Spain offers Old World and new wines. Spanish wines aren't new to local cellars, but new pleasures are arriving regularly from the Iberian Peninsula. Every wine-producing region of the country that gave us Don Quixote, Goya and El Cid is producing terrific work. The wines are made from native fruit dating back to ancient times, and even olives here are prized for their sweet meat and acidic qualities.
Spanish winemaking traditions maintain many Old World techniques still employed in the age of computerized temperature controls and stainless steel vats. One is as likely to encounter tools of the industry dating back to the mid-1800s as the micro-oxygenation apparatus invented in the 1990s. But what matters to consumers is that Spanish wines often are great values.
Here are some of the Spain's major wine-producing regions and their primary grapes:
• The wine region of Rias Baixas is nestled in the northwest corner of Spain between Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. Its landscape has more in common with Ireland and Wales than other Spanish winegrowing areas. Rias Baixas is known for producing Spain's finest white wines. Albarino is the native white grape, and it produces zesty wines with peach flavor with heavy overtones of honeysuckle, although the wines are not sweet but dry, acidic and well-structured. Albarino is a good accompaniment to strongly sauced seafood dishes.
• The Duero River flows out of the high plateaus of northern Spain into Portugal and the Atlantic. (In Portugal it is known as the Douro and is famous for making the greatest ports in the world.) In Spain, the Ribera del Duero region is a red wine paradise, and the local grape, tinto fino, is likely a variation of Spain's tempranillo.
Generally, the grapes are grown more than 2,500 feet above sea level, and the moisture from the river offsets the arid winds that blow through the region year round. The wines are aged for long periods in aged oak barrels, and in many cases are not released until four or five years after harvest. Blackberries, blueberries, concentrated fruit and tannins contribute to bold wines suitable for drinking with smoked meats and game.
• In north central Spain sits the most famous wine region on the Iberian peninsula, La Rioja. The name derives from Rio Oja, one of the seven tributaries of the Ebro River. This red wine region focuses on tempranillo grapes, and while often compared to Bordeaux wine styles, Riojas are actually more like fine Burgundys in character. The grapes of Rioja are strictly products of their environment, with each area impressing on its fruit distinct exposure to heat, sunshine, moisture and soil conditions. The wines are aged in large oak barrels, lowering the contact with oak while adding structure and imparting wood flavor.
Rioja winemakers make extensive use of American oak and American rootstock. The red wines from this region are legally defined by their aging criteria (how long they must age in oak barrels).
• The rising star of the Spanish wine world is Priorat, which has its own long winemaking history and tradition. The region's wines have become popular outside of Spain in the last two decades.
There are many grapes used here, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, tempranillo and two major local grapes — carinena (known as carignan in France and Chile) and garnacha, a Spanish grape better known in France as grenache.
Winemakers in Priorat often use French oak during aging because the vines are very old and yields are low. The wines are highly concentrated, exhibiting flavors of blackberry, chocolate and licorice. They're also usually high in alcohol, with big tannins.
• North of Priorat, but still south of Barcelona, lies Penedes, Spain's greatest sparkling wine producing area. This region has been producing sparkling wines, or cavas, since the 1870s, and today there are more than 175 producers, including Freixenet and Codorniu.
To be designated a cava, the wine must be made in the traditional Champagne method, which means the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. By law, cavas must use one or more of five local grape varieties, parellada, xarel-lo or macabeo, and can also use chardonnay and malvasia.
Emerging Spanish regions include Rueda, Montsant, Jumilla and Arabako Txakolina. Arabako Txakolina uses local grapes such as the red hondarrabi beltza and the white hondarrabi zuri. The Jumilla region in the southeastern coastal part of the country uses Old World grapes like the red mourvedre, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. White grapes are similar to airen, the most widely planted white grape in the country, malvasia, macabeo and pedro ximenez.
Spanish wines deliver boldness, concentrated fruit and surprising value, a reflection of their environment and the dedication to quality of the winemakers that have labored for generations.