Friday, January 20, 2012

Understanding Spanish Red Wines- A Primer on the three main regions

Spain has been producing wine as far back as the 6th Century BC. The Roman naturalist Gayus Plinius mentions a Spanish wine from the Barcelona area of Catalunya at that time called coccolobis that supposedly was imported by the Romans as a healthy wine and wine that benefitted the liver. Today Spain is the third largest producer of wine in the world and there are many regions that are recognized under a 1986 law with the “denominacion de origen” or D.O. which certifies the wine as being from a particular region. Prior to the recent past, only two wine growing regions in Spain had formal legal recognition. Following the establishment of the Rioja as the first Spanish denominación in 1925, the Estatuto de Vino of 1932 coincided with national and international recognition of the sherry-producing region of Jerez. Out of all these regions, however, the finest quality red wines are predominantly from Rioja, Priorat and Ribera del Duero. Only the Rioja and Priorat regions qualify as Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), the highest qualification level for a wine region according to Spanish wine regulations,

Rioja wine is made from grapes grown not only in the Autonomous Community of La Rioja, but also in parts of Navarre and the Basque province of Álava. Rioja is further subdivided into three zones: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa. Many wines have traditionally blended fruit from all three regions. The principal varietal of the region is the Tempranillo grape, which tradional wineries will blend with a small amount of the other three predominant varietals grown in that region, Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo. Modern winemaking in La Rioja dates back to the 1850s when French wine making techniques for viticulture and winemaking were introduced in the region. Tempranillo contributes the main flavors and aging potential to the wine; Garnacha adds body and alcohol; Mazuelo provides seasoning flavors and Graciano contibutes additional aromas. Some wineries, Marques de Riscal most notably, have received special dispensation to include Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, due to historical inclusion of that grape in their wine that predates the formation of the Consejo Regulador. However, a traditional red Rioja wine will always contain at least 60% Tempranillo in the blend and are always aged to some degree in oak casks. Rioja red wines are classified into four categories. The first, simply labeled Rioja, is the youngest, spending less than a year in an oak aging barrel. A crianza is wine aged for at least two years, at least one of which was in oak. Rioja Reserva is aged for at least three years, of which at least one year is in oak. Finally, Rioja Gran Reserva wines have been aged at least two years in oak and three years in bottle. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are only produced in select years that the winery determines are worthy of aging.

Priorat wine is produced exclusively from grapes produced in the Priorat region to the southwest area of Catalonia. Monastaries in this region are known to have produced wine since the 12th Century. At the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera pest devastated the vineyards in this region as they did in most of France. It was not until the 1950s that replanting was undertaken. The DO Priorat was formally created in 1954. The seat of the DO's regulatory body was initially Reus, some 30 km to the east of this region, rather than in Priorat itself. The DOQ comprises the valleys of the rivers Siurana and Montsant. The vineyards are planted on the slopes on terraces at altitudes of between 100 m and 700 m above sea level. The traditional grape variety grown in El Priorat is the red Garnacha Tinta, which is found in all the older vineyards. The other authorized grapes are the following red varieties: Garnacha Peluda, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The traditional reds from El Priorat are either 100% Garnacha or a blend of Garnacha and Cariñena. Crianza wines must remain in oak barrels for 6 months and then 18 months in the bottle. Reserva wines must remain in oak barrels for 12 months and then 24 months in the bottle. Gran Reserva wines remain in oak barrels for 24 months and then 36 months in the bottle.Few wineries follow these guidelines strictly, and the usual practice is to produce what is known as vino de guarda (aged wine) that has been in oak barrels for 18 months followed by 6 months in the bottle, the optimal moment for consumption being 2 years later. Hence, unlike the unique varietal character of La Rioja, Priorat wines are made and blended from grape varieties almost exactly like those used in the great wine growing regions of France and therefore share a similar taste and style attributes with traditional French wines.

Ribera del Duero is a Spanish Denominación de Origen (DO) located in the country's northern plateau and is one of eleven 'quality wine' regions within the autonomous community of Castile and León. It is also one of several recognized wine-producing regions to be found along the course of the Duero river.The region is characterized by a largely flat, rocky terrain and is centered in the town of Aranda de Duero, although the most famous vineyards surround Peñafiel and Roa de Duero to the west, where the regional regulatory council or Consejo Regulador for the denominación is based..Ribera del Duero is home to the world-famous and highly-prized Vega Sicilia and Tinto Pesquera wines and is dedicated almost entirely to the production of red wine from the Tempranillo grape. There are other similarities between Rioja and Ribera del Duero, besides the predominance of the Tempranillo grape. Whereas the wines are quite distinctive as a result of significant differences in terroir, both regions produce wines selected for long aging with highly complex vinification procedures, producing intense, extremely long-lived wines. Wines are classified as much for their longevity as their grape quality, and Ribera del Duero produces some extremely well-aging wines. On the other hand, Ribera del Duero wines share similarities with the Priorat region in that they share a connection to French style elaboration with Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot varietals. Interestingly, Tinto Pesquera, grown by Alejandro Fernández in Pesquera de Duero, is always a 100% Tempranillo varietal wine like a fine Rioja.Vega Sicilia, on the other hand, produces wines made by blending with Garnacha and other varietals as in the Priorat region.  

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