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Spain is definitely one of the new-world players to keep an eye on. It is the land of old-vines, american oak and sherry! The main varieties grown in Spain are Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache) in the reds, and Airén, Viura/Macabeo, Verdejo and Albarino for the whites. Lesser grown whites include Palomino. Other reds successfully cultivated include Carignan, Mourvedre and Mencia.
Although Spain can be quite a warm country, the vast majority of vineyards are 600m or so above sea level, so the cooler nights allow the grapes to develop full colour and acidity.
Rioja is undoubtedly the long-standing king of all the Spanish wine regions, where Tempranillo and Garnacha are commonly blended. However more recently many more regions have come to the forefront of interest. Ribera Del Duero is producing excellent Tempranillo blends rivalling those coming out of Rioja. Jerez in the South is the home of the fortified wine Sherry.
Spanish wine laws created the Denominación de Origen (DO) system in 1932 and were later revised in 1970. These include:
- Denominación de Origen Calificada (formerly called DOCa) Priorat calls itself DOQ for Denominació d'Origen Qualificada in Catalan and has a track record of consistent quality and is meant to be a step above DO level.
- Denominación de Origen (DO)- Used for mainstream-quality wine regions. Nearly two thirds of the total vineyard area in Spain is within the boundaries of a DO region.
- Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD) - This is somewhat of a stepping stone to DO status.
- Vinos de la Tierra (VdIT) - A level similar to France's vin de pays system, where the regions are much larger.
- Vino de Mesa (VdM)- The equivalent of 'table wines' from France or Italy
La Rioja is the smallest region of mainland Spain, bordered by Navarre, Castile & Leon and Aragon. One of the most important wine growing areas of Europe, it has a reputation bigger than its land area. Extending along the Ebro River, the region is practically split into two, Rioja Alta which has a great deal of rainfall and has a mild climate, and Rioja Baja which is a hotter and more arid area, similar to Aragon.
The wine produced in La Rioja goes well with the region’s ochre earth and vast blue skies, which seem far more Mediterranean than the Basque greens further north. In fact, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re in a different country altogether. The wine is known for its structure and tannins, similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but it also has a fruity characteristic. This is a wine perfect for a drinker who loves Cabernet but is also looking for the dominant cherry flavor that’s often present in a wine like Pinot Noir.
Unlike other countries who have adopted grapes that were originally indigenous to France or Italy, Tempranillo was born and cultivated in Spain, and there is no region for which they are more proud, and taken more seriously, than La Rioja.
Spain’s most esteemed wine region, Rioja enjoys a cool continental climate at its western end, warming as it moves east towards the Mediterranean Sea. The region sees hot summers and cold winters, with the Cantabrian Mountains protecting it from bracing winds off the Atlantic Ocean. The region can be prone to frost, drought, and fungal diseases. Rioja wines are made in reds, whites, and rosés, with reds far and away the mainstay of production. Red wines are made from Tempranillo (the most important, most planted grape variety), Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo (also known as Carignan). These latter three varieties lend floral and red-fruit aromas, as well as colour and alcohol, to Tempranillo blend wines. Producers make white Rioja wines from Viura (Macabeo), Malvasia Blanca, and Garnacha Blanca.
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