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Spain: A Mix of Tradition and Innovation
By Liza B. Zimmerman

Winemaking in this Mediterranean country dates back more than 3,000 years. Spain historically had the most land under vine for centuries, but with introduction of vineyard irrigation in 1996 the number of total hectares has gone down. As many of the country’s regions have long been prone to drought, the introduction of drip irrigation has had a hugely positive effect on the quality of Spain’s wine production.

Spain is the third largest country in Europe and its size is reflected in the diversity of its wines. The country is home to more than 600 grape varieties, although the bulk of Spanish wine is made with slightly more than a dozen of them. Tempranillo, Grenacha and Monastrell—France’s Mourvedre—are among the leading traditional red grapes; while Albarino and Verdejo are among the most notable whites. International varieties are also becoming increasingly important in various regions of Spain.

The country’s focus on the importance of oak ageing has often set it apart in both its wine laws and the types of wines it produces. Over the past 15 years, the number of designated Spanish wine regions (Denominaciones de Origen or DOs) has grown by more than a third to a total of 69.

The different aging levels of Reserva, and Gran Reserva, really sadly only indicate the amount of time that the wines have spent in bottle. Reservas and Gran Reservas tend to have better initial reputations as they were chosen for extended aging. To make matters more complicated, the length of time that the three levels of wine need to be aged in barrel can vary from region to region.

Regional Gems
Rioja, in the central north area of Spain, has long been the best-known region in Spain and is believed to be where the Roman produced wine in the country. It is a region that stretches approximately 75 miles across from Northwest to Southeast where one of the most frequently planted grapes is Tempranillo.

The country’s Mediterranean Coast is home to the bulk of Cava production. A broad variety of these sparkling wines, which pair beautifully with a wide range of foods, are produced from the traditional grapes Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo in the Cataluna region. The same region is home to the dense, intense reds of the Priorat region, where wines are primarily made from Grenacha and Carignan. The relatively new Monsant appellation—sometimes called the ‘Poor Man’s Priorat,’—produces stylistically similar reds that are more affordable from younger vineyards.

The Navarra region in Northeast of the country is home to some of the Old World’s most fruit-forward roses, often made from the Grenacha grape. The Rueda region is home to both whites and reds, but is most famous for its mineral- and stone fruit-driven Verdejos made from the white grape of the same name. Galacia, across the border from Northern Portugal, is known for its crisp and seafood-friendly Albarinos which have made a name for themselves all over the world.

Spain is also home to two large sets of islands. The most important in terms of wine is the Canary Islands, which are off the coast of Morocco, and produce wines from a wide variety of indigenous grapes. These volcanic islands are also phylloxera–free, so grapes are planted on their own rootstocks. The far Southern tip of Spain, near the city of Cadiz, is also home to the country’s Sherry production which has put Spain on the international fortified winemaking map for years.