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Explore Spanish Wine: The Old World's Best Kept Secret

by  Greg B. C. Shaw on December 24, 2011
Explore Spanish Wine: The Old World's Best Kept Secret

In a recent interview for Cuisine Noir, BIN 36 wine director Brian Duncan enthusiastically said, "Drink everything from Spain!" commenting on what he recommends when trying new wines. Others in the wine world share his sentiments. While wine drinkers are often familiar with the classic prestige of French wine or the friendly accessibility of Italian wine, Spanish wine has remained somewhat of a mystery to American wine consumers. Yet Spain is the third largest producer of wine in the world and actually has more acreage under vine than any other country.

There are lots of "best kept secrets" in the world of wine and for wine lovers, the versatility and affordability of Spanish wine may be the biggest best kept secret – that's not a secret at all. For the wine expert, Spanish wines are unique and continually improving, relying not only on Spanish winemaking history, but also on steady influences from France and California. For the wine novice, the price and drinkability of Spanish wine will provide room for experimentation without fear of breaking the bank. Natasja Mallory of Gregory White Public Relations, a firm specializing in wine, says, "Spanish wines are known as a good value for the money." While it's possible to spend a lot of money on a bottle of Spanish wine, the treat is that there is a lot of good to great wine available at the lower and mid-level price ranges. Quality at good prices should make Spanish wine a permanent fixture in your wine collection.

DOs and DOCs: The Basics on Spanish Wine Quality

When asked to give reasons why there is such a strong new interest in Spanish wine, Alison Seibert from Lane PR who works with Wines from Spain USA, says, "During the past decade and a half, the number of top-rung Spanish wine regions (DOs) has grown to…more than seventy, and Spain has created a new set of laws, doubling the wine quality categories and introducing top wines from regions never known for quality wine." Most European countries have quality rankings and some of them can be very complicated. Wine lovers will be glad to discover that Spain's system is easy to follow. For quality control, Spanish wine uses the Denominación de Origen (DO) system, which has two quality levels, the quality DO ranking and the premium Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC) category. A DO is similar to the French appellation system, and DOs regulate the grape varietals grown, the winemaking techniques, how long the wine must be aged, and the geographical boundaries of the region. While there are just over 70 DOs, there are only two DOC regions. This makes beginning Spanish wine relatively easy.

Spain's Wine and Wine Regions: Rioja and Beyond…

If learning the DO system still seems a little intimidating, concentrate first on finding wine from Spain's main regions, which are clearly indicated on the label (see the label diagram below). In Spain, wine growing regions border the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, or run along river valleys in various parts of the country. All of the important wine regions are in the northern part of the country, except for Sherry (more on that later), which is south of Seville. Like many European countries, the wine label often does not indicate the grape varietal, but instead focus on the region. While this is slowly changing (some wines that are frequently sold in the US now indicate the varietal on the label), it helps to know what grapes are grown in each of Spain's regions.  The country's most famous region is Rioja, which is located south of the Cantabrian Mountains in the north central part of the country, along the Ebro River. Rioja is a region of primarily red wine, with the signature grape being tempranillo, although many of the wines from Rioja also contain garnacha, Spain's most widely planted grape. Garnacha is the Spanish name of grenache, a popular grape in France that was brought to France from Spain. Tempranillo gives wine a characteristic smokiness and sometimes a leathery aroma, while garnacha is low in tannins and almost always very fruit forward. The location of Rioja gives the western side of the region a more Continental climate, while the eastern side of the region is influenced more by the Mediterranean. These influences come through in the wine, and tempranillo will show different expressions (more like a Bordeaux in the west, slightly more like an Italian wine in the east).

Another important DO wine region is Ribera del Duero, located south of Rioja along the Duero River in Spain's high central plateau. Ribera del Duero, like Rioja, produces tempranillo (called tinto fino in Ribera del Duero wines) and garnacha, but has also introduced several Bordeaux varietals such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec. The French varietals here are typically blended with the Spanish grapes (this practice also happens in Rioja), which gives the tinto fino a little more acidity and structure.

Priorat, located south of Barcelona, is one of only two DOC regions in Spain (the other being Rioja). Like Ribera del Duero, Priorat grows both Spanish grapes (garnacha) and French varietals (mainly cabernet sauvignon and merlot). Some of Spain's most expensive wine comes from this region because of lower production levels, and if you can find a Priorat region wine in your wine shop, it's worth the splurge.

Most of Spain's regions specialize in red wine, but Spain also produces some excellent whites. The Rías Baixas DO in the northwest part of the country produces white wine from the albariño grape and is not only a perfect wine to base a white sangria, but it also goes well wherever you would normally pair sauvignon blanc or unoaked chardonnay.

Cava and Sherry: Spain's Specialty Wines

Two DO regions that specialize in certain winemaking styles are Penedès and Sherry. Cava is Spain's sparkling wine, and the Penedès region, between the city of Barcelona, and the DO of Priorat, uses the traditional method of bottle fermentation for producing its sparkling wine. For the price, this is some of the best traditionally produced sparkling wine in the world. Cava can come dry, but also is produced as semi-sweet if you prefer it after dinner.

Sherry (an English alteration of the regional name, "Jerez") is the only major DO region located in southern Spain, south of the city of Seville. The fortified wine that comes from this region bears the same name and can be served as an apéritif before a meal or as a digestif after the meal. Sherry is typically non-vintage and is produced through the "solera" process where newly fermented wine is blended with older wine in the barrel. Each year, only a portion is bottled and the remaining wine is kept to blend with the next year's new wine. Like cava, sherry styles vary, but if you're looking for a sweeter sherry, Mallory suggests a "rich, dark sherry…known as Pedro Ximenez, PX for short, made from the white grape of the same name. PX can be syrupy sweet…a dessert unto itself."

Pairing Spain: Wines that Love Food

Why the new interest in Spanish wine? There are lots of reasons and Mallory indicates that, "Perhaps the most compelling being the spotlight that has been put on Spanish cuisine and tapas in the last decade." Spanish food has certainly become popular in the U.S. and Americans everywhere are even hosting their own tapas parties. Spanish wine is a natural pair with Spanish food. Seibert adds that an easy rule is to "look at what the cuisine is in the wine region – the foods from the region generally match very nicely to wine." Not surprisingly then, albariño from coastal Rías Baixas, has acidity and a dryness that pairs well with seafood. Tempranillo's many styles go well with red meat and garnacha is a good pair with poultry. Tapas can give you an excuse to try multiple types of Spanish wines since they can be paired with almost anything.

Spanish wines are diverse, flavorful, social and best of all, they pair very well with food. All of this goes to making Spanish wine an adventure worth exploring.

Travel Spain!

As a journalistic coda to this article on Spanish wine, visiting Spain's wine regions is now more enjoyable than ever. Wine tourists should pay special attention to Rioja, which in the last several years has positioned itself as not only a wine tourism destination, but also an architectural tourism destination. Located a relatively short drive south of Bilbao, home to Frank Gehry's signature Guggenheim Bilbao, Rioja has followed suit to attract art and architectural tourists. The Bodegas Ysios (bodega is the Spanish word for winery) has been designed by "starchitect" Santiago Calatrava. The building takes on an almost religious prominence in the landscape and its undulating forms mimick the mountains or a river. Nearby, the stunning Hotel Marques de Riscal is owned by Starwood properties (Westin, Sheraton, W Hotels) and designed by Frank Gehry himself. Gehry's curves and free-form style is apparent in this work of art that you can spend the night in. It's definitely the place to stay when visiting Rioja.

For more information about wines from Spain, Spanish regions and where to go, visit these sites below:

Wines from Spain

Drink Ribera Wine

Bodegas Ysios

Hotel Marques de Riscal

Greg B. C. Shaw

Greg B. C. Shaw

Dr. Greg Shaw is an assistant professor with the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration at California State University, Sacramento, and the co-author of a book chapter, Tourism in A Bottle: The California Winescape. full bio

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