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- History - A history of Spanish wine and winemaking

History of Spanish Wine

The Phoenicians, who settled around present-day Cádiz around 1100 B.C., were probably the first producers of Spanish wine. Over a thousand years later, the Carthaginians and Romans simultaneously invaded different parts of Spain around 200 B.C. and both promptly expanded viticulture in the new territories. The Romans eventually gained control of all the Carthaginian holdings, and wine production and export all around Europe continued to grow.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths dominated the Iberian Peninsula, and winemaking continued at a slower pace. However, with the invasion of the Moors in 711 A.D., viticulture suffered a serious blow. Though not all Moors abstained from wine, their religion does prohibit its consumption. Only the significant Jewish and Christian population within the Moorish Empire kept the wine industry alive during the 600 years of Muslim rule.

However, Northern Spain remained Christian, and Navarra, Aragon, Castilla y León and Barcelona worked together to defeat the Moors to the south and create a Christian Spain. In 1492 they achieved this goal, and began the terrible Spanish Inquisition. With the murder and displacement of so many Jews and Moslems, English, Dutch, and French merchants moved to Spain and established a prosperous wine trade. However, this didnt last long, as in 1588 Spain and England went to war, with Spain on the losing end of the famous battle of the Spanish Armada.

Spanish wine production expanded slowly from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, but was devastated by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s. Fortunately, French immigrants replanted the vineyards with superior grapes, and the region was temporarily restored. Later in the twentieth century Spanish winemaking ground to yet another halt as political pressures led to the Spanish Civil War. The resulting nationalist party led by General Franco isolated Spain to such a degree that Spanish wine stayed within its borders. Only in 1975, after Francos death, did Spain truly recover and blossom into the important wine producer of today.

- Overview - An overview of Spanish wine today.

Overview of Spanish Wine

Suffering from a reputation as a producer of lowly bulk wine, Spain in the 1970s had nearly been written off the map as a legitimate wine country. However, with the fall of the nationalist dictator Franco and the birth of a modern government, Spain’s fortunes quickly reversed. Today, Spain is known for quality wines of many varieties from nearly every major region of the country. Fabulous Tempranillo-based wines from Rioja and Navarra, sparkling Cava from Penedès, the famous Sherry from the Jerez district to the south, and luscious white Albariño-based wines from the northwest corner of Galicia. With a solid organizational system and a determined effort from winemakers, Spain’s wine is poised for international fame.

- Understanding Spanish Wine - A guide to reading a spain wine

Understanding Spanish Wine


In a sincere effort to control and monitor its wine production, Spain introduced the Denominación de Origen system in 1926. This series of laws is roughly the same as France’s appellations d’origines system, which allocates specific types of wine to specific regions, and classifies the wineries within them on a quality-based scale.
Spain’s vineyards are mostly classified according to a four-level system. Vino de mesa is the base level, and can be compared to France’s vin de table. Within this designation is a second level in which winemakers residing with in a Denominación de Origen (DO) region may produce whatever type of wine they want, regardless of the specific requirements of the DO. Vino Comarcal is the second official level of wine production, and equates to vin de pays in France. Next is vino de la tierra, and finally, the top wines receive the Denominación de Origen designation. Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) is the very best rating, and so far only Rioja has reached this level.

Key Terms:

Vino de Cosecha: This term refers to a vintage wine in which at least eighty-five percent of the grapes used must have been harvested in the year on the label. These are young wines.
Crianza: This means the wine was released after at least six months in oak barrels and two years in a bottle. Some regions have added to the aging requirement.
Reserva: This refers to a red wine aged a minimum of three years.
Gran Reserva: This title can only be used in very good years, and the wine must be aged for three years in barrels and two years in bottles.


- Jerez



Located in Southern Spain near the Straits of Gibraltar, Jerez is uniquely suited to the production of Sherry. It’s comparable to France’s Champagne region, in that it has a virtual monopoly on Sherry based upon natural geologic and climatic forces. Other areas in the world have attempted to produce knockoff Sherry, but none can match the original region thanks to Jerez’s soil and climate. Its Albariza soil and hot, dry winds combine to create the ideal situation for its wine. Moreover, in recent years the tightening of EU geographical indications laws has strengthened Jerez’s legal status as the sole producer of the actual Sherry wine.


The Phoenicians were probably the first to plant vines in this region, as they established Cádiz and Jerez de la Frontera in 1100 B.C. The Greeks occupied the land next, and brought with them the Bepsema, a grape that adds color, sugar, and substance to today’s Sherry. A thousand years later, the Moors invaded Spain, and using the Moorish technology, Jerez’s winemakers were able to distill their grapes into a liquor. They then added this drink to their wines each year, and were able to produce the first authentic Sherry.

The drink’s popularity spread rapidly, and by the late 1200s a wine trade business out of Jerez was booming. Though interrupted by Spain’s war with England, in which Sir Francis Drake reportedly stole 150,000 cases of Sherry from Jerez itself, the unique wine continued to be successful. In recent years, the Jerez region has suffered by attempting to compete with lower priced, lower quality knockoffs from other regions. Overproduction caused serious difficulties, and vineyards began to fail. However, in the 1990s the problem was reconciled. Low quality producers within Jerez tore up their vines and moved on, halving the production of authentic Sherry and increasing the price. Today, the true Sherry has regained its quality and authenticity that made it so famous for hundreds of years.


Jerez is located near the coast in southern Spain within the State of Andalusia.


The climate is very hot, though still influenced by the Mediterranean and even the Atlantic to the west. Two different winds play a key role in Sherry’s production: the wet Poniente wind coming off the Atlantic allows for the growth of the Flor yeast in Sherry Fino, and the Dry Levante heats and dries the grapes on the vines will into their ripening stage, drastically altering the metabolism process of Sherry grapes.


Vineyards grow everywhere from the flat coastal plains to the hilly terrain farther inland, all the way to the high plateau of Málaga at over 1,600 feet above sea level.


The soil in Jerez is crucial to its wine. Called Albariza, it’s white in color, and incredibly rich in lime. The soil soaks up rain during the brief wet season, and then forms a tight shell on the surface insulated the water from evaporation. Additionally, its sparkling color reflects the sunlight onto the grapes as they ripen.

Important Varietals


Pedro Ximénez


- Rioja



Rioja and Navarra comprise the finest wine production area in Spain. While Rioja’s products have been criticized for an excess of oak, the vanilla-oak flavor is the defining characteristic of a Rioja wine. The major wine districts within these two regions are the Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Baja, Baja Montaña, Ribera Alta, Ribera Baja, Tierra Estella, and Valdizarbe. Of these districts, the first three Rioja names are the most well known.


Winemaking in the Rioja is believed to date back to the Phoenicians of the 11th century BC, though the earliest written evidence of grape-growing in the region – a document from the Public Notary of San Millán – is from 873 AD. Archaeological evidence in the form of a 75,000-liter wine cistern suggests that vineyards were established in the Rioja to supply Ancient Roman troops. In 1102, the King of Navarra and Avalon gave legal recognition to the wines from Rioja, and by 1560 they had become so popular that local authorities attempted to safeguard the quality and reputation of their wines by prohibiting the use of grapes from other regions and by branding their wines with a seal of authenticity.

In the late 18th century, oak aging barrels were introduced to Rioja. This allowed the wines to stay good for longer, so they could be exported around the world. The early 19th century saw various other advances in wine production, such as the use of large vats to crush and ferment the grapes in place of traditional outdoor crushing by foot. In the 1850s a fungal disease destroyed vineyards in nearby Galicia, while the grapevine pest Phylloxera attacked vineyards in France, opening up the market for Rioja wines. French winemakers traveled to Rioja to set up wineries there, and the extensive knowledge, techniques, and experience they brought led to a boom in the Rioja wine industry. Even when Phylloxera reached Rioja in the 1890s, methods had been established to counter the pests’ destruction, and the region’s wine production quickly recovered. A regulating council was created in 1926 and inaugurated in 1953 in order to limit the zones of production, control the use of the name “Rioja,” and expand the wine’s warranty. In 1991 Rioja became Spain’s first (and currently only) Denominación de Origen Calificada.


Named for the Rio Oja, a tributary of Spain’s largest river the Ebro, the Rioja region is bordered on the east by the Pyrenees and on the north by the Cantabrian Mountains. The region itself lies mostly on a valley, with the surrounding mountains serving to moderate the climate. They keep the Rioja fairly warm, and they provide protection from the fierce winds found elsewhere in northern Spain. The limestone-heavy soil contains pockets of sandstone and clay.


Vineyards grow in the hills in and around Rioja, with a few spilling down into the valleys.


Soil in Rioja is heavily influenced by limestone, with pockets of sandstone and clay.

Important Varietals

The region produces Tempranillo, Viura, and Garnacha. Most red Rioja wines are a blend of roughly 70 percent Tempranillo, 15 percent Garnacha, and the remaining 15 percent divided evenly between Graciano and Mazuelo (also known as Carignan). White Riojas are 95 percent Viura and 5 percent Malvasía.


- Galicia

Galicia: Rías Baixas and Ribeiro


Galicia lies above Portugal in the northwestern corner of Spain. It’s heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, and is the wettest region in the country. Rías Baixas is a DO located on the coast along a Ría, or deep coastal valley. This area is famous for one grape variety only, the delicious white Albariño. Though damaged by phylloxera in the late nineteenth century, the region has recovered and produces some coveted wines. Ribeiro, located farther inland, produces a dry, crisp wine made from Torrontés and Treixadura grapes.

- La Mancha

La Mancha


Producing approximately forty percent of Spanish wine, La Mancha is a land of vast, bulk production vineyards. However, progress has been made in improving some of the region’s wines, and a few winemakers, like Alejandro Fernández, are working to improve the reputation of Spain’s biggest wine region.

- Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero


Ribera del Duero is a newcomer in the Spanish wine scene, but has made great strides toward rivaling even the great Rioja. In fact, Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s most expensive wines, is produced in the centrally located region. The region is spread along the Duero River, and lies in central Spain in the state of Castilla y León. The hot days and cold nights in Ribera del Duero make wine production a difficult task, with frosts early in autumn and late into the spring. Vineyards grow up to 2,600 feet above sea level, which further increases the risk to damage from the cold. However, based on the region’s wines, viticulture will continue to succeed and expand here, as it has for several hundred years.