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All About Spanish Wines by a Local (Taste, Varieties & More)

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When most people think of Spanish wine, they think of Rioja, Cava, and Sangria, though maybe not in that precise order. Spanish wine has a reputation for being cheaper and of lower quality than their French and Italian neighbors. However, while Spanish wine is cheaper thanks to mechanized farming practices, it is not lower quality. In fact, a large amount of Spanish wine is exported to France and Italy where it is bottled before being sold as French or Italian.

Spain is mainly a red wine country. Spain’s warm climate means a longer growing season so grapes are more mature and flavorful at harvest than in other European countries. Spain exports wine to French and Italian wineries where it gets blended and bottled as products of France or Italy.

I have spent time exploring the superb wines that come from smaller wineries in Spain’s lesser-known regions. Let’s take a closer look at Spanish wines and learn how much more Spain has to offer beyond Rioja, Cava, and Sangria.

What Wine Do They Drink in Spain
What Wine Do They Drink in Spain

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Do They Drink Wine In Spain

There is a wine-drinking culture in Spain. However, wine is usually consumed with a meal. This will usually be the traditionally large midday meal or with a tapa (small snack) in the evening.

Spain’s statistics indicate that 31% of the population doesn’t consume alcohol. This figure is skewed because around 28% of the population is under the legal drinking age of 18. Statistics also show that beer is the preferred drink of 50% of the drinking population, followed by spirits at 28% and wine at 20%.

What I have noticed is that most spirits are consumed by students where there is a culture called Botellón where people gather socially in public spaces such as parks and consume alcohol. This usually happens until after 10 pm when the nightclubs start opening.

I spoke to a store owner in a town about 30 miles from the nearest university and spirits account for just over 15% of their alcohol sales except for during the university vacations when the student population returns home.

There is a tradition in Spain called sobremesa, which is roughly translated as “across the table”. This is the social aspect of the long siesta lunch in Spain.

After the large midday meal has been eaten Spaniards will stay at the table chatting over a glass of wine. There will also be a bottle of water on the table and it is common to alternate sips of wine with water.

This combination of enjoying wine with a meal and consuming water as well means that Spaniards, in general, don’t drink wine to excess.

It is more common to see wine consumed with a meal while beer tends to be the preferred beverage with an evening tapa.

To learn more about the sometimes confusing tapas tradition, here James Blick explains it in greater detail.

What Wine Do They Drink in Spain

Spain is essentially a red wine country, with 72.9% of total Spanish wine consumption. The remaining 27.1% of the consumption is split between white wine at 12.9%, rose at 6.4%, sparkling wine at 6%, and finally sherry/desert wines at 1.8%.

When it comes to red wine, Spaniards almost always drink Tempranillo or Tempranillo blends.

During the hot summer months of July and August where temperatures seldom dip below 95F (35C) and are usually above 105F (40C) for the whole 2 months, Spaniards will mix themselves a refreshing tinto de verano or “wine of summer.” If red wine is served above 70F (21C) it will “blow out” and you will just taste the alcohol and little else.

Think of tinto de verano as sangria without the fruit. You pour some red wine into a tall glass, top it up with lemonade, and add an ice cube or two.

However, tinto de verano isn’t something that Spaniards will generally drink at restaurants or bars. It is more something to have at home with lunch or in the evening for a refreshing wine-flavored drink.

What Is Spanish Wine Known For

What Is Spanish Wine Known For
What Is Spanish Wine Known For

When you think of Spanish wine, Rioja will be the name that first springs to mind. Rioja is not the name of a type of wine, but rather Spain’s most famous wine-producing region. The most widely grown red cultivar in Rioja, and for that matter across all of Spain, is tempranillo.

Tempranillo is derived from the Spanish word Temprano which means early with tempranillo being the diminutive of Temprano meaning “little early” or “early early”.

Tempranillo grapes ripen faster under the intense summer heat in Spain and the harvest begins 3 weeks before any other cultivars – usually in the first week of September. During some years in Grand Canaria, the tempranillo harvest can begin as early as mid-July if the Spring has been hot and dry.

The classic Rioja blend that has become famous worldwide is essentially a tempranillo blend, though many Riojas are 100% tempranillo. The rules of the classic Rioja blend are that it must be in the range of 70% to 100% tempranillo with 70% as the minimum.

The wines that may be blended with tempranillo in a classic Rioja blend are Mazuelo, Graciano, Maturana Tinta, and Garnacha Tinta. However, no single one of the blended wines may make up more than 10% of the total.

Outside of Rioja, I have tasted many interesting tempranillo blends, including Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo/Syrah.

One of the factors that affect the prices of red wines grown elsewhere in Spain besides Rioja is that land prices are cheaper, so the cost of production is lower. So, just because a wine from elsewhere in Spain is cheaper does not mean that the quality is inferior.

To illustrate this point, when I was in my local store last week looking at new wines to taste the store owner brought me a tempranillo that he had just received from the region of Castille La Mancha.

It tasted better than some of the Rioja Tempranillos that I have tasted in the past, scoring 8/10 in my book. It cost under $3.

TIP: If you are interested in learning more about how wine ages, please check out this helpful article we wrote. Additionally, you may be a lover of cheap wine like I am. If you are, this article will help you determine which cheap wines should be aged and which ones should be drunk immediately.

What Is The Highest Quality Level Of Spanish Wines

When it comes to the ranking of the quality levels of Spanish wines the two top-ranking levels are DOCa (Denominacion de Origen Calificada) and DO (Denominacion de Origen). Spain uses market forces to determine which regions qualify for DOCa status.

Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa)

The DOCa category is the highest level of certification a wine region can receive and represents Spain’s fine wine status. 

To qualify, a region must have held the DO status for more than 10 years. All the wine must be grown, produced, and bottled within the region. The wines from a DOCa region must cost at least double the national average price of DO wines.

Currently, only 2 of Spain’s 138 wine-producing regions have DOCa status. The first of these is DOCa Rioja which is famous for Spain’s best red wines. The second is DOQ (in Catalan) Priorat which also produces red wine. 

Incidentally, Priorat is just under 50 miles from Penedes which is the only region of Spain where “official” Cava is produced. In fact, sparkling wine produced anywhere else in Spain may not be called Cava.

Denominacion de Origen (DO)

For a region to gain DO status, all wineries must comply with the main category of quality standards that govern all aspects of wine production in those regions. In order for a region to have DO status, all wineries may only use authorized grape varieties, production levels, winemaking methods, and aging regimens. 

Therefore, if a winery were to plant a vineyard of a grape variety that is not on the authorized list because that is a rare variety, the winery would lose its DO status within the region and potentially threaten the DO status of the entire region.

So, wineries need to first apply for a grape variety to be added to that region’s authorized list before they can begin planting.

In order for a production zone to be awarded the DO status it needs to be fully compliant with all DO regulations for a minimum of 5 years. Currently, 68 of the 138 wine production zones in Spain have to DO status.

Combined, the certifications of DOCa and DO account for 50% of the wine-producing regions of Spain.

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What Is The Most Popular Spanish Wine

What Is The Most Popular Spanish Wine
What Is The Most Popular Spanish Wine

Spain’s most famous wine is Rioja Gran Reserva, followed by Priorat and Ribera del Duero.

When it comes to the most popular Spanish wine as drunk by locals, that has to be Tempranillo as it is the basis of nearly all locally produced red wine blends in Spain. It is also the most widely grown red wine cultivar at over 200.000 hectares under vineyards.

TIP: It may surprise a lot of people, but wine coolers can be necessary to store wine properly but only under specific circumstances which I highlight in full in this article I wrote.

Spanish Wine Varietals and Regions

It could be easy to focus on the popular French cultivars of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc which all grow easily throughout Spain with good yields.

These wines are often blended into local wines or bulk exported to France to be blended into their local produce and sold as French wines.

Instead, I’m going to look at the local Spanish cultivars, some of which have very specific regions where they do well. Should you have the chance to visit Spain you will know where to find these sometimes very unique cultivars.

Many Spanish winemakers are returning to their native cultivars as a way to stand out as unique in the highly competitive world of wine.

Let’s take a closer look at these unique Spanish cultivars, first the reds followed by the whites.

Red Grapes

Tempranillo

When it comes to red wine it is the most common Spanish grape. Even though it is most famous for being used to make wines from Rioja, it is grown almost everywhere in the country.

Tempranillo roughly translates to “little early one” because it ripens between 2 and 3 weeks earlier than most Spanish red grapes, in some years it ripens even earlier.

More than 200,000 hectares are planted with Tempranillo. This is mainly due to the fact that the cultivar is very adaptable to different conditions.

It would be easy to assume that Tempranillo is the most planted grape cultivar in Spain but that honor belongs to the white cultivar, Airén. I’ll cover more about Airén in the section on white cultivars down below.

Bobal

There are approximately 90,000 hectares of Bobal planted in Spain. Most of Spain’s Bobal is planted in the Valencia and Castilla-La Mancha regions.

Bobal grows best when at altitudes above 700 meters above sea level. You will likely not have heard of Bobal as most of the crop is used for bulk/cheap wine. Bobal produces less alcohol than most other varieties and is often only 11% alcohol per volume.

Garnacha

Many wine lovers think of Garnacha as a French grape. Originally spelled Garnatxa in Catalan, this grape originates from Catalonia and Aragón and is the third most planted red variety in Spain, after Tempranillo and Bobal.

Many winemakers are starting to recognize Garnacha as a quality grape that produces superb wines thanks to the vintages that started emerging during the 1990s from Priorat, Catalonia. It is Garnacha that helped Priorat gain its coveted DOCa status.

Monastrell

Monastrell is just behind Garnacha in terms of overall hectares planted in Spain. These days the highest concentration of Monastrell can be found in Murcia.

Monastrell is long believed to be an ancient grape that was brought to Spain by the Phoenicians in 500 BC. Some documentation has been found that dates Monastrell back to at least the 14th century in the Empordà county of Catalonia. However, its true date of Spanish origin can’t be decisively proven.

Mazuelo

The cultivar of, Mazuelo, originated in Aragón even though many know the grape by its French name Carignan.

Mazuelo is often only used in blending. This is especially so in Rioja, where it is blended with Tempranillo to make up a minority (less than 10%) of the classic Rioja blend.  

TIP: To learn how to properly store red wines including the ones featured in this article, I strongly recommend you check out this helpful article on storing red wine.

White Grapes

Airén

This came as a surprise to me, so you’ll likely not know that Arién, is Spain’s most widely planted grape at nearly 300.000 hectares.

Airén is grown mainly in Castilla-La Mancha, though I have seen it grown commonly in Andalucia as well as the vines are known to be very drought resistant.

As a wine, Airén is crisp, light, and largely forgettable. It is what you will likely get if you order a bottle of generic Spanish “house wine.”

Most of the Airén crop goes to Spanish brandy producers and also into bulk, cheap, white wine sold in Tetra Pacs.

My neighbor has vines of Airén and Tempranillo that he uses to make Costa or Spanish homemade wine.

Palomino Fino

Most of us are unfamiliar with Palomino Fino as a grape variety. However, we all know the style of wine that it makes up the largest part: Sherry.

Standard sherry production takes Palomino Fino and blends it with Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez.) a total of 14.000 hectares of Palomino are planted in the “Sherry Triangle” of Andalucía, mostly in Jerez.

Macabeu

Macabeu is generally considered native to Catalonia. Macabeo has vast plantings in Penedès and the rest of Northern Spain, where it is used as part of traditional Cava blends and for DO Penedès still wines.

Albariño

Albariño or Alvarinho as it is known in Portugal has become one of Spain’s most recognized white wines in the export market.

Albariño is native to the area around Portugal’s northern border with Spain. It is a cultivar that can withstand the high rainfall and humidity common to that area thanks to its thick skin.

It is these thick skins that make it one of the few white wine varieties that have relatively high tannin content, making it perfect for bottle maturation for a decade or longer.

TIP: To learn how to store white wine after opening, check out this article I wrote. To discover if wine fridges are only for storing white wine, check out this complete guide I wrote. And for a complete breakdown of how to store wine long-term in 8 simple steps, you need to read this guide I wrote.

Useful Vocabulary for Drinking Wine in Spain

If you are ever in Spain there is a small vocabulary of Spanish wine terms that will help you navigate the wine list and order wine at a restaurant or bar.

How To Say Red/White/Rose/Sparkling Wine in Spanish

  • Red wine in Spanish: Vino Tinto
  • White wine in Spanish: Vino Blanco
  • Rose wine in Spanish: Vino Rosado
  • Sparkling wine in Spanish: Vino Espumoso or just ask for Cava

How To Say Winery In Spanish

The word that locals in Spain use for a winery is Bodega which means cellar.

How To Say Glass Of Wine In Spanish

The correct way to say “a glass of wine” will be: una copa vino.

How To Say Can I Have A Glass Of Wine In Spanish

The correct way to ask for a glass of wine in Spanish by asking “Can I have a glass of wine?” will be: Una copa vino por favor? When you combine that with the specific types of wine you will get:

Una copa vino tinto por favor?

Una copa vino blanco por favor?

Una copa vino rosado por favor?

Una copa vino espumoso por favor? Though I will ask: Una copa cava por favor?

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Conclusion

Spain has the most vineyards of any country in the world. Spain is essentially a red wine-drinking nation with 72% of total consumption. Tempranillo is the red cultivar that is most widely used in Spanish wine and accounts for 200.000 hectares of vineyards. 

However, the most widely planted cultivar in Spain is the white grape Airén, which is used as bulk “house wine” sold in Tetra Pacs, blending with other white wines, and exclusively in the manufacture of Spanish brandy.

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