The week before last, I presented a primer on Spanish wines. This week and in future columns, I’ll be focusing more specifically on select wine-growing regions and grape varieties. I’ll take you on a virtual tour of the diversity of Spain, from its unique geography and climate to its multi-ethnic influences to its fierce local pride for cuisine and wines.
In order to better understand the how and why of matching grape varieties and locales as you expand your knowledge and appreciation for Spanish wines, let’s first travel through the major regions of Spain.
Generally speaking, the wine regions of Spain may be segregated into three broad geographic areas – south, central and north.
Visualize a map of Spain: surrounded by water on 60 percent of its perimeter – the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the east and south and the Bay of Biscay to the north; connected to mainland Europe by the Pyrenees to the north; bordered by Portugal and a mountain range to the west; a mere nine miles from Morocco and mainland Africa via the Strait of Gibraltar to the south. These all make for diversified climates and growing conditions and therefore have an overwhelming influence on winemaking.
Beginning in the south, our virtual tour takes us through desert-like terrain with extended periods of drought and heat, overall not conducive to fine wine production. However, the Spaniards have adapted to nature by planting the Palomino and Pedro Jimenez grape varieties near the port city of Jerez. These varieties thrive on stress and yield a high-sugar wine that is unctuous and sweet. Aided by a helping hand of alcohol for fortification, the wine is transformed into Sherry, a remarkable wine despite its image as Granny’s preferred aperitif.
In the central region, the climate and soil change, but not much. Being further north of the equator, the microclimate is more conducive to grape crops, but drought is a constant threat. In the mid-section of this region lies the fabled La Mancha, with its Quixotic windmills. The majority of this wine is consumed locally; it is a mild white wine called Arien with little distinguishing characteristics.
The eastern reaches of the central region, due to its coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, produces wines that have become more popular for export, as they are thick-skinned and fruit-forward. The moisture and cooling breezes favor appellations such as Priorato, Jumilla and Penedès; the principal grape varieties are Garnacha, Monastrell and Macabeo, respectively.
The most highly regarded wines are produced in the North. On our virtual tour, we notice that the temperatures are more moderate due to the mountainous terrain; the growing season is therefore longer. Grapes are able to mature at a steadier pace, which aids in building ideal concentrations of sugar and acid.
The appellations in the northwest corner of this region are known as Green Spain, due to the effects of the Atlantic Ocean – cool, wet and lush vegetation – which impart an Ireland-like green hue to the countryside. The principal appellations in the north include Rioja, Navarra, Ribera del Duero, Rueda and Rias Baixas. The principal grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Albarino and Verdejo.