Spain, a History

Spain was the target of my most recent presentation to the North East Wine Tasting Society. I’ve loved Spanish Wine for many years, something which was made easier  by having a local importer just down the road in the form of Spanish Spirit, run by Oliver Ojikutu. Sadly the warehouse has long since closed and Oliver is gone, but the love of Spain continues with a healthy selection at home and the prospect of a holiday in Catalonia for later on in the year.

As usual when I’m preparing a tasting I research the facts, figures and history of the producers and their regions to set the scene, so here is my pocket guide to the country.

AmphoraWinemaking in Spain was likely introduced by the Phoenicians over 3 thousand years ago in the South of what became Hispania. The trading port of Gadir (Cádiz) was established around 1100 BC, although native grapes were probably cultivated 2-3000 years earlier by the Copper & Bronze age inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula.  Phoenician settlers travelled up the Ebro River to modern day Rioja and Navarra while Penedès in Catalonia has its origins dating back before the Phoenician introduction of (Chardonnay) vines during the 6th century BC.

Carthage, a trading colony that took power in the region following the fall of Phoenicia in 575BC, expanded influence in Hispania (Cartagena was Carthago Nova, New Carthage) but Hispania fell to Rome after the 2nd Punic war. Under Roman rule Terraconensis (modern day Tarragona) in the north and Baetica (modern day Andalucía) in the south were the main wine regions. Vineyards were set up near Calahorra and Logroño in Rioja while Jerez was known as Ceret, from where millions of amphorae of wine were shipped to Rome. All this remained until the Moors invaded in the late 8th Century and a slump occurred until the Reconquista (-1492), although Moorish rule maintained a level of grape production and was tolerant of Christian winemaking.

In Northern Spain demand for wine was strengthened by Catholics making the pilgrimage along El Camino de Santiago, the “Way of St. James” to Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, where tradition has it that the remains of the Apostle St. James are buried. In the Duero Valley Benedictine Monks arrived from Cluny, Burgundy, in the twelfth century to set up vineyards and across the region this became a highly organised commercial affair with large cities needing plentiful supplies of wine. Valladolid, in Castilla y León, was serviced by the nearby regions; Toro provided reds, Rueda whites and Cigales provided its claretes – which is why it is best known for aromatic, lively and mostly dry Rosado wines.

The 15th and 16th Century were good for winemaking – the New World Empire colonies needed supplying – and the 17th & 18th centuries saw the rising popularity for Sherry (Sack), Canary, Malaga and Rioja wine. In the 1650s Aranda del Duero’s bodegas are said to have produced 6 million litres of wine, although recession hit in the late 17th and 18th Centuries and the country as a whole was falling behind the other industrialised European countries, relying on outdated techniques as modernisation took hold elsewhere.

A major turning point occurred when the phylloxera epidemic blighted European vineyards in the 1860s and 70s and a new pilgrimage crossed the Pyrenees – French winemakers bringing their expertise and modern methods, such as the introduction controlled fermentation, the use of sulphur and the 225 liter oak barrica. Vega Sicilia
The first commercial bodegas were set up by noblemen; the Marqués de Murrieta (1852), and Marqués de Riscal (1858) in Rioja , whilst in Ribera del Duero Don Eloy Lecanda Chavés established Vega Sicilia in 1864, planting vines from Bordeaux.
Phylloxera encroachment into Spain was slow due to the soil, climate and large separation of wine regions from each other, but eventually it hit Malaga in 1878 and reached Rioja in 1901. However, by then grafting of the vines to American rootstock was an established technique and the impact was less traumatic to the industry. After the vineyards of Penedès were devastated the predominantly red vines were replaced by large numbers of white, perfect for the introduction of the Cava making when Josep Raventós and the Codorníu Winery created their first sparkler in 1872.

Economic and political upheaval in the early 20th Century, especially the military dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, did little to advance winemaking in the country, although the General had a hand in the setting up of the first Denominación de Origen in Rioja in 1926 (with Navarra in 1933). The ensuing Civil War saw vineyards neglected and wineries destroyed throughout Spain, with regions like Catalonia and Valencia being particularly hard hit.
The Second World War then closed off European markets, further crippling the Spanish economy so that it wasn’t till the 1950s and 60s that the wine industry was stabilised, focussing on the traditional exports of Jerez and Rioja before true revival after the death of Franco in 1975 and the economic freedom that Democracy brought.

Entry into the European Union in 1986 was a further boost with the financial subsidies that followed, ironically adding to the vast European Wine Lake that was a problem throughout the 1990s and 2000s. It was during this period that the remaining Spanish D.O.s were formalised, such as Ribera del Duero in 1982, Cava in 1986, Toro in 1987, Cigales in 1991.

Spanish FlagSpain is now the third largest wine producing nation – behind France and Italy – with 35 million hl (4.66 Billion bottles), although it has the largest global vineyard (nearly 14%) at just over 1 million hectares due, in part, to the very low yields and wide spacing of the old vines planted on dry, infertile soil in many of its regions.
The country has over 400 native grape varieties although 80% of wine production is from just 20 — including Tempranillo, Albariño, Garnacha, Palomino, Airen, Maccabeo (Viura), Parellada, Xarel·lo, Cariñena and Monastrell – it’s these plus others like Verdejo, Graciano, Godello and Pedro Ximenez that are the soul of Spanish wines. However, international varieties are making inroads, especially in certain regions such as Penedès where there are over 121 varieties, including authorised red grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and also some Syrah and Pinot Noir (which, along with Chardonnay, is used in Cava production).

There are at least seven distinct geographical areas;

  1. España Verde, Green Spain. The cool and wet northern and northwestern portion of Atlantic Coast. This includes Galicia, Asturia, Cantabria and the Basque Country (El Pais Vasco) – which experiences the highest rainfall in the country, at 1,200 – 1,600mm a year (compared to Rioja at 350-450mm).
  2. North Central Spain hosts extremely elevated but easily workable vineyards along and beyond the banks of the Duero River, primarily in Castilla y León.
  3. The Ebro River Valley is sheltered by the Sierra de Cantábria mountains to the North and stretch from La Rioja and Navarra into Arragon.
  4. The Meseta is the “Tabletop”, the large, arid Iberian plateau centred on Madrid and covering Castilla–La Mancha and Extremadura. Almost two-thirds of all Spain’s vineyards are on these arid, lifted plains with an average heigh of 660 metres (2,165 feet).
  5. The Mediterranean Coast covers Catalonia in the North and Valencia in the South, where a warm, humid climate is balanced by high-altitude vineyards.
  6. Andalucía in the South, with temperatures easily surpassing 40°C (100°F) in the summer, is an area ideal for fortified and dessert wines such as Sherry and Malaga.
  7. The Islands of the Canaries in the Atlantic and the Balearics in the Mediterranean, both moderate climates.

As of 2012, Spain has over 130 identifiable wine regions under some form of geographical classification;

  • 14 Vino de Pago (VP, previously also referred to as Denominación de Pago or DO Pago) – Individual single-estates with an international reputation. After the 2009 EU reforms vintage these will probably be known as VPP (Vino de Pago Protegida).
  • 2 Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa/DOQ – Denominació d’Origen Qualificada in Catalan): quality wine regions with a track record of excellence. From 2009 these can be DOPCa/DOPQ – Denominación de Origen Protegida y Calificada/Qualificada.
  • 69 Denominación de Origen (DO – Denominació d’Origen in Catalan) – mainstream quality-wine regions. From 2009 these can be DOP – Denominación de Origen Protegida.
  • Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD) – less stringent regulation with specific geographical origin, aka VCIG – Vinos de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica
  • 41 Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT) – “country wine” areas which do not have EU QWpsr (Quality Wines Produced in Specified Regions) status but which may use a regional name. From 2009 these became IGP – Indicación Geográfica Protegida.
  • Vino de Mesa – Table wine, production of which has been in decline in recent years. This is being replaced in part with Viñedos de España which, under the new EU regulations, may state a vintage date and grape variety on the label.

Spain LargeSpain is now a modern wine producing nation with a rich history and range of styles to compete on a global market, although there are still problems to face, as shown recently with the high profile desertions from the Cava D.O. and proposals to set up a new Conca Del Riu Anoia category for Spanish sparkling wine. Nevertheless, Spanish wines are typically very reliable as a random purchase and I was excited to try my selection on the NEWTS at our April tasting, especially as it included a practically unheard of white from the Basque Country, an “icon” wine from Penedès and a traditional Rioja Reserva with 17 years of bottle age!


For up to date information on Spain and its regions visit the excellent Wines from Spain information site.

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