Jurg Widmer on the enduring appeal of Spanish wines

The allure of Spanish wines goes back hundreds of years. Today, Spain’s 70 wine producing regions are packed with innovative winemakers who consistently turn out yet more popular and delicious wines.

Spain is, of course, a large and diverse country and it’s not possible to cover every integral part of its wine making history and current market here. So, I’m going to give some of the most interesting points on specific regions and wine styles.

What makes Spanish wines so beloved around the world?

Let’s start with a very brief history of Spain, because it helps to contextualise the complexity of its wine regions

Spain as a single nation only appeared in the last years of the 15th century, and its infrastructure combines its Roman and Moorish roots.

Rome ruled Spain for around for approximately 800 years until the fourth century AD. And during that time they exported and drank an enormous amount of Spanish wine. Estimates put consumption at around 20 million amphorae by the second century AD.

Romans loved clarets and light red wines from Amandi in Galicia, white wines from Alella and sweet wines from Malaga, among many others.

A winemaking revolution in Spain
Jumping ahead a few hundred years, throughout the 16th century Spain expanded to become a big exporter of wines to the New World, with Sherry becoming synonymous with port town Sanlucar de Barrameda.

And much later on in 1975, dictator Franco died and this freed up a path towards a true Spanish winemaking revolution. Throughout the 1980s,  this expanded even further, culminating in an enormous number of wineries around the country.

The Spanish system of categorising quality wines

Spain has its own quality control system, which is called the Denomiancion de Origen (DO). This classifies Spanish wine broadly as follows:

DO – top tier

This is the Spanish equivalent of Italian DOC or French AC and includes wines that are made under strict control of a specific regional wine regulating council.

Vino de la Tierra – mid tier

Table wine linked to specific regions and usually from an autonomous wine making region. It’s the same as the French vin de pays in quality and shows the grape variety and vintage.

Vino de Mesa – low tier

This category is for basic table wines that come from vineyards that are not classified or controlled. They’re often blended and there is no mention of grape variety or vintage.

There is also Vinos de Pago Calificada and Vinos de Pago, which are outstanding quality wine made from single vineyards that have unique microclimates. There are around 70 DOs across Spain.

Hundreds of Spanish grape varieties are grown throughout the country

There are hundreds of native grape varieties in Spain, with some estimating around 600.

However, the production of Spanish wines generally uses about 20% of these 600. The most important varieties of Spanish grape include:

  • Airén
  • Albariño
  • Alicante
  • Bobal
  • Callet
  • Cariñena
  • Cencibel
  • Garnacha
  • Godello
  • Graciano
  • Loureiro
  • Macabeo
  • Malvasía
  • Mazuelo
  • Mencía
  • Monastrell
  • Moscatel
  • Palomino
  • Pansa Blanca
  • Parellada
  • Pedro Ximénez
  • Prieto Picudo
  • Samsó
  • Tempranillo
  • Tinta de Toro (tempranillo in Toro)
  • Tinto Aragonés
  • Tinto Fino (tempranillo in Ribera del Duero)
  • Torrontés
  • Treixadura
  • Verdejo
  • Viura
  • Xarel-lo

Spanish wine imports and exports in 2022

People in Spain tend to drink relatively little imported wine, but is the second biggest exporter in the world.

In recent years, there has been higher penetration of Spanish wines into Asia and Central American markets. For example, Spanish wine accounts for one of Guatemala’s biggest wine imports.

Back to Spanish people’s tastes – they generally drink domestically produced syrah, sauvignon blanc, merlot, malbec, petit Verdot, chenin blanc or blends of these wines.

It’s clear that, on the international stage that Spanish wines remain a symbol of global standard quality and traditional winemaking.

The importance of the wine sector in Spain

Spain’s economic health relies in no small part to the wine sector, and it is also a driver for environment conservation and rural expansion and development.

According to the latest figures from Caixa Bank there are more than 550,000 wine growing businesses in Spain today. There are then more than 4,000 wine producers who account for almost two-thirds of all wine production in Spain.

And finally, there is the wide ranging network of sales and distribution businesses.

Of course, the pandemic impacted the Spanish wine consumption figures, with a shift towards domestic consumption while lockdowns disrupted the hospitality and retail sectors.

But it appears that Spanish wine is bouncing back in terms of exports and domestic consumption, pointing towards a consistently healthy future.