Find out about the different Spanish wines; their classifications, different grape varieties and the regional specialities including Cava and Vino de Jerez…

History of Spanish Wine: Key Dates

  • Pre-Roman: The Phoenicians began making sweet, rough wines in southern Spain
  • Roman Hispania: The Romans used stone troughs for treading and fermenting grapes. The método rural is still used in places today
  • Moorish Spain: The Moors ate rather than fermented their grapes but the Christian parts of Spain kept making wine as per Roman methods
  • Late 18th century: Spanish winemakers began using airtight oak barrels, encouraging a flourishing export market to South America
  • 1850s: French winemaking methods, introduced by the Marqués de Riscal, began replacing the stone trough technique and quality improved
  • 1860s: Spanish winemakers smiled slyly as the phylloxera (a louse that attacks the vines) plague in France boosted their own sales; then grimaced as the grubs spread south
  • 1960s: Miguel Torres shook the Spanish wine industry from its reverie with new techniques and grape varieties

Spanish Wine Classifications

  • Vino de Mesa (VdM): Basic table wine. The label does not name the vintage nor where it’s from. The contents may well be a blend of wines from different regions
  • Vino de la Tierra (VdlT): ‘Wine of the land’, rather like the French vin de pays. A minimum of 60 percent of the wine should come from a specified region that has some discernible character but hasn’t yet gained DO status. Around 25 VdlT areas exist at present
  • Denominación de Origen (DO): This wine, like the French AOC equivalent, will have come from the region specified on the label. Each of the 60 or so DO regions has strict rules limiting yields and dictating permitted grape varieties
  • Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa): DO with bells on. Only two exist so far – Rioja and Priorato – and, while reputation and quality are clearly vital, the criteria for making them and (potentially) other wines DOCa are a bit cloudy

Spanish reds are also classified according to age. Here are the main categories you’re likely to find on a label:

  • Joven: A fledgling red probably too young to have seen the inside of a cask. Made for immediate drinking
  • Crianza: Aged for a minimum of two years, a portion of which will have been in an oak cask (length of time depends on region)
  • Reserva: Add on an extra year for Reserva wines: three years in maturation, of which at least one must be in an oak barrel and one in a bottle
  • Gran reserva: The most mature Spanish reds endure a minimum of five years in development, at least two of which are spent in a cask

The Major Grape Varieties of Spanish Wine

Spanish wines contain hundreds of grape varieties. Indeed, most wines are blends – there are few varietals (single grape wines) to be had. The big stars of French vines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and co – play an important role in modern Spanish wine, but there are still some important native grapes to acquaint yourself with:


  • Garnacha Tinta: Spain’s most planted red is big (15% abv) and lasts ages. A regular contributor to Rioja
  • Graciano: Low yield, high quality old man of Rioja and Navarre; ideal for gran reservas
  • Mazuelo: (also called Carineña) Makes balanced, tannic wines that mature well; another Rioja constituent
  • Monastrell: Gives big yields and excellent fruity wines. Particularly prevalent in Murcia
  • Tempranillo: Spain’s best red grape makes pungent jovenes but is best known for spicy Riojas.


  • Airén: Spain’s most planted grape, swathing La Mancha, makes fruity if unexceptional wines
  • Albariño: Key to Galicia’s Rías Baixas and used increasingly elsewhere in fresh, aromatic whites
  • Moscatel: Known as Muscat in France and used widely here in sweet, fragrant wines
  • Palomino: The prime grape of sherry is less impressive in straightforward wine
  • Parellada: Catalonia’s best grape is a delicate contributor to Cava
  • Pedro Ximénez: A giant of Andalusia used in fortified wine, rancios and dessert wines
  • Verdejo: Ancient but much improved with new technology to make delicate, excellent Rueda wines
  • Macabeo: Also called Viura. Widespread, originally from Aragón, with a mixed reputation; requires TLC for the right spicy effect. Makes 90 per cent of all white Rioja
  • Xarel-lo: The core vine of Cava has benefited greatly from new procedures reducing oxidisation

Different Styles of Sherry

  • Fino: Naturally dry and pale, blessed with the yeasty twang of the flor (a froth that forms in the cask). Usually reaches the bottle within a decade of being pressed
  • Manzanilla: Bone dry like fino but with a salty tang apparently imparted by the sea air of its hometown, Sanlúcar de Barrameda
  • Amontillado: A fino wine left in the solera (cask aging) process for longer, adding a dark, pungent character to the dry taste. Usually aged around 15 years
  • Oloroso: Wines put through the solera process but which don’t develop flor. Powerful and dark, they can last for a century or more