Spain and Portugal

A look at the wine regions of Spain and Portugal



Until recent years the most famous Spanish red wine by far, Rioja is made in a region covering about 200 square miles, including portions of La Rioja, Navarra, and the Basque Country. Though white and rosé wines are produced here, the region's reputation is based on its complex, elegant reds. These are based primarily on tempranillo, with garnacha (grenache), graciano, and mazuelo often blended in, in smaller quantities. Though cabernet sauvignon is not permitted across the denominación, there are old plantings of the grape in the area and some producers have received permission to include it in their blends (Marqués de Riscal is the most prominent of these). Whites are based on viura (the local name for macabeo) and may include garnacha blanca and malvasia. A bit of viura was traditionally added to red Rioja blends for added acidity, but this practice has pretty much died out. One producer, Remelluri, blends Rhône varieties — viognier, marsanne, and roussanne — with local grapes for a unique white wine. Wine has been made in the region for more than 1,000 years, but Rioja as we know it today was first developed in the second half of the 1850s, and by the latter part of the 19th century, the reds had earned an international reputation for their quality and finesse. The Rioja wine region is divided into three parts; Rioja Alta, to the west, known for lighter, more traditional-style wines; Rioja Alavesa, at a lower elevation that Rioja Alta, producing richer wines, sometimes in a more modern style; and Rioja Baja, whose warmer, drier climate yields wines with dark color, intense flavors, and high alcohol. Many producers blend wines from this region with other Rioja for balance.

Ribera del Duero 

Two wines made the reputation of this wine region southwest of Rioja: the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, from a winery founded in 1864 and vineyards planted with cabernet sauvignon and merlot as well as tempranillo, released only after 10 to 15 years of bottle age, and until recent years by far the most expensive wine in Spain; and Tinto Pesquera, created in the early 1970s by the visionary Alejandro Fernández, the first high-quality modern-day from the region, 100 percent tempranillo (a grape known in Ribera del Duero as tinta del país). Today there are dozens of producers, and while some of the wines can be overly alcoholic and over-oaked, the best of them are classy, spicy, earthy wines full of complex fruit.


Until the mid-1980s, this mountainous region southwest of Barcelona, near the ancient Roman capital of Tarragona, was known mostly for the production of undistinguished, high-alcohol bulk wines (including altar wines for the Catholic Church) and a type of fortified wine called vi ranci. Winemakers René Barbier and, slightly later, Álvaro Palacios recognized the potential of the region, however, and began tending the ancient garnacha (grenache), cariñena (carignan), and other vines here and planting new vineyards. Syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot are now increasingly grown here (as are garnacha blanca, macabeo, pedro Ximénez, and chenin blanc for white wines), and the region has become one of the most prestigious in Spain, above all for its inky, hearty, mineraly reds. The whites, while less successful overall, can have some of the spicy, flowery character of white Rhône wines.


Known above all for its charming, fresh-fruit-filled, inexpensive rosados, or rosés, primarily based on garnacha (grenache), this region in northern Spain, extending down from the foothills of the Pyrénées into the Ebro River Valley, also produces red wines of good quality. Generally medium to full in body with plummy fruit, these are made with garnacha, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, graciano, mazuelo, and a bit of syrah is also used (the tempranillo–cabernet sauvignon blends seem to be particularly successful). A small percentage of white wine is produced, with viura (macabeo) predominating but chardonnay used increasingly; these wines are sometimes described as chalky or soapy.

Rías Baixas

The great Spanish white wine success of the late 20th and early 21st century has been albariño from this region in Galicia, in far northwestern Spain — and specifically from portions of the province of Pontevedra and A Coruña. The grape was apparently brought from France by monks or pilgrims coming to the celebrated Galician shrine of Santiago de Compostela in the 12th century, and it took well to the cool, damp climate here. There are five sub-zones in the appellation, with varying soils and climate conditions, and they produce wines of varying character. The best of them balance good acidity and a clean finish with aromas and flavors of citrus and almonds. Albariño accounts for about 90 percent of this region's production, but there are also white wines labeled simply Rías Baixas, blended from albariño and/or such other varieties as loureira and treixadura. A small quantity of red wine is made, mostly caiño tinto.


This region in north-central Spain has become known for its fresh, fruity white wines, made from verdejo, sauvignon blanc, and viura (macabeo) grapes, either separately or in various blends. Several of the key Rioja producers, including Marqués de Riscal and Marqués de Murrieta, make agreeable whites here. There are also some pleasant reds, based on tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and garnacha (grenache).


This wine region in Murcia, in southeastern Spain, was decimated by phylloxera, a vine louse that destroys grapevines, in 1989 — roughly a century after the same pest had wiped out thousands of acres of vineyards all over Europe, but ironically spared Jumilla. Fortunately, local winemakers took advantage of this destruction to replant vines in the modern style and upgrade their winemaking. Today, Jumilla produces juicy, fruity, sometimes slightly gamy reds, overwhelmingly from monastrell (mourvèdre). This variety accounts for more than 80 percent of the red grapes planted, but there is also tempranillo (here called cencibel), garnacha (grenache), and cabernet sauvignon and other international varieties. Some white wine, rarely distinguished, is made from airén, macabeo, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and other cultivars. The wines of Jumilla almost always offer very good value for the money.

Other Spain

Spain is the third-largest wine-producing nation in the world, after France and Italy, with about 3 million acres planted to vines (this is more than any other country, but low yields in some areas reduce the total amount of wine that may be produced). There are said to be more than 400 grape varieties planted around the country, a good number of them native to Spain. Tempranillo leads the red grape plantings, airén (used mostly for bulk wine and brandy distillation) the white. Other important red wine grapes include garnacha (grenache) and monastrell (mourvèdre), both believed to be of Spanish origin; white grapes include albariño, palomino (used in sherry), and parellada and xarel-lo (essential to Catalonia's cava). Every important international variety — cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, etc., etc., is also grown. In addition to the world-renowned red wines of Rioja, Priorat, and Ribera del Duero and the increasingly popular whites of Rías Baixas, the cavas (sparkling wines) of Catalonia, and the nonpareil apéritif and dessert wines of the Jerez, or sherry, region, first-rate wines in every style and at every price range are produced in such places as Calatayud, Campo de Borja, Somontano, Cariñena, Bierzo, Cigales, Toro, Empordà, the region of Madrid, Utiel-Requena, Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro, Valdeorras, various parts of the Balearic and Canary islands, and many more.


The most famous of Portugal's many wines is port,   also known as porto (not in fact in honor of Portugal but because it is shipped from the Douro River port city of that name). This is a fortified wine, mostly sweet, made in a number of styles in the Douro Valley. The ultimate version is vintage port made only in certain years and developed in the bottle into rich, dark, complex wines of great quality. Portugal is also the source of another world-famous fortified wine, madeira, made on the island of the same name, Portuguese-owned but lying off the coast of Morocco. Made in varying degrees of sweetness and intentionally oxidized in heated rooms, they can be among the longest-lived of wines, and were great favorites of America's Founding Fathers (Washington and Jefferson were particular fans). Portugal also produces a considerable amount of table wine, utilizing a vast array of grape varieties, many of them unique to the country (or to neighboring Spain, under different names). Vinho Verde (literally "green" — meaning young — wine), which may be white, rosé, or red, is fresh and simple, usually with slight pinpoint carbonation, and is meant to be consumed very young. Ripe, fruity red wines from the Douro and the Dão region (in north-central Portugal) sometimes achieve considerable elegance and are becoming increasingly known. The vast Alentejo region is southern Portugal produces a wide range of white and red wines, often excellent, from both Portuguese and international varieties.

Rate this Story