Spanish Wine History:

Make no mistake about it: if you are from Spain, wine is poetry. Despite a torrid past, a visitor is more likely to hear the invocation of the country’s great artists, writers and poets than anything else, and it is this same love of life, culture and the arts that has been pored into Spain’s wine making tradition for years.

While this reality is nothing new to most European countries, it has been slow to take hold in the United States (with the exception of Ernest Hemingway who caught on early and spent a great deal of time in Spain). Whether the result of a stigma that was formed from the Spanish tradition of aging both red and white wines for an unusually long period of time (a twenty-five year aging period was not uncommon), or the history of political instability, many Americans remain unaware that Spain has a deep-rooted wine-making culture that is steeped in nothing less than passion and dedication.

As Spain embarks on a wine revolution in its own right, it is developing an appreciation for younger wines that still carry the spirit of its distinctive traditions, notably Long Oak Aging (see Spanish Wine Style at left).

Spain is the third largest wine producing country in the world and owes a great deal of its heritage to the outbreak of the Phylloxera Pest in 19th Century France. The infestation caused widespread destruction of French vineyards and a massive exodus to Spain where new vines could be planted and grown. As French wine makers flooded the Rioja Region during the 1850’s and 1860’s, they brought with them rich wine making techniques and helped spark the first great wine boom in Spanish history. Wine was exported all over the world to make up for the lost French vineyards.

Though the Phylloxera Pest eventually made its way to Spain and wiped out the majority of Spanish vineyards at the dawn of the 20th century, the Spaniards had their first taste of a rich wine-making culture and that was all they needed. However, it would take surviving Phylloxera, the destruction and destitution that resulted from World War I and World War II, and the return of financial stability to the country, before the skill and dedication of its wine makers could come to fruition on a global scale. As the 1970’s dawned, Spain saw an astonishing influx of capital aimed at renovating insolvent vineyards and replanting vines where wheat had been forced to grow to feed the hungry.

In this way, the Rioja region grew into Spain’s most famous wine growing area creating distinctive and well-aged reds made from the Tempranillo grape and viscous and acidic whites made from the Viura grape (also known as Macabeo).

Spanish Wine Style

The debate continues to rage in Spain over the practice of Long Oak Aging. While today’s Spanish wines are aged less than their predecessors, it is still par for the course to age Rioja style reds for four years or more. Proponents of the practice argue that the Tempranillo grape, like Pinot Noir, needs a good deal of time to develop the earthy complexities it is capable of. Critics argue that the fruitiness of the grape and too much acidity is lost in the oak. It’s important to note that while Rioja wines are oak-aged for a considerable amount of time, the oak barrels are almost always used American oak barrels or French oak barrels (both of which impart much more subtle oak qualities and won’t over-oak the wine as would happen with new American oak barrels).

Aside from the Rioja Region, the other wine growing regions of note are:

  • Ribera del Duero
  • Jerez (known for Sherry)
  • Penedes
  • Rias Baixas
  • Priorato (up and coming wine region)

Spain, of course, has a remarkably hot countryside. From the discussion on how climate determines style, you can understand how many stereotype Spanish wines as being almost Australian like - big and lacking in earthy subtleties. This turns out not to be the case as Spanish grape varieties like Garnacha (known as Grenache in France), Graciano and Mazuelo have all been cultivated to add excellent aroma, spice and depth to stalwarts like Tempranillo. In many regards, the Spaniards have mastered the art of blending to bring more character from the land into each wine.

Given the above discussion, it’s important not to confuse the Tempranillo grape style with Cabernet Sauvignon, even though the Rioja Region is often referred to as Spain’s Bordeaux. With the exception of Tempranillo-Cabernet blends, which can be quite remarkable, the style of Tempranillo is closer in its delicacy and subtleties to French Burgundies.

Outside of Rioja, you can find truly outstanding white wines like Albarino, from the Rias Baixas region and Parellada, from the Penedes.