The vineyards of Spain's top third produce many of the country's best wines. Along the green northernmost strip the light whites seem distinctly unSpanish, but stray a short distance inland and the full-blooded reds are there to punch you in the palate. Galicia produces the former in five DO regions, of which Rías Bajas is the pick. Here the Albariño vine reigns, producing delicate, peachy and sometimes lightly oaked varietals considered by many to be the best whites in Spain. The Basque lands have the three Chacolís DOs producing small amounts of crisp, green white wine from Hondarribi grapes that – trust the Basques – aren't really found anywhere else on Earth. The Basques also produce small quantities of Cava and Rioja.
South of the Basque Country you find Spanish wine's star region, Rioja. Most Rioja wine is blended, with Tempranillo the prime contributor. The noble grape gives the wine its aromatic, delicate flavours. Traditionally, the use of American oak barrels has given the wine a vanilla twang but this is waning, replaced by French oak that imparts a less obvious coconut or vanilla flavour. The region produces a lot of wine so quality can vary despite the blanket DOC standard, although these days bad Riojas are rare. The most mature vintages, the gran reservas, are complex and full-bodied yet pleasingly soft, but the jovens are often equally enjoyable, rare in their juvenile fullness. Three sub-regions within Rioja – Alavesa, Alta and Baja – each with a slightly different climate, all produce differing wines. The Tempranillo content is higher in the cooler, northern Alavesa region – wines here tend to be short-lived but brilliantly fruity.
Further south, in Baja, the sun-loving Garnacha stays longer on the vine and produces rich, mature vintages. It should be noted that the Rioja region also produces a number of crisp whites, usually made with the Viura grape. Next door, in Navarre, Rioja's favourable climate and terrain spill over, generating pleasing reds with similar, if less reliable, qualities. The Garnacha vine makes more of a contribution here, as do the rosados for which the region was once famous.
In Aragón the northerly DO of Somontano, sheltered by the Pyrenees, is enjoying new-found prestige for both reds and whites. No one really acknowledged its existence until the 1980s, but today the area makes high quality wines born of experimentation with native and foreign vines. To the south Aragón harbours three further DO regions producing some great reds featuring Garnacha and, in the DO of the same name, Cariñena grapes.
Catalonia's wine map is a jumble of colours, styles and methods, embracing pretty much every variant of wine you can think of. Large producers like Miguel Torres, the undisputed Señor Big of Spanish wine, exist alongside single plot 'boutique' vineyards, while ultramodern production methods rub along with aged practices. Some small vintners are still making the rancios and fortified wines that were once the region's prime output.
Most famously, Catalonia is the home of Cava. Made using the same méthode champenoise as its significantly more expensive French cousin (for many years Cava was sold as 'Spanish Champagne'), Cava principally contains Macabéo, Parellada and Xarel-lo grapes and therefore differs from New World 'champagnes' in its deviation from the classic champagne grapes. The majority is produced within the rocky Penedès DO, although here, confusingly, the DO status applies only to still wine – not the Cava.
Penedès is the largest DO in Catalonia. It's home to the Torres vineyards, the setting for Spanish wine's giant leap forward in recent years. Reds, whites and rosados are all made. In the sun-bleached region of Tarragona the emphasis is on powerful, Garnacha-led reds, and right in the middle of Tarragona, like an upland oasis, lies Priorato, producing some of the best – and most expensive – reds in the world. It duly carries the DOCa award. There are great reds to be had further north too, in the Ampurdán-Costa Brava DO where Catalonia collides with France.
Valencia and Murcia are usually lumped together by wine lovers, collectively dubbed the Levant because this is where the sun rises (levantarse) first. The region's sustained heat precludes many truly great wines, but lakes of palatable table wine are made. The Alicante DO is known for its sweet whites made from Moscatel, but the region is dominated by the Valencia DO. Whites here tend to be fresh and undemanding, made primarily with the Merseguera grape. The Monastrell vine dominates red production throughout the Levant. Many lack the oomph of reds elsewhere and tend to be drunk as jovenes. However, the Utiel-Requena and Jumilla regions do harbour reds with more backbone. In Utiel-Requena too they make doble pasta, traditionally a blending wine produced by placing a second grape batch over the skins of a first fermentation.
The wine regions of Spain's sweeping interior can be split roughly in two: in Castile y León four prestigious DO regions group around Valladolid alongside the Duero river, while south of Madrid in La Mancha and Valdepeñas lies Spain's wine bucket – a vast area under vine. Let's start in Castile y León with the best. The Ribera del Duero DO, east of Valladolid, is the most expensive wine region in Spain; its big, rich reds pressed from Tinto Fino (a Tempranillo clone). The gran reservas can last for decades. Apart from the historic Vega Sicilia estate – often deemed the best (and priciest) in Spain – most of Ribera del Duero's producers only really got going in the 1980s. In the Rueda DO the whites take precedence, led by the Verdejo grape that packs young wines with a herby aroma. Rueda's admirable reds got DO status in 2001. In the Duero's other DO zones, Toro and Cigales, the first is all about assertive Tinto Fino reds while the latter is traditionally known for its rosados.
The plains around Madrid and to the south support endless vines, although La Mancha, comprising ten recognised wine regions, doesn't have a wine pedigree. However, it's improving all the time, producing drinkable if unspectacular wine of all colours by the truckload. In fact, given the scale of production, wines from the La Mancha DO aren't bad at all. In the Valdepeñas DO, further south, you find slightly more finesse and some prestige of old, even if it was as a cheap alternative to Rioja. The stony ground bears some richly flavoured Cencibel reds and improving whites alongside mass-produced table wines.
A glass should also be raised to Extremadura when toasting Spain's central belt. The region offers proof of how young the fine wine phenomenon is in much of Spain. Vines have been cultivated here since Roman times yet the region didn't get a DO badge until 1997. It goes by the name Ribera del Guadiana, an amalgam of six smaller wine producing areas. At the moment it's an experimental scene of new planting and improving technique. Traditionally the area has made white wines, but reds – for which it seems more naturally suited – and rosados are on the up.
Andalusian wines have been sweet and strong since Phoenician times, as befits a region with this much sunshine. Sherry dominates the region's output, although reasonable table wines also surface. What most of us know as ‘sherry' refers to the fortified wine produced in the Jerez y Manzanilla de Sanlúcar Barrameda DO. For the strong, usually fortified wines produced around Andalusia, of which sherry is just one type, the Spanish talk of vinos generosos. If they specifically order a sherry, they request a vino de Jerez or quote a particular maker.
The major ingredient for vinos generosos is the Palomino grape. Some versions are sweetened with Pedro Ximénez. Outside the region such wine has become unfashionable in recent years; the rise (and subsequent fall) of bland cream sherry hasn't helped. All vinos generosos are actually bone dry in their natural state – ingredients are added to sweeten them. But the genuine article remains a fine, intricate wine, still the staple drink in Andalusia itself, usually served up cold with a little tapas. Three other DO regions in Andalusia – Malaga, Condado de Huelva and Montilla-Moriles – produce similar styles of strong or fortified wine.
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