Menus & Entertaining

What to look for in Spanish red wines

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier

Author: Canadian Living

Menus & Entertaining

What to look for in Spanish red wines

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier
It's a terrific time to explore and enjoy Spain's excellent red wines. Spain has it all: iconic traditional wines, thrilling new cult wines and fun, reasonably priced quaffers for everyday drinking. These reds offer power, warmth and elegance balanced by value and innovation.

The history of Spanish wines
Spain's wine trade dates back to Columbus' time. Today it's the third most important wine-producing country after France and Italy. While it uses more land for wine cultivation than any other country in the world, Spain has surprisingly low yields due to the difficult physical conditions in the middle of the country.

Spain has only been using modern wine-making techniques since the early 1990s. This slow modernization is good news for the consumer: winemakers respect the past but have all the benefits of high-tech innovation in both the vineyard and the winery.

Spain's red wine regions
Spain is a country of contrasts. Each of its diverse regions has a unique culture. The country's wines reflect these contrasts, making it a fascinating place for wine drinkers to explore.

The most famous region for Spanish reds is Rioja. These elegant reds are made from the Tempranillo grape (reminiscent in style to Pinot Noir from Burgundy). This grape variety is as important to the Spanish wine industry as Cabernet Sauvignon is to Bordeaux or California.

Other important regions for red wine production are:
• Ribera del Duero
• Penedés
• Rías Baixas
• Priorato
• Navarra
• La Mancha

Spanish grape varieties
There are more than 600 grape varieties planted in Spain. But only 20 of those varieties account for 80% of the country’s production.

The most widely planted red grape in Spain is Garnacha (Grenache). Some other significant varietals are Tempranillo, Cariñena (Carignan), Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Mencía (used in cooler northern regions, such as Bierzo). Spain also cultivates a host of international varietals, such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Page 1 of 3 - What makes Spanish wine special? Find out on page 2.

Spanish wine laws and labelling terminology
Since it joined the European Union, Spain has aligned its wine laws with those in the rest of Europe. These laws define and protect wines from specific geographical locations.

Wines are labelled according to a four-tier system:
Denominación de Origen Califcada (DOC): Created in 1998, this term is similar to Italy's DOCG. To qualify for DOC or DO status, a Spanish wine region must meet rigid requirements. Each region then has its own governing body, which sets specific rules that range from viticulture practices to what information must be noted on the wine label. The DOC category is reserved for very high quality wines that have met established DO standards over a long period of time, such as Rioja.
• Denominación de Origen (DO): These wines meet strict guidelines (see above) to ensure consistent quality.
• Vino de la tierra: This term is similar to France's vin de pays, or "country wines." These wines are perfectly good but do not have to meet all the exacting standards of a DOC or DO wine.
• Vino de mesa: This term simply means "table wine" and includes all wines that don't qualify for the levels above.

More terminology: Spanish wine's unique aging process

One of Spain's greatest wine traditions is aging reds in oak barrels for long periods of time. Sometimes for up to 25 years! Not all are treated this way, but long aging gives certain Spanish red wines their unique flavour and distinguishes them from the rest of the world's.

The French introduced the barrel to Rioja many years ago, and it quickly spread throughout the country. Today most Spanish winemakers use American oak, which is cheaper than French oak and imparts a stronger flavour. Wines made from Tempranillo grapes are particularly suited to aging in new American oak.

Page 2 of 3 - Learn more about red wine production in Spain on page 3.
If a wine has been aged, it is designated on the label. There are three different levels you'll see listed on labels, though the specific length of time that the wine has spent aging varies from region to region.

Crianza: This designation is given to wines aged for the shortest amount of time. In Rioja, a Crianza must be aged for at least two years, one of which must be in oak barrels.
• Reserva: This designation is given to wines aged for a medium amount of time. In Rioja, a Reserva must be aged for at least three years, one of which must be in oak barrels.
• Gran Reserva: This designation is given to wines aged for the longest amount of time. In Rioja, a Gran Reserva must be aged for at least five years, two of which must be in oak barrels (the rest in done in the bottle).

Aging traditional Spanish reds (and delaying their sale) this way allows the wines to develop soft, sweet mellow fruit flavours and evolved earthy characteristics that only come with longevity.

Up-and-coming Spanish wine region
While traditional Spanish reds are excellent, there is also a new generation of winemaking on the rise. Winemakers in regions such as Priorato are producing exciting new wines using both traditional Spanish and international grape varietals. These up-and-coming wines offer tremendous value for the consumer.

Page 3 of 3 - Take a course on Spanish red wines 101 on page 1.

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What to look for in Spanish red wines