a guide to spanish wines

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Spain is the world’s largest producer of wine and the country with the largest number of vineyards in the world. We love telling our clients that after cereals and olives, the grape is Spain’s most cultivated crop. Wine tours and tastings give you an insight into the makings of wine, cava and port. But, there’s also a strong sense of history and heritage to uncover. Venture into cellars cut into the rock beneath medieval towns. Visit wineries and vineyards that have been passed down families for generations. Or, at harvest time, tread grapes to the sound of accordions. If you’d like to know which wineries our Spain-based travel specialist recommends visiting, read on!

A Guide to Spanish Wines

A great map from Wine Folly

Which are the Best Wineries in Spain to Visit?

We are constantly asked which are the best wineries in Spain and of course we have our personal favorites but we usually hesitate before we answer. You see the best winery for a family group visiting Spain for the first time will not be the best winery for a foodie who has visited Spain on many occasions. If you want to imagine what runs through our mind when somebody asks about the best Spanish wineries, it’s something like this:

1. Which Wine Region to Visit?

Every single one of Spain’s 17 regions produce wines. You might be forgiven for thinking that La Rioja is the biggest producer of wine in Spain because it’s so well-known but it comes in fifth place after Castilla-la-Mancha, Extremadura, Catalonia and Valencia. When we are asked about where to visit we nearly always recommend one of the 69 Denominacion de origin (DO) regions which are similar to the French ‘appellations’. Of these, La Rioja holds the highest number of registered quality wineries, followed by Cava, Ribera del Duero, La Mancha, Cataluña, Penedés and Rías Baixas. We’ll recommend Rioja for those who want to see the North of Spain, Ribera del Duero and La Mancha for those visiting Madrid and if you are staying in Barcelona, then Penedés and Cava are convenient. Rias Baixas is a good option for a Northern Spain trip or for those also keen to explore Portugal! For clients flying into Seville or Malaga, we recommend the sherry winery triangle especially Jerez and the five geographical sub-areas within the D.O. Malaga and D.O. Sierras de Malaga: Axarquia, Costa Occidental-Manilva, Montes, Norte and Serrania de Ronda.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Great wines of Spain

2. Small or large scale producers – Which Wineries are the Best?

With over 4,000 wineries in operation in Spain, we have a lot to choose from. The bigger producers have made it easy to visit their premises with online reservation systems and plenty of information about activities on site. When clients are travelling on a very tight deadline we often opt for the large wineries – the names you recognize. But if a guest has time to visit a second or third winery  – we always book a smaller family run winery also. We know that the smaller winery tours don’t always start bang on time but you know you’re getting a highly personalized tour from most often the owner.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Marques de Riscal’s winery in La Rioja complete with Frank Gehry hotel is one of the country’s best known wineries. Hotel Marqués de Riscal, a hotel, spa and winery half an hour northwest of Logroño.

3. Red or White?

Of course, the type of wine or grape is often a key factor. If you look at what Spanish people drink in a bar or restaurant, you’ll certainly see more red wine than white but white wine lovers don’t need to worry because 49 percent of the grapes harvested in Spain are for white wine and the top grown grape variety is actually a white variety called Airén. The top red grape is Tempranillo. Although many regions are suitable for both red and white wines and most of the larger wineries will produce both reds and whites, if you only drink red wine we would recommend the wineries in La Rioja and La Rioja Alavesa, Ribera de Duero and Toro. If it can only be white, then consider focusing your trip on Rias Baixas or Rueda. If you are a fan of the bubbly, you are off to Catalonia!

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Are these grapes going to win Barbadillo more prizes? The Andalusian bodega was voted Spanish winery of the year last year

4. Winery Tours In English – Make Sure to Pre-book!

Language may also be a factor in deciding where to visit. Being at an amazing winery in Spain is not much good to you if you don’t speak Spanish and the tour guide or person leading the wine tasting can’t speak English. If you understand Spanish, we recommend selecting one of the mainstream wine regions and also a lesser known one. If you have no Spanish at all, you are best keeping to the larger wineries in the better known wine regions. Even then, you will have to pre-book your English tour in advance to avoid any disappointment. Remember when booking tours that we recommend a maximum of two to three a day. Of course when traveling with your local host, Audrey, there would be no issue with the language barrier as she would be your personal translator.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Award-winning views from Artadi’s award-winning winery in Alava. Pic credit: Artadi

5. The Wine or the Winery – Which Are You are Interested In?

Many wineries have paired up with exciting architects to produce a unique winery experience. Take for example the Frank O. Gehry Hotel at the Marques de Riscal wineries in La Rioja Alavesa. If you want to eat, sleep or even have a pampering at a winery, you’d do well to start your research at the Rioja and Rioja Alavesa regions that seem to be the trailblazers in this. We recommend architecture fans visit Ysios, the new Domecq owned winery designed by Calatrava. And the Philippe Maziéres-designer space at CVNE plus the R. López Heredia shop by Zaha Hadid. In Catalonia, we really like the Modernist buildings at the Codorniu wineries – which just goes to show that wine and great architecture isn’t a new combination.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Wineries to visit in Rioja

6. Art and Wine

Lovers of visual arts will also have lots to choose from when selecting wineries. Bodegas for all things fine we recommend the Vivanco Winery and Museum in La Rioja which includes work by Picasso, Sorolla, Joan Miro and Juan Gris and the wonderful collection of art at Bodegas Tradicion in Jerez. This sherry winery has a stunning collection of paintings including work by Goya, Velazquez and Zurbaran. Of course, you don’t need to go to a gallery to see that the creatives are hard at work in the wineries of Spain. We love Matsu’s labels which feature portraits of three generations of wine makers photographed by well-known Catalan photographers Bèla Adler and Salvador Fresneda. Other labels we like include Lolo by Paco & Lola and of course the cava producers go into overdrive for the festive season.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Matsu’s striking labels really stand out. Photo credit: Vino tinto de Toro (Zamora)* Con etiquetas de diseño via photopin (license)

7. Food & Wine Pairings

The word ‘maridaje’ in Spanish translates as ‘food and wine pairing’ and it’s one of the most popular ways in Spain to try new wines. Many of the best wineries in Spain have realized this and provide foodie tastings or have set up restaurants in their wineries to provide just that. We love Baigorri in La Rioja Alavesa and there are many many more. The crème de la crème in this sector would be the 12th century Abadía Retuerta near Ribera del Duero. While the hotel prices are outside most budgets, the food and wine tastings are competitive and the location is certainly a privileged one.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Great views and great food and wine pairings at the Baigorri winery in La Rioja Alavesa’s Samaniego

8. Women in the Wine Business

While it’s traditionally a sector dominated by men, in Spain today you’ll find much is changing. Many of the enologists are women – for example in Marques de Murrieta and Lopez de Heredia (Vina Tondonia) in La Rioja and the Bodegas de Vega Sicilia in Ribera del Duero. Whilst its not generally possible to meet these highly trained women on a visit to their wineries, we know that many of the enologists provide tasting workshops from time to time.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

One of Spain’s most prestigious wineries is the Vega Sicilia name which partnered up with the Rothchilds in 2011. Photo credit: Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero, Spain

9. Environmentally-friendly Wineries

Although its consumption is rather low, Spain is one of the larger producers of eco-wines. You’ll find some of the large producers such as Codorniu getting on board with the organic grapes as well as many of the big Rioja names such as Bodegas Muga and plenty of smaller wineries in this marketplace too.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

Codorniu’s stunning Modernist buildings gives almost as much pleasure as the cava! NB They are no producing an organic cava. Codorniu photo credit: Caves Codorniu

10. Child-friendly Wineries

It might sounds strange to be bringing kids into a winery but we have planned family trips for clients that take in wineries. Of course, the children don’t taste the wine – but so much of the winery visit is about more than the alcohol. Many winery visits include a walkabout of the facilities and sometimes even the vines. Kids love to run between the vines and enjoy the outdoor space – and they really enjoy the technical aspects of the production process – seeing the bottles being filled and labelled, and even seeing where the deliveries are going to nationally and internationally. They also enjoy the food pairings and will usually be given a grape juice to sample with the food. When considering a winery visit with children, it’s important to check with the winery first. They will usually say which timeslot is most appropriate and will advise when that’s not the case. Don’t be insulted if you are steered away from a particular time. The best wineries in Spain won’t want to mix a technical or professional group or a press group with a group of young children.

11. Sacred Wine

We couldn’t write about the best wineries in Spain without mentioning the kosher wines produced in Spain. And the Spanish wineries that have been chosen by the Vatican City. In 2001, Pope John Paul II gave his seal of approval to La Rioja’s Heras Cordon and the winery continues to provide for Pope Francis – who was curiously made an honorary sommelier by the Italian Association for Sommeliers this year. Of course, you can taste the Papal wine in La Rioja as well as Rome. Heras Cordon has a private dining room which is perfect for tastings and group events. Fellow Spanish wineries Vega Sicilia and Viña Pedrosa also supply papal demands for red wine in Rome and we understand a white from Rueda is also dispatched.

We can also arrange kosher winery tours and tastings. The first winery was the Celler de Capçanes co-operative in Tarragona which now produces four kosher wines. Visits to the winery include a detailed explanation of the art of kosher winemaking. This could make a very interesting add-on to a Sephardic themed tour of Barcelona, Besalu and Girona in Catalonia. More Spanish wineries are beginning to service kosher demand and in La Rioja, the well-known Haro winery Bodegas Ramón Bilbao has produced kosher wines. Smaller wineries are also getting involved – the Laguardia-based Bodegas Ruiz de Vinaspre produces wine for the kosher market from time to time at its winery is located right beside the Ysios winery. Bodegas Castillo de Sajazarra also produces kosher wine from its winery located 15km from Haro in La Rioja.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

El ayudante del Rabino ,Yosi Abubul,mirando las uvas.

12. Can’t Drink or Not a Fan of the Grape?

What do you do if some of your party is not interested in wine? Start by checking out what other drinks are native to the region you are visiting. For example in the North of Spain, you’ll find many cider producers, distilleries of Orujo, Pacharan and vermouth. Many of the breweries are also offering great tours and tastings for example Dougalls microbrewery in Cantabria. If aren’t able to or chose not to drink alcohol (for religious reasons, are taking medication, pregnant, are the designated driver etc), and you are at a wine tasting, you can choose to taste the drink and then discreetly spit it out. We’ve seen it done at many of the tastings we attended – and all the pro’s do it at the industry events. If you are the designated driver, you might want to check out the benefits of hiring a private driver in Spain for winery visits.

A Guide to Spanish Wines

You don’t have to be a wine buff to love wine tourism. Calatrava creation at the Ysios winery.

We hope we’ve shown you how many different tangents a wine-themed trip can take in Spain and how vibrant and forward looking this sector is.

Audrey helps you make your vacation truly memorable by offering private and small group tours to Italy, France and Spain that promise a personal experience you will not find anywhere else.

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, how I look at the world and continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages. Western Europe is my backyard, in particular Spain, France, Germany, and Italy—countries where I have spent my life, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working.