The abundance of native grape varieties fostered an early start to viticulture with evidence of grape pips dating back to the Tertiary period. Archaeologists believe that these grapes were first cultivated sometime between 4000 and 3000 BC, long before the wine-growing culture of the Phoenicians founded the trading post of Cádiz around 1100 BC.
Following the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians introduced new advances to the region, including the teachings of the early viticulturist Mago. Carthage would wage a series of wars with the emerging Roman Republic that would lead to the Roman conquest of the Spanish mainland, known as Hispania.
Geography and Climate
One of the dominant geographical influences of Spanish viticulture is the vast plateau known as the Meseta Central that covers much of central Spain. Several of Spain’s principal rivers that are at the heart of many Spanish wine regions flow to the sea from that central area.
In addition to the Meseta Central, several mountain ranges known as cordilleras serve to isolate and influence the climate of several Spanish wine regions. These include the Cantabrian Mountains that spur westward from the Pyrenees and protect regions like the Rioja from the rain and the cool of westerlies coming from the Bay of Biscay. The Cantabrian Mountains act as a rain shadow with the coastal regions of the Basque Country receiving an average of 59 inches (1,500 mm) while the winemaking region of Rioja, near Haro, around 62 miles (100 km) away receives only 18 inches (460 mm). In Galicia on the northwest coast, the region receives annual rainfall that ranges from 39 inches (990 mm) on the coast to 79 inches (2.0 m) near the mountainous border of Castile and León.
Appalations and Classifications
Spanish wine laws created the Denominación de Origen (DO) system in 1932 and were later revised in 1970. The system shares many similarities with the hierarchical Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system of France, Portugal’s Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) and Italy’s Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) system.
As of 2009, there were 79 Quality Wine areas across Spain. In addition there is Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa or DOQ in Catalan) status for DOs that have a consistent track record for quality.
There are currently two DOCa/DOQ regions: Rioja and Priorat. Each DO has a Consejo Regulador, which acts as a governing control body that enforces the DO regulations and standards involving viticultural and winemaking practices.
These regulations govern everything from the types of grapes that are permitted to be planted, the maximum yields that can be harvested, the minimum length of time that the wine must be aged and what type of information is required to appear on the wine label. Wineries that are seeking to have their wine sold under DO or DOC status must submit their wines to the Consejo Regulador laboratory and tasting panel for testing and evaluation. Wines that have been granted DO/DOC status will feature the regional stamp of the Consejo Regulador on the label.
Following Spain’s acceptance into the European Union, Spanish wine laws were brought in line to be more consistent with other European systems. One development was a five-tier classification system that is administered by each autonomous region. Non-autonomous areas or wine regions whose boundaries overlap with other autonomous communities (such as Cava, Rioja and Jumilla) are administered by the Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen (INDO) based in Madrid. The five-tier classifications, starting from the bottom, include:
Vino de Mesa (VdM) – These are wines that are the equivalent of most country’s table wines and are made from unclassified vineyards or grapes that have been declassified through blending. Similar to the Italian Super Tuscans from the late 20th century, some Spanish winemakers will intentionally declassify their wines so that they have greater flexibility in blending and winemaking methods.
Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) – This level is similar to France’s vin de pays system, normally corresponding to the larger comunidad autonóma geographical regions and will appear on the label with these broader geographical designations like Andalucia, Castilla La Mancha and Levante.
Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG) – Introduced in 2003, this level is similar to France’s defunct Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) system and is considered a stepping stone towards DO status. After holding VCIG status for five years a region may apply for DO status.
Denominación de Origen (Denominació d’Origen in Catalan – DO) – This level is for the mainstream quality-wine regions which are regulated by the Consejo Regulador who is also responsible for marketing the wines of that DO. In 2005, nearly two thirds of the total vineyard area in Spain was within the boundaries a DO region.
Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa/DOQ – Denominació d’Origen Qualificada in Catalan) – This designation, which is similar to Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation, is for regions with a track record of consistent quality and is meant to be a step above DO level.
Rioja was the first region afforded this designation in 1991 and was followed by Priorat in 2003.
Vino de Pago – Additionally there is the Denominación de Pago (DO de Pago) designation for individual single-estates with an international reputation. As of 2013, there were 15 estates with this status.