranean, Valencia region produces spectacular wines for millenia. Strolling across fields, orchards and vineyards may be more than a simple excursion. Moscatel has historically been identified with Valencia and then foreign grapes were mostly used. Now, with the new vintners wave, traditional varietals are recovered: merseguera and verdil are fabulous to make full- body gastronomic whites. In reds, garnacha tintorera prevails. While they still have a long way to go to achieve an international recognition, it sounds like a great territory to explore.

D.O. Utiel-Requena: only an hour inland from Valencia city, we find this arid wine region. It’s cold enough for frost and hail in the winter, while in the summer the vines can suffer extreme heat. It’s worth noting there are several Vinos de Pago in the area, single-estate wines designation mentioned here above. The native grape to Utiel-Requena is bobal, a varietal producing deeply colored wines with firm tannins that are well structured with a good potential for aging.

 

Alicante

D.O. Alicante: making wine from Phoenician times, one of its treasures is the Fondillón. Consumed by great figures in history, sailed around the world and is mentioned in European literature from the 15th and 16th centuries, from Shakespeare to Alexander Dumas, with an extraordinary and singular personality, Fondillón is a unique wine, one of the few that exists in the world with its own name. It is a noble red wine, non fortified wine, in an rusty style from overripe monastrell grapes. Extraordinary good. And fantastic place to discover.

 

Murcia

D.O. Jumilla: the extreme climate of Jumilla forces the native monastrell – known internationally as mourvèdre – variety to give the best of itself. The red wines, emblematic and with great personality, prove it. The area includes around 40 wineries and more than 4,000 winegrowers, most of them in the town of Jumilla, at the foot of a legendary 15th-century castle. Wines are colorful and well bodied, and even in high in alcohol they present a fresh-tasting, preserving the grape variety’s characteristics.

D.O. Yecla: it is the only DO consisting of a single municipality. Nothing to envy the Beaujolais nouveau: Yecla’s Black Night is presented as a celebration at the height of its French cousin. Wines. Monastrell is king. And yes, the legendary Robert Parker chose a wine from Yecla in 2015 among the three best on the planet for its value for money (Solanera, viñas viejas 2013).

Southern Spain

Sherry wines with CÚRATE Trips

The southern charms from Spain leave no-one unmoved. The scent of the Orient is everywhere, dazzling white towns, infinite beaches, hills and lakes, cheerful people, an imposing architecture and a unique lifestyle. Talking about wines, sherry is the big name but there are impressive groundbreaking projects.

 

Cadiz

♦ D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry: Cádiz is one of those scarce places you should visit before you die, as it’s the earthly heaven for any foodie or wine lover. Here, the magic wine appellation Jerez-Xérès-Sherry is centered on three towns of Cadiz county: Sanlúcar de Barrameda, El Puerto de Santa María and Jerez de la Frontera. In our Love letter to Sherry we expressed in 2014 our passion for this territory, and would love to share a glass of sherry with you at some edition of our Catalonia & Andalusia trip.

♦ D.O. Ronda, DO Sierras de Malaga: the lovely town is divided in two by an impressive gorge; Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles fascination for this remote corner was internationally known, to the point that Orson Welles asked his ashes to be buried here. And what about Ronda wines? They’re of excellent quality, most of them are organic, at an average 2,300 feet altitude. Something to keep in mind, the pinot noir from Bodega Cortijo de los Aguilares is spectacular and was awarded the gold medal for the best pinot noir at the Swiss competition Mondial des Pinots in 2019.

 

Cordoba

D.O. Montilla-Moriles: in Cordoba, this historical appellation is making finos like in the sherry region but here the sole grape is pedro ximénez and there is not addition of alcohol because due to the super high temperatures in the summer, the grape reaches an alcohol level of around 15 percent without the need of neutral spirits. The same aging process for sherries applies to Montilla-Moriles, we’ll get into full details in a new post. Wines are too good to be true, several have been awarded 100 Parker points: Bodegas Toro Albalá Don Px Convento Selección, Amontillado 1905 Solera Fundacional from Pérez Barquero and Convento Selección 1946 from Toro Albalá.

 

Malaga

D.O. Malaga: Malaga is well known and respected for its moscatel de Alejandría, producing both sweet and dry spectacular wines. And we want to drive your attention to the wines from the Axarquia -the region to the East of Malaga – that retains all the charm of lovely whitewashed villages and a sub-tropical climate. Inland, among idyllic towns and exceptional vineyards, exceptional wines are made.

 

Granada

♦ D.O. Vinos de Granada: with most of the wine growing area around 3,280 feet above sea level in terraces, they rank amongst the highest in Europe. Grapes reach a their maturation by Halloween and, in some cases, with the first snowflakes. Reds are of exceptional quality based on the native grape vigiriega can be white or red, it allows wines with low alcohol content and high acidity, and it’s very interesting to make sparkling.

In future articles we will get into details for some of the most popular Spanish wine regions. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to uncork any bottle and enjoy it, wine is one of the world’s most ancient pleasures and you set your own rules. Cheers!

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