Lesson 21 – Spain, pt. 1

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Sommelier School

Lesson 21 – Spain, pt. 1


We are getting to the end of the main areas of Europe. Or at least as far as the tests will be concerned. Yes, we will cover Austria and Hungary soon, just not yet. This week we will do a very brief introduction to Spain and about half of the major wine producing areas.

Spain has been making wine since at least the 2nd Century B.C. However it’s only been recently that it has become something of a major wine area. Even then Rioja has been the name on people’s lips for much of that. And other than Rioja, Sherry and Cava are about the only other things people know about Spain. But now there are other areas getting some attention.

Spain’s appellation system is very similar to France and Italy. Below is the list from lowest to highest:

  • Vino de Mesa (VdM) – These are wines that are the equivalent of most country’s table wines and are made from unclassified vineyards or grapes that have been declassified through “illegal” blending. Similar to the Italian Super Tuscans from the late 20th century, some Spanish winemakers will intentionally declassify their wines so that they have greater flexibility in blending and winemaking methods.
  • Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT) – This level is similar to France’s vin de pays system, normally corresponding to the larger comunidad autonóma geographical regions and will appear on the label with these broader geographical designations like Andalucia, Castilla La Mancha and Levante.
  • Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD) – This level is similar to France’s Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) system and is considered a stepping stone towards DO status.
  • Denominación de Origen (Denominació d’Origen in Catalan – DO)- This level is for the mainstream quality-wine regions which are regulated by the Consejo Regulador who is also responsible for marketing the wines of that DO. In 2005, nearly two thirds of the total vineyard area in Spain was within the boundaries a DO region.
  • Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa/DOQ – Denominació d’Origen Qualificada in Catalan)- This designation, which is similar to Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation, is for regions with a track record of consistent quality and is meant to be a step above DO level. Rioja was the first region afforded this designation in 1991 and was followed by Priorat in 2003, and Ribera del Duero in 2008. [Editor’s Note: Apparently this upgrade never happened as of 2/9/10 even though it was scheduled to occur. Both Jancis Robinson in her The Oxford Companion to Wine (2006) and an article in Decanter Magazine (http://www.decanter.com/news/114630.html) both mention it.
  •  Denominación de Pago (DO de Pago) designation for individual single-estates with an international reputation. While not necessarily higher than a DOCa there are currently 9 estates with this status.


As implied above for VdM, each DO will likely have its own regulations concerning what varietals can be used, how long a wine is aged, the maximum yield, etc. This is handled by the Consejo Regulador. The wine is tested and if it meets the requirements then it is allowed to carry the DO or DOCa status along with the individual stamp for that DO.

In addition to the appellation system, there are some other labeling laws in Spain. These have to do with how long a wine has been aged:

  • Crianza – For reds, they must be aged for a total of 2 years with at least 6 months in oak. For whites and rosés it is 1 year with 6 months in oak.
  • Reserva – For reds 3 years with 1 year in oak. Whites and rosés 2 years and 6 months in oak
  • Gran Reserva – For reds 5 years with 18 months in oak. For whites and rosés 4 years and 6 months in oak. Normally this is only done in above average vintages.

Another term to be familiar with is bodega. No, I don’t mean the convenience store down the road in some areas of the country. Bodega is the rough equivalent to a Château in Spain. It literally means “wine cellar.” 

So what are areas are we going to cover this week? Below is the list.

  • Rías Baixas
  • Toro
  • Ribeira del Duero
  • Rioja
  • Navarra

First we start with Rías Baixas (ree-ass by-shuss). Yeah, I still have to look at how to pronounce it as you probably just saw on the video 😉 This is located on the Galacian coast of Spain (Atlantic Ocean) just north of Portugal See “1” on the map below:


English: Wine regions of Spain with denominación de origen (DO & DOCa) in 2008.

Date: May 2008

Source: Self-made (data taken from Ministerio de Agricultura and the respective consejos reguladores of the DO regions.)


Té y kriptonita based on Image:Comunidades_autónomas_de_España.svg created by Emilio Gómez Fernández


(Reusing this file)

GFDL or Creative Commons – Attribution – Share-Alike – 2.5

This DO has been gaining in popularity over the past few years. It is known for its Albariño wines. Albariño is a white varietal not native to the area but thought to have been brought to Spain by French monks in the 12th century. It is possibly a clone of Riesling, or a relative of a French varietal Petit Manseng.

There are 5 sub zones here. I’ll just list them below:

  • Val do Salnés
  • O Rosal
  • Condado do Tea
  • Soutomaior
  • Ribera de Ulla

Since this area is on the Atlantic Ocean, it’s weather is obviously influenced by it. Winters are wet and foggy. For summer the temperature rarely gets above the mid 80s F.

Moving on to Toro. See #10 on the map above just east of northern part of Portugal. Another rising star of Spanish DOs. It’s really gotten known in the past 10-15 years thanks to the Vega Sicilia bodega buying up land in the area to create a bodega there. Vega Sicilia is perhaps one of the best known and most expensive wines (Unico) from Spain.

Toro makes both red and whites. Here the main varietal is known as Tinta de Toro. This is also better known as Tempranillo. It makes full-bodied wine and is the big dog when it comes to red wine varietals in Spain. You’ll hear it a lot over the next couple lessons. Another varietal used here is Garnacha. We know it as Grenache.

Something to make note of here is the altitude. About 2,000ft or more the vineyards are able to take advantage of cool nights after the especially hot summer days.

Next we come to Ribeira del Duero. #13 on the map just a little farther east of Toro. Home of the aforementioned Vega Sicilia bodega, this DO has really started to become recognized in the past 20-30 years. At 3,000ft, the vineyards can cool down even more after a hot summer day. Harvesting in October is not uncommon here and the area can also experience frosts in the Spring.

Just like Toro, Tempranillo is the main varietal use here. It is known as Tinto Fino. In addition to Tempranillo, Garnacha is found here. You’ll also find “international varietals” such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec grown here used to blend with Tempranillo. It is mostly a red wine region with Albillo being the only white varietal grown here. It is also sometimes blended with Tempranillo.

OK, so we now come to Rioja. And for simplicity sake, we will include Navarra as well. Numbers 15 and 19 respectively on the map above. Rioja was the first region to be granted the DOCa status. Most people will have heard of Rioja when talking about Spanish wine. 

Vineyards here can be as high as 2,600ft. Add to that the protection from the Atlantic Ocean afforded by the Cantabrian Mountains. And even the Pyrenees. Dry conditions abound here and make the vines struggle. You are also in danger of hailstorms damaging crops. The soil is varied throughout the region, but limestone is the common factor.

There are 3 main districts in Rioja. They are:

  • Rioja Alta – some of the fullest wines for fruit and concentration.
  • Rioja Alavesa – fullest in body for the region
  • Rioja Baja – can be high in alcohol and may be best suited for blending

Tempranillo is the main varietal again. And 85% of the total wine from here is red. However most of the wine here is a blend. The typical blend is from four varietals (from highest to lowest ratio):

  • Tempranillo – main flavors
  • Garnacha – adds body and alcohol
  • Graciano – adds additional aromas
  • Mazuelo – adds seasoning flavors, color, tanin and aging.

White wine is also produced with the main varietal being Viura. Also known as Macabeo. Viura is normally not made into a 100% varietal wine (though it can be found). Usually it is blended with Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca. A small percentage of Rosés are made (known as Rosado). These are normally Garnacha.

Navarra borders Rioja to the east. Historically known for rosado wine, Navarra has seen some increase in reds. There are 5 districts here:

  • Baja Montaña – some of the region’s best rosados come from here.
  • Ribera Alta – one of the top two districts for all three styles (red, white, rosado)
  • Ribera Baja – mostly Garnacha wines and the other top district.
  • Tierra Estella – mostly Tempranillo.
  • Valdizarbe – smallest district that makes good valued reds and rosados.

That’s going to wrap it up for this week. Next week we will cover the other important DOs and also Sherry. After that we will tackle Portugal. As you may have seen on Twitter, I’ll be taking the Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Wine test this June. I also still plan on taking the Introductory Sommelier Exam given by the Court of Master Sommeliers this year. The reason I haven’t decided on that one yet is that they haven’t released the rest of their test dates for this year. And the ones they have released don’t fit in with my plans as of yet.

Sorry about not having a lesson last week. Had other video work to do. I also wasn’t able to do the live uStream/Twitter tasting two weeks ago as my “day job” schedule prevented that. Look for those reviews soon however.

Thanks for watching/reading this week’s lesson! I will see all of you next week!

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training

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