Understanding Spanish Wines On Holiday

Posted on: 21 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Spain takes wine seriously. Examine the classifications of Spanish wine to help you make a selection.

Wines in Spain are classified regionally, as Rioja, Navarra or Penedès, but in addition are classified by the time they have been aged in both oak barrels and bottles.

The aging requirements given are the minimum only, many bodegas exceed this minimum. You will find the region and aging classification on the label.

Vino de Mesa (VdM) Basic table wine.  It won’t have a vintage and the label won’t say where it’s from.  The contents may well be a blend of wines from different regions.

Vino de la Tierra (Vd IT) ‘Wine of the land’, so rather like the French vin de pays.  A minimum of 60% of the wine should come from a specified region that has some discernible character but hasn’t yet gained DO status.  Around 25 VdIT areas exist at present.

Denominación de Origen (DO) This wine, like the French AOC equivalent, will have come from the region specified on the label.  Each of the 60 or so DO regions has strict rules limiting yields and dictating permitted grape varieties.

Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) DO with bells on.  Only two exist so far, Rioja and Priorato, and, while reputation and quality are clearly vital, the criteria for making them and, potentially, other wines DOCa are a bit cloudy.

Getting Better With Age

Spanish reds are also classified according to age.  Here are the main categories you’re likely to find on a label:

Joven: A fledging red probably too young to have seen the inside of a cask.  Made for immediate drinking.

Crianza: Aged for a minimum of two years, a portion of which will have been in an oak cask. Length of time depends on region.

Reserva: Add on an extra year for Reserva wines - three yeas in maturation, of which at least one must be in an oak barrel and one in a bottle.

Gran reserve: The most mature Spanish reds endure a minimum of five years in development, at least two of which are spent in a cask.

The Major Grape Varieties Of Spanish Wine

Spanish wines contain hundreds of grape varieties. Indeed, most wines are blends.  There are few varietals - single grape wines - to be had. 

The big stars of French vines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and co, play an important role in modern Spanish wine, but there are still some important native grapes to acquaint yourself with:


Garnacha Tinta: Spain’s most planted red is big (15% abv) and lasts ages.  A regular contributor to Rioja.

Graciano: Low yield, high quality old man of Rioja and Navarre.  Ideal for gran reservas.

Mazuelo, also called Carineña: Makes balanced, tannic wines that mature well.  Another Rioja constituent.

Monastrell: Gives big yields and excellent fruity wines.  Particularly prevalent in Murcia.

Tempranillo: Spain’s best red grape makes pungent jovenes but is best known for spicy Riojas.

Ahead Of Its Time

Tempranillo gets its name from the Spanish for early, temprano, because it ripens before most red varietals.  While it may be the local hero of Spanish wine, some claim it descends from French Pinot Noir vines

Until relatively recently some Spanish wines were fermented in large tinajas, enormous earthenware pots that could probably accommodate a small family. 

They were designed to minimise oxidisation.  Their scale meant proportionally less wine was next to the lid, and therefore the air.  A few southern wines are still developed in tinajas.


Airén: Spain’s most planted grape, swathing La Mancha, makes fruity if unexceptional wines.

Albariño: Key to Galicia’s Rias Baixas and used increasingly elsewhere in fresh, aromatic whites.

Moscatel: Known as Muscat in France and used widely here in sweet, fragrant wines.

Palomino: The prime grape of sherry is less impressive in straightforward wine.

Parellada: Catalonia’s best grape is a delicate contributor to Cava.

Pedro Ximénez: A giant of Andalusia used in fortified wine, rancios and dessert wines.

Verdejo: Ancient but much improved with new technology to make delicate, excellent Rueda wines.

Macabeo: Also called Viura.  Widespread, originally from Aragón with a mixed reputation. Requires TLC for the right spicy effect.  Makes 90 per cent of all white Rioja.

Xarel-lo: The core vine of Cava has benefited greatly from mew procedures reducing oxidisation.

A Grape By Any Other Name

Many of Spain’s vines have different names depending on which part of the country you’re in. 

Tempranillo, for instance, is also known variously as Cencibel in La Mancha, Ull de Llebre in Catalonia and Tinta del País in Castile y León.

Of course, strictly speaking, they’re not identical.  The effects of terroir will give each its own character.

Speak The Culture: SpainThis extract is taken from Speak The Culture: France, published by Thorogood and available from all good bookshops priced £12.99.  Alternatively you can purchase it from Amazon for £8.56.

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