This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Las Rocas Wines. Las Rocas Wines hail from Calatayud, an arid hilly region in the northeast of Spain, where the air is dry and the terrain is unforgiving. Against all odds, Garnacha vines thrive here on the steep, rocky slopes of Calatayud. Producing grapes with a signature palate of spice and minerality, these robust vines — some more than 100 years old — lend their lively spirit and character to all the Las Rocas wines. Sample the rich and full bodied flavors of Spain, Las Rocas Wine.
In this episode, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers begins what will be a long, thorough journey into Spanish wine. He begins the episode by emphasizing that the country is a big topic to cover on a single episode of “Wine 101,” but insists regardless that “Spanish wine is fun.”
An influx of Spanish wine has hit American markets in the last few years, and a new generation of winemakers is constantly reimagining traditional Spanish grapes. Some grapes, like Tempranillo and Garnacha (called “Grenache” in France) are already very popular and simply seeing a renewed demand for their classic forms. Others, like Rioja, are being aged in new ways, so Beavers suggests that “Wine 101” fans try to get their hands on whatever new, interesting Spanish wines they can find.
Part of why it would be unfair to try to cover this country in just one episode is the fact that Spain is made up of 138 unique regions, each ranked within a seven-tier appellation system. Beavers runs through this entire system, which defines grapes both by where they are grown, as well as by any necessary aging requirements. He touches on the biggest grapes grown in Spain, and illustrates the country’s diverse terrain by tracing through its entire geography. Along the way, he links different areas to multiple grapes, wines, and more information to come.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
My name is Keith Beavers, and I just want to buy a nice pair of sunglasses and not lose them. Once!
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 31 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And how you doin’? I’m going to talk about Spain, the entire country — all of it — in 20 minutes. That’s crazy. Right? Well, we’re crazy. Let’s just do this.
All right. So I think this is the first episode where we’re actually going to cover an entire country, not just one wine region. And it’s a lot, so we’re not going to be able to get to the entire thing, of course. But I feel like Spain is popular on the American market for a few things in wine. You have Cava — well, first you have Rioja ‘cause it’s Rioja. We all know about Rioja, and you have Cava, which is very popular. And then there are other wines that come out of Spain that are popular in certain areas of the country and not so much in others.
And you have some Spanish wine that you’d be like, “Wow, this is really affordable and it’s Spanish, but what is Calatayud?” So it’s a little bit confusing. The Spanish presence on our market has kind of been spotty, if you will. But down the road, we’re going to start talking about Spanish wine regions. So this is an opportunity to kind of just do a general overview of the country — not going to go too deep into craziness here. The history of this country is deep. Just as much as any other European wine-producing country, if not more so than others, because the Iberian peninsula has been the staging ground for a lot of political maneuvering throughout history, military maneuvering throughout history, its proximity to France and England. It’s just awesome.
In one day, as we go through different regions in the future, we can really get more of a sense of all that human maneuvering throughout history in Spain. This country has 17 autonomous regions with provinces within those regions, has 12 general wine regions with wine regions within those regions, totaling 138 wine regions.
There are 138 wine regions in Spain alone, and across all those 138 regions are vines that are mostly indigenous to Spain. Grapes like Tempranillo, Garnacha, Verdejo, Palomino, Pedro Ximenez, Graciano, Godello, all these beautiful names for all these awesome grapes. And aside from Tempranillo and Garnacha, which is “Grenache,” as they say it in France, you may not have heard of these varieties.
So there’s a lot in Spain, so to get to all of it in a small episode is just not going to do it. But if we talk about geography, that hasn’t changed. The human stuff has changed, but the geography is the same. So we’re going to talk about an overview from 30,000 feet, whatever that saying is, and show you what Spain is. So that when we get into it later on, you get an idea of it. So the way I understand Spain is that I look at the entire country, and I see sections. I see a northern coastal section, and that runs all the way from Galicia in the west, all the way to the Pyrenees in the east, which borders France. And it’s about the top third of the country. And this part of the country is heavily influenced by the Bay of Biscay. And this area is pretty rainy. Actually the annual rainfall is about 60 inches per year. And because just inland is a mountain range, the Spanish call these mountain ranges “cordilleras,” and the mountain range kind of keeps the rain and that kind of coastal influence in this area of the country.
It gets in and out, it kind of goes inland a little bit sometimes. And of course all this affects the vines that grow there. And then I see, just over those mountains going south, there’s another section, and this is basically called the — I call it the valley section. You have two main rivers. You have the Ebro River, which flows to the Mediterranean to the east. And then you have the Duero River, which flows West through Portugal to the Atlantic. And this is where the famous Rioja region is. But other great wine regions like Ribeiro are here. And this area is getting a little bit warmer. The mountains, the cordilleras, they actually protect this area from the rain over to the north that’s influenced by the Biscay Bay. And here, you only get 17 inches a year, whereas just north on the other side of the mountains, you get 60. So it’s a definite decrease, it’s warmer, and it’s mostly influenced by these rivers.
Then I look at the east coast of Spain, and actually run the east coast all the way through to the southern coast. And this is basically just all Mediterranean influence, just like southern France, just like Italy. It has a Mediterranean climate, so it has a nice, mild winter. Warm summers. It’s a great vacation spot, grapes gradually ripen. They love the area. There’s some awesome wines being made. This is where this is where Cava is made. This is where awesome red wines from the grape Monastrell come from.
And then down to the southern part of Spain is also Mediterranean, but it’s a lot hotter down here. And this is where this very famous wine called sherry is made, and we’re going to have an entire episode on sherry. It’s a very unique kind of wine that is fermented in a very unique kind of yeast called “flor” that results in something completely crazy.
So that’s a little area called Jerez, the name of this area is called Andalucia. But then after you see all that, what you have here in what takes up almost the entire center of this country is what is called the Meseta Central, which is just one big, massive plateau. And it rises up to like 3,000 feet above sea level.
And it’s blisteringly hot in the summers. And it’s extremely cold in the winters because it’s so high up there. And here, we have all different kinds of wine. One of the largest wine-producing regions in Spain, Castilla La Mancha, I got to say, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing this stuff right. I really hope I’m doing some of these names a little bit of justice.
The most planted grape across all of this is a grape called Airén, and it’s a white wine grape, and you’re not going to see a lot of it on the American market. But the most planted red grape is, of course, Tempranillo. And we all know Tempranillo because it’s part of the Rioja region’s wine. They also have a wine called Graciano. But Tempranillo grows all over Spain. After that, in a little bit less amount, is Garnacha. And then a little blending variety called Robal.
But it’s when we start getting into these geographic climatic uniquenesses that we start seeing these grapes that thrive in these areas alone. I mean, there are certain grapes that are grown in multiple regions, but there are grapes that are actually defined by a region. For example, in the extreme northwest of Spain in that top third I was talking about earlier is the province of Galicia. And in Galicia, there’s Tempranillo, there’s a grape called Palomino there which is also grown in the sherry region. There’s a really awesome white grape called Godello there. It’s really awesome. But this region is mostly defined by the grape Albariño. And even though you might see Albariño from other places in Spain, this is Albariño’s home. This is where there’s some of the best examples of that grape are.
If you go down the east coast or the southern part of the east coast of Spain is a place called Jumilla, and Jumilla has Garnacha, they have Tempranillo. But that place is really known for Monastrell. In France, they call this grape Mourvedre, but it is actually native to Spain, and they call it Monastrell. And Monastrell is awesome stuff. You can find this on the American market absolutely. And then you have just north of that on the same coast, but up in the north, in a province called Catalonia. This is where Cava is made. And the grapes that grow here are just awesome. And their names are great Chalello, Macabeo.
But in general, you can kind of get sense of this. The east coast is the Mediterranean climate. So the wines, even at the headquarters, have a good amount of acidity to them, they’re going to have some depth because of the sun. And then you have the northern region, which is going to be kind of rainy. And it’s going to have a lot of acidity in their wines. Then you’re going to have the valley wines and the Ebro and the Duero where you have the Riojas there and you have these intense, Tempranillo-based wines.
Sometimes, they have a nice acidity to them. Sometimes, they’re a little more powerful, just because it’s a river area. And that changes just depending on where the river is. Then you have that plain area, the Meseta Central, which is a little bit crazy, just because of the extremes. But you’ll have these big, full-bodied red wines and not really a lot of white wines. And again, in the future, as we get more into these specific individual regions, we’ll get into more details about that.
But one thing I wanted to convey to you guys is, one thing that’s confusing about Europe in general, is their appellation systems. Every country has their own appellation system, and it’s not as loose as the American Viticultural Area system that we have in the United States or any of the New World areas like New Zealand or South Africa, Argentina. The appellation system was sort of created in Europe and the French were the first to really kind of map out what an appellation system is and the rules and the laws that are in place to define an area that is demarcated for wine. And every time a country attempts to either copy or base their appellation system off the French appellation system, which everyone basically does, it gets a little bit complicated because it’s not France, it’s their own country. And they have their own things to take care of. I guess what I mean is every country is individual and they have their own issues to work through to create a system that’s cohesive and organized, and it doesn’t always work right away.
It’s happened in every country — it even happened in France. And in Spain, it’s very, very recent. In Spain, the appellation system was initially just called a “DO” denomination of origin, but in Spanish. And that was created early on in the 20th century. But then as the country is brought into the EU, things start to change. And the appellation system in Spain has been adjusted a few times. And there’s no reason to go into what that was. It will just be confusing. So we’ll talk about what the appellation system in Spain is now, so you understand what you’re looking at when you’re at a wine shop.
OK. So first you have a “DOP,” which is a larger wine region. It’s called a “Protected Denomination of Origin”. Within that DOP, you have a consortium that regulates all of the actions that happen within that wine region. From yield number to alcohol strengths, to all that kind of stuff. Then within the DOPs, you have a “DOCA,” which is a Denomination of Qualified Origin, which is a very strict area of wine-making that is holding onto a legacy like the Barolo region in Italy. It’s kind of on that level. And there are only two of those in all of Spain, which is, one is Priorat and one is Rioja. And then below that is just “DO” Denomination of Origin. This is the original idea for the Spanish appellation system, but now it’s incorporated into a lower tier to just define a specific region within a DOP.
I know this is a little bit confusing, but this is how it works. And within a “DOP” or “DOCA” or “DO,” there can be a “Vino de Pago.” And this is what’s called an estate wine, it’s a wine made from a single estate. It’s an indication of quality on the level of, “Hey, we control the entire production from growing the grapes to making the wine, to bottling it. We are in complete control. This is an estate wine.” And then below that you have something called a Vino de Calidad. And these are for wines that are in a “DO” but don’t meet the qualifications of the “DO,” but still giving them some sort of legitimacy. And it just means quality wine with a geographic indication, within the “DO”.
Then underneath there is the IGP or protected geographical indication, which is kind of like the Calidad, but it’s more within the region. Instead of making it within a DO and just not meeting the rules, it’s about making a wine within a protected area that may not be part of the DO rules. I know, this is insane. And then you have just the Vino de Mesa, which is just a general term for a wine made in Spain, we don’t know where the grapes are coming from, but it’s a wine and it’s in a bottle and it’s from Spain and you’re drinking.
That’s a lot, it’s like a six-tier system, not including the whole DOP general system. So it’s basically a seven-tier system. And what’s really kind of confusing is for example, the “DOCA” is called “DOCQ” in the Catalan. And sometimes, there are regions that could be a “DOCA”, which is like the strictest of the strict, but they don’t want to. They just want to be a DO. They’re fine with the old system.
So it’s still kind of in flux, still working. And within all of these regions and all of these levels, 138 regions, there are three aging levels of wine, and it’s across Spain, but not all regions use it. They’re really well known in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but it’s just the aging requirements for a wine. First you have “joven,” which means young and this wine can be released immediately or it can see a few months in oak. Whatever you want to do. It’s just a very young, vibrant wine. Then you have “crianza,” which just means bringing up, which is sort of like bringing up the young wine into something else. And this is what’s very famous, like, for example, in Rioja where a wine needs to see at least one year in oak barrels for whites, it’s six months in oak barrels.
Then you have “reserva,” which is a wine that needs to see at least three years of aging. And then one of those years should be in barrel. For whites, it’s two years and at least six months in barrel, then you have “gran reserva,” which is wines that see at least five years of aging with two years in an oak barrel and a minimum of three years in the bottle and for white wines and rosés it’s four years and six months.
Now again, this is going to be a little bit more in-depth when we go into each region, we’ll talk about whether they do that or not, and what they actually do and what grapes they grow and which ones they age, which ones they don’t age. But that’s Spain. That’s Spain’s geography.
That is Spain’s crazy active wine laws. The thing with Spain is that we’re watching this country evolve in its wine industry before our eyes, and Spanish wine is on the American market more than it ever was before. And it’s a very exciting time in Spanish wine right now. We have these younger generations of winemakers that are going back to the old ways, finding older varieties that may not have had the love they had before. Changing their aging regimes and how they plant vines and everything.
It’s a very exciting time. And we’re really going to see in the next 10, 15, 20 years more and more wines from these 138 different regions being celebrated on the American market. So for now, just go and buy Spanish wine. Go to a wine shop, and if you already know Rioja or if you know a Spanish wine region very well, go into a wine shop and ask for something outside of what you know, and kind of get a sense of Spain.
It’s a good time to get into Spain now, so as these wines become more and more popular in the American market, you’ll be more informed. Pretty fun. I mean guys, Spanish wine is fun. I can’t wait to talk about all the individual stuff. It’s going to be fun.
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo. And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.