Rough Regions Guide
Spain is the world’s third-largest wine producer and has the largest area under vine planted at low densities.
Rapid and recent modernisation and considerable EU funding have led to significant improvement in the vineyards and the cellar. Iconic wines such as Pingus – considered the “Pétrus of Spain” by Robert Parker – and Ermita did not even exist in 1990, yet they now run among the world’s greatest wines and command prices to follow. The finest wines are produced in the areas of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat. Spain is most famous for its red wine, but in the past decade, there has been a substantial development in high-quality white wines, especially from the regions of Rueda and Rías Baixas. Ageing is important in traditional Spanish winemaking, with most wines aged for lengthy periods in oak and further ageing in bottle before release. This ageing process makes for softer and more mature wines that are ready to drink upon release. You may be familiar with terms such as Reserva and Gran Reserva, which refer to the time in oak and bottle. In recent times, there has been less emphasis on such extensive ageing, and many modern wines are released earlier, with considerably less time spent in oak.
Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine region. Its name is derived from the river Rio Oja, a tributary of the Ebro river. It lies in the north of the country, not far from Pamplona. Though there were vines here in Roman times, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the modern wine history of the region began. Following the disastrous outbreak of the phylloxera louse on the vineyards of Bordeaux, French winegrowers moved to Rioja and began to plant vines. Red Rioja wines are produced mainly from the grape varieties Tempranillo, Grenache, Mazuelo and Graziano.
There are three sub-regions in Rioja. In Rioja Alavesa, the climate is quite cool and the main grape variety is Tempranillo. The wines from this sub-region are Rioja’s lightest and most elegant. In Rioja Alta, the soil is based on clay and iron and is suitable for the classic Tempranillo and also for the two varieties producing white Rioja, namely Viura and Malvasia. In Rioja Baja, the third and last sub-region, the soil is heavy clay, and the predominant variety is Grenache. Most of the easy-drinking styles of Rioja come from this region.
The traditional styles of red Rioja, Reserva and Gran Reserva, spend a long time in oak, resulting in controlled oxidation and the development of savoury notes of baked red fruit, sweet vanilla spice, leather and toffee. The modern style of Rioja, however, is more fruit-driven and less oxidative in style, and the colour is often darker and lacks the garnet rim of the traditional styles.
Ribera del Duero
Ribera del Duero is a relatively new DO, located in the Duero Valley. Here, only red wines are produced and the sole officially permitted grape variety is Tempranillo. However, there are some old plantings of the Bordeaux varieties as well, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The wines here are full-bodied, tannic, oaked and filled with earthy aromas of baked red fruit and toasty oak. Some of the best, and certainly the most expensive, wines of Spain come from this region – Vega Sicilia and Pingus are the most high-profile examples.
Priorat is the new fashionable wine region of Spain and one of only two regions with the denomination DOCa. It is located in the north-east of the country and has a very particular soil called llicorella, consisting of red slate and mica. This poor soil is one of the main reasons for the high-quality wines coming out of this region. Another contributing factor is that the yields are very low, as a high-yielding vine gives lesser quality than a low-yielding one. The wines are dark with rich, intense, black fruit and firm tannins. Additional aromas of minerals, cloves and liquorice add to the complexity of these wines which are often capable of lengthy ageing. The main grape varieties used are Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.