Spanish Wine Primer

Jamon of spain and red wine

Spain is home to numerous wine regions that make delicious and exciting Old World wines to satisfy wine lovers with varying tastes. While it doesn't often get the same amount of attention nearby France receives in the wine world, the wines from Spain are well worth drinking.

Wines Types

Spain has produced wines for more than a millennium and even in the modern day, winemaking is steeped in tradition. Winemakers from across the country make different types of wines (called vinos in Spanish), including structured reds that age well, refreshing whites, fortified sherries, and sparkling wines.

  • Tinto: Spanish winemakers call red wines tinto or vinos tinto. The word tinto means "tinted" or "stained."
  • Rosado: Rose wines and blush wines are referred to in Spain as vinos rosados or simply rosados.
  • Blanco: Vinos blancos or blanco is the Spanish term for white wines.
  • Espumosos: If you're a sparkling wine fan, then you'll enjoy vinos espumosos, or simply espumosos, which is the general term for all sparkling wines from Spain. However, within Spanish wine making, there is a special term for certain sparkling wines made in a manner similar to methode champenoise used in the Champagne region of France. These wines are called Cava.
  • Sherry: Also called Jerez, Sherry wines are fortified wines that come from the Jerez region of Spain. These wines are higher in alcohol than traditional wines, and many can age for decades.

Quality Categories

Spain classifies its wines according to its quality categories. This classification system is complex and governed by country-wide laws, as well as regional standards. In general, the lower quality wines are sold only within Spain and not exported worldwide. Wine quality ratings you'll find for wines sold mostly within the country include:

  • Vino de Mesa (VDM)- These are Spanish table wines, and may include non-standard varietal mixes made from average vintages and average to low quality fruits.
  • Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) - One step above Vino de Mesa, these wines typically are low priced wines that don't meet the country's varietal, blend, aging, fruit yield, or quality standards required for their more premium wines.
  • Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica - These wines are slightly higher in quality than VdM or VdlT, but still fail to meet the quality standards for premium wine labeling.

As winemakers move into premium wines, Spanish laws govern the types of wines that may be produced.

Denominación de Origen

Most of the Spanish wines available outside of Spain are Denominación de Origen (DO) wines or higher. Each major Spanish wine region is part of its own DO which has its own regulations regarding gape varietals, fruit yields, aging, and other quality indicators. Regulatory bodies for each DO, called Consejos Reguladores, set standards, grade vintages, and control labeling laws within their own DO that winemakers must meet to be able to label their wines as DO.

Denominación de Origen Calificada

Wines in this category, also called DoC or DOQ wines, is a level above DO. Based on region, a national committee decides which regions qualify for DoC status and determines which regions meet the criteria for being a DoC wine. Resultantly, DoC wines tend to be more expensive and difficult to obtain than DO wines. Currently, only two regions - Priorat and Rioja - meet the strict qualifications to earn DoC labels.

Vino de Pago

A final quality classification for Spanish wines ins Vino de Pago (VP or DO Pago). When a wine label holds this designation, it indicates a single estate wine, which means grapes and bottling all come from a single estate. However, the DO or DoC must also label this as a wine coming from a great wine estate, which is a highly subjective category arrived at by governing bodies in Spain.

Aging Classifications

In DO and DoCs, Spanish wine labeling law dictates that winemakers may indicate on the label how the wine has been aged to further classify the wines. In general, winemakers age wine both in the bottle and in the barrel, and DO and DoC guidelines require that wines have certain minimum times in the barrell and bottle to receive the following designations.


Joven wines are young wines that are likely not aged in oak barrels. As a result, these wines have fruitier, more acidic, and crisper flavors that often lack the vanilla and toast notes of oak-aged wines. Joven wines are best drunk in their youth and are not intended to be aged in the bottle.

Barrica or Robel

These indicate younger wines that have been aged a short period in oak - usually just a few months. Therefore, these wines are likely to have a hint of classic oak flavors like toast or vanilla, although the time in the barrels isn't long enough to have strongly developed oak characteristics. These are typically best consumed within a few years of purchase.


When wines have been aged in oak barrels for six months or longer, with a total minimum aging time of two years, winemakers may call the wine Crianza. These wines will have more developed oak flavors. While you can typically drink Crianza wines when you purchase them, in many cases they will also age well for about four or five years, so these are wines you can either drink now or move to short-term storage for drinking a few years down the line.


Reserva wines usually age in barrels for a year or two, and they must be aged in the bottle or oak combined for at least three years before release. Likewise, winemakers typically use higher quality grapes in these wines, and if it is a poor vintage, then winemakers may not be allowed to bottle Reserva wines that year. Instead, wines produced in those years will have labels like Crianza, Barrica, or Juven. Because of this, Reserva wines are often a little more expensive than their more youthful counterparts. These wines typically do best with a little additional age under their belt after you purchase them, and you can often hold them for ten years or longer while the wines continue to develop.

Gran Reserva

These are the longest aged wines coming from the most select grapes and produced during the best vintages. Gran Reservas are typically limited bottlings using only top quality fruit. Total aging must be a minimum of five years, with at least two years of that in oak barrels. These wines tend to have plenty of tannins and structure, and they age so well that wine collectors can hold the bottles for 10, 15, 20, or even 30 years or longer, and the wines continue to improve in quality and drinkability. Due to their limited availability and high quality, Gran Reserva wines tend to be the most sought after and expensive wines available from Spain.


Spanish wine and tapas

Spain is divided into seven distinct geographical regions. The climates, grapes grown, and terrior (earth types) all affect the quality, aromas, flavors, and yields of the grapes. Spain's seven overarching wine regions include:

  • Green Spain, which is in the northwestern coastal portion of the country
  • The Islands, which includes the Mediterranean islands including the Canaries and the Balearics
  • Andalucía, the hot, arid, dessert region in southwestern Spain
  • North Central Spain, which sits primarily along the River Duero
  • Ebro River Valley, nestled in the foothills of Spain's Sierra de Cantábria mountains
  • The Meseta, which sits on an elevated plateau in central Spain
  • The Mediterranean Coast, located along the Mediterranean near the France/Spain border

While Spain has seven major regions and multiple subregions throughout the country, the wines Spain exports to the rest of the world come from the DO and DoC regions. These wines are labeled according to the region, and each region has certain requirements about grape varietals, quality, yields, and aging.


Priorat vines, Spain

Priorat sits in the Catalan sub-region of Spain along the Mediterranean Coast near Barcelona. With the designation DOQ (the Catalan version of DoC), Priorat wines are some of the finest wines exported from Spain. The region is mountainous, warm, and sunny, and the grapes are mostly red varietals.

The primary grape in Priorat wines is Garnacha, known elsewhere in the world as the Rhone varietal Grenache. This red varietal is smoky and dense with a distinct earthy characteristic. Priorat wines age well and have plenty of structure as well as a distinct mineral character that comes from the slate soil (called Licorella) found in the region. Other red varietals grown in the region include:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Syrah
  • Cariñena
  • Merlot

Because of the warmth of the region, the reds produced here turn out concentrated, mostly due to low vineyard yields which arise from hot temperatures and excellent soil drainage.

Whites from Prirorat are less common, and the DOQ only authorizes four white grapes:

  • Pedro Ximénez
  • Chenin blanc
  • Garnacha blanca (white Grenache)
  • Macabeo

Try the following wines from Priorat:

  • Alvaro Palacios - Camins Del Priorat - This Priorat, which retails for under $20 per bottle, is from one of the region's top winemakers who also produces the top rated L'Ermita (you can find it for about $700 per bottle!). Although it costs a mere fraction of Alvaro Palacios's top rated bottle, Camins Del Priorat is well rated most years - the 2014 vintage received a 92 out of 100 point rating from Wine Advocate. Primarily Garnacha, the Camins Del Priorat also contains a blend of Samso, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. The result is an inky, concentrated, and earthy wine with hints of anise on the finish.
  • Clos Mogador Priorat - Another of the region's top winemakers, Clos Mogador makes a variety of wines at varying price points. If you can find it, buy the 2013 vintage, which retails at under $100 per bottle and received a 98 out of 100 point rating from Robert Parker. It's a splurge, but it's an excellent bottle of wine. You can also try the Clos Mogador Nelin Priorat Blanco, a white Priorat which is around $50.


Along with Priorat, Rioja is one of Spain's two DoC regions. Located in the Ebro River Valley, Rioja sits on a plateau in northern Spain protected by mountains that help moderate the climate. Rioja produces blanco, rosado, and tinto wines that are often a blend of grapes grown in the region. More than three-fourths of the wine exported from Rioja is red.

Common red grapes include:

  • Tempranillo
  • Garnacha
  • Graciano
  • Mazuelo

Typically, red blends are more than 50 percent Tempranillo, with the other red varietals making up the remainder of the blend. With chalky clay soil and moderate temperatures, Rioja wines are typically concentrated due to old vines and low yields for grape crops in the region. Rioja reds tend to have plenty of tannins and structure, so they age well, but the wines also have soft fruitiness to them that adds subtlety.

Rioja white wines come from three main varieties of grapes:

  • Macabeo
  • Garnacha blanca
  • Malvasia

The whites are primarily Macabeo with the other two grapes blended in lower concentrations and tend to be crisp and acidic.

Two wines to try from Rijoa include:

  • Bodegas Muriel Reserva - This red blend retails for around $20 a bottle and offers classic Rioja flavor profiles. Good vintages often have ratings in the 90s from wine critics like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator.
  • Bodegas Muga Rioja Rosado - If you'd like to try a rose from Rijoa, this one is a great value. It's under $20 per bottle and it's crisp and light.

Ribera del Duero

Located in the Duero River Valley, Ribera del Duero is a DO region. It sits on a northern plateau on the Iberian Plateau where there is moderate to low rainfall. The region grows red grapes almost exclusively including:

  • Tinto Fino (Tempranillo)
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Malbec

Tinto Fino is the major grape in blends, with small concentrations of other red wine grapes. The wines are deep and concentrated and typically age well. The region also grows a single white varietal, Albillo, which is used to make locally distributed wines.

Two wines to try from Ribera del Duero are:

  • Aalto Ribera Del Duero - This wine is pure Tempranillo (Tinto Fino) and in good vintages, receives high ratings from wine critics. It retails for about $40 per bottle.
  • Torres Celeste Crianza - A Crianza wine, the Torres Celeste is often highly rated by critics. It costs around $15 per bottle, so it's highly affordable for a wine from this region.
Numanthia Toro
Numanthia Toro


The DO Toro is right next to Ribera del Duero, and wines from the region are similar in style, flavors, and varietals. Wines to try from this region include:

  • Numanthia Toro - This Tempranillo is soft and subtle and comes from a well-respected and highly rated winemaker in the region. It retails for around $40.
  • Bodegas Frutos Villar Toro Muruve Reserva - For about $20 per bottle, this Tempranillo is a good value for a Toro Reserva.


Most Cava is produced in Catalonia and is a sparkling wine that is created using traditional Champagne making methods found in France. Cava is a DO wine. Cava might be blanco or rosado, and the grapes used in its production include:

  • Parellada
  • Pinot Noir
  • Subirat
  • Chardonnay
  • Monsatrell
  • Macabeu
  • Xarello
  • Cabernet Sauvignon

Cava ranges from bone dry to very sweet, and its flavor and quality is similar to Champagne, although it is usually much more affordable. Try the following Cava wines:

  • Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad Cava - Along with coming in a super cool-looking bottle, this Cava is rich and flavorful, made from Macabeo and Parellada grapes. It costs around $25.

  • Celler Barcelona Brut Cava - This dry Cava costs under $20 and has ultra-refined bubbles and a lovely flavor of apples.

Xerez (Jerez or Sherry)

Wine barrels

You'll find the Sherry region called different names, but they are all the same place. Located in Andalucia, this region produces very fine fortified sherry wines that range from very dry to sweet. The primary grape in Sherry is Palomino, but other grapes grown include Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel.

Sherry can be quite expensive for the good stuff, and because it is fortified, it can age for decades. Try the following:

  • Fernando de Castilla Palo Cortado Antique, which is under $35 for a 500 mL bottle

  • Bushmills Hidalgo Creme Sherry, which costs about $15 per bottle

Jumilla and Yecla

These are two separate regions, but they are quite similar in style and varietal due to their neighboring locations on the Mediterranean Coast. The regions grow both red and white grapes. Red grapes include:

  • Tempranillo
  • Garnacha Tinta
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Monastrell
  • Garnacha Tintorera
  • Merlot
  • Syrah

White varietals include:

  • Chardonnay
  • Airen
  • Macabeo
  • Merseguera
  • Malvasia

Whites tend to be consumed locally, while the region exports a small amount of reds. Wines from this region tend to be affordable when you can find them.

  • Bodegas Castano "Solanera" - This wine from Yecla retails for about $15 per bottle and is a red blend with primarily Monastrell.
  • Merum Monastrell - For around $10, you can try this Monastrell from Jumilla.


Located in Northwest Green Spain, Bierzo exports reds made from the grape Mencía, although it is often difficult to find these wines outside of Europe. For under $10 per bottle, try the Bodegas Merayo Mencia.

Rias Baixas

Located in Green Spain, Rias Baixas is known for its white wines made from the Albariños grape. These crisp whites are often unoaked, so they have fresh, crisp flavors. The wines are affordable. Try this Vina Sobreira Albarino for under $10.


Rueda, located in the Duero River Valley, is known for its white wines made from the Verdajo grape. Also grown locally is Sauvignon blanc, although you'll find white blends are primarily Verdajo with perhaps a little of the Sauvignon blanc blended in. The result is a crisp, citrusy white. Try Birlocho Rueda, which costs under $10 per bottle.

Telmo Rodriguez Godello Gaba Do XIL
Telmo Rodriguez Godello Gaba Do XIL


Another white wine region, Valdeorras is located in Northwest Spain. Grapes grown in the region include:

  • Godello
  • Dona Branca
  • Palomino Fino

Godello is the primary grape, with small amounts of Dona Branca and Palomino Fino blended. Wines from this region are tasty and affordable. Try the Telmo Rodriguez Godello Gaba Do XIL, a Godello that costs about $10 per bottle.

On the Label

When purchasing wines from Spain, you'll typically find them labeled by the region in which the grapes are grown and wines produced. On the label, you'll find the following information.

  • Wine name is the name the winemaker (Bodegas) has given the wine. This may or may not include an indication of the type of grape varietals in the wine, or it may be a name the winemaker has chosen that has nothing to do with the types of grapes used.
  • Vintage is the year in which the wine was produced.
  • Region indicates where the grapes were grown as well as DO or DoC status.
  • Bodega is the name of the winery.
  • Varietal is the type or blend of grapes used.

Delicious Wines

Like its European neighbors, Spain has complicated wine laws that render it a challenge to understand Spanish wine completely. However, with some basic knowledge, you will be able to purchase and enjoy these delicious wines.

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Spanish Wine Primer