Spanish Wine in a (big) Nutshell

The rich soil of a viñedo in D.O. Almansa.

Inside a corner bar in the town of Aranjuez, 50 kilometers south of Madrid, there is often a round, stocky man with calloused hands and a deep laugh, standing next to his bald friend, a glass of wine held tightly in his hand.   He owns 1500 chickens, he tells us, and the provider of most of the eggs in the restaurants and markets of the sparsely populated area. He forces us to sample the tortilla made from the eggs of his superior hens.  It does seem to taste better, in the same way that pie tastes better after you’ve been told it was made with love and whole ingredients and the hard labor of your grandmother’s hands.  I nod in approval, and realize that I am talking to a walking anachronism, the antithesis of the faceless, standardized mass production of food in the 21st century. He must have a wealth of local and practical knowledge behind his wrinkled face and blood-shot eyes.  I decide to pick his brain.

“We’re out here looking for some vineyards or wine cellars,” I ask. “Something that is characteristic of the area, you know, to take some photos and…”

“No idea,” he says.  “What do you think of the tortilla? My eggs are in them.”

His bald friend overhears our conversation and gets out his cell phone.  While he talks, he holds up his finger, in a signal for us to wait for some great news. After a short conversation, he hangs up the phone and scribbles an address and phone number on a napkin.

“Talk to this man,” he says, pointing to the napkin. “Tell him you talked to me.”

If air seeps through the cork, wine gets sick.

We recognize that he is proud of his insider information, and we suspect this special invitation isn’t entirely necessary, but we are grateful and thank him, stuffing down the rest of the tortilla made of fresh eggs from apparently happy chickens. We continue to drive south, deeper into the arid countryside, and arrive in La Guardia, a sad, little town that is the kind of place that people move to the big city to get away from, especially in hard financial times.  Strangely, there are bustling groups of people on the move, cars and pedestrians, but the life of the town seems to have been drained, recently and ruthlessly.  Between the windblown poplar trees, there are broken windows and abandoned warehouses, construction projects that ran out of money, and a closed car dealership sprayed with bad graffiti. Everywhere are subtle reminders of the economic crisis that has been a shot in the gut to Spain’s financial health.

But somewhere there is wine.

It is a daunting task to fully grasp the complexity of Spanish wine as a whole.  In fact, to the casual wine drinker, the sheer variety of grape-derived alcohol available at a simple cafe is just plain intimidating.  But everyone has a particular taste, and with a rudimentary arsenal of background knowledge, open-mindedness, and a healthy attitude of cultural exploration, there is a rich, deeply engrained part of the Spanish soul waiting to be discovered.  And as my pendulum of taste swings between pretentious wine snob and simple bar fly, I have found the Iberian Peninsula an apt locale to develop my viticultural interests. In general, wine has served me well most often as a complement to food and a catalyst for conversation, but also as a medical relaxant, a surrogate girlfriend, and at times, a simple vice.

Anyone who partakes in the bustling shoulder-rubbing of Spanish nightlife, whether in Madrid or elsewhere, undoubtedly will have heard certain terms thrown around by their Spanish friends with the confidence of a Sotheby’s auctioneer selling a Fabergé egg. Tempranillo, rosado, albariño, semi-dulce, crianza, reserva, roble or rioja. And then there’s joven, brut, verdejo and cava. Having a glass of wine is a particular pleasure in Spain, and the Spanish take it seriously. Sometimes the Spanish local will know the ins and outs of what they are saying, what they are drinking, other times they won’t. But they always seem to create a sense of curiosity in the mind of the outsider.  They somehow expertly allude to the complexity and quality of their wine, without being provincial or snobbish about it. For good reason, they are proud but modest, in my opinion often too modest. But don’t be mistaken, if given the opportunity, a Spaniard will overload you with more than you would ever want to know about wine, whether it be accurate or not.

After driving through the dusty roundabouts in La Guardia, we find a pretty line of trees that leads to The Martúe Winery House, a warehouse set amidst sparse and practical landscaping and the familiar rows of grapevines on rich, red soil.  Soon we are talking wine with Pablo Ranilla Rodríguez, the agricultural director, and he leads us on an impromptu tour of the facilities.

“The hardest part of the whole process,” he says, “is not the machines or the delicate aging, or the bottling and shipping, or even the marketing. We always struggle to get the right grape. And it’s different every year.”

It is easy to see, here in the arid terrain of Castilla-La Mancha, that weather can be both an adversary and a savior, an unpredictable force to be dealt with as a matter of fact. Fluctuations in precipitation, temperature, and the duration of seasons all have a direct influence on what pours out of the bottle and on your dinner table or street side bar. I suspect the “right grape” carries with it connotations of complexity that I may never understand, so I’ll leave the technicalities to the experts.

In general, as with other wines throughout the world, probably the most important distinction between one Spanish wine and another should not be drawn from price, but from the region in which it grew up. The Denominación de Origen (DO) system is a classification ensuring the quality of wines that are made in Spain; it is governed by the Instituto de Denominaciones de Origen (INDO), under the umbrella of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture.  Cured hams like jamón Iberico, cheeses and olive oil often use the same system of quality guarantee in Spain. There is another, more exclusive classification called Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC), although there are, for now, only a few wines that enjoy this status. Wines that do not fall under either of these designations are called vinos de la tierra (or table wine), and they are of lesser quality and price, but consumed by many a happy drinker, including me. This denomination of origin is printed on the label of every bottle of wine you see at the store, and it is a logical place to start when looking for a wine to suit your taste. In Spain, geographical regions have distinct landscapes and weather which produce a variety of tastes and styles.

The range of terrain in the Iberian Peninsula is truly impressive. In the northwest, the rocky and green rain-soaked coasts and rivers of Galicia and Asturias produce great white wines (D.O. Rias Baixas and Rueda) that complement the famous seafood that comes from there. In the semi-arid, mountainous northern interior, where there are hot, dry summers and bitter winters, there are some of the best wines in the world, most notably the dry reds, with their wonderful tannic characteristics (Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Navarra). Down in the dry south, near Cadiz, the long-respected sherries are born (Jérez and Manzanilla). In the southern interior there are more wonderful dry red wines that are growing in popularity (Valdepeñas). And in the northeast region, in Catalonia, there are the famous sparkling wines, and also reds and whites that rival any in Europe (Cava, Penedés, Priorat). Even in the outlying islands of Spain, the Canaries and the Balerics, there are ten distinct regions of wine production. Overall, the Spanish Department of Agriculture has designated 67 denominations of origin, which means that there are almost 70 areas, listed by law, where wine is produced in accordance to provincial restrictions (although a novice palate would find it difficult to differentiate all of them simply by taste).  But since the 1960’s the most popular and consistent wine-producing regions in Spain have been Rioja, Penedés, Valdepeñas and Rueda. Ribera del Duero is a particular example of a wine that has gained new respect mostly due to recent investment in experienced wine makers and innovative aging techniques. Look for one of these on your next bottle of Spanish wine, and you’ll be heading in the right direction.

There are also some basic terms that are applicable to almost any wine in Spain, whether they are red or white. These tell of the age of a bottle of wine and are carry clear implications of the manner in which it was produced.

A cold glass of Cava, from Catalonia to my table.

Joven is a humble, non-challenging label, and it means “young” and typically suited for immediate consumption. Historically, wine has been meant to sit for long periods of time in wooden barrels, aging and developing complexity and character. These wines won’t get the chance to grow old. They are simple and perfect to share with that date you are not quite ready to impress. They are usually economically priced, and easy to drink for the novice. Given the qualifications I just listed, it should be said that I’ve consumed a lot of this kind of wine.

Crianza is a term that describes a wine that has adhered more closely to standards of quality processing. It has been aged in those oaken barrels everyone knows about, but still has spent most of its time in the bottle.

Reserva tells us that the wine has been aged in oaken barrels for at least a year, and at least another year having been spent in the bottle. Now is when we can start talking about pairing it with foods without sounding completely pretentious. It has characteristics and particular flavors, perhaps those that only a semolier would be able to express in words, or care about, but that are there nonetheless.

Gran Reserva is naturally the next step in quality. These wines have been aged for at least 5 years, 2 years of which are spent in oak barrels, and at least 3 years in the bottle. Although these wines are supposed to be the height of quality in Spanish wines, there is a chance that you will find them too harsh, and with a very “oakey” taste (I actually prefer a very woody, oakey taste in wine, but then I also sometimes inexplicably ate dirt when I was a child).

Oak barrels in the cool, dark and dry basement of Martúe's cellar, 7 meters below ground.

Roble literally means “oak” in Spanish. Wood from oak trees has been used to make wine barrels for hundreds of years all over the world. In Spain, this term is often displayed on the wine bottle to accentuate or highlight the use of these oaken barrels in their aging. Most often, roble will indicate a young wine that has spent at least some time in an oak barrel, and it is often confusingly mentioned as a way to differentiate it from Rioja (Rioja obviously having been aged in oak as well), the latter usually being of higher quality.  Ironically, if a the oak in the barrel is new, without the soaked-in wine of an experienced barrel, the wine can have an overpowering, seemingly artificial woody taste to it, like some sort of flavor additive.  Consistent with the characteristics of wine in general, patience and maturity become essential.  Some wine makers actually add oak wood chips in the later stages of their wine processing to give it the initial impression of quality and proper aging, which reminds me of what fast food corporations have done to the American diet. In the spirit of remaining slander-free, these wines will remain unmentioned.

The simplicity of Ribera del Duero, Jamón Serrano and Manchego cheese.

Pablo leads us downstairs to a dimly lit place where the oak barrels are kept.  The temperature drops a few degrees and there is a wonderful smell of wine-soaked wood and fermenting fruit sugars.  The place is impeccable and clean, the concrete floors swept and perfectly placed barrels are lined up with particular attention to order, a simple clipboard hanging from each different group.  To me, this is the stage of wine making that leaves the strongest impression. It is where fruit and wood work together over time not to putrefy or degrade, but to age and mature into a consumable part of culture much more relevant to the soul than any TV show or electronic gadget.

In the corner of the cellar there is a table with a white cloth over it, a giant candle at the center, and several bottles of wine stashed on shelves nearby.  The whole area looks used and experienced, like an old worn chair.

“This is where we, shall we say, try the wine,” Pablo says, with a smile.  It seems a perfect place for a party, surrounded by a few hundred oak barrels and seven or eight close friends.  I shudder to think of the damage I could do at this table.  He explains to us that each of the different lines of barrels in the room contains wine of different qualities, vintages and grape species.  I’m surprised to learn of the variety that Martúe produces. Included are standards like Tempranillo, but also those not known particularly as Spanish grapes: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Chardonnay.  I am getting very thirsty.


–The process of wine-making hasn’t changed much for centuries.

Naturally, implications of age are an advantage for wine. Terms like viejo and añejo bring to mind concepts like wisdom, age and maturity, and they look good on a label. But I suspect that often these are merely words that act as marketing tools, technically only saying that the wine is at least three years old, aged for varying periods of time in either a bottle or barrel.

Fino is a word commonly found on labels of bottles. It may create the impression of exclusivity and quality, but is only a is a term used to describe a specific kind of sherry in which the yeast is left to ferment freely on the surface of the wine, creating a delicious, and particular taste.

It is important to understand the difference between the type of grape a wine uses and the particular manner in which a wine is produced.  Pablo explains to us that Martúe Bodegas utilize many different types of grape to produce their impressive range of wines. At this point, his passion for the business begins to overtake his initial attempt to remain in the mentality of the layman, and he launches into an informative lecture of viticulture, undoubtedly difficult for me to follow in English, much less in his esoteric Spanish. Standing in a dark cellar, amidst oak barrels, I listen and try to absorb as much as I can, knowing that most of it is probably important.

Probably the most well-known type of grape used in Spanish wine making is Tempranillo, but there are others, like Albariño, GracianoGarnachaMazueloand Verdejo. Colloquially, a particular wine is often known for what makes it special. This is often a source of confusion.  When ordered at a restaurant or at a bar, some wines go by the type of grape itself (Albariño, Tempranillo) others use the region in which they were made (Ribera, Rioja or Cava).  Still others are mentioned according to the method of aging (Roble). So it is possible to be asked, in the hum of a crowded Madrid bar, if you’d like a Roble or Rioja, and the hurried bar tender probably won’t have the time or inclination to explain to you the difference or why they aren’t really relatedBut as any observant traveler knows, local customs, labels and jargon often do not follow logic or reason, but rather find the easiest path to common use.  In other words, you’ve just got to roll with it. 

The season is over at the Martúe Winery, or at least the harvesting. Today, there are now only two or three workers, in overalls and rubber boots, spraying down equipment and writing down figures on clipboards.  The wine sits in barrels, bottles and boxes, in various stages of development.  Now, the bottles that are ready to be sent away are stacked on palates.  I am curious where it’s all going and I ask Pablo to whom he sells his wine.

“Thirty percent of our wine is sold overseas,” Pablo says.  He looks at me with the eyes of a salesman about to launch into a pitch.  “We’d love to break into the California market, give Napa some competition.”   I smile, aware that I am in one of those strange, passing moments that a foreigner has when a there is a clarification of one’s own identity. It can only happen in an unfamiliar place, when someone looks at you and suddenly you are a manifestation of your home culture, as if momentarily a microcosm of another world.  I am a representation, a projection of where I come from.  This is why I travel.

There is much to be learned about wine in any setting, and here I have taken an embarrassingly cursory look at such a complex and important part of Spanish lifestyle. But seeing a small vineyard first-hand brings the process to life, more than in any book, magazine or documentary.  And as I still find myself digging deeper into the culture of food and drink here in Spain, I suspect I have a lot of work to do.

If you you’ve found this post informative, interesting, inaccurate, confusing, or sleep-inducing, please leave a constructive comment, suggestion or correction below.

Special thanks to Pablo at Bodegas Martúe for taking the time out of his busy day to show us around and open up the world of wine making to us. For more information on Bodegas Martúe La Guardia S.A., visit:  or


14 thoughts on “Spanish Wine in a (big) Nutshell

  1. I like the valuable information you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently. I’m quite certain I’ll learn a lot of new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

  2. Thanks, Katie! I’ve been in a bit of a creative rut lately, but little comments like that help me get going again. I’ll check your blog out too…

  3. Wow. I’m not sure how I found your blog, but I’m glad I did. Love the way you write, can’t wait to read more. Cheers!

  4. A lovely introduction to Spanish wine culture! For several years now I’ve tried to absorb as much as I can about wines and their labeling, and it seems there is always more to learn. I think you did a great job here.

    One addition. I think table wine is called “vino de mesa,” or at least that’s how everyone I know here in Valencia calls it. On a recent trip to Penedés I discovered that the French term, “vin de pays” is “vino de pago” in Spanish, and that it means that the wine in a bottle comes from the grapes of one single vineyard… as opposed to, say, the bottles of wine sold by the label Torres, which might come from different vineyards all across a region (or the world). So this is yet another way to categorize wines by “taste of place”. Many “vinos de pago” do not have a D.O.

    I hope you don’t mind my taking this opportunity to self-promote. I posted an entry inspired by my Penedés trip here, which you and your readers might enjoy:

    1. Don’t mind the promo at all! Thanks for the comment. Actually Martúe produces vino de pago, as well. I just didn’t include that info because the article was getting too long as it was, so I cut it short. I’ll check out your post.

  5. Coming back from Castilla-La Mancha this weekend, I saw a tiny sign pointing the way to the Martúe Bodega. I would never had heard of them if it hadn’t been for this post!

    Thanks for an engaging guide to Spanish wines, I hope you will elaborate on this topic in the future.

    1. That’s great! I’ll charge them some sort of advertising fee! Next time, go inside and grab a bottle; it’s really great wine. They also sell it at El Corte Inglés if you want to support a small business of high quality.
      Thanks for the feedback! (…elaboration on wine will not be a problem).

  6. It was well written and rarely over the top. As someone that knows nothing about Spanish wines, I think it´s a good introduction to the jargon as well as a nice story.

  7. This is a superb introduction to the world of Spanish wine – I’ve bookmarked it to present to just about anyone when they ask me why I adore vino tinto with such enthusiasm.

    “It can only happen in an unfamiliar place, when someone looks at you and suddenly you are a manifestation of your home culture, as if momentarily a microcosm of another world.”

    Beautifully stated. It’s about time that I took another serious look at the relationship between identity and travel.

    1. Thanks Janel! I like those little moments when I realize a little bit more of what/who I am. I wish I could remember all such epiphanies (especially those discovered with the help of that vino tinto).

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