If you don’t like wine at all stop reading now. Or at least sort your mouth and then come back. If you do like it, are a bit of a wino or live in or are travelling around Spain, then this article is for you.
In 2014, wine guru and boozy bigwig Robert Parker – he of America’s famed Parker Points system for classifying wines for the consumer – said that Spain was the country with the best quality-price ratio for wines. At SWE we couldn’t agree more and with 70 official Denominaciones de Origen (demarcated wine regions – DO) there are a lot of places to try and drink dry.
As well as a number of grapes grown, both local and international, the sheer variety of terroir – land types – in Spain is what makes it such a fascinating country to ruin your liver in. From high and dry mesetas and valleys to deserts and maritime plains, and from moderate mountain enclaves to fecund vales and glades, Spain really has it all. So, without further ado, here are 7 different regions and recommended grapes for you to seek out and pour into your beckoning glass. And there’s not a Rioja or Cava in sight!
Rías Baixas (Albariño)
If Norway went off and had a wild sweaty romance with Ireland the resulting child would look a lot like Galicia. Marooned off in the far northwest corner of Spain, Galicia is where the country’s best food, wettest weather, and sometimes most poetic countryside comes from. It’s a land of fjord-like estuaries (rías) and eucalyptus forests, of canyons and hills and more green than you can shake a Dulux colour card at. Gastronomy wise it boasts the best combination in the country: seafood and white wine.
The Rías Baixas (the lower fjords) are where the busy bunches of blushed green grapes can be found growing; most famously around the charming waterside town of Cambados. The wines are very aromatic, like a Viognier or Gewürztraminer, and fill the nose with peaches, green apples and apricots; sometimes with the slightest touch of saltiness. In the mouth the wines are pleasingly dry, but with a hint of fruit, and with the variety’s famed refreshing acidity that pairs so well with plates heaped up with grilled shellfish or boiled octopus.
Albariño wines (one of the few Spanish wines ordered by grape and not region often) are now quite well exported so get drinking!
Where the northwest of Spain is fecund and rain-spattered, the deep southeast couldn’t be more different. It is essentially a fairly poor semi-arid desert zone with only about 300mm of rain a year (Galicia approaches 2000mm in some areas). You might rightly think why on earth would you make wine here?
To make good wine, the grapes have to suffer. You don’t want to pander to the them and be all nice, but neither do you want them to die.
Too much water? They bloat up, get diluted flavours, and sometimes burst.
Not enough sunlight? They don’t ripen.
Too little water? They dry out.
They love sun though. So with a hot and dry climate you can get a lot of ripe flavours from your grapes as long as you control irrigation and nutrients so your agricultural sadism doesn’t actually slaughter your crop.
In Murcia and the DO of Jumilla there is really one king of the grapes: Monastrell. The heat and the intensity of the landscape is reflected in the wines. Intense and jammy, these hardy grapes produce wines that are inky dark and bursting with dried red and black fruits like blackberry preserves and chocolatey plums. They are pretty enormous in the glass but have a restrained elegance that the next region often doesn’t have. Drink…drink now!
Toro (Tempranillo – Tinta de Toro)
Tempranillo is very much the overlord of Spanish wine and is the superstar grape that put Spain on the wine map. In its most recognised form it takes a leaf out of the Cab Sav/Sangiovese handbook by providing medium to full-bodied reds. Though due to the thinner skins you get less overt tannic heft. Rioja, the most famous region, gives leathery red fruits while Ribera del Duero gives silkier black fruits.
In and around the town of Toro you find a livelier expression of the Tempranillo grape called Tinta de Toro. The name of the town, Bull, should make sense once you wrap your yearning chops around one of the these wines. They often lack a touch of elegance but hell they make up for it in power and force. The cheaper brands can err on the side of austereness but a good Toro is a big, broody, boozy beast that makes you smile and think ‘yep, this certainly is a red wine’. Strawberries and coulis can be found on the nose but then so can bosky fruits that you’d pluck from hedges in autumn. This is one bull you want to get in a ring with!
Only a couple of hours inland from Barcelona lies the wonderful DO of Montsant. A world of Colorado-style cliffs and emerald peaks and bumps that encircles the more famous, prestigious (and expensive) DO Priorat. A Garnacha (or Grenache) from Montsant will make you smile and look around quickly for a steak and a drinking partner.
Garnacha when in its more famed home of Campo de Borja or Calatayud often produces pleasingly light, fruity, full-bodied reds like Californian Pinot Noirs with a bit more peppery oomph.
From the hidden world of Montsant the grape seems to change, and unshackle itself from its lightweight overcoat. Perhaps it’s the whiff of regional independence in the air, but these Catalan Garnachas, take on a power and sensuality not so often associated with it. Plummy and smooth, with some ripe red fruits over the top, these wines are some of the harder ones here to find but we urge you to try your best.
You can keep your overpriced Burgundy Reds and elbow-budge the, in fairness really damn tasty, Pinot Noirs out of the way as Spain’s hotter and more passionate cousin is in town. If Pinot is Audrey Hepburn, then Mencía is Penélope Cruz. The ‘Spanish Enchantress’; able to straddle both elegance and fiery sexiness depending on the moment.
We find these grapes in a couple of regions in Spain (Ribeira Sacra is also a knockout) and Portugal, but those from the flowery Garden of Eden area of the Bierzo in northwest Castilla y León, are easier to find. This a region of bracing mountains and semi-mythical towns whose combination of altitude, plains, and temperature variations helps make truly delightful and dangerously drinkable wines.
The aromas and the palate are awash with flowery strawberries, sour cherry, pomegranates and some sweet spices all undercut with a mineral flintiness. Very good to just drink by itself – although we don’t really know which wine isn’t – it also goes great with hearty meats and strong cheeses.
Costers del Segre (Macabeo, parellada, xarel-lo)
Now this region is a little more of a challenge to find, even for those living in Spain, but it is so worth it. The Costers del Segre DO is a weird fragmented scattering of subzones and villages – each with their own characteristics – that spread out from the banks of the Segre river near the old city of Lleida in inland Catalonia.
For us the beauty of this region is its use of local grapes – read ‘unusual grapes with funny names’ – to make some astonishing white wines. Spain’s most famous bubbly wine is Cava; a wine made in the same traditional method as Champagne but sold for a fraction of the price. The traditional blend of grapes for this sparkling booze is Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo.
What you can find hiding away in those distant river valley plains a couple of hours from Barcelona, are still white wines made from the same combination.
Limes and tropical fruits like passionfruit and grapefruits often slide creamily over the palate. They have a lovely mellow acidity to them and are the perfect accompaniment to plates of oven-baked fish, gooey tortillas or grilled vegetables.
Tierra de Castilla (Prieto Picudo)
This will test even the best booze-hounds among you. Tierra de Castilla is not a DO, it’s a VdlT (Vino de la Tierra); similar to Vin de Pays in France. This means that the wineries here work and make wines outside the strict and controlled limitations set by the DO: or it could mean they’re crap and not good enough to enter the DO.
The optimist in me likes this. I imagine renegade winemakers sticking it to the man and just making the wine they want to make, and selling it when they think it’s ready. VdlT wines can sometimes be more fun, tastier and kookier than their DO cousins. But then…sometimes…they can taste like garbage. It’s a very alcoholic and affordable game of boozy Russian roulette.
My favourite, if you can find it, is the Prieto Picudo grape (officially not allowed to be sold as a varietal wine in a DO). This grape packs a lovely punch of hot black cherries, smoky dark chocolate and peppery dustbowl blackberries that all clip together with a tangy acidity. Bloody tasty and usually great value, this is rebel wine.
The unsung hero of Spanish whites. Verdejo is the most drunk grape variety – especially from the region of Rueda; Albariño is undoubtedly the preening Lord of the land for those in the know; and Rioja, the old quartermaster of Spanish wine, produces premium Viura whites that topple both price lists and ‘best wine ever’ charts. But it’s the Godello at home in Valdeorras, that really brings a well-priced smile to our lips.
Valdeorras is apt as a name for this region: the Valley of Gold. It was here that two millennia ago the Romans carved out an otherworldly landscape of quarries and mines to hunt for shimmering nuggets. Now, in lieu of precious metals, the only gold coming out of this fertile and bumpy landscape is in liquid form.
It seems that Chardonnay met Albariño in a bar sometime in the 70s, got overly-affectionate, and nine months later produced Godello. A wonderfully aromatic grape that glitters with lemons, green apples and some exuberant pineapples in both the nose and in the mouth. The wines have texture and body and are somewhat mouth-watering. You need this wine in your life and you need it now.