Spain is a land of breathtaking landscapes, colorful history and a deep, complex culture in which wine has long played an important role. Grape vines have been grown on the Iberian Peninsula since at least 3000 B.C., although it was not until 1000 B.C. that winemaking began here in earnest – a skill brought by Phoenician traders from the eastern Mediterranean. Today, Spain is home to more vines than any other country on Earth, and has a national wine output exceeded only by France and Italy.
All seventeen of Spain's administrative regions (communidades autónomas) produce wine to some extent, including the Canary Islands and Balearic Islands. The greatest concentration of vineyards is in Castilla-La Mancha, but the finest and most famous wines come from Galicia (Rias Baixas), Catalonia (Cava and Priorat), Andalucia (Sherry), Castilla y Leon (Rueda, Toro and Ribera del Duero) and of course Rioja.
Geography and climate together play a fundamental role in defining Spain's many wine styles. From cool, green Galicia and the snow-capped Pyrenees in the north, via the parched central plateau, to sandy, sunny Andalucia in the south, the Spanish landscape is very diverse. The country spans seven degrees of latitude (36°N to 43°N), leaving 500 miles (800km) between its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. In-between these two very different coastlines are various mountain ranges, each of which has its own particular effect on the local landscape and climate. The Cordillera Cantábrica range, for example, creates dramatic contrasts between the lush, green land on its northern, Atlantic side and dry, dusty Castilla y Leon on its southern, inland side.
Among the mountain peaks and plateaux rise the rivers on which so many Spanish vineyards depend. These are significant not only as a source of much-needed water, but also because of their impact on local soils and mesoclimates. The most significant of the Spanish 'wine rivers' are the Miño, Duero, Tajo, Guadiana and Ebro. The first four of these flow westwards into Portugal, where they become the Minho, Douro, Tejo and Guadiana (see Portugal). The eastward-flowing Ebro, however, remains purely Spanish for its entire journey, and passes through some of the country's most important vineyard areas. On its descent from the mountains of Cantabria, the Ebro flows through Castilla y Leon, El Pais Vasco, Navarra, Rioja and Aragon, before arriving at the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia.
As climate, geology and topography vary around Spain, so do the wine styles. The cool vineyards of the far north and north-west create light, crisp, white wines, exemplified by Rias Baixas and particularly Txakoli. Those in warmer, drier regions further inland tend towards mid-bodied, fruit-driven reds such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Bierzo. Those close to the Mediterranean produce heavier, more powerful reds (e.g. Jumilla), except in higher-altitude districts, where reduced heat and humidity allow the production of lighter reds and notably sparkling white Cava. Sherry is not so easily grouped, however, as its distinctive style is the product of human influences (winemaking techniques) rather than climatic factors.
Spain's wine grape varieties are less numerous than their counterparts in, say, Italy. They also receive far less fanfare; the Spanish wine industry has only recently begun to show any interest in varietal-led winemaking and marketing. Several hundred varieties are used in Spanish vineyards to some extent, but the vast majority of Spanish wine is made from just a small number of these. The key red-wine varieties, in order of acreage, are Tempranillo, Bobal, Garnacha and Monastrell. The leading white-wine varieties are Airen, Viura/Macabeo and Palomino and Albarino.
Tempranillo, which has various regional synonyms (including Cencibel, Tinto Fino and Ull de Llebre) appears in both quality and quantity. It accounts for just over 20% of all Spanish vines, and features prominently in the country's most prestigious wines (most obviously Rioja, Toro and Ribera del Duero). Bobal, although relatively unknown, covers an impressive 7% of the national vineyard area, mostly in eastern Spain around Valencia, Manchuela and particularly Utiel-Requena. Garnacha is valued here, as elsewhere, for its juicy, fruity character and high potential alcohol. It is put to good use in the deeply-colored rosés of Navarra, but is perhaps at its best when blended with the more-structured, darker-flavored Tempranillo. Monastrell
Perhaps surprisingly, the most commonly planted variety of all is the little-known Airen. This is a high-yielding white-wine variety whose drought resistance wins it favor with growers, but whose grapes typically disappear into anonymous blends and brandy. Macabeo (or Viura as it is known in Rioja) is a main variety in both still wines and sparkling Cava. Palomino, although occasionally used in varietal table wines, is used almost exclusively for Sherry. Albarino is found almost exclusively in the north-west, and owes its growing popularity to the success of its most noted wine style, Rias Baixas.
'International' varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are becoming more and more popular in Spain, and their plantings are rising in various Spanish regions. Along with the most popular varieties, there are regional specialties, such as Hondarrabi Zuri in the Basque Country, Marmajuelo in the Canary Islands and Zalema in Andalucia.
In the past few decades, Spain's wine industry has engaged in a great deal of modernization, with traditional practices and equipment giving way to state-of-the-art technologies. The result has been a significant improvement in quality and reliability. This modernization in vineyard and winery has been reflected in the offices of government; the nation's wine-classification system has been worked on extensively in the new millennium (see Spanish Wine Label Information).
Spain's position in the wine world is changing. Many (but not all) producers are adapting to the demands of the international wine market, showing innovation and offering both consumer favorites and relative value for money. The export market is now of prime importance, not least because the domestic market is shrinking as Spain's wine consumption per capita continues to fall year on year. Strong global demand for premium red wines shows promise for the likes of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat, but quite how traditional, less-mainstream styles such as Sherry and Getariako Txakolina will fare in the next few decades will be a point of interest.