As far in the past as Man can remember, Spain has been producing and exporting wine. Today it is the most widely planted country in the world for wine production with 2.9 million acres. It is the 3rd largest producer after France and Italy.
There are over 400 wine varieties planted in the country, most of them being native. If you’re after a Spanish wine, Tempranillo and Grenache (Garnacha) are king, however Spanish wine is as diverse as French cheese.
Rioja is probably the most famous appellation. This region in the North, near Basque country, was one of the first to apply the French technique of oak ageing, influenced by the Bordeaux region. In the 18th century, both regions had close commercial relations as Bordeaux wine was not strong enough for English taste and was mixed with Spanish darker wine before being exported.
Ribeira del Duero, Navarra and Rueda are other famous region names from the Northern side of the country. There are also large exploitations in the centre of the country in La Mancha or Valdepenas, and a lot of great appellations along the Mediterranean coast on the East side (Tarragona, Terra Alta, Valencia, etc.)
How to Choose a Spanish wine
Fortunately, there are some objective elements and official classifications to help.
The Vino de Mesa is basically table wine, made from unclassified vineyards or grapes, or “illegal” blending. Most official appellations only allow certain varieties and blends, however some winemakers prefer to forgo this and make it their own way.
Vino de la Tierra corresponds to French Vin de Pays, it indicates a general geographical origin only (and not a specific appellation).
Denominacion de Origen, and Denominacion de Origen Calificada are official appellations regulated by the Consedjo Regulador with strict delimitations and rules for wine making. To simplify, you can’t use certain wine names if you don’t guarantee a minimum quality. The “Calificada” category is one step above in its quality guarantee, with a historical record of production as well as other controls.
Finally, there is the Vino de Pago appellation, only given to 15 individual wine estates for their achievements and international reputation.
Often, you are also able to find an indication of ageing on the bottle:
Crianza are aged for 2 years (red wines) with minimum 6 months in oak
Reserva for 3 years (1 year in oak)
Grand Reserva for 5 years (18 months in oak and 36 months in bottle minimum)
Fortified wines and Sherry
Originally produced for the British market, this type of wine has been growing in popularity. The recipe is simple: add some brandy or an equivalent spirit to the wine before the sugar is turned into alcohol. This makes for a sweet and treacly wine perfect to accompany desserts or cheese. Spanish Jerez is the equivalent of Portuguese Port, Madeira or Marsala.