The Wines of Spain

Spain is well known for a number of different kinds of wine. While there are more than 20 wine regions, there are four that are popular in the rest of the world: Rioja, Cava, Sherry, and Malaga.

Rioja is probably the most well known wine from Spain. However, many people drink Freixenet at celebrations, not realizing that this is a Spanish cava! Learn more about Spanish wines, and what makes them unique.

Cava Wine Information

Cava, a Spanish “sparkling wine”, is a centuries-old tradition carried on in the northern areas of Spain. A Cava is created in the same manner as French Champagne is. For example, Jaume Serra makes their Cavas in the traditional methode champenois, and they are aged for a minimum of 18 to 24 months prior to releasing.

Ninety-nine percent of Cava in Spain is made in the northwest region – in the Penedès area of Catalonia. The other 1% is scattered randomly amongst small producers in the rest of the country. One of the most popular sparkling wines in the United States, Freixenet, is actually a Spanish Cava. Out of the 130 million bottles of Cava produced each year, Freixenet accounts for over 60% of the volume.

The grapes traditionally used for Cava – macabeo, xarello, and parellada – make Cava a light, white, fruity, perfumed wine. There are currently around 250 Cava producers in operation in Spain, with most falling into the defined region and therefore legally able to use the Cava designation on their labels. The Spanish wine term for this is the ‘denomination of origin’.

Typical Grapes for Cava


red Garnacha

Malaga Wine Information

Málaga began as a deep brown, rich, raisiny wine, created by the Greeks in 600 BC. It was originally called Xarabal Malaguii, “Málaga syrup”, and was very sweet. It was created in the Andalucia region of Spain – the same region that Sherry originated in around the 1100s.

In 44 AD, Columela wrote about the fine wines available in the Roman Province of Málaga. Its popularity grew. During the 1500s, something had to be done to wine to allow it to last the long ocean journeys. Brandy was added to allow the wine to last longer, and to be more resistant to temperature changes. This is why Málaga is termed a “fortified wine”.

Spain now produces 5.8 million gallons of Málaga a year. Practically this whole region is dedicated to the creation of these fine wines.

Málaga is mostly made with the pedro ximinez grape, along with some muscat of Alexandria. Málaga must actually be aged in the city of Málaga to earn the name. Málaga is regulated by the Consejo Regulator.

There are 16 main types of Málaga. Common ones are:

  • Lagrima – very sweet, free run (i.e. not pressed)
  • Moscatel – sweet, aromatic, using the muscatel grapes only
  • Pedro Ximinez – sweet, using the pedro ximinez grapes only
  • Solera – coming from a dated solera

These wines are very sweet and velvety, and differ slightly depending on the grape mixture used. Málaga wine is best served around at 20C.

Rioja Wine Information

Rioja is a region in Spain with a long, glorious vinicultural history. Rioja wine, especially the red, has been well known for centuries. The Rioja vineyards were planted even before the traditional bringers of wine, the expanding Romans, moved into the area.

Wine and vineyards have always held a special place in Spaniards’ hearts. Spain has more acreage planted than any other country. They do not produce the most wine because of their standards of quality. Their attention to detail has been documented for centuries. According to the Consejo Regulador of Rioja website: In 1635, the Mayor of Logroño banned carriages from passing along the roads next to cellars “for fear that the vibration from these vehicles might affect the juice and the ageing of our precious wines”. The board was created in 1926 to oversee the proper use of the Rioja appellation. The appellation itself was set up by royal decree in 1902.

Red Rioja
The “red Rioja” is most well known style of Rioja. Classic, bold, these wines taste mostly of their tempranillo roots and have a bright, fresh flavor to them. This goes extremely well with steak and other hearty meats. Serve red Riojas at 61F – they do not need decanting.

Rosé Rioja
The rosé version of Rioja is also fresh and strong, but has a lighter weight to it. They are predominantly Garnacha grapes, and are bright pink.

White Rioja (Rioja Blanca)
More greenish-yellow than white, Rioja Blanca has a light, fine aroma and flavor. These wines are made primarily with the Viura grape.

There are seven types of grapes used in making Rioja. Four are used for the red variety, which makes up 80% of all production. Three are used for the white variety, which is another 10%. The final 10% is rosé.

Red Grapes
Tempranillo – gentle, berry flavor
Garnacha Tinta – peppery
Graciano – blackberry
Mazuelo – tannin

White Grapes
Viura – tart
Malvasia – nutty
Garnacha Blanca – heavy

Rioja wines can come from three subregions:

Anything from the Rioja region in general is labelled ‘Rioja Calificada’. Rioja is the only Spanish wine able to use the term Calificada on its label.

Rioja is also labelled for quality depending on the type of aging the wine has gone through. Typical aging marks include:

  • Vino de Crianza – one year in a cask, at least three years old
  • Reserva – three years old, at least one in oak
  • Gran Reserva – two years in oak plus three in the bottle


SherryThe town of Jerez is locateded in Andalucia, southwest Spain. Sherry, at the time a simple red wine, was started by the Phoenicians here around 1100 BC, and the practice was continued by the Romans. The Arabs invaded in 711, renaming the town here ‘Sherish’. This became ‘Jerez’. And so a tradition was born. The delicious, rich wine is known both by the names of Sherry and Jerez.

Even simple things about Sherry have been decided long ago. The capacity of the Sherry cask (butt) was set in the 1400s! To help Sherry stay stabilized during ocean voyages of these times, brandy was added to the wine. This is why Sherry is now a “fortified”, or alcohol-added, wine.

In 1933 the Consejo Regulador was setup to protect Sherry’s consistency. In the mid 1990s, the EU ruled that all EU nations must abide by the ruling that Sherry only comes from this region in Spain.

The three centers of Sherry in Spain are Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda, and Puerto de Santa Maria. Spain produces 19.8 million gallons of sherry a year. Other current producers of a “Sherry” are South Africa, Australia, France, and Germany.

There are dry sherries that can be served chilled, and sweet sherries for room temperature. Sherry can be created as a dessert wine or a cheese wine, or anything in between. The two main types of sherry are the pale, dry fino/manzanilla and the dark, full, dry oloroso sherry.

Andalucia holds sherry vineyards in areas where the ground has a lot of albariza soil – porous, white limestone/sand/clay/chalk. This sherry uses the palomino, pedro ximenez, and muscatel grapes. The grapes are harvested around September 8th. Sherry is unique in that it exposes the wine to air during aging – usually something that is prevented. A layer of “Flor”, or yeast, forms on top of the liquid and holds back the air.

Amontillado is perhaps the most famous style of sherry, mentioned in the famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe – “The Cask of Amontillado”. The word Amontillado, which is Spanish, is an adjective meaning “Montilla-like”. Montilla is in southern Spain, part of the Andalucia wine zone. The fortified wines from this region are made using the standard Sherry production method. Montilla fortified wines are medium-weight, first maturing under a layer of flor (yeast cells), and then cycled through the ‘solera’ system where older casks are refilled with younger wine. This keeps the wine flavor consistant over the years. Amontillado therefore is a Sherry, made in Jerez, in the style of this Montilla beverage.

Sherry is aged for five years and is done with a solera method of blending. In this, the first sherry is “laid down” in a cask. The next year, a similar tasting sherry is put above it. Some sherry is taken from the bottom cask, and it is “replenished” with liquid from the cask over it, which is replenished from the cask over it, and so on. The “series” of casks is called a criadera, and the cascade method is called “running the scales”. Only 33% of the solera is removed per year. In this manner, the sherry maintains a consistant taste. Often Sherries are labelled with the date that the solera was first started – often quite a while ago!

Sherry should be served at 57F. Because it is fortified it can last quite a while, but is not immortal 🙂 Try to drink sherry within 5-10 years of its original date.

People tend to drink fortified wines such as sherry in small glasses because of their higher alcohol levels. The small glass mouth can help to minimize the alcohol aroma and prevent it from overwhelming the flavor. Sherry is usually sipped as an after dinner drink, perhaps with cheese or nuts.

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