Spain is one of the most undervalued and overlooked great wine countries of the world. Spanish wine has an extremely rich and well-documented history, and the wine’s quality and reputation have been comparable to its French and Portuguese neighbors at different times. Spain has the largest amount of vineyards by surface area in the world with 2,374,682 acres, and it also has a handful of regions with many different styles and grapes.
Even today, Spanish wine has a reputation that does not help itself, despite producing great quality wine. This happens to greatly benefit wine consumers, as Spanish wine tends to offer extreme value. There are great quality wines for surprisingly affordable prices. Obviously, there are going to be very expensive Spanish wines, but even the moderately “higher-priced” Spanish wines provide extreme value.
Pre-Roman History of Spanish Wine
As with many of Spain’s European neighbors, the country’s wine history starts with the Phonecians and Carthinigians around 1000 B.C. The Phonecians set up trading posts in southwestern Spain, where they started developing the region’s viticulture for trading and consumption. It is likely that wine production and viticulture were around thousands of years before the Phonecians and Carthinigians and happening in many other regions apart from the Southwest.
Roman history of Spanish Wine
A 118 year series of wars, known as the Punic Wars, was waged between the Roman Empire and Carthage between the years of 264 B.C. and 146 B.C. The Romans eventually won and replaced the Carthinigians as the dominant superpower in the Mediterranean. They then named the region Hispania, though most of it remained split up by warring and autonomous regions for the next couple hundred years. The Romans finally finished their invasion and conquest of modern-day Spain in the Cantabrian Wars which lasted between 25 B.C. and 14 B.C.
Spanish wine flourished during Roman rule, which lasted around 600 years until the mid-5th century. They distributed Spanish wine throughout the entire Roman empire, particularly from the modern-day regions of Tarragona and Andalusia. The wines varied in popularity as some thought there were extremely good while others thought they were simply “slugging” wines.
As the Roman Empire’s power and control loosened around the region, Germanic and Barbaric groups fight over different parts of the region. Eventually, The Moors came from North Africa and established control. Due to Islamic dietary rules, alcohol was generally prohibited, so wine production and viticulture suffered and decreased. Moorish caliphs and leaders in the region were still fond of wine and even oversaw vineyards for personal and commercial purposes. The Moors ruled the Iberian peninsula for around 800 years until the 15th century.
Visgoth Christians and the Reconquest and More Wine
The Visigoth Christian minority controlled a small section of Hispania called the Kingdom of Asturias. Over the next 800 years, the Visigoths would slowly build up to take the region back. This would come to fruition in 1492 when small bands of Visigoth Christian areas would be united to eventually take back the region in a final battle in Granada.
This change of power allowed for the Spanish wine industry to once again flourish for domestic and international purposes. Spanish wines were commonly exported to Great Britain and used for blending in French and German wines. As the new Spanish authority gained traction and stability, they sent monks abroad to the United States, where they were largely responsible for the beginnings of American wine.
18th and 19th Centuries
In the 17th and 18th centuries viticulture and wine production developed in the region and improved over time. Different regions gained popularity at different times, particularly the country’s fortified Sherry. Unfortunately, Spanish wine still did not gain traction on the same level as its French neighbors.
The situation for Spanish wine seemed to get better, at least for a time, during the 19th century. As phylloxera devastated France’s vineyards and essentially halted French wine production, Spain’s wine industry benefitted in every way. Spanish wine exports increased to Great Britain and other exporting countries in lieu of French wine. French wine producers and growers also came southward in hopes of bringing grapes, vines, and wine back. While many of these French wine producers did just that, they also brought with them technological and agricultural knowledge and innovations. Phylloxera did not affect Spain as severely as it did in France, since they had begun to figure out the solution by the time phylloxera made it to Spain.
Modern Day Spanish Wine
The Spanish Civil War in the ’30s and the proceeding military dictatorship heavily dampened the Spanish wine industry. Ongoing World Wars in the first half of the 20th century with civil unrests between different regions such as Catalonia and Basque, Spanish wine really began to lose the momentum it had built up.
In 1975, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died and the country quickly became a democracy. This, alongside Spain’s entry into the European Union in 1986, allowed Spain to revitalize its wine and viticulture industry. Spanish wine has increased in reputation consistently over the past few decades, though it could be argued that the quality has been there for a long time.
There are 17 officially recognized regions in the country. A handful of them are extremely small and rarely make it out of the country.
Rioja is arguably the most famous region in Spain, and it is one of the only two regions recognized as a DOC. The big, dominant grape here is Tempranillo, but a significant amount of Garnacha is produced here as well. There are a handful of smaller sub-regions with over 161,000 acres of vineyards, and it is surrounded by other famous Spanish regions such as Navarre and Aragon.
Navarre is a fairly big region next to Rioja, and it also specializes in Tempranillo. Navarre is dynamic in terms of its climate with arid desert regions and mountainous areas as well.
The region of Aragon can be found in the Ebro Valley and is surrounded by the Pyrenees Mountains and Iberic System Mountains. This provides a range of climates reaching both extremes of the spectrum. Aragon is fairly small with only 34,000 acres, and it is often overlooked for its more famous neighbors; Rioja, Navarre, Castile and Leon, and Catalunya (Catalonia).
The most popular and best DOs today include Somontano, Cariñena, Calatayud. Ceriñena is the oldest in the region and arguably the birthplace of Aragon wine. This DO has a rich history dating back to Roman times and is one of the oldest protected viticulture regions in Europe overall. Somontano and Calatayud are relatively new DOs, but they have been making big strides in the past couple of decades and have become known for great quality Spanish wine. These regions use a huge variety of grapes with many of them overlapping. Some include Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot, Graciano and many others for the reds. As for the whites, some include Chardonnay, Garnacha Blanca, and Macabeo.
Castile y Leon
Castile and Leon is the Spanish stomping ground of history, nature, and some of the best and most interesting wines in the country. With hundreds of castles, a ton of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and an extremely diverse range of climates and sights, it is the largest autonomous governing region in Spain and Europe.
Castile y Leon has nine DOs and a general IGP classification. Ribera del Duero is the biggest and most well-known DO alongside Toro and Bierzo. The very large majority of wines produced here are red with Tempranillo big the dominant grape in the region. As for whites, Verdajo makes up a little chunk comparatively and dominates for the white wines. As for other varietals and blends, Tempranillo blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also made throughout.
Catalunya, also known as Catalonia, is a region of extreme historical and cultural importance in the far corner of northeastern Spain. Spain’s 2nd largest city, Barcelona, can be found here, and the region is also home to the Catalan people. As for wine, Catalonia produces some of Spain’s most interesting and tastiest wines in historical terms and in recent years with newer DOs.
Catalonia grows a wide range of varietals which include Garnatxa (Garnacha), Cariñena (Carignan), Monastrell (Mourvedre), and blends of other red varietals. For the whites, Garnatxa Blanca, Xarel-lo, Macabeo, and Chardonnay are fairly common. The Mediterranean, Pyrenees Mountains, France, and the region of Aragon all surround Catalonia. This provides an excellent climate for growing grapes and an interesting, diverse terroir.
The most significant DOs in Catalonia, and it produces a variety of whites and reds that are known for being good and affordable. Spain, and Catalonia in particular, are also known for a Sparkling wine called Cava which is made in the méthode champenoise, or the Champagne Method. While it can technically come from anywhere in Catalonia, Cava is still most commonly produced in San Sadurní de Noya in the DO of Penedes.
Tarragona is one of the oldest (1932), and historically, the most significant DOs in Catalonia, and it produces a variety of whites and reds that are known for being good and affordable. Next, there is Terra Alta, which is in the most southern part of Catalonia. This DO has made strides over the past decade and produces beautiful reds and whites with varietals such as Garnatxa and Garnatxa Blanca. One of the newer DOs (2002), Montsant, is nestled between Tarragona and Priorat and has also made huge leaps in recent years. Montsant used to be a part of Tarragona, but it gained recognition as its own. It is known for big reds made from Garnatxa and Cariñena.
While Terra Alta is a close favorite in Catalonia, Priorat takes the lead. Priorat is the only other DOC in Spain, and it gets this recognition for good reason. Priorat has a rich history starting with Spanish monks settling down here. The DO is the most inland DO in Catalonia due to being surrounded by mountains. The vines have to fight and struggle to produce grapes here, and the result is beautiful, rich, and complex blends of Garnatxa, Carignan, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a handful of others.
Galicia is a fairly small region in northwestern Spain sprinkled throughout in bits and pieces. The region gets a fair amount of rain, a lot of sunlight, and has consistently high humidity. This climate makes for an interesting and great growing season, particularly with Galicia’s most famous grape, Albarino. Galicia is also known for other grapes such as Mencia, their red, and another white varietal, Godello.
Rias Baixas is the most famous DO in the region and one of the most famous DOs in Spain. It can be found riding along the Spanish-Portuguese border and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s largely responsible for Galicia’s prominence in the wine world with its famous Albariño. Their take on the grape is known for being rich and complex; aromatic and perfumey; and best of all, soft and palatable for the majority of wine drinkers.
There are four other DOs in Galicia, which are sparsely spread throughout and known for their Mencia, Godello, and a couple of other varietals.
Valencia can be found in eastern Spain surrounding the Mediterranean Coast. While the area is globally known for its famous oranges, it does produce a variety of wines over some 32,000 acres. Many of the common varietals found throughout Spain are produced here such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo, but historically and even now, Valencia’s most notable wine is its Muscatel.
Great wine, friendly revolutions, and all of the politics and history in between is what you will find in the Basque Country region of Spain. Basque Country can be found in northern Spain and even dips into France and Spain’s Rioja region. There are technically three DOs in the region and a fourth that crosses between the DOC of Rioja and Basque Country.
Txakoli is the dominant grape grown now and historically. It is the traditional Basque varietal and was a simple homemade wine for the longest time. In recent decades, it has gotten international attention and a bit of a cult following. While always slightly sparkling, Its expressions range in style from dry, acidic, and bright, fresh citrus, to sweeter variants. Txakoli is most commonly produced as white wine, though red and rosé styles have become more common over the years.
Finally, there is the DOC Rioja Alavesa. While it is officially part of La Rioja, its vineyards go into enough of Basque Country that it could be considered Basque as well.
The wine region of Murcia is in southeastern Spain on the Mediterranean. The region is fairly small and unknown compared to other Spanish wine regions. The coastal city of Murcia and the surrounding area have a rich history, especially being influenced by the Moors and their Islamic customs under Moorish rule.
Murcia has three DOs, Bullas, Yecla, and the most well-known, Jumilla. It is somewhat surprising how different each of the DOs is given Murcia’s size and lack of international attention on the historical scale. Bullas produces a variety of red varietals and boasts high elevations ranging between 1600-2600 ft. Yecla and Jumilla on the other hand heavily focus on Monastrell, though they produce a handful of other varietals in smaller quantities.