Spain is a land of breathtaking landscapes, colorful history and a deep, complex culture in which wine has long played an important role. Grape vines have been grown on the Iberian Peninsula since at least 3000 B.C., although it was not until 1000 B.C. that winemaking began here in earnest, the technology brought by Phoenician traders from the eastern Mediterranean. Today, Spain is home to more vines than any other country on Earth and has a national wine output exceeded only by France and Italy.
All 17 of Spain's administrative regions (known as communidades autónomas, or 'autonomous communities') are home to wine-grape vines to some degree, including the Canary Islands and Balearic Islands. The greatest concentration of vineyards is in Castilla-La Mancha, but the finest and most famous wines come from Andalucia (Sherry), Castilla y Leon (Ribera del Duero) and of course Rioja.
Geography and climate together play a fundamental role in defining Spain's many wine styles. From verdant, cool Galicia and the towering snow-capped Pyrenees to the parched Meseta Central and sandy, sunny Andalucia beyond, the Spanish landscape is very diverse. Measuring 500 miles (800km) from north to south, the country spans seven degrees of latitude (between 36N and 43N) and stretches from the warm Mediterranean in the south to the cool, moist, Atlantic-influenced north. In-between these two coastlines lie various mountain ranges, each of which has its own particular effect on the landscape and climate below. The Cordillera Cantábrica, for example, creates a dramatic contrast between lush, green Asturias on its northern, Atlantic side and dry, dusty Castilla y Leon on its southern, inland side.
In among Spain's mountain peaks and plateaux rise the numerous rivers that wind their way through the landscape and on which so many Spanish vineyards depend. These are significant not only as vital sources of water, but also because of the particular geological and mesoclimatic conditions they create. The most significant of these are the Miño, Duero, Tajo, Guadiana and Ebro. The first four of these flow westwards into Portugal, where they become the Minho, Douro, Tejo and Guadiana, and play vital roles in the Portuguese wine landscape. Only the eastward-flowing Ebro remains entirely Spanish; on its descent from the mountains of Cantabria, it passes through parts of Castilla y Leon, El Pais Vasco, Navarra, Rioja and Aragon, before arriving at the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia.
As climate, geology and topography vary around Spain, so do the wine styles. The cool, moist vineyards of the far north and north-west create light, crisp, refreshing white wines, exemplified by Rias Baixas and Getariako Txakolina. Those in warmer, drier regions further inland tend towards fine, mid-bodied, fruit-driven reds such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero, while those close to the Mediterranean produce sumptuous reds, typically quite heavy and high in alcohol. An important exception to the latter rule is Catalonia, where increased altitude mitigates the warmth and humidity of the Mediterranean coast, allowing for the production of sparkling white Cava and aromatic reds. Diametrically opposed to Catalonia, in Andalucia is another exception, Sherry, whose fortified wine style is the result of human influences (winemaking techniques) more than climatic factors.
Spain's most planted wine grape is Airen, a low-maintenance white-wine variety whose drought resistance wins it favor with growers but not necessarily with winemakers (it is used mostly for brandy rather than wine). The next most popular variety, Tempranillo, is perhaps the most renowned of all Spain's native varieties, thanks to its role in the revered reds of Rioja. It is followed by Bobal, Garnacha and Monastrell for reds and Albarino, Viura/Macabeo and Palomino for whites. Over the past few decades, international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have become popular in Spain, and their plantings are rising in various Spanish regions. Along with the most popular varieties, each region has its own proud specialty, such as Hondarrabi Zuri in the Basque Country, Marmajuelo in the Canary Islands and Zalema in Andalucia.
In the past few decades, Spain's wine industry has engaged in a great deal of modernization, with traditional practices and equipment giving way to state-of-the-art technologies. The result has been a significant improvement in quality and reliability. This modernization in vineyard and winery has been reflected in the offices of government; the nation's wine-classification system has been worked on extensively in the new millennium (see Spanish Wine Label Information).
Spain's position in the wine world is changing. Many (but not all) producers are adapting to the demands of the international wine market, showing innovation and offering both consumer favorites and relative value for money. The export market is now of prime importance, not least because the domestic market is shrinking as Spain's wine consumption per capita continues to fall year on year. Strong global demand for premium red wines shows promise for the likes of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat, but quite how traditional, less-mainstream styles such as Sherry and Getariako Txakolina will fare in the next few decades will be a point of interest.