In Spain we enjoy a real wealth of wonderful wine. However, if buying Spanish wine for the first time, it can be a little confusing, if not intimidating. Unfortunately this can often mean that we simply end up buying the same old, same old – the wines we know, just to be on the safe side.
This guide on how to read Spanish Wine labels is intended to make it easier for you the reader to know what you are buying, to help you make better informed choices and to therefore help you appreciate the wines of Spain even more.
Now, let’s get started:
Firstly, Vino = Wine – not all of us are linguists!
Next, getting the colours sorted:
Blanco = White
During the last 15 years the whites of Spain have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of quality, offering all that you expect from fine white wine, plus a little extra in terms of indigenous varieties’ aroma and flavour profiles.
Rosado = Rosé
For me, Spain is the World Capital of Rosé wine! Such a choice of style, colour shade, grape varieties, aromas and flavours.
Tinto* = Red
Historically famed for its red wines, Spain has even upped the ante regarding quality! Whilst world-famous areas of production continue to make wines of distinction, other, lesser known wine making zones are now competing at the same level, therefore allowing such excellent consumer choice.
* The Spanish word for the colour ‘red’ is ‘rojo’, but this is not used when referring to red wine, which is always called ‘Vino Tinto’.
Types of Wine:
Cava = Spain’s famous sparkling wine is made by the traditional method, i.e. the same way by which Champagne is made, and indeed most, though not all, sparkling wines of the world.
Vino Espumoso = Technically, ‘Cava’ can also fit into this category as the phrase means ‘Sparkling Wine’ (told you Spanish wine labels can be confusing). There are many areas of Spain where sparkling wines are made. Very often, although different in flavour and aroma, these are of the same quality as Cava – however they are not permitted to use the word ‘Cava’ on their labels because they do not conform to certain rules stipulated by the ‘Cava’ regulatory body, and are made outside those geographical areas where ‘Cava’ production is permitted.
Vino Dulce/Vino para Postres = Sweet, or Dessert Wine. There are many white and red sweet dessert wines made in Spain, some of excellent quality. Primarily created for enjoying with sweet dishes, many of these wines can also accompany cold meats, cheese and more.
Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) = only wine making regions which have a proven track record of consistent top quality wines are entitled to use this epithet. There are only two areas (May 2017) that are entitled to use it – Rioja and Priorat. However, there is some debate as to whether it is only these two areas that satisfy the requirements. Some commentators believe that there are others deserving of this elevation as well, though the fact that they have not achieved this status may be because they have not applied!
Denominación de Origen (DO) = wine made under the auspices of a DO is protected by law. Historically DO wines have been at the top of the quality pyramid in Spain. In recent times wines which are not DO have equaled, and at times surpassed, some wines made under the DO banner.
Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) = wine made within a certain geographical area. At one time VdlT wines were considered second in the quality pyramid, not quite good enough to be granted DO status. More recently (as noted above) such wines can achieve greatness.
Parcelario = an unofficial new term (2016/2017) referring to a wine made from grapes grown on one specific plot.
Vino d’Autor = there is no perfect English definition for this style of wine. Suffice to say that such wines are a reflection of the winemaker’s personal desires for a wine that carries his name. Such wines may or may not conform to the DO or VdlT regulations.
Vino de la Mesa = Table Wine, almost always the lowest level of the Spanish Wine quality pyramid. However, this is not 100% true – so more confusion here too. There are some wines made in, for example DO and even DOCa areas, which do not comply with the rules laid down by the Consejo Regulador (Regulating Council) of the region. Such wines have to be labeled Vino de la Mesa – though they will very often command a higher, sometimes far higher, price than DO approved wines from the same area. Perhaps fitting into this bracket, we have recently (2017) seen a wine with simply ‘Red Wine Product of Spain’ (In Spanish and English) on it’s label.
Vino de Pago = Single Estate wine. Like the Vino d’Autor, discussed in Part Two, Vino de Pago is a relatively new term. Wineries (Bodegas) that produce a wine from a single estate and can prove a consistent, excellent quality, may apply for this epithet. Some Spanish definitions give it the same quality rating as a DO wine, others believe it to be of a higher quality.
Cosecha = literally, ‘harvest’ or ‘year’. The word Cosecha always have the year it was harvested after it on the label. It usually means a young wine, meant to be drunk when still young.
Vino Joven = Young Wine. This usually means that the wine is young and, as above, should not be aged before drinking. However, winemakers can interpret this in different ways. Therefore such wines may also have some oak ageing which would allow them to be aged a little longer than those designed for immediate drinking.
Crianza = a legally binding term which means that the wine must have had at least six months in oak barrels and 12 months in bottle before it can be released onto the market. However, whilst this is the least amount of time permitted, there are many wineries who exceed this (particularly the time in oak), and indeed there are areas of production (DOs) whose own rules stipulate that there should be greater time in oak, than the minimum 6 months. DOCa Rioja Crianza wines, for example, must have had a minimum of 12 months in oak. (NB Crianza White and Rosado wines must be aged for a minimum of 1 year, 6 months of which must be in oak).
Reserva = again legally binding, Reserva wines must have been aged for a minimum of 3 years, 12 months of which must have been in oak. Again, some DOs exceed this minimum. NB Reserva white and rosado wines need a minimum two years, 6 months of which must have been in oak.
Gran Reserva = venerable, elderly wines that must have been aged for a minimum of five years before release, 24 months of which must have been in oak. White and Rosado Gran Reservas (both of which are very rare nowadays, particularly rosados) are obliged to have had a minimum of 4 years aging, with 6 months of those
months in oak.
More Useful Words:
Roble = literally, oak. You will see this word on the back of labels, as part of the description, telling you that the wine has spent a certain amount of time in oak barrels. However, it also has another use, often seen on the front label. It still refers to oak but is telling you of the style of the wine. This usually indicates that the wine has spent less than six months in oak, often three or four months (had it spent more, it would probably be called a ‘Crianza’ or ‘Reserva’ etc).
Barrica = barrel. It is often followed by ‘Americano’ (American Oak) or ‘Frances’ (French Oak), indicating the provenance of the wood.
Some Spanish Grape Varieties:
Tempranillo – probably the best known of all indigenous Spanish grape varieties and, from 2015/16 the most widely planted black grape variety. Confusingly this variety has several different aliases: Tinto del Pais, Tinto Fino, Tino de Toro, Cencibel, Ull de Llebre and more.
Garnacha – the second most widely planted red wine variety. Known as Grenache in France and elsewhere, though it is a Spanish variety.
Monastrell – known as Mouvédre in France and Mataro elsewhere, though again, it is indigenous to Spain.
Garnacha Tintorera – not to be confused with Garnacha above, this variety is almost unique in that it is one of the very few varieties whose flesh is coloured, pink in fact. Also known as Alicante Bouschet, which gives a clue to its provenance.
Mencía – widely used in the North West of Spain and (2014 onwards) gaining in popularity.
Bobal – most used in South East Spain, particularly in DO Utiel-Requena & DO Manchuela.
Graciano & Mazuelo – placed together as they are often used along with Tempranillo in Rioja blends.
Albariño – widely considered the variety that makes the best Spanish white wine. Most prevalent in Galicia, North West Spain.
Macabeo – widely used in Spain for fresh, often green apple flavoured, still white wine, also one of the three main traditional varieties used in making Cava.
Airén – the most widely planted white wine variety, though this is largely historical in that it was encouraged (by subsidies) post Spanish Civil War, as it is an ideal base for making inexpensive Spanish Brandy.
Xarel.lo – admittedly difficult to spell and pronounce, but well worth it! Another of the Cava triumvirate and now (2015/17) also used for distinctive still wines, particularly in Cataluña.
Godello – now (2015/17) challenging its Galician neighbour, Albariño, for quality.
Verdejo – an incredibly recent (from perhaps 2010) rise to fame, following use of new technology and considerable investment. Commentators often note Sauvignon Blanc-esque aromas and flavours. Most prevalent in DO Rueda.
Garnacha Blanca – white wine sister of Garnacha, the red wine variety above. Widely used in DOCa Priorat and Cataluña in general. Also works very well with light oak aging.
BREAKING NEWS 2017: The DOCa. Rioja has just announced that it is now permitted to use the words ‘Single Estate’ on Rioja wine labels (presuming compliance with the rules). This new classification will run alongside the current (and historical) classification which relates to the amount of time that the wine has been aged in oak and bottle (see Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva above). Soon therefore consumers will begin to see on wines from DOCa. Rioja, for example, Crianza from a Single Estate.
We hope that this guide to reading Spanish Wine Labels helps when choosing your wines and, now armed with this information, we would recommend that you start to experiment!
¡Buena Suerte! (Good Luck!).
Image photo credit: copied from a very informative slideshare covering most wine label information. You can find the full presentation here.
About the author: Colin Harkness is an International Wine Judge, Writer, Broadcaster, Member of Circle of Wine Writers who specialises in Spanish wines. You can see more of Colins work at www.colinharknessonwine.com. He is also on Twitter.