Spanish Wine Buying Guide

Tempranillo vines, Rioja
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Map showing the regions of Spain's wine producers.

There’s much more to Spanish wine than Rioja, Cava and Sherry – In fact the latter is a subject in its own right. Spain has a diversity which reflects its terrain, climate and culture, and Waitrose sells over 30 Spanish wines from 18 varied regions.

Spain has more hectares of vineyard than any other country in the world, with the majority being grape varieties originally native to Spain. Tempranillo is the best known variety and is the mainstay of Rioja, though the little-known Airén variety is the most widely planted, producing vast quantities of white table wine, rarely seen outside its homeland.

The last decade has seen a revolution in Spanish winemaking: new vineyards have been planted and new winemaking technology has been introduced, but the traditions and heritage have been retained. Spanish wine has improved beyond recognition, especially the whites, and more than ever is well worth a try.

Region by region

Rias Baixas

Part of the larger Galicia region, the coastal area of Rias Baixas (‘lower inlets’) is heavily influenced by the sea. It has a cool, maritime climate with plenty of rain falling on the green hillsides. Some of Spain’s best white wines are found here, thanks to success with the Albariño grape which thrives in these conditions. Albariño plantings have increased eight fold in the last 15 years. Albariño makes refreshing, aromatic wines such as Albariño Pazo de Seoane. It should come as little surprise, given its location, that it’s great with fish.

Rueda

Moving inland 150 miles, the Rueda area is situated in the heart of Castilla y León and produces this region’s best white wines. Rueda has a long history of producing both white and fortified wine, though it’s only recently that its whites have come to the fore, thanks to modern winemaking methods.

Verdejo is the most-planted variety and is a sensitive grape to harvest. The grapes are picked before dawn and then transported to the winery in sealed containers under a blanket of inert gas (usually nitrogen) to prevent contact with air. This protection is maintained at all stages until bottling, and captures Verdejo’s crisp, gooseberry fruit. Palacio de Bornos Verdejo is an excellent example and its style will appeal to lovers of Sauvignon Blanc.

Ribera del Duero

If there’s one Spanish region to really take note of, then it’s Ribera del Duero. It’s the home of Spain’s flagship wine - Vega Sicilia Unico – and the region’s emphasis is quite clearly on quality, not quantity. It produces predominantly red wines and the principal grape is Tempranillo, sometimes known locally as Tinto del Pais.

Ribiera del Duero translates as ‘the banks of the Duero’, this river becomes the Douro as it flows through Portugal. The region is at a high altitude, and the vineyards are situated at 700-800m above sea level, just about the highest that a vine will grow. The region has its own microclimate, where blazing hot summer days contrast with a sharp fall in night-time temperatures. The result is a wine with real intensity and a powerful aroma.

Rioja

Rioja is most renowned wine region of Spain, and the first to be awarded the higher DOCa quality classification. There are three sub-regions: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. The first two cover higher ground to the north, with the climate influenced by the Atlantic, while the latter is a lower plain, influenced more by the Mediterranean. Much Rioja is a blend of more than one region, and up to seven grape varieties are permitted, but Tempranillo is the principal grape in most red Rioja belnds, while the most popular white is Viura, also known as Macabeo. The Cune Monopole Rioja Blanco is 100% Viura, and has a citrus character with a long finish.

Rioja is typically aged in oak, providing a soft flavour and easy-drinking style. Campo Viejo is a ‘Crianza’, which indicates that it will have spent at least six months in an oak cask and a total of two years maturing, while the Cune Reserva will have spent at least a year in oak and three years maturing. Tempranillo represents the majority of the blend in both of these wines. The Muga Reserva Seleccion Especial has Garnacha and Mazuelo added to the Tempranillo, providing more body and a deeper colour. Any of these three will be a brilliant choice to serve with roast lamb.

Navarra

Separated by the River Ebro from Rioja, the Navarra region shares similar varieties, though more international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also planted. The most popular variety is Garnacha (known as Grenache elsewhere), which is made into red and rosé, but forward-looking bodegas (wineries) are now blending local and international varieties. Gran Feudo Reserva is a blend of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and is a beacon for the untapped potential of this region.

Calatayud

A hundred miles south of Navarra is the smaller Calatayud region. All vines are planted above 500m, and without any influence from the sea, the summers are baking hot and winters contrastingly cold. Garnacha is the main red grape here, and the conditions allow it to produce powerful wines with high alcohol levels. Viña Fuerte Garnacha is typical of Calatayud – it’s full bodied and has 14.5% alcohol, and at its price it is absolutely brilliant value.

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Valdepeñas

The vast plateau of central Spain, La Mancha, is the largest producer of Spanish table wine, with nearly 200,000 hectares of vines. A smaller pocket at the southern edge of the plateau is the Valdepeñas region, bordering Andalucia. Although the white Airén grape is dominant, small quantities of quality reds are made, using Tempranillo, known locally as Cencibel. The Torneo Reserva is one such red, and benefits from two years in oak and a further year in bottle, allowing its rich, spicy flavours to develop and soften.

Jumilla

Closer to the coast, the Jumilla region lies 80 kilometres inland from Alicante. The lower slopes are home to dry and sweet white wines, while the higher ground features red grapes, including Monastrell, known in France and elsewhere as Mourvèdre, and in Australia as Mataro. Monasterio de Santa Ana Monastrell is rich and packed full of fruit, and three months in oak gives it a soft, round finish. Jumilla has embraced new winemaking technology to improve quality, and this red is no exception.

Priorat

Priorat was only the second region (after Rioja) to be awarded the higher DOCa quality classification, in 2001. It’s a tiny region, with a unique soil known as ‘llicorella’ that’s full of tiny mica particles, endowing it with superior heat-retaining qualities. As a result, the red wines are very powerful and high in alcohol. A group of producers recognised the benefit of the location in the 1980s and planted native Garnacha and Cariñena grapes alongside French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Coma Vella Mas d’en Gil is a superb, award-winning, velvety smooth red made from Garnacha and Cariñena, and typifies Priorat.

Penedès

This coastal region lies a few miles west of Barcelona in the Catalunya region. It has two notable characteristics: most of Spain’s sparkling wine - Cava - is made here; and then there’s the huge influence brought about by Miguel Torres, head of one of the world’s largest winemaking companies. Over the last few decades Torres has planted a number of international grape varieties and also revolutionised winemaking, both in the vineyard and at the winery. Torres Viña Sol is a dry white made entirely from native Parellada grapes; in contrast Torres Viña Esmeralda is an unusual blend of 85% Moscatel and 15% Gewürztraminer, both originally from Alsace in France. Either of these wines are excellent to serve at mealtimes, the former being a good match with fish, while the latter has honeyed fruit flavours and a little spiciness that goes well with Chinese cuisine or even a mild curry.

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Cava – A sparkling success story

Spanish sparkling wine is known as Cava, and is produced in the same way as champagne, known as the ‘traditional method’. It’s produced in many parts of Spain (mainly Penedès) and uses a blend of white grapes, typically, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, but Chardonnay is now permitted too. As in the making of champagne, the traditional method involves a second fermentation, in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. After cellaring for at least nine months to allow the wine to age, it is ready to enjoy. The distinctive black bottle of Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava Brut is instantly recognisable and is an excellent example of its type – full of fizz, flavour and excellent value. Rosé Cava is also increasingly popular. Marques de Monistrol Cava Seleccion Especial Rosé is made from two thirds Monastrell and one third Pinot Noir. White or pink, Cava is a great way of adding a bit of fizz to any occasion.

Classifications

The quality of a Spanish wine is indicated on the label.

Denominación de Origin (DO) - DO is similar to the French Appellation Controlée (AC) classification, and signifies quality wine produced in a specified region. Spain boasts over 50 DO zones, each with its own regulatory body which agrees on permitted grape varieties and maximum yields.

Denominación de Origin Calificada (DOCa) - DOCa is a higher category which was awarded first to Rioja and more recently to the Priorat region. This classification is awarded when a region has demonstrated high quality over a number of years. Regulations are more stringent than DO.

Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) - VdlT translates as ‘wine of the land’, and can be compared to the French Vin de Pays. At least 60% of the wine must come from a specified region which isn’t yet DO status but does have a local character. There are over 20 VdlT areas.

Vino de Mesa (VdM) - VdM is a basic table wine and can be blended from more than one region or grape variety. The vintage is not stated on the label.

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Ageing of red wine

Quality Spanish reds are also classified by age, which is stated on the label.

Crianza - These wines spend two full calendar years maturing, with a minimum of six months in an oak cask and the remainder in bottle or vat.

Reserva - A Reserva spends three years developing, at least one of which must be in a cask and at least one in a bottle. The top growers will mature their wines for longer than the specified minimum.

Gran Reserva - These are only made in the best vintages and from the best grapes. Ageing takes place for at least two years in oak and a further three in the bottle, though most Gran Reserva wines will be much older.

Selected Spanish Wine


Viña Fuerte Garnacha, Calatayud

Viña Fuerte Garnacha, Calatayud

A highly popular 100% Garnacha that’s full bodied and good with spicy meat dishes.


Monasterio de Santa Ana Monastrell, Jumilla

Monasterio de Santa Ana Monastrell, Jumilla

Full richness and lots of vibrant, crunchy fruit. Three months in oak gives it a soft finish.


Gran Feudo Reserva, Navarra

Gran Feudo Reserva, Navarra

Made at a top Navarra winery from 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.


Cune Reserva, Rioja

Cune Reserva, Rioja

A mature Rioja from a fine vintage and a well-respected, traditional Bodega. Soft and supple on the palate.


Torres Viña Sol, Penedès

Torres Viña Sol, Penedès

A deliciously fruity dry white wine made entirely from local Parellada grapes.


Palacio de Bornos Verdejo, Rueda

Palacio de Bornos Verdejo, Rueda

An appealingly fresh white wine made from the characterful Spanish grape Verdejo.


Cune Monopole Rioja Blanco, Rioja

Cune Monopole Rioja Blanco, Rioja

A marvellously rich and creamy, soft-fruit style white Rioja made from the Viura grape.


Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava Brut

Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava Brut

Pronounced 'fresh-net', this fizz is made by the champagne method but from local grapes.