Spanish Wine | An Old Vine Paradise

Harry Lambourne
22nd November 2023

Spain sits in third of the wine-producing countries, (MacNeil 429), (behind only France and Italy). Interestingly, Spain actually has more vineyard area than any other country in the world. However, this lesser level of production comes from the fact that Spanish wine utilises a large number of old and low-yielding vines which are grown on infertile land.

When discussing the practice of Spanish winemaking, the Spanish will use the term ‘elaborar’, (MacNeil 430), (which means to elaborate in English). This is distinct from countries like France and Italy. This implies nurturing and growing these wines to the best version of them.

The distinction between Spain and these other key wine-making nations is well founded. Spain was one of the most important early sites of viticulture, yet they used grapes which were largely distinct from the varieties that cropped up across much of France and Italy. Spanish wine was different from the outset.

spanish wines
Map of Spanish Wines – Photo Courtesy of

Spanish Wine & Tradition

While the history of Spanish wine is distinct from Italy and likely dates back to 2500 BC, it was the Ancient Romans which amped up production. Then, Rome falls and various tribes stake their claim to the region. However, it was the Muslim Moors which really established themselves in Spain, (MacNeil 431).

Interestingly, while the consumption of alcohol isn’t accepted under their faith, the Moors saw the potential for exporting the wines and didn’t stand in the way of the Spanish winemakers. Eventually, the Moors lost their control of Spain, (and Spanish wine), at the end of the 15th century and Spain was under the rule of a single Christian monarch. 

Spain is a country steeped in tradition and this tradition is hard to separate from their winemaking practices. Today, you will see vast high-tech modern Spanish wineries with all the futuristic gizmos that you could hope to see. Yet, they don’t turn their backs on their history. You may still find foot-stomping in lagar, (similar to the one that’s used in Port production). You may also find vineyards worked by donkeys rather than tractors. Priorat is well known for this.

Some really telling examples of Spanish winemakers’ reverence for history and tradition come from the grape varieties which are used. Spanish winemakers will often shy away from global varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Indeed, there was much debate as to the inclusion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as permitted grape varieties in the Cava region.

Instead of these international varieties they have opted for the regional classics of Tempranillo, Mencía, Godello, Verdejo and many more. A whopping 87 grape varieties exist in the world of Spanish wine, (MacNeil 433). 

Another nod to their tradition is their persistence in ageing Spanish wines for long periods in oak barrels. They may have winded in this length of time, (which previously could be up to 25 years). Yet, Gran Reserva Rioja still must spend five years in oak and these are held in the highest regard by both Spanish winemakers and the broader wine world.

Now that you have a feel for the culture and history as it pertains to wine, we will take you through the primary wine-making regions of Spain. Spanish Wine is rich and varied and there will be the perfect style of wine for you.

Spanish Wine – The Rioja Wine Region

Vineyards In Rioja Spain
Vineyards in Rioja, Spain

We have to start with Rioja. It is most people’s introduction into the world of Spanish wine with good reason. Rioja is also one of the most popular European wine regions to visit.

Rioja has been dubbed ‘Spain’s Bordeaux‘, (MacNeil 433). This is because these grapes were generally aged in large French oak casks. However, soon they want to differentiate themselves from the French styles of wine. This meant using smaller oak casks from their colonies in the Americas. This style is still found across the Spanish wine region of Rioja.

Bodegas modernised but oak was never left behind. Though differences arose as to exactly how to utilise oak barrels, (MacNeil 435). Traditionalists aim for long periods of ageing in large oak barrels. These produce mellow, earthy creations. Then, modernists opt for brand new oak barrels, but age them for far less time. These wines generally have far more prominent fruit notes and more intense oaked aromas.

You can see terms on Rioja wines which delineate the length of time spent in oak. Crianza are fresher wines which have spent 24 months ageing, (with 6 in oak), for red wine. Then, for white wines this is 18 and 6 months respectively.

Next up is Reserva. These are generally more complex and concentrated. The red wines will be aged for 36 months, with 12 of those in oak. While the white wines will be aged for 24 months, with 6 of those in oak.

Last up are the Gran Reserva wines. They’re extremely rare and make up less than 10% off all the Rioja wines which are produced. The red wines here will be aged for 60 months, with 18 months in oak. For white wines they will be aged for 48 months, with a minimum of 6 of those in oak.

Rioja Wine Map | Spanish Wine Region
A Map Of The Rioja Wine Region Courtesy Of

The landscape is made up of small mountain ranges which help protect the vines from the vines to the north and the cooling ocean breezes. These vast plateaus sit at above 1500m above sea level and help provide a hospitable climate amongst the Mediterranean heat.

Within the broader Rioja wine region, you’ll find three distinct sub-regions. The coolest region is Rioja Alavesa, which sits alongside the city of Logroño. The vines here sit in the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains. The wines of this area are generally the lightest and most finessed in the whole Spanish wine region of Rioja.

Next us is Rioja Alta. This is the largest of the three sub-regions and sits between 500 and 800 metres above sea level. Again, the wines here are light and finessed but generally possess a higher level of flavour concentration and intensity.

Last is Rioja Baja. This area is hotter, dryer and this leads to wines that are often less acidic and higher in alcohol. They are more powerful and unrefined styles of red wine, but they are still thoroughly delicious.

In terms of grape varieties, Tempranillo rules the roost but Rioja is often all about blending. You’ll also find Garnacha and Graciano rounding out wines which are led by Tempranillo.

Though, you shouldn’t forget about the white wines of Rioja! Viura, (known elsewhere as Macabeo), is a key grape variety which displays strong notes of citrus, melon, honey and nuts. These latter two notes particularly shine through in wines which have been oaked. White Rioja wines will also be blended with grapes such as Chardonnay, Garnacha Bianco, Tempranillo Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo.

Spanish Wine Region – Catalonia

There are a few different wine regions within Catalonia. We’ll touch upon the key Spanish wine regions here. First up is the region of Penedès.

Penedes Wine Region - A Wine Lovers Guide To Catalonia
Penédès Wine Region – The Home of Cava

This Spanish wine region is primarily known for the production of Cava. Although, Cava production began in the 1870s and wine production in the region goes back much further than that. The landscape is stunning, thanks to the wide-ranging Montserrat Massif Mountains ranges, the undulating valleys and the warm coastal land that sits on the Mediterranean sea.

Altitude is key. There are two ‘levels’ to the Penedès wine region. The ‘Low Penedès’ which occupies the warm coastal areas. Then, the ‘High Penedès’ which is found on the cooler mountains plateaus. The wines at the higher altitude are generally better suited to preserving acidity in the grapes, so it is here that you’ll find the bulk of the Cava production.

In terms of still wine, it is white wine that dominates the region. The key grapes which are used in Cava, (Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel’lo), are also used in the production of still white wine. Macabeo lends itself to fresh, fruity and aromatic wines with good acidity. Parellada is more refined and delicate. Then, Xarel’lo is bigger. It has more body and can stand up to oak ageing, but it also retains a great deal of acidity.

For red wines, look for Cariñena and Ull de Llebre, (known elsewhere as Carignan and Tempranillo). The latter provides balance and acidity, but the former gives body and tannin. Carignan is also utilised in this way, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.


Priorat has emerged as one of the foremost spots for premium red wine in all of Europe. However, before the 1990s it had faded into obscurity leading it to be called a ‘new old-world wine region’. It is somewhere almost stuck in time. The vineyards are baking hot in the day, but cool in the night. Tiny vineyards are scattered across the valleys and the vines run up steep hills on incredibly loose ancient soil.

These facts mean that vineyards must be worked by hand, with the assistance of horses and donkeys. If you can believe it, the rise of Priorat wine can be seen in the cost of donkeys. Between 1980 and the 1990s, the price of donkeys in this region rose 10000%, (MacNeil 495).

Donkey In The Vineyard - A Wine Lovers Guide To Catalonia - Priorat
Donkey In The Vineyard

In terms of the wines you can expect to try from this region, red wine rules the roost. They are primarily made from Garnacha and Cariñena. They are intense and almost inky. Fantastically structured with strong tannins to make then capable of ageing.

The wines are soft and decadent, loaded with rich concentrated flavours of blackberry, plums, chocolate and liquorice. They don’t come cheap, but they’re truly outstanding examples of Spanish wine.


Last up for Catalonia is Montsant. It circles the region of Priorat and while the wines are similar, they are generally less prestigious and complex. They’re also far more affordable and still completely delicious! The same grape varieties sit on low-yielding vines to produce excellent wines.

Ribera Del Duero

Now, we move to a different Spanish wine region.

Ribera del Duero sits a few hours north of Madrid. The name comes from the Duero River which runs across the high plateaus of northern central Spain, before it falls into the country of Portugal and becomes the ‘Douro’ River.

It is a staggeringly hilly region, with rocky plateaus and grand stone castles which sit on the highest points. The castles come from Castilla, (a key part of this Spanish wine region), where many battles were fought between the Moors and the Catholic kings, (MacNeil 445).

On these rocky plateaus and plains you’ll find what look like withered and crooked vines which may look like they aren’t fit for purpose and yet they produce bold and concentrated dark red liquids which display ripe notes of coffee, cocoa, smoke, liquorice and a certain gamey quality, above all the ripe fruit flavours.

In terms of the grapes for this Spanish wine region, you can first and foremost find Tinto Fino, (known elsewhere as Tempranillo). Although this is actually a clone of the Tempranillo you’d find in places like Rioja and therefore there are differences. Due to the climate and these genetic differences, Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero is often more intense and powerful, although slightly less refined and velvety.

In fact, it was until the 1980s where these powerful wines began to build up a reputation for themselves. Before this period, it wasn’t uncommon for the wines to not be bottled commercially. Instead, locals would bring reusable containers straight to the winery and fill them up directly from the barrel.

Then, a few wineries such as Vega-Sicilia and Pesquera, (which make stunning wines), found success and things took off, (MacNeil 448). An influx of investment meshed with the Spanish winemakers passion for quality and the modern Spanish wine region of Ribera del Duero was founded.

The area is called the ‘land of extremes’ by the bodega owners. It has intense sunlight and a modest amount of rain. The temperature in summer can rise above 38 degrees, but winter can drop to an almost unbelievable -29 degrees. This speaks to the huge diurnal temperature difference.

The diurnal range is the difference between day and nighttime temperature. Hot days allow for ripening, but the cool nights shut down photosynthesis which helps to preserve acidity and freshness. This means that you have fully ripened concentrated wines that have a pop to them. They’re powerful, but surprisingly light.

As you know from Rioja, then the terms Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva should be familiar. These terms also apply to the Spanish wine region of Ribera del Duero. Crianza wines are typically tasty and easy-drinking with notes of cherry, vanilla and some subtle spiced notes. They’ll be aged for a minimum of two years, with at least one year in oak.

Then, moving up we have the fuller and fleshier Reservas. Here, the concentration of flavour is greater and more intense. These are aged a minimum of three years, which again must be at least one year in oak.

Then, moving up one last time we have the Gran Reserva wines. These are polished and refined with a wealth of complex aromas. These are only made in select vintage years and must be aged for five years, two of them should be in oak.

Rías Baixas

Rías Baixas burst onto the world of Spanish wine during the 1990s. Traditionally, when you look at the world of still Spanish wine, it has been red wine which dominates. However, within this region white wine is the star of the show.

However, Spanish white wine has grown greatly in quality thanks to modern technology such as temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. This has been particularly helpful in the region of Rías Baixas, (MacNeil 485).

The region sits by the Atlantic on the north-west coast of Spain, just to the north of Portugal. It’s an awe-inspiring region that has sheer cliffs reaching out onto the ocean. On the land, you’ll find eucalyptus forests, orange trees amongst ancient Roman stone walls. The shining sun will dart out from behind thick clouds periodically peaking in on the vineyards to provide a bit of vitality to the grapes that sit within them.

This region is all about Albariño. This grape variety has become a mainstay on wine lists and supermarket shelves over the years. The prominence of this grape is clear as the grape variety will often take precedence over the region. You’ll see wines referred to as ‘Albariño’, rather than solely Rías Baixas. This stands in contrast to much of the rest of Spain. For example, Rioja wines are not referred to as Tempranillo.

The flavour of these wines is wholly unique. It sits right in the middle of many different styles. Rich and creamy, but crisp and zesty often with a mineral and saline tinge to it. The salinity can be ascribed to the regular splashing of the sea waves.

In terms of tasting notes, expect aromatics and fresh fruit notes. Citrus, vanilla, peach, kiwi and touches of honey will assault the senses. Then, you’ll get the pangs of almonds, spice and quince.

Other Notable Spanish Wine Regions

We’ve given you the big hitters, but if you’re seeking a hidden gem, or something lesser known then Spain is a big country and you’ve got plenty to choose from.

To the east of Rías Baixas, you’ll find the Castilian region of Bierzo. This is potentially the most well-known of the lesser known Spanish wine regions. Mencía is a regional speciality and really is delicious. It is not unlike the Pinot Noir of Burgundy, or the heavy Cru wines of Beaujolais. The wines have light to medium bodies with a racy acidity. You can expect to find subtle floral touches floating above wonderfully fresh and vibrant fruit notes. You will note flavours of red cherry, strawberry, raspberry, plums and sometimes touches of fig.

Next up is Rueda, which sits just below Ribera del Duero. This is another region which is key for white wine. It is responsible for large amounts of Verdejo and is Spain’s leading fine white wine in terms of production. In terms of climate, it is not dissimilar to Ribera del Duero. There is a huge variation in temperature and altitude which helps lock in that freshness which Verdejo is famous for. These same characteristics have seen great success with Sauvignon Blanc as well. The grape first found success in this region through the work of Marqués de Riscal.

Here, wines are generally known for their varietal name, Verdejo not Rueda. Any wine which is labelled as Verdejo must contain at least 85% Verdejo. If you see a wine labelled as Rueda then it only has to be 50% Verdejo.


We have one last stop on our tour of the world of Spanish wine. We couldn’t leave without mentioning Jerez. The home of that special Spanish treat – Sherry. Jerez is a key town in the Spanish region of Andalusia. Across the Jerez wine region, there are three key areas. Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María are all well known for their production of this Spanish wine.

The climate of this Spanish wine region is consistent. Consistently hot, with 70 days of rain a year. Temperatures can reach 40 degrees but breezes from the ocean can bring in cooler temperatures and the rain. Luckily, the region is well equipped to deal with this fact. The sherry bodegas are largely composed of big stone walls and flowing corridors. This means that they’re able to stay very cool in the hot Spanish sun.

Sherry bodegas are particularly stunning things. Sherry bodegas are made up of a large number of casks, which together are known as the ‘Solera System‘. Each cask, (or criadera), has a different age of sherry. Sherry is extracted from the bottom and oldest cask into a bottle and then, wine is brought down from the third oldest cask into the oldest. Then, the second oldest cask into the third oldest. Finally the youngest wine, (known as the sobretabla), is transported into the third oldest. This allows for a blending of wines of multiple ages and adds huge layers of complexity.

Sherry Solera System
Sherry Solera System

Now, there are a great deal of styles of sherry. This can make it a tad intimidating to get into if you aren’t familiar. So, we are going to take you through the key styles of sherry. An iconic form of Spanish wine.

First of we have Fino. This is a style of dry sherry that is best served young and chilled. It has a really nutty tang, with bread-like yeasty aromas and is perhaps the most-well known.

Next up is Oloroso. This translates to ‘intensely aromatic’ in Spanish and Oloroso sherry is just that. It is another dry sherry with a nutty flavour that actual nuts can’t match! Except it has far more body and an unctuous feel than Fino sherry.

We move onto Manzanilla next. Again, this is dry with a slightly saline quality, that is akin to fresh seafood. Then, defined notes of chamomile tea.

Amontillado is the next step and this particular style also goes through some oxidative ageing. This brings out notes of hazelnut, tobacco, dried fruit and spicy flavours.

Cream Sherry is another particular popular style but the ‘cream’ term may be slightly misleading. This isn’t Baileys! The thick and decadent mahogany coloured liquid has powerful notes of chocolate, liquorice, figs, roasted nuts and dried fruits. This is a great Sherry for Christmas. It works a treat with Christmas Pudding.

Now, in terms of sugary syrupy goodness we move to Pedro Ximénez. It utilises dried grapes and displays powerful notes of dried fruits and raisins. Serve it over vanilla ice cream and be in a good place!

Our final style of sherry is Palo Cortado. This is a particularly rare style which you won’t come across as easily as the aforementioned styles. This luxurious elixir has notes of roasted walnuts, dried herbs, tobacco and exotic spices. It’s truly special stuff!

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tour of the world of Spanish wine. There’s more regions which we could’ve touched upon. The racing acidity of Airen from La Mancha. The red blends of Aragon. The powerful reds of Navarra and Toro. Any of these could demand more exposition, but we think we’ve covered the major players and hopefully you’re ready to go and pick out some Spanish wines for yourself! Vamos!

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Works Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.

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