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Spanish Wines vs. Other Wines (French, Italian & More)

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For a long time, I have wondered why Spanish wines had a bad reputation compared to neighbors France and Italy. The Spanish wines I have tasted are easily as good as more expensive French and Italian wines and in some cases tasted remarkably similar. Recently I got to spend 15 days at a Spanish winery and got my questions answered. 

Spain has the most hectares of vineyards in the world, yet produces 5 million hectoliters less wine than Italy and France. The reason is Spain exports bulk wine to France, Italy, and Portugal where it is blended into their wines. In some cases, Spanish is rebranded as a wine of a neighboring country.

Let’s take a closer look at how Spanish wine compares to the wines of France, Italy, Portugal, and Chile. 

Spanish Wines vs. Other Wines
Spanish Wines vs. Other Wines

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Spanish Wine Production Statistics 

Spain ranks number one in the world regarding the number of hectares of land under vineyards but ranks third in wine produced.

Spain has 1 million hectares of vineyards and produces 40.7 million hectoliters of wine per year.

CountryHectares of VineyardHectoliters of Wine
Spain1 000 00040 700 000
France750 00044 700 000
Italy702 00045 000 000
Portugal224 0003 700 000
Chile212 0001 033 000
Wine Production Statistics

The reason why Spain produces 10% less wine from 33% more vineyards is that Spain exports bulk (cheaper) wine to France and Italy where it is blended with French and Italian wines and sold as wine produced and bottled in France/Italy. This means that both France and Italy are able to produce and export more wine than can be harvested from their own vineyards.

Spanish Wine vs Italian Wine

In Italy, wine is produced in 20 distinct wine-producing regions. Comparatively, Spain has 60 wine-producing regions, each with a unique soil and microclimate combination.

Thanks to astute marketing Italy has a reputation for supplying some of the best-tasting wine in the world. For many years Italy has been best known for its Chianti, a red wine from Tuscany. These days it is Prosecco, a sparkling white wine from Veneto that has become more popular.

When it comes to some of the more widely known varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, are grown widely in Spain as well as Italy.

However, in areas such as Tuscany, it has become more profitable to plant more Sangiovese which is difficult to grow outside that region and to import the Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah for blending.

Italian Wine Production Statistics 

Italy produces the most wine of any country in the world, yet ranks only third behind France and Spain in terms of the amount of land under vineyards. 

This means that Italy produces 6.4 million hectoliters (or 852 million bottles) more wine than its entire grape harvest.

Italy makes up for its shortfall by importing bulk wine from Spain, blending that into its own wine before bottling it as Italian wine. I spent some time over these past few weeks at a Spanish winery that exports Cabernet Sauvignon to an Italian wine production corporation that does not press any grapes or ferment any wine. They buy bulk wine, blend it, and bottle it as an Italian product. 

The Chianti Story

Chianti, the red wine from Tuscany is easily Italy’s most famous red wine. It was the most exported Italian wine up until Prosecco took over the number-one spot. However, Chianti is still the most exported Italian red wine.

Over the decades the minimum requirements for a wine to be classified as a Chianti have shifted. Originally Chianti was almost exclusively made from Tuscan Sangiovese grapes with small amounts of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah blended to give Chianti wines from different wineries a distinct character.

More recently the minimum amount of Tuscan Sangiovese needed for an authentic Chianti was set at 80% before being lowered to 75%. 

In order to increase yield, Tuscan wine farmers planted more Sangiovese as this grape variety struggles to grow well outside of Tuscany. They were then able to import Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah from Spain for less than it would cost to produce in Italy at lower volumes and use the imported wine for blending.

So, these days authentic Italian Chianti contains up to 25% of blended Spanish Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah so as to increase the yield of Chianti from Tuscan vineyards.

TIP: Check out the 7 common reasons why your wine turns brown and how to fix it in this article I wrote.

Spanish Wine vs French Wine

The key aspect that makes French and Spanish wine different is the length of the vegetative season. For instance, in the Languedoc region of France, the vegetative season runs from mid-March until mid-October.

By contrast, in the La Rioja region of Spain, the vegetative season is from the beginning of March till the end of November and sometimes even into December.

The weather during the harvest season in France can be somewhat fickle, making the quality level of French wine inconsistent between vintages. Spain’s weather is more consistent and hotter all through their long summers meaning that if you enjoy a particular Spanish wine you can expect the same quality from the following vintages.

This means that the grapes have more time to mature on the vine before harvest in Spain making for a fuller flavor, heavier fruit and flower notes on the nose, and a heavier tannin base. Spain’s hotter climate results in grapes having higher sugar levels and consequently higher alcohol levels during fermentation.

I have a friend in Andalucia that starts his Cabernet Sauvignon harvest in the third or final week of October each year, at a time when the vineyards around Montpellier in France have already been pruned for the winter.

French Wine Production Statistics

France produces the second most amount of wine in the world, almost equal to that of Italy. France has a similar challenge to Italy in that its vineyards cannot produce enough wine to meet the demand for French wines.

This means that France produces 3.45 million hectoliters (or 460 million bottles) more wine than its entire grape harvest.

Because French wines are limited by a maximum yield of 55 hectoliters per hectare of vineyard, the only way for French wine producers to increase production is to either plant more vineyards and wait for them to come into production, or to import wine and blend that into French wine.

Previously much of the imported wine came from the island of Sardinia (Italy), but now almost everything comes from Spain.

The 55hl Dilemma

The 55 hl limit imposed by French wine regulators (that has been copied in other wine-producing countries) creates an interesting dilemma. If a vineyard yields higher than 55 hl/ha on the first pressing, theoretically the yield is too high to produce quality wine.

Usually, the second and third pressings of the grapes are sold off as bulk juice to fruit juice manufacturers. If the yield from the first pressing is too high then that can be included with the bulk juice and not made into wine.

If, however, the juice has already been fermented into wine then in theory the entire production should be destroyed (poured down the drain) because that is what a wine inspector would order. Sometimes, if the surplus is relatively small, it is the excess that gets destroyed.

Years ago I had a friend that was a hobby winemaker with his own tiny garage cellar that loved to experiment with different interesting wine blends.

Occasionally when one of the commercial cellars had a 55hl dilemma, he’d get a call asking if he wanted to help with the destroying of a 100-liter surplus of a specific cultivar. The cellar would be happy that they were within their 55hl limit and so was my friend for being able to help.

The Cava vs Champagne Story

There was a time when sparkling wine in Spain was called Champagne, like everywhere in the world. However, all that changed when France trademarked the name Champagne for only the sparkling wines produced in the region of Champagne. This immediately gave Champagne an exclusive status as an export product.

Spain chose the term Cava for their sparkling wine instead of just reverting back to the generic term of “sparkling wine”. I read about the process of changing the name in Michael Eaude’s book “Catalonia a Cultural History”.

The adoption of the name Cava was spearheaded by the Freixenet winery in Catalonia. Instead of losing the name Champagne costing the company market share in the lucrative US market, Freixenet was able to expand its presence in the US to the point where Cava now counts for a significantly higher sales volume than Champagne.

Here is a video of the sommelier, Madeline Puckette, conducting a blind tasting between Champagne and Cava.

The 2018 Francisé Case

According to an article in the Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2018, a 2-year long French investigation of “wine fraud” had been concluded and was set to go to trial.

The wine in question was francisé, a rose that stated prominently on its label that it was “Vin de France” while the small print on the back label only stated that it was bottled in France. In truth, it was 100% Spanish rose that had been bottled in France and sold to bistros and restaurants as French wine.

Due to better mechanization, the production cost, excluding bottling, at the time rose was 30 euros per hectoliter in Spain compared to 78 euros in France. This meant that the francisé corporation could buy and bottle Spanish rose at well below the winery production cost in France. Doing so was not illegal, but labeling the wine as French was illegal.

The 1985 Antifreeze Case

The antifreeze in wine scandal broke in Austria and came to trial in 1985. For a little context, antifreeze becomes sweet to the taste when mixed with alcohol.

So, besides preventing wine from freezing in the cellar during an icy winter, it also makes wine sweeter tasting. However, Diethylene-glycol the active ingredient in antifreeze is poisonous.

During the trial, the Austrian winemaker testified that he had been taught about using antifreeze during his apprenticeship at a winery in Champagne.

During subsequent testing, trace amounts of Diethylene-glycol were found in multiple vintages of wine from different Champagne wineries and had to be recalled by the French wine regulator.

TIP: If you want to know why most wine bottles are green check out this article. Another interesting fact that you may have noticed is that white wines are often in clean bottles, find out why in this article. Wrapping wine bottles in plastic wrap in this article.

Spanish Wine vs Portuguese Wine

Spanish Wine vs Italian, French, Portuguese and Chilean Wine
Spanish Wine vs Italian, French, Portuguese and Chilean Wine

On the whole, Portugal gets more rainfall than Spain meaning that grapes tend to have larger, juicier berries which account for paler wines and variances in flavors when compared to Spanish wines.

Portuguese Wine Production Statistics 

Portugal produces 8.2% of the volume that France produces which is not surprising as Portugal is a smaller country. However, Portugal’s land under vineyards is only 30% of France’s.

This means that Portugal produces 8.62 million hectoliters (or 1.149 million bottles) less wine than the maximum harvest allowed by the 55hl/ha regulation. This means that there is room for making the Portuguese wine production process more efficient.

Looking At Albariño

Albariño is a white grape cultivar grown in both Spain and Portugal. In Spain, Albariño is grown near the coast in the South of Galicia, just North of the Portuguese border. While in Portugal it is grown just south of the border and also near the Atlantic coast. 

This small corner spanning the Spain/Portugal border gets 67 inches of rain, making it the wettest area of the Iberian peninsula. Only Albariño grapes have thick enough skin to withstand this amount of humidity. 

Follow along with wine educator Christine Marsiglio as she examines and tastes Albariño from both sides of the border for comparison.

The Mateus Rose Story

Mateus rose is Portugal’s best-known brand of table wine outside the borders of Portugal. Yet, you will find it difficult to find any Mateus rose in Portugal as the entire production is intended for the more lucrative export market. 

The original Mateus rose was made from Braga and Shiraz grapes but the demand was so high that the Sogrape corporation could not meet demand, even with the entire Portuguese Braga and Shiraz crops. At the time Mateus rose already controlled over 40% of the Portuguese table wine export market.

The decision was made to introduce Mateus rose tempranillo, which is produced by many Spanish wineries and bulk shipped to the Mateus bottling plant in Portugal. The brand recognition that Mateus rose enjoys is so strong that nobody second-guesses that the tempranillo variety doesn’t originate in Portugal.

I had the opportunity to taste the newest tempranillo rose before it got shipped to Mateus at an Andalucian winery. The winemaker shared the urban legend that the total amount of Mateus rose (including tempranillo) bottled each year since 2021 now exceeds the total Portuguese grape harvest of all grape varieties.

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Spanish Wine vs Chilean Wine

Chile is what is known as a “new world” wine producer, while Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal are “old world” wine producers.

This means that many of Chile’s vineyards are still relatively young and not yet yielding their maximum volume per hectare nor the more intense flavors that come from older vines.

Chilean Wine Production Statistics 

Like Portugal, Chile is a relatively small country. Chile’s vineyards are only 5% smaller than Portugal’s. However, Chile’s wine production is at only 28% of Portugal’s. The likely reason for this is that Chile is still expanding its vineyards and many of these are either too young to produce fruit or not yet at the 55hl/ha yield that you get from older vines.

Chilean Competitiveness In The Wine Market

Chile has very wide-ranging microclimates as well as soil types. This means that there is an area of Chile that will be ideal for growing nearly every type of grape variety available in “old world” countries.

When planting a new vineyard it takes 4 years before the vines begin producing fruit. Therefore in order to make their vineyards cash-flow positive they begin selling wines that are younger than European wines with only two or three years of maturation compared to Europe’s 7 to 10 years.

To be competitive, Chile sells its wines at a discount, below the price that many European countries are able to produce wine.

By way of example, here is a Wine Library TV tasting that was done in 2007 showing how reasonably priced top-quality Chilean wine is.

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Conclusion

Spain has the largest area of vineyards of any wine-producing country in the world. It once had a reputation for producing cheap and inferior wines because its high-quality wines were all exported in bulk to Italy and France where they were rebranded as Italian or French.

More recently, Spain has begun producing its top-tier wines itself rather than exporting them in bulk. This has gone a long way to restoring Spain’s reputation as an old-world producer of fine wines.

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