Map of Spanish WineReal Academia de Gastronomía
They span the country from north to south, shaped by the mountains and coast; next to rivers or overlooking the sea. Wine is part of the country's history and there is not a single region that doesn't produce any. White, red, rosé, sparkling, or fortified; fresh or warm blends; dry or sweet; with floral, herbaceous, or mineral notes—the possibilities are almost endless in a terrain similarly varied and rich.
We start this tour in the vineyards to the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, in Galicia. It is here that we find well-known areas such as Ribeiro and Rías Baixas, although there are many others, including Monterrei, Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra, Betanzos, and Barbanza. Each has its own characteristics that make it unique, but all have one thing in common: a fresh regional climate that is reflected in its wines.
Best-known are the whites, especially Albariño and Godello, although Galicia has plenty of other varietal wines. Other whites are Loureirra and Torrontés, while its reds include Mencía, Sousón, and Brancellao, which are light, enjoyable, and easy-to-drink.
We continue our journey looking out over the Bay of Biscay, and visit 3 of Spain's autonomous regions: Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. The first 2 have less of a wine-making tradition, but have been producing surprisingly different, high-quality wines for several years now.
Cangas, with its own Designation of Origin, is a town in Asturias with vineyards producing uniquely impressive grapes such as Albarín and Carrasquín. These are successfully blended with other more common grapes such as Albillo and Mencía. The result is bottles of wine brimming with personality and acidity.
In Cantabria, there are 2 wine-producing areas close together, each different in their own way: Costa de Cantabria and Tierras de Liébana. They blend the eastern and western varieties Mencía and Hondarribi Belza, and Albariño and Hondarribi Zuri. Then, they add a medley of fruit from here, there, and everywhere to produce a wine with the taste of the sea breeze in every sip.
Something that is brought to mind in the Basque Country is the tradition of Txakolí, usually a white wine that has softened its characteristic acidity over time, gaining in complexity and flavor. These outstanding wines are just as good for simply having a drink as they are to accompany a tasty piece of fish. They are produced in 3 Basque provinces: Gipuzkoa, Biscay, and Álava.
If there is a region where the scent of wine hangs in the air, it's La Rioja. With its historical wineries and classical methods that arrived from France and took root, the region has plenty of Tempranillo grapes, oak barrels, and a hallmark of distinction. The La Rioja Designation of Origin spans 3 areas on the banks of the Ebro River, each part of a different autonomous region: La Rioja, the Basque Country (Álava province), and Navarre. The area has extreme temperatures and soil conditions, and age-old expertise that will stand the test of time.
Because while these wines can be drunk today, they also age like few others. Other red grape varieties such as Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano are blended with Tempranillo to produce everything from young wines to be enjoyed the same year, to those that are left to age in wooden barrels for a long period of time. There's a time and a place for each.
Close by and inland is Navarre, a region with a long history of wine growing, particularly using the Garnacha grape. Most famous are its lively rosés, which are increasingly being joined by more serious, flavorsome reds and the occasional Tempranillo. They are gastronomic wines best enjoyed with some of the area's wide range of food produce.
Nor should we forget Aragon, with designations such as Cariñena, Calatayud, Somontano, and Campo de Borja. There's plenty of robust Garnacha, which is softening with the arrival of new winemakers in search of milder, less alcoholic wines.
Now over to Catalonia. It has a diversity of varietals and styles running from north to south, both inland and on the coast, across a wide range of climates and altitudes. These include wines with a glimpse of the Mediterranean, and on which the land has left its imprint. They range from the mineral structure of Priorato to the spontaneity of Montsant, using classic Spanish grapes, but other native varieties such as Pansa Blanca, Picapoll, and Sumoll have also been added to the mix.
This diversity is reflected in the number of areas with Designations of Origin: Penedès, Terra Alta, Tarragona, Conca de Barberà, Costers del Segre, Empordà, Alella—there's so much to discover in this region.
The region produces whites, reds, rosés, and, of course, sparkling wines, since this autonomous region produces cava of the highest quality. A traditional method is used to give these wines their bubbles, and they usually contain Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo grapes. Lively and spirited, they are associated with parties and celebrations, but are so versatile that they are a wonderful accompaniment to any part of a meal.
On to eastern Spain, to explore some warmer regions: Valencia and Murcia. Moving away from the sea, vineyards are set in landscapes with extremes of climate and consistent varietals. Queen of the grapes in the Utiel-Requena area of Valencia is Bobal, while the most widely used variety in the Murcian town of Jumilla is Monastrell. The same is true in other parts of Valencia, and areas such as Yecla and Bullas in Murcia.
Both are varieties of grape with a sugar content and weight that, when handled carefully, produce pleasant, full-bodied wines. They have smoldering aromas that are best enjoyed with dishes from inland areas, like lamb or game, which pair well with the robustness of the wine.
Without leaving the Mediterranean, we move swiftly on to visit the Balearic Islands. Majorca is also synonymous with wine—and good wine at that. Monastrell makes another appearance, this time combined with unique grapes such as Callet and Manto Negro. The island is certainly known for its red wines which, although similar in character to wines from Spain's eastern regions, are fresh, smooth, fruity, and full-bodied.
Moving from one archipelago to another, we come to the Canary Islands, which produce some wonderful wines that are growing in quality and quantity. Lanzarote was a pioneer in sharing knowledge of its craft: Malvasia white wines, ranging from sweet to dry, and grown amid solid lava.
Even La Palma's poorest soils produce excellent wines. Set among impossible mountains, it is once again Malvasia that rules here. Naturally sweet, complex, and heavily nuanced, the wines are fantastic accompaniments to the area's rich cheeses.
However, if there is one island that has stood out in recent years, it is Tenerife, and specifically the towns of Tacoronte and La Orotava. The Listán Blanca, Listán Negra, Vijariego, and Baboso grapes are all native varieties that, when combined with the volcanic soil, produce endlessly surprising aromas that lend a fruity note to the finest smoky wines.
On to another of Spain's most important winemaking regions, Castile and León, which includes one of the best-known Designations of Origin: Ribera del Duero. It is home to legendary wineries such as Vega Sicilia, which has made a name for itself all over the world. The wines are made from Tinta del País grapes (another name for Tempranillo), with a full-bodied fruitiness that occasionally hides behind the woodiness from the barrel. The enduringly austere terroir spans the whole region, from one end to the other.
But the area has much more to offer. Arlanza, Arribes, Bierzo, Cigales, Sierra de Salamanca, Toro, and Cebreros—this huge variety reflects the unique identity of each place. The wines generally have what is known as "typicity," with the grapes of each town increasingly reflected, and the work of past generations returning into view. The Castile and León region also encompasses Rueda. It's an area known for its Verdejo white grapes, a varietal that produces good wines when made with respect for the past.
Verdejo and Tempranillo are also leading grapes in Castilla La Mancha. It's the world's largest wine region, and includes important designations such as Valdepeñas. It is a large area that is home to Almansa, Manchuela, Uclés, and Toledo, as well as Ciudad Real.
The characters of these places are reflected in their wines, shaped by altitude, climate, soil composition, and grape varieties as different as Airén, Garnacha, and Moravia. The wines range from fresh and light to warm and full-bodied, with notes that vary from timid to exuberant.
In the center of all this is Madrid, which also holds its own when it comes to wine production. The white grapes grown here are Malvar and Airén; the omnipresent Tempranillo; and 2 that have stood out in recent years, Albillo and Garnacha. Wines produced from grapes grown in and around the Sierra de Gredos mountain range combine with those of their Castilian neighbors to create a fresh, elegant result with notes of the stones over which the vines grow. Finesse in a bottle, with a long finish.
They have evolved to resemble the light and tasty wines increasingly found in Extremadura, where wines known as "pitarra," made in clay jars, have become true delicacies. Unusual varieties such as Alarije, Borba, Cayetana Blanca, Bobal, and Mazuela make the most of the restrictive land to give the best of themselves.
And to Andalusia, a world of wine in itself. Its climate, terrain, and soil composition are diverse, with no less than 8 designations of origin, 16 geographical indications, and many other important wines outside of these categories. It has some very good non-sparkling wines: whites and reds from the mountains of Málaga and Granada, as well as from Córdoba, Cádiz, and even Seville.
But if there's one product that characterizes the region, it's fortified wine. Almería's orange wine (a sweet wine infused with citrus peel), muscatels from Malaga, and Pedro Ximénez from Montilla-Moriles are just a few examples of the fantastic wines produced in Andalusia.
The wines of the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Denomination of Origin are in a class of their own. Their uniqueness is a result of the production process and the chalky white "albariza" soil in which the grapes are grown. This gives them a magical quality, making them tasty, mouthwatering wines that are sharp and highly concentrated. There are various categories, depending on the place of origin, the type of aging process used, and their alcohol content. They are not from any one particular year and are made using the "solera" aging system.
The unique production process is known as biological aging. It begins with a white wine called "must," to which alcohol is added to encourage the growth of a "veil of flor." This is a type of yeast that grows naturally on the surface of the wine, covering it completely and preventing oxidation. The wine is kept in casks made from American oak and is stored there for a shorter or longer time depending on the type of wine being made. These range from young finos and manzanillas to vintage amontillados. Without the yeast, the aging process would involve oxidation and the resulting wine would be an oloroso.
To take a journey through the vineyards of Spain is to soak up the landscapes, memories, and diverse colors and flavors of each area. With techniques that are rooted in the past while also looking to the future, producers are evolving without losing their identity; moving forward with technology without losing sight of traditional methods. Pop open a bottle of wine and let the aromas take you on a journey to any corner of the bountiful land that produced it.
Text: Carmen Martinez de Artola.
Image: Ximena Maier.
Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.
This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.