Spain has more land under vine than any other country in the world but as we all know quantity is not always a guarantee of quality. Fortunately, as we shall see, Spanish winemaking has improved immeasurably over the last few decades and there are now a growing number of producers who are making superlative wine.
The arid climate results in low yields yet this has worked in Spain’s favour to produce more concentrated wines and the legal use of drip irrigation since 1996 has ameliorated the effects of drought. The country’s regional and geographical diversity is reflected in the wines which range from the light, dry whites of the cool, Atlantic region of Galicia to the heavy, alcoholic reds in the Mediterranean south, encompassing the fortified wines of Jerez, and arguably Spain’s best known vinous export, sherry. Most importantly, improvement in wine making technology has been wholeheartedly embraced and together with the country’s acceptance in to the EU in 1986 much needed investment has helped Spain’s wine growing industry to new heights.
Spain’s wine journey is undoubtedly long but it has not always been easy. Vines have been cultivated since 4000 BC and grapes have been found further back than that dating from the Tertiary period which is ample evidence that Spain has throughout history always had the ability to make wine. The Phoenicians were the first people to make wine in Spain in about 1100 BC, closely followed by the Carthaginians but it was probably not until the Roman Empire conquered Spain just before the beginning of the first Millenium that its wines were exported and gained wider recognition.
After Rome the Spanish wines soon found themselves in Gaul, England and at the German frontier. But the collapse of the Roman Empire put paid to any export markets for the time being. Winemaking continued however and was not discouraged following the Moor invasion of 711 as it produced tax revenue for the new rulers. By 1250 the Christians had succeeded in reclaiming the country and wine began to be shipped from Bilbao to Bristol, Southampton and London and became popular because its high alcoholic content meant it kept better than French or German wines.
The next major milestone for Spanish wine was not so much Christopher Columbus discovering the West Indies in 1492 but more the fact that in the ensuing years the New World would provide a ready market for Spanish wine. England became closed off to Spanish trade following Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and the defeat of the Armada in 1588 so they simply turned their attentions to their American colonies and to protect their wine exports attempted to limit the planting of vines in the New World. However domestic winemaking quality had not progressed for centuries and the advent of phylloxera destroyed the livelihood of thousands of Spanish winemakers. Fortunately every cloud has a silver lining and the influx of skilled winemakers from France, who had suffered their own blight of powdery mildew, gave a new impetus and expertise to the trade. They introduced the Barrica oak cask, vines were grafted, vineyards were replanted and wine was exported back to France.
However, this renaissance was destined not to last as in 1931 the abdication of King Alfonso XIII led to the formation of a republic but not before the creation of the DO appellation system in 1926. Spain erupted into civil war in 1936 with the result that vineyards became neglected and wineries were destroyed and this was compounded by the outbreak of World War II, which effectively closed European export markets. It took until the 1950’s for the wine industry to recover thanks to the construction of large co-operatives but the inexpensive bulk wine with generic, brand names failed to find a mass market beyond Spain.
The restoration of the monarchy in 1975 and greater economic freedom has seen the rise of an urban middle class, which has demanded greater quality wine. The wine trade has been greatly aided by access to EU finance, flying wine makers have descended upon Spain, private estates have overtaken co-operatives and international varieties have proliferated resulting in fruitier wines favoured by international markets.
Spanish wine laws
There are 4 categories as follows:
- Vino de Mesa – includes unclassified vineyards or declassified wine but can encompass (as in Italy) most expensive and prestigious wines.
- Vino de la Tierra – from a specific region that conforms to local norms.
- DO – or Denominacion d Origen. The mainstay with its own Consejor Regulador which regulates growing, making and marketing to ensure compliance with specified regional standards. There are sixty four DOs which covers two thirds of the total vineyard area.
- DOC – or Denominacion de Origen Calificada. Only Rioja (1991) and Priorat (2003) have been elevated to this top tier (equivalent to Italy’s DOCG)
Geography and climate
The land rises steeply from the coast to Iberia’s dominant feature which is the vast central plateau that ascends up to 1,000 metres. Four of its main rivers flow directly into the Atlantic from the plateau. Mountain ranges divide Spain in to distinct, natural regions. The north coast is cool and humid. The Cantabrian mountains protect the main body of the country including Rioja from cool, rain-bearing north-westerlies. The plateau is extreme, very cold in winter and blisteringly hot in summer with drought a constant problem but interspersed with flash floods. The southern and eastern coasts have a Mediterranean climate with long, hot summers and mild winters.
Undoubtedly, vineyard practices in Spain have been shaped by the lack of rain but with new viticultural methods we are starting to see an increase in yields. Vine density has traditionally been low as a result of drought and they tend to be free standing and bush-trained. However the lack of rain means that very few vines suffer from disease or rot. Drip irrigation has become increasingly popular since irrigation was legalized in 1996 and consequently yields have increased in the last decade. Traditionally most grapes used to be harvested by hand but always risked early fermentation if the baskets were squashed plus the heat of the sun was always a factor. Increasingly mechanization is being used, as is the move to night-time harvesting to protect grape integrity.
Although the Spanish claim to have up to 600 grape varieties in reality 80% of their vineyards are planted with just over 20 varieties. The drought resistant Airen occupies one quarter of central Spain and is mainly used as the base wine for Spanish brandy. The second most widely planted variety is Tempranillo which is the mainstay for many of Spain’s greatest wines and has overtaken Garnacha as the most important red variety. International varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are becomingly increasingly popular throughout Spain.
The industry has changed more radically since the 1960’s compared to its larger European rivals. Use of stainless steel tanks is now commonplace as is the use of temperature-controlled fermentation but interestingly some producers are returning to traditional fermentation tanks made of oak or concrete, which ensure less temperature variation than steel. Most Spanish winemakers use American oak for maturation rather than French because it is cheaper but it does impart a stronger flavour to the wine but French oak has latterly made inroads. Now more wines are showing less pungent and more fruit-driven aromas. Traditionally Spanish wine was never released until it was ready to drink but younger winemakers have heeded fashion and are starting to release wines with little bottle age.
Important wine growing regions
Think of Spanish wine and most wine drinkers in the UK will still nominate Rioja as their preferred wine of choice. This was the traditional answer but nowadays when it comes to high quality and particularly investment grade wine there are only two regions which matter, Ribera del Duero and Priorat. The latter undoubtedly has some high class wines but it has yet to take the next step towards true cult and investment status of Ribera del Duero.
Based in north central Spain Ribera del Duero is actually one third larger than Rioja and spans the upper valley of the River Duero about 30km east of Valladolid. Its best known wine producer, Vega Sicilia has been creating Spain’s finest wine since the mid 19th century and one of the country’s few truly investment grade ones. Even so, the region was only granted DO status in 1982. At 2,800 feet above sea level, it has a short growing season with frost in spring and summer temperatures that can reach 40 degrees centigrade but fall sharply at night, leading to a phenomenon associated with great wine quality.
The pioneer responsible for developing this region in the 1980’s was Alejandro Fernandez whose Pesquera wine has received international acclaim and which resulted in the region challenging Rioja’s dominance. Consumption of Ribera wines soared and other producers, including Hacienda Monasterio who produce the renowned but scarce Pingus, attained quality levels close to Vega Sicilia. The principal grape is Tinto Fino (a local variety of Tempranillo) but Vega Sicilia introduced Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec 130 years ago and this practice is now allowed.
In the world of Investment-grade wine the region of Spain is a newcomer with Vega Sicilia being recognized for the first time in the Liv-ex Power 100, 2014, ranked 71st in the top 100 wine brands of that year.
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