Spain, a land of colorful history, breathtaking landscapes and the most area under vine of any country, occupies a special place in the world of wine. Thought to have been introduced by the Phoenicians some 3000 years ago, viticulture has played a significant role in its history, economy and culture, a tradition continued to the present. Its annual production volume is beaten only by France and Italy, placing it third in the world.
Spain is, in a word, diverse; from the verdant Galicia, the towering Pyrenees bordering France, the parched Meseta Central (inner plateau) to the sandy and sunny Andalucia, this diversity makes for an abundance of wines styles available. Each of the 17 proud and unique autonomous communities of Spain houses vines – even the Canary and Balearic islands, the two offshore communities – with the greatest concentration of growers in and around Castilla La Mancha.
The two main factors influencing Spanish wine are geography and climate. Lying at a latitude of 36 to 43 degrees north, Spain stretches from the warm and humid Mediterranean coast in the south and east, to the cool, wet influences of the Atlantic in the north, via the parched central plateau. Madrid, the Spanish capital, lies at the centre of this enormous Iberian plateau A number of different mountain ranges dissect the landscape, each adding its own effect to grape-growing conditions. A number of major rivers wind and weave their way across the country, the most significant being the Mino, the Ebro, the Duero, the Tajo and the Guadiana, which all flow west and drain through Portugal, except the eastward-flowing Ebro.
The Atlantic-influenced vineyards of the north specialize in creating light, dry and refreshing white wines, while those close to the Mediterranean produce sumptuous, albeit heavy and often high-alcohol, reds. An important exception is the north-eastern region of Catalonia, where inland vineyards with a higher altitude excel in the production of Cava, Spain's very own sparkling wine produced by the traditional Champagne method. In the south, Andalucia, with its mix of Atlantic and Mediterranean influences, is home to one of the greatest fortified wines of the world: Sherry.
The most planted variety is Airen, a low-maintenance white wine variety whose drought-resistance won it favoritism amongst growers and is used in the production of brandy. Spain's darling, Tempranillo, perhaps the most renowned of all the native varieties thanks to revered Riojan reds, is the next most planted variety followed by Bobal, Garnacha, Monastrell, Pardina (Cayetana), Macabeo and Palomino, the first three of which are reds. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have become popular imports and their plantings are rising. Along with the most popular varieties, each region has its own proud specialty, such as Hondarrabi Zuri in El Pais Vasco, Marmajuelo in the Canary Islands or Zalema in Andalucia.
Spain's winemaking history has been tumultuous, experiencing periods of growth and devastation. In recent times it has seen a period of modernization, with traditional practices and equipment giving way to state-of-the-art machinery. This modernization revolution has seen quality improve significantly with it. Spain's wine quality ladder has also been evolving. From lowest to highest the classifications are:
Vino de Mesa (table wine)
Vino de la Tierra (country wine)
Vino de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica (Quality Wine with Specific Geographical Indication)
Denominacion de Origen
Denominacion de Origen Calificada
Vino de Pago
The exact position of Vino de Pago on the quality ladder is debatable as not all communities have ratified the necessary legislation (see Vino de Pago for further information). Just two regions have been awarded Spain's top honor – Rioja and Priorat.
Spanish wine is going from strength to strength, adapting to the demands of the international wine market, showing innovation, offering consumer favorites and value for money. On the other hand the local market is slowly shrinking, with consumption per capita falling annually. Spain will have to remain adaptable and continue its focus on quality over quantity in the increasingly competitive wine market.