Spain produces an abundance of wine and offers some truly palate-pleasing options to explore. The Gran Reserva reds of Rioja, the summer rosés, and the cult favorites of Bierzo are not to be missed. The white wines of Spain have recently become contenders on the world stage as well.
Once you understand a few key distinctions and terms, you’ll know how to read a Spanish wine label like an expert and be able to easily select the right bottle for your table.
1. Check the Wine Type
There are five main types of Spainsh wine available, with several varietals used in each. Once you understand these types and the grapes that go into them, you'll have a better idea of the flavors you'll find in each bottle.
Vino Tinto—Red Wine
Spain is known for its high-quality red wines, particularly in the Rioja region.
Popular Red Grape Varieties
- Tempranillo: The most prominent and widely-grown grape in the Rioja region, offering notes of cherry, dried fig, cedar, tobacco, and dill, which pairs beautifully with red meat, ham, and vegetable dishes
- Garnacha: The Spanish variety—and probably the indigenous ancestor—of the Grenache grape you know from France, this grape loves the hot, dry Spanish weather and is often blended with Tempranillo
- Graciano: Has notes of menthol and is typically blended with Tempranillo in Rioja wines
- Monastrell:An indigenous Spanish grape, also known as Mouvédre or Mataro, with a rich color and deep, complex flavor
- Mazuelo: Grown in Spain for centuries, an acidic variety that is now used occasionally as a blending grape
- Garnacha Tintorera: A cross-blended grape with a pink flesh that produces dense, intensely-colored wines
- Bobal: Brings a soft, fruity, velvety essence to blends from the southeast of Spain
- Mencía: This medium-bodied grape, popular in the Bierzo region, produces wines with floral and red fruit flavors and has a cult following among lovers of Spanish wine
Vino Blanco—White Wine
Spain has not historically been known for its white wines, but in the 21st century, that situation is changing. The Spanish whites include some very high-quality wines with interesting flavors and aromas.
Popular White Grape Varieties
- Albariño:By far the most widely used and best loved white in Spain—particularly Galicia, this grape is highly acidic and produces a refreshing dry wine with hints of citrus and salt
- Godello:Recently enjoying a revival for its ability to create neutral wines with floral aromas and a smoky flavor
- Garnacha Blanca:This grape, known as Grenache Blanc in the Rhône region of France, produces golden, full-bodied, silky wines
- Verdejo: Also enjoying a recent popularity surge; similar to Sauvignon Blanc
- Airén: An old and very popular Iberian variety used mostly in brandy, sherry, and port
Vino Rosado—Rosé Wine
Spain is famous for its rich variety of high-quality rosado wines. In all their shades, varieties, and flavors, these bright, dry wines are refreshing choices for hot summer weather. They are often blended from Garnacha, Monastrell, and Tempranillo grapes.
Vino Espumoso—Sparkling wine
Cava is the most famous sparkling wine in Spain, made using the same method as champagne but with different grapes—traditionally Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Cava comes in both white and rosé varieties.
There are other sparkling wines in Spain that don’t meet the rules to be called “Cava.” These wines are labeled as “vino espumoso.” They have a different flavor and aroma but are still of very high quality.
Vino Dulce—Sweet Wine
Sometimes labeled as Vino para Postres (Dessert Wine), these sweet wines come in red and white varieties. They pair well with sweet flavors as well as some cheeses and hams.
2. Understand the Spanish Wine Classification System
Much of what you’ll see on Spanish wine labels will be familiar to you. For instance, you’ll easily recognize the vintage, the producer name and location. Like French wines, you’ll see the region prominently displayed and may also find the grape variety listed as well, though not always.
Understanding a few specialized terms unique to Spanish wines—especially related to classifications and aging—will bring wine labels to life for you and help you select the perfect wine for your table.
Spanish Wine Classifications
The Spanish system is similar to the appellations used in France and Italy. It includes two regulated designations of quality, plus two unregulated terms.
Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC)
Only the most prized wines in Spain earn the DOC classification. So far, it’s only been awarded to the regions of Rioja and Priorat.
Denominación de Origen (DO)
Good quality wines from more than 60 regions can display the DO designation, which is protected by law.
Vino de la Tierra—Wines of the Land
At one time, these “country wines” were considered inferior to DO-labeled wine. In recent years, though, many VdlT wines are exceeding expectations. There are some great values among these wines because they don’t have to comply with expensive government processes to qualify for a higher classification.
Vino de Mesa—Table Wine
Table wines are the lowest tier of Spanish wines and typically aren’t labeled with a region, grape, or vintage.
3. Know the Aging Terms used in Spanish Wine
On each Spanish wine label, you may find a number of terms related to how long the wine has been aged in addition to the wine type and certification. These terms will allow you to further pinpoint the flavors you're looking for in a bottle of Spanish wine.
- Crianza: Aged one year in oak barrels. Offers fresh, fruity flavor at a good price; great with tapas. A dependable everyday food-friendly wine.
- Reserva: Aged two years—one year in oak. Reservas are still affordable wines, but with a slightly more complex flavor with strong notes of cherry. Pairs especially well with ham, but also good with grilled dishes, fish, beef, and lamb.
- Gran Reserva: Aged two years in oak, minimum three years in the bottle. This wine is only made in exceptional vintage years and offers extraordinary depth of flavor and body at a very balanced price point.
- Joven: This term means “young” and refers to wines that are drunk right away, without aging.
- Viejo: The Spanish world for “old” can only be applied by law to wines aged for three years or longer.
- Roble: This word translates as “oak,” and means the wine has been in oak barrels, but probably not for very long.
Now that you know how to read a Spanish wine label, you'll enjoy exploring Spain’s tantalizing range of old-world wine flavors. You’ll find an assortment of Spanish wines in the JJ Buckley Fine Wines online shop, or you could let one of our experienced consultants select wines that will intrigue you based on your palate and preferences.