A practical glance at Spain’s wine regions

Amaya Cervera. In 2013, and for the first time on record, Spain became the world’s biggest wine producer. An extremely abundant harvest -especially in La Mancha- and reduced productions in France and Italy, its closest rivals in wine’s major league, were the main factors behind this surge. Many would argue that Spain’s pleasant and sunny climate makes for many comfortable armchair vintages, but to my mind that is a rather simplistic view of a country that still boasts the largest vineyard surface area in the world.

Quite a few regions certainly elude the cliché of dry and safe growing seasons. Take Ribera del Duero for instance, where vegetative cycles are short and growers may have to deal with frosts both in May as well as in September. In the far northwestern corner, and this is Albariño country, average annual rainfall is 1,600 mm, much higher than in Champagne or the Mosel. Under such wet conditions, oidium is a constant threat for Galician vine growers and harvests must be completed before the Azores high pressures give way to Atlantic storms and a sudden end to the summer. In addition, grape ripening  can be a rather challenging job in the northernmost areas of Navarra, Rioja, León or Cataluña.

At the other end of the scale, heat is not always welcomed, specifically when it exceeds 40ºC.  Such weather is quite common in large swathes of Spain’s southern drier half such as La Mancha, Córdoba, Extremadura and Levante (Alicante, Jumilla…). In Catalonia, Priorat’s thirsty vines (300 mm might be all the rain they get in a year) have to dig their roots very deep in search of water and nutrients. Here, the combination of old vines, poor schist soils and extreme climate conditions result in concentrated, alcoholic but very distinctive reds. Nevertheless, the powerful, highly extracted bombs that prospered in the 1990s are giving way to a more aromatic and balanced style with softer tannins and a nice Mediterranean character.

Most quality-conscious winemakers are particularly concerned with achieving balance in their wines. In Spain, that requires perfect alcohol integration and looking for freshness in hot, dry areas. Winemaking techniques include whole bunch fermentations, blending with early-harvested grapes, or using specific types of yeasts aimed at lowering alcohol levels. The introduction of grape varieties with longer cycles has also proved successful in hot regions, although producers rarely disclose their names -most of these varieties are not authorized by the local regulatory councils or can only be grown on an experimental basis. Take Rioja’s Graciano. It is moving south, where it ripens beautifully and can add acidity and lively herbaceous notes to many hot jammy wines. Further south, Portuguese Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional are the best kept secrets behind Extremadura’s most exciting reds.

Moreover, Spain is a mountainous country, with a vast plateau covering a large area in the centre, so altitude can be a crucial quality factor. Planting at higher altitude ensures a longer ripening season, thus bringing freshness and balance. Some of the most exciting  wines launched in the last decade come from high altitude vineyards located in Bierzo, on the slopes of Moncayo in Aragón or on the Gredos mountain ranges (Madrid, Ávila, Toledo) and Montsant (Tarragona).

Generally speaking, Spain may be the land of sun, but when it comes to wine, the diversity can be really striking. I firmly believe that the country can offer wines to match nearly all palates. Where should you look to find the ones that better suit your taste? I’ve tried to draw a mental map that divides Spain’s main wine regions -not necessarily appellations- by style and type of wine. I hope this highly personal and rather general outline can be used as a practical guide to confront the shelves of your local wine store in a more relaxed way. Downloading the comprehensive map of Spanish wine regions compiled by Wines from Spain will definitely help readers locate each region accurately. 


Deeply coloured, highly structured, high alcohol reds, with some good examples achieving finesse. These are what I like to call the powerful three and include: Ribera del Duero and surrounding areas; Toro, whose wines are usually heavier but with voluptuous textures as long as alcohol is well integrated; and Priorat in Catalonia. I would add the seemingly unglamorous Almansa region (Castilla La Mancha), because fans of powerful wines will love the natural strength of Garnacha Tintorera’s old vines. On its own, Tintorera is a true beast!


Rioja is still the place to go to for fine red wines, capable of aging and full of complexity and nuances. From historical Gran Reservas, which are back in the limelight, to new and recent ventures exploring specific terroirs in the appellation. The only region that could compete for this honour, although this is more wishful thinking than reality, is Navarra, in particular its central and northernmost areas.

Mediterranean world

There’s something rather magical about the way in which most good producers in this area are able to combine fully ripe fruit with freshness. It happens with Monastrell in Alicante, Yecla and Jumilla; and with Garnacha (often accompanied by Carignan) in Catalonia. A Mediterranean scrubland character (pine nuts, rosemary and/or thyme) manages to counteract the relatively high alcohol content.  Many international grapes grown in the area can also be infused by this nice feature provided yields are kept under control. Those Priorat’s reds featuring a subtle aromatic style should definitely be included in this group.

Spain’s New World

This category includes regions focused on international grapes: Penedès in Catalonia, Somontano in Aragón, Navarra and some specific ventures in Castilla La Mancha, Castilla y León, Extremadura or Andalucía. While such an approach may not look very appealing at a time when local grapes are thriving, it certainly proved its effectiveness in crafting quality wines in the 1990s. Nevertheless, it may be worth keeping an eye on them given that some of these regions have also started to work with local grapes (Xarel.lo and Sumoll in Penedès; Garnacha in Somontano) or are refining their blends, as is the case in Navarra.

You say Grenache, I  say Garnacha

It used to be the most widely planted red grape and it now ranks fourth, but there have never been as many exciting Garnachas in the country as there are right now. Styles can vary significantly from one region to another: powerful in Aragón (Campo de Borja, Calatayud, Cariñena), fresher and medium-bodied in Navarra (although most of the grapes are used to make rosés) and richer in Méntrida. Garnachas from Gredos (part of Méntrida, inos de Madrid, Cebreros) are so distictively mineral that I would rather place them in the next category.

New & Exciting Flavours

This is the result of a better understanding of local grapes and terroirs. A new generation of young and courageous winemakers and vignerons are shaking up Spanish vineyards. The recovery of ancient plots planted with indigenous vines has led to a new, gentle, Burgundian approach in the winery. In fact, Pinot Noir seems to have more in common with the natural delicacy of many heritage varieties than the extract-as-much-as-you-can style imposed by Tempranillo-dominated regions. Look out for these new wines in wine regions such as Canarias, Baleares, Gredos, Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo, Sierra de Salamanca, Tierra de León. The bad news is that most of them are made in tiny quantities, depending on the size of the vineyards they come from.

White specialists

Led by the strong character of Albariño and Verdejo, and thanks to an ever-increasing demand from international markets, Spanish white wines have flourished over the past decade. Most white growing areas in Spain are closely related to a single grape variety whose name I’ve included in brackets. Rueda (Verdejo) in Castilla y León; Rías Baixas (Albariño), Valdeorras (Godello) and Ribeiro (Treixadura) in Galicia; Txakoli (Hondarrabi zuri) in the Basque Country; Terra Alta (Garnacha Blanca) in Catalonia; Albillo in different areas of Castille, and the best whites from Rioja (mainly Viura with small percentages of Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca) which offer an increasing diversity of styles and should not be disregarded.

Quantity over quality

This is sadly true for many producers in the huge Castilla-La Mancha region which covers different appellations (La Mancha, Valdepeñas, Mondéjar, Manchuela, Uclés, Ribera del Júcar and Almansa) and in Extremadura. Nevertheless, you’ll be able to find many exceptions to this rule, as some highly regarded winemakers are based in these areas.


This historical region in the south of Andalucía, along with Cordoba’s Montilla-Moriles, must have a section of its own. Their wines are unique and traditional: Fino, Manzanilla (only made by the sea, in Sanlúcar de Barrameda), Palo Cortado, Amontillado and Oloroso. All of them are tremendous bargains, incredibly food-friendly and especially suitable for impossible-to-match dishes (just think of marinades or vinegar seasoned salads).

A quiet sweet revolution

Sweet wines are out of fashion, but as most European wine producers, Spain has its own appetising traditions, most of which have been successfully revisited over the last few years. Generally, the focus has been on natural sweet wines without added alcohol, such is the case of Moscatel from Málaga and Navarra, Alicante to a lesser extent, and Malvasías from Lanzarote. This has also been the case for other sweet wines made from red grapes such as the famous Fondillón from Alicante, and other Monastrell and Garnacha wines from the Mediterraean area. The thick, unctuous and blackish PX from Montilla-Moriles is obviously a liqueur wine (impossible for yeasts to transform the huge amount of sugar contained in these sun-dried grapes into alcohol), as are many other traditional wines throughout the country.

Sangria gets a full makeover in the US

Bill Ward | July 16th, 2015

Spaniards traveling to the United States might have trouble finding a sangria that they would recognize. The quintessential Spanish cocktail shows up on thousands of menus across the land.  But what’s in the glass generally is “a far cry from what you get at gas stations and even most restaurants in Spain,” said Erin Ungerman, co-owner of four Spanish-themed restaurants in Minneapolis, Minn.

In a nation obsessed with fresh, seasonal ingredients in food and beverages, sangria has proved a perfect fit. As in Spain, there are as many renditions as there are restaurants serving them, but most versions veer, sometimes wildly, from the traditional.

At Ungerman’s eateries, the sangria has “a secret ingredient or two” and is topped with Cava, which “makes the flavors jump out.” At Salero in Chicago, David Disney “leans classic” but often substitutes wines from Burgundy (village reds, Chablis) as the base and adds some white-peach sorbet to his blanco version. And at the Iberian Pig in Atlanta, Jason King serves up red and white sangrias with just three ingredients apiece.

“We have recently changed it to be easier to make and much tastier and a little lighter,” King said. And more popular. “We’ll make up 40 gallons for the weekend and sometimes run out on Saturday night and have to make more,” King said.

That fits a national popularity spike for the cocktail. And while no statistics are kept on sangria consumption nationally, any regular restaurant-goer can attest to the greater quality and quantity of offerings available.

Meanwhile, bottled versions are among the fastest-growing US categories, with sales rising more than 50% between 2010 and 2014, to nearly 2 million cases sold last year. Earlier this month, the Eppa Sangria captured a silver medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

A trend for tapas and fresh ingredients

Sangria was introduced to the United States in 1964 during the World’s Fair in New York, and for decades it was confined to a smattering of Spanish restaurants, mostly in larger cities. But as the 21st century dawned, two trends changed everything: the sudden popularity of tapas restaurants and the thirst, if you will, for the very best ingredients in food and drinks. Voila: Red and white sangrias provide the perfect complement for the food and the setting.

Still, Alex Raij, who co-owns three Spanish restaurants in New York, Txikito, La Vara & El Quinto Pino, had a problem: She didn’t like sangria, or at least didn’t think she did. But at separate parties, she found the inspiration for the red and white versions that now dot her menu.

The white one, she said, “is based on one a friend of mine, a professional waiter, made, and I said that’s the first good sangria I have ever had.” The red rendition was spawned when her friend Ruben García, of Jose Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, served her not a sangria, but a rum cocktail “that was super refreshing because of the passion fruit.”

With her, um, passion stirred, she set out to concoct “the best sangria we can make, made to our own taste, with serious adult flavors. It’s my own criteria, and there are aspects that are secret.”

The key, she said, was making strongly flavored, iconic elements such as passion fruit “a back note, something that harmonizes rather than takes over.” In her white sangria she also uses ginger syrup and only two fruits: apples and lemons, “with the skins on so that adds a bitter part, makes it serious and not candy-like.” As a result, Raij said, “people who don’t think of themselves as sangria people like our sangria.”

Avoiding sugary flavors in sangria

In Chicago, Salero’s Disney also is striving to avoid too much sweetness and thus makes “a citrus-forward sangria,” he said, even utilizing orange-flavored ice cubes. Avoiding sugary flavors is especially important at this time of year, he added. “You want something that’s going to be more light, refreshing, bright. Sweetness and sun don’t go together so well.” A finishing touch might include frozen blueberries. “I don’t know if it imparts flavor, but people like it,” he said.
Atlanta’s King also landed on a citrusy element for his red sangria, one not likely to show up in Iberia: ruby-red grapefruit juice. “I’ve heard people say that it’s not real sangria,” King said, “and others say ‘it’s probably the best I’ve ever had’ and ask for the recipe. And a lot of times they don’t believe me because it’s so simple.”

At Txikito, Raij has gone one step further, adding a zurracapote to the mix. This Basque favorite has more dried apricots and fruits and spices such as cinnamon in her version, along with fortified red wine syrup, “so it’s like a double wine,” she said.

High quality wine is a must

An approach that these mixmasters have in common: the importance of using high-quality wine. “Most people seem to believe that sangria is for using bad wine,” Disney said with a chuckle. “Not anymore.”

The good news: These drinks have proved in many cases a “gateway” to Spanish wines in general, according to Disney. “I feel overall people are a little intimidated by Spanish wines just because they’re not as familiar with them as they are with New World wines or Italian or French wines,” he said. “Sangria definitely closes that gap.”

The better news: Sangria is appealing to Americans of all demographics. “It’s totally universal, all reaches of life,” Underman said. “You would be shocked at how many people love sangria. There was a guy the other night [at Rincon 38], and I thought, ‘you look like a Napa Valley cab dude, but you just want to sit and pound sangria.’ ”

At the Iberian Pig, Said King: “Just yesterday we had twins in their 70s who stopped in for a glass of red sangria, sat at the bar and had a glass, next to people in their 20s. It’s the kind of thing everyone thinks about when they think Spain.” Even if what they’re quaffing might bear little resemblance to what Spaniards are used to enjoying in their tabernas back home.

Some sangria recipes, US-style

Red Sparkling Sangria
Courtesy of David Disney, Salero, Chicago
1 Liter Tempranillo
13 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac
8 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
10 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
10 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 oz. fresh squeezed orange juice
Mix all ingredients and chill overnight. Pour 4 oz. of sangria mix in a Bordeaux glass with a lemon and lime wheel and an orange flavored ice cube and top with 2 oz. of Cava.

White Peach Sparkling Sangria
Courtesy of David Disney, Salero, Chicago
1 liter Godello
10 oz. lemon juice
10 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac
10 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
Mix all ingredients and chill overnight. Pour 4 oz. of sangria mix in a Bordeaux glass with a white peach sorbet ice cube and frozen blueberries and top with 2 oz. of Cava

Red Sangria
Courtesy of Jason King, Iberian Pig, Atlanta
4 oz. Viña Borgia Garnacha
2 oz. fresh ruby-red grapefruit juice, strained twice to remove all pulp
2 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
Mix all ingredients, stirring thoroughly. Spritz some soda water into a Hurricane glass, add ice and pour in sangria mix. Add chopped lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit as garnish

White Sangria
Courtesy of Jason King, Iberian Pig, Atlanta
4 oz. Hera Branca Vinho Verde
2 oz. fresh pineapple juice
2 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
Mix all ingredients, stirring thoroughly. Spritz some soda water into a Hurricane glass, add ice and pour in sangria mix. Add chopped lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit as garnish

7 Primary Styles of Spanish Red Wine


Spanish red wines offer offer exceptional value and a bold entry into the red wines of Europe. Here are 7 major Spanish red wines to get a basic understanding of what the country has to offer. You can find great sub-$15 fruity crowd pleasers but there are also bold high tannin red wines that easily match the top collector’s wines of the world.

Wine was introduced to Spain by the Phoenicians in 800 BC. Because of this, the wines of the Iberian peninsula are not the same French varieties we grow in the US. The wines are striking and unique, they also match perfectly with rich foods including thick cut cheddar burgers, empanadas, bbq skewers and pork roast.

Young Tempranillo

young tempranillo

  • Tasting Notes: Sour Cherry, Plum, Spicy Black Pepper and Bay Leaf
  • Average cost: $10–20
  • Regions: Rioja Crianza, Ribera del Duero Roble and Crianza, Valdepeñas, Tinto de Toro, La Mancha, Castilla-León, Extremadura

A juicy and spicy style of Tempranillo that typically receives less than a year of aging. Because wines are not aged long, they are spicy, fleshy and tart. Most value-driven Tempranillo tastes this way and the most well-known example of it is Rioja Crianza. In Central Spain, there are sub-$10 wines which are ideal for traditional Spanish Sangria.

Young Garnacha


  • Tasting Notes: Strawberry, Ruby Red Grapefruit, Hibiscus and Black Tea
  • Average cost: $12–18
  • Regions: Calatayud, Somotano, Navarra, Cariñena, Campo de Borja, La Mancha

Garnacha is known as Grenache in France, but the grape originated in Spain. This fresh and juicy style of Garnacha is a bouquet of sweet red fruit and a smooth iced tea like finish. You’ll find this style of Garnacha in Northern Spain close to the border of France in the encompassing regions of Aragon and Navarra. Young Garnacha typically makes a wonderfully candied red fruit flavored Sangria.

Fine Garnacha and Garnacha Blends


  • Tasting Notes: Grilled Plum, Red Licorice, Juniper and Crushed Gravel
  • Average cost: $25–35
  • Regions: Vinos de Madrid, Campo de Borja, Priorat, Méntrida

High end Garnachas are bold and complex with high tannin and dark raspberry flavors. These wines are aged longer and typically come from older vineyards. You can find single varietal Garnacha around Madrid, where old vines in high elevation vineyards produce concentrated wines. In Spain, blended Garnacha is matched with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cariñena and delivers bolder styles with blackberry and licorice.


monastrell, a spanish red wine

  • Tasting Notes: Blackberry Sauce, Chocolate, Potting Soil and Smoke
  • Average cost: $10–18
  • Regions: Jumilla, Alicante, Valencia, Bullas, La Mancha, Yecla

Monastrell is the same wine as Mourvèdre in France, but it’s actually a wine of Spanish origin. Wines are intensely bold with high tannin, black fruit and black pepper flavors. This wine is primarily produced in Central Spain from the Mediterranean coast in Valencia to inland to La Mancha on the central plateau. Most wines are produced in affordable style and offer excellent value. The more aging in oak, the more mocha, chocolate and vanilla notes the wine will have.


mencia, a spanish red wine

  • Tasting Notes: Pomegranate, Black Licorice, Crushed Gravel and Graphite
  • Average cost: $20–30
  • Regions: Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei, Valdoerras

Mencía (pronounced Men-THEE-ah) is a unique medium bodied wine that grows in Spain and Portugal. Wine collectors have likened Mencía it to Grand Cru Burgundy because of its’ layers red fruit, floral aromas and moderate mouth-drying tannins. The wines are made in Northwest Spain around the encompassing region of Galicia and in Portugal in the Dão region. Wines from Bierzo and Monterrei tend to be more full bodied and wines from Valdoerras tend to be lighter. The Monterrei and Ribeira Sacra regions sometimes blend Mencía with other local grapes including Bastardo.


bobal, a spanish red wine

  • Tasting Notes: Black Cherry, Dried Green Herbs, Violet and Cocoa Powder
  • Average cost: $15–18
  • Regions: Utiel-Requena, Manchuela

A relatively unknown grape to the US due to very little importations, Bobal is known mostly in Central Spain where it’s prized for its deep opaque purple color, high tannins and black fruit flavors. The wines were once studied and characterized as having higher levels of resveratrol. Since the wine does have ample tannin, be sure to pair with a richly flavored meat, like carne asada.