We’ll start with the basics. Everyone knows wine starts with grapes, and there’s over 400 grape varieties planted through Spain. That being said, just 20 of these varieties are used to produce over 80 percent of the wine in Spain. The most well-known ones are the Tempranillo and the Garnacha grape (red) and Palomino and Macabeo (white). Cava (the Spanish version of champagne) uses different grapes such as the Parellada.
While Rioja and Ribera are the most well-known, there are other wine areas of Spain, such as Valdepeñas, Albariño, Priorat, and Penedès; and Jerez, which makes sherry, a very strong fortified wine.
Whereas each region and winery do things a bit differently, it’s safe to say that Spain is fairly traditional in their wine-making process. However, modern advancements have made things a little bit easier and more hygienic, such as using stainless steel fermentation tanks. The process goes more or less like this: The grapes are drained, skinned (stem removed) and crushed. They are then passed on to fermentation tanks. Once the grapes are fermented, the solid is separated out from the liquid and the liquid put into storage tanks. Later, depending on the wine style, it may be put into barrels and then bottles.
The Spanish have actually been using oak barrels (American and French) to store their wines for many years, especially with the Tempranillo grape, which is commonly used in Rioja wines. This is why many of the Spanish wines have a strong, wood-like taste with traces of vanilla or chocolate – especially those that have been stored longer in the barrels, like a Crianza.
The Denominación de Origen (DO) system of wine laws dates back to 1932. Although it’s been revised over the years, the idea is that all wines with this stamp have been tested for quality and correct winemaking practices. If you see a wine with a DO or DOC label, you should know it’s officially passed the proper testing.
Spanish wines also receive a label for how long they’ve been aged for. These are the most common:
Crianza: aged two years minimum, six of which must be in an oak barrel (red), and aged at least one year with six months in barrel (white and rosé).
Reserva: aged three years with at least one year in oak (red), and aged two years with at least six months in oak (white and rosé).
Gran Reserva: aged five years with 18 months in oak and then 36 months aged in bottle (red), and aged four years with six months in oak (white and rosé).
It’s worth noting that any bottle with a vintage label should have 85 percent of grapes harvested in that vintage year. If the wine is labled vino joven, that means it’s a young wine and hasn’t been aged much at all.
If you want to sample Spanish wine firsthand, there are plenty of wine shops in major cities such as Madrid or Barcelona that offer tastings. Restaurants and bars all over Spain should always have a Rioja and Ribera for you to try. Of course, heading to a bodega (winery) in any of the wine regions is also a way to not only sample the wine but learn more about it and even view the wine-making process.