When we think of old world wines, it is the holy trifecta of France, Italy, and Spain that usually come to mind.
France and Italy seem to get the most hype on this side of the pond, but it may surprise you to hear that Spain was once considered the top of the heap in the wine world.
From Roman times up until the middle ages, the finest vineyards of the known world were in the region currently known as Spain. Sadly, a little internal difficulty that we remember as the Spanish Inquisition took its toll on the local wine industry, giving those crafty French vintners the chance to surpass the Spaniards, and French wines have remained king of the hill ever since.
Many of the grapes grown in Spain are less well known in North America, as they are largely consumed in the Spanish domestic market.
The major wine regions of Spain are much drier than France or Italy, so extensive irrigation is required to keep the vineyards in production. The hot and dry climate is the reason that Spain has far more acres of planted vineyards (2.9 million and counting) than any other country, but comes in behind France and Italy in terms of actual production. Due to the dry climate, the vineyards of Spain are forced to plant their vines much further apart, so they have lower yields than neighbouring countries.
The most widely planted varietal in Spain is called Airén, which is a drought-resistant white grape. This grape is popular because it is hardy and produces high yields, but the taste is not particularly pleasant. For this reason, it is often used as the base wine in the Spanish brandy industry, where the subtle flavours disappear during the distillation process.
Market demand for white grapes has been waning, so the Airén grape is losing ground to some of the more popular red varietals.
Next up we have Tempranillo, which is much more widely known here in North America. Tempranillo is widely considered the quintessential Spanish grape, having originated in Northern Spain thousands of years ago. The name Temprano literally means “early”, referring to the tendency of this grape to mature earlier in the growing season that most other varietals.
This makes the Tempranillo grape able to adapt to cooler climates with a shorter growing season, as they need less time to ripen on the vine before harvesting.
So, while Spain is the traditional home of the Tempranillo grape, and is still responsible for most of the world production, it has also thrived in the New World.
Argentina and Australia have both done very well with Tempranillo production, with some of the upstart young vintners producing wines that are the envy of their Old World counterparts.
Tempranillo is sometimes bottled as a single varietal, but is often blended with Garnacha for a more complex bouquet and finish.
Coming in third place by acres under vine, we have the Bobal grape. The name is taken from the Latin word for bull, as the grape clusters tend to grow in a shape resembling the head of a bull.
Bobal is a very hardy and productive grape, so winemakers love to grow it. Unfortunately, the taste is only so-so, which means it gets relegated to producing inexpensive table wines for the domestic market, and is rarely seen here in North America.
The fourth most common grape in Spain is Monastrell, also known as Mourvèdre in some countries. Monastrell is also widely planted in France, California, and Australia.
When bottled on its own, Monstrell is generally used for inexpensive jug wines, or distilled to make a fortified wine.
However, the true calling for the Monastrell grape seems to be for blending with Grenache and Syrah. In fact, the extremely popular GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Monastrell) blend can be found pretty much anywhere those grapes are grown.
Discussing all of the 600 different grape varietals grown in Spain would take us all day, but the top 4 discussed here account for more than half the national production. Just the top 20 grape varietals alone account for 80% of production, so you will only see a very small fraction of the long list of Spanish grapes make it this side of the pond.
So, take a wander through the Spanish wine section of your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant, and take home a bottle today.