Eric Asimov penned a line that has stayed with me ever since. “No country has had its wine map filled in so intriguingly over the last 25 years as Spain. And perhaps no country has rewarded wine consumers more with a combination of value and enticement.” It’s true. Spain is a sprawling but fragmented patchwork of wine culture and certainly one of the most important wine countries in the world. Rioja inevitably occupies most consumers’ attention, but the regions and their respective appellations deserve to be looked at in depth.
Spain is one of the largest wine producing countries in the world and as you might expect, demonstrates an almost endless series of regions, denominations and local grape varieties. Not so long ago Spain was dominated by huge wineries that pursued a model of big brand expansion. As smaller bodegas started to spring up in the mid to late 90s the wines carried the distinctive characteristics of Parker influenced extraction, alcohol and oak. Things are a lot more exciting these days and Spain boasts a vibrant sector of small wine makers producing artisan wines, often using organic and biodynamic farming techniques.
Whilst viticulture on the Balearic Islands has a long history, winemaking as a modern commercial industry is very much in its infancy. Plà i Llevant DO and Binissalem DO are both on Mallorca, but wine is produced across all of the other islands, with a number of regions classified under the Spanish system as Vino de la Tierra. The Islands enjoy a Mediterranean climate of long, warm summers with abundant sunshine, and generally mild winters. Wines are produced from local varieties such as Callet, and increasingly from French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its location off the west coast of Africa, the Canary Islands have a long history of winemaking, albeit mostly for domestic consumption. Elevation is a key feature of the islands’ terroir; vineyards occupy sites, sometimes above a thousand metres, to benefit from the altitude’s cooling effects and the subsequent balance of flavour and acidity they impart to the wines. A range of grapes are permitted for use on the islands, including Palomino, Malvasia, Listán Negro and Tintilla.
Extremadura is a historical region of Spain best known for the Roman ruins of its capital, Mérida. The area encompasses the two provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz, and is bordered by Portugal to the west. The region’s climate is characterised by long warm, dry summers with significant drought risk, and mild winters on account of the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Olives and cherries are perhaps more well known than the region’s wines, however in recent years - and in particular since the DO designation of Ribera del Guadiana, Extremadura’s winemaking has begun to emerge from under the radar with excellent examples from Tempranillo, Cayetana and Alarije.