The Fascinating History and Development of Spanish Wines

Archeologists have found evidence of grape cultivation dating back to 4000-3000 BC, but the first documented wine production in Spain began with the Phoenicians around 1100 BC.

They settled in Cadiz in southwestern Spain and left their mark with the development of sherry (the oldest wine in Spain). 

The Phoenicians were followed by the Carthaginians, who brought new and more innovative techniques for growing grapes.

But it was not until a few hundred years later that the ancient Romans arrived and took control of the land. That was when Spanish viticulture really began in earnest.

The Romans realized that the soil and climatic conditions in much of Spain were perfect for growing grapes. More specifically, the land was an ideal location for growing grapes and making wine.

Wine production flourished under Roman rule, as wines from what is now Tarragona and Andalusia were exported and consumed throughout the Roman Empire.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Spain was invaded by the Barbarian kingdoms and progress in the wine industry came to a halt for several centuries.

After the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD wine production and consumption in Spain fairly stagnated.

Although wine consumption was prohibited under Islamic dietary laws, the Moorish rulers were not as strict in enforcing this prohibition. 

Thus, viticulture continued on a small scale in Spain.

This was until the Christian Reconquest in the Middle Ages to recapture territory from the Muslims (Moors), also known as the Reconquista. Spanish wine production finally began to rise again after declining following the fall of the Roman Empire. 

It may come as a surprise that it was some Catholic monks who spearheaded this new frontier.

They had realized that nuances in the landscape and soil samples could influence the outcome of the wine. 

Monks were also the ones behind the origins of Irish Whiskey.

Around the same time, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas under the auspices of the Spanish crown.

Colombus also had a role in the development of the cigar industry.

Soon Spanish wine was being exported throughout Europe and the Americas.

In fact, the earliest winemaking in the continental United States is credited to the Spanish in Santa Elena, South Carolina, around 1568. 

It developed even further during the phylloxera epidemic in the 17th and 18th centuries, which devastated French vineyards and caused many vintners to look to Spain instead.

This contributed to the further improvement of Spanish viticulture.

Phylloxera eventually reached Spain in the turn of the 20th century, but by then a solution had been found.

By grafting the resistant roots of native American grape varieties onto European vines, the plants were much better able to resist the disease.

Unfortunately, the 20th century would turn out to be a tough time for Spanish viticulture. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and World War II caused immense upheaval, affecting regions like Catalonia and Valencia the most. Vineyards were abandoned and wineries were destroyed in the wake of the two wars.

Fortunately, the industry began to recover in the second half of the century as the world economy grew stronger and wine exports increased.

When the Franco dictatorship ended in 1975 and the country transitioned to democracy, the Spanish wine industry was able to expand and develop, eventually gaining a worldwide reputation. 

The 1986 acceptance of Spain into the Europan Union also took the wine industry a step further

Spanish Wine-Making Regions

Spain which is classified as an old-world wine country has emerged as a major wine producer in the 21st century, rivaling other top wine-producing nations in the world. 

In fact, Spain has more land devoted to vineyards than any other European country. We are talking about nearly 1 million hectares of vineyards! 

Some of the major wine regions in Spain are Rioja and Navarre in the north, the Rías Baixas region in Galicia, Ribera del Duero in Castile and Leon, Penedès, Priorat and Montsant in Catalonia, the Valencia region in the east and finally Sherry in Andalusia in the south. 

Some of the most common grape varieties grown are Airen, Tempranillo, Bobal, Garnacha, Pardina, Macabeo, Monastrell and Palomino

The Airen variety, mainly used for the production of brandy, accounts for almost half of the area under cultivation, followed by Extremadura, Valencia, Castilla-Leon, Catalonia, Murcia and Rioja.

To better understand why wine growing is so widespread in Spain, we should consider some factors such as geography and climate.

Geographical Patterns and Climatic Conditions

The northern and northwestern areas of Spain, exposed to the northern Atlantic Ocean, can be cool to cold and humid, while in the southeast, around Catalonia and Valencia, the climate is more temperate and has a strong Mediterranean influence. 

In the south, especially in the regions of Sherry and Malaga in Andalusia, it is very hot.

It gets even more extreme further inland on the Meseta Central plateau, with extremely hot summers and cold winters.

To avoid the rigors of hot temperatures, many Spanish vineyards are planted at higher elevations, usually above 2,000 feet above sea level. 

High altitudes coupled with low nighttime temperatures, allow the grapes to maintain good acidity levels and color. 

The ripening period is also longer and provides a good balance between sugar content and acidity.

On the other hand, vineyards at lower altitudes, such as those on the southern Mediterranean coast, tend to produce wines with higher alcohol content due to the high sugar content and lower acidity. 

At the same time, in regions with hot, dry weather, vines are planted with long intervals between the row. This practice aims to reduce competition between vines for resources in the soil. 

Since the 1996 lift of the irrigation ban, the widespread use of effective irrigation methods has resulted in higher density vineyards and contributed to higher yields in some of the drier parts of the country.

As a result, the styles and characteristics of the wines produced in these regions are incredibly diverse, due in large part to the different climates in which they are produced. 

The lush green landscape of northwestern Spain, for example, is known for crisp white wines, while the unique climate of western Andalusia provides perfect conditions for the production of sherry wines.

A Deeper Look Into Spanish Wines

While perhaps not as popular abroad as its French and Italian counterparts, Spanish wine offers excellent value and an amazing variety that would take a single person a lifetime to fully discover.

Spanish wines - both red and white - are known for their distinctive flavors. They are very popular among Spaniards and are consumed both domestically and around the world. It also helps that Spanish wines generally cost less compared to French or Italian wines.

Wine Classification

It is important to note that the labels of Spanish wines usually focus on the region, not the grape variety. If you order a Rioja, ask for a wine from the Rioja region (often made from Tempranillo or Garnacha grapes).

Read: Difference Between Variety vs. Varietal and other Confusing Wine Terms

Spain uses a classification system called Denominación de Origen (DO) to classify wine regions. Below are the main definitions of the Spanish DO, the characteristic system for controlling wine quality, in ascending order of quality:

  • Vino de Mesa: Refers to a simple table wine produced in unclassified vineyards. It can be blended and does not bear any indication of vintage or grape variety.
  • Vino de la Tierra: The equivalent of the French Vin de Pays system, referring to table wine with a defined geographical origin, usually from a large autonomous area. This classification indicates the vintage and includes information about the grape variety.
  • DO (Denominación de Origen): Equivalent to France's VDQS or AC and Italy's DOC and includes all wines produced within the narrowly defined parameters of certain Consejos Reguladores (regional regulatory councils).
  • DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada): This designation is awarded to regions that consistently meet strict quality standards. Currently, there are only two DOCa regions: Rioja and Priorat.
  • The last two classifications worth mentioning and the most recent are Vinos de Pago and Vinos de Pago Calificada. These two categories apply to individual vineyard sites with a unique microclimate and have shown outstanding quality.

All of these classifications may sound complex (they are!), but you do not need to know every detail to fully appreciate Spanish wine.

Below are some of the key regions and wine types to look out for.

Spanish Red Wines

Many of the most famous Spanish wines are red wines. Here are some of the most common varieties of vino tinto, listed by region.


Rioja is basically synonymous with Spanish wine. Located in northern Spain, in the valley of the Ebro River, La Rioja is one of only two regions to receive the prestigious DOCa classification.

Its climate is ideal for growing Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes, as well as Graciano, Mazuela and Maturana. Many of the best Rioja wines are a blend of more than one of these grape varieties.

Ribera Del Duero

This is probably the second most popular Spanish red wine, produced in the northern region of Castilla y León.

The name comes from its location beside the Duero River. Almost all of the wine produced here is red, much of it made from Tinto Fino grapes (the regional name for Tempranillo). 

The wines from Ribera del Duero tend to have more intense flavors than the wines from Rioja.


Priorat, the second of Spain's two DOCa regions, is known for full-bodied red wines made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes. The extremely dry climate and unique soil conditions result in low yields, which in turn produce high-quality wines that are among the most expensive in Spain.

Spanish White Wines

Spain's most famous wines may be reds, but whites also deserve our attention. They are produced all over the country and reflect an immense variety of grapes, flavors and winemaking techniques.

The most widely grown white wine grape variety in the country, Airén,  although it is mainly used to make brandy. 


Though largely known for its white wines, Rioja also produces incredible white wines. They are usually made from Viura, white Garnacha and white Tempranillo grapes.

White Rioja can be either light and fresh or rich and nutty, and the fuller-bodied varieties are often aged for over a decade.


The Rueda region is located in Castilla y León the Verdejo wine. In this case, it is often referred to by the name of the grape varietal (Verdejo) rather than the region (Rueda).

Verdejo is crisp, dry and citrusy and is the perfect contrast to the full-bodied red wines from neighboring regions. 


This is another exception to the rule of naming wines by their region. Albariño is a grape variety grown in northwestern Spain and Portugal. It is particularly common in the Rias Baixas region of Galicia, where it accounts for about 96% of all grapes grown.

This light, acidic and slightly bitter wine is probably the most popular Spanish white wine abroad and is even grown in some parts of the U.S. Pacific coast.

Sparkling Wines

While Spain is probably not the first country that comes to mind when you think of sparkling wines, Spanish sparkling wines have quickly earned a reputation that rivals that of their French and Italian neighbors. 

Cava which literally means "cellar" in Spanish is often referred to as Spanish Champagne. In fact, it's made using the same process as its famous French counterpart.

There are several types of cava, from the incredibly sweet Dulce and Semi Seco to the super dry Extra Brut and Brut Nature. 

Almost all cava in Spain is made from indigenous grape varieties such as Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. However, it can also include Chardonnay and other non-indigenous varieties

To Wrap Up

Spanish wine, like all other world-famous wines, has a long history that not only certifies its origin and quality but also tells a story about the people and the region from which it comes. 

After our brief foray into the history of Spanish wine and an overview of the Spanish wine industry, you should not be surprised if you develop a deeper sense of appreciation for your favorite Spanish wine.

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