Super Underrated Spain & The Rioja


Somehow, Spain seems to fly under the radar compared to its next door neighbour, France.

Spain is actually the third largest wine producer in the world  and has the most land dedicated to vineyards–over a million acres. Spanish wines range from great value to highly prestigious wines, such as Alvaro Palacios’ L'Ermita and Vega Sicily’s Unico.

Why Love Spanish Wine?

First, it’s dirt cheap. Second, it pairs really well with just about anything.

Spain is a very diverse country so it helps to get a lay of the land. The map (above) of the wine regions of Spain helps to put into context the various kinds of wines that grow throughout the country.

Major Wine Regions in Spain

There are over 60 different regional DOs producing everything from light and zesty Albariño to inky black Monastrell. The best way to start understanding the area is to break it into 7 distinct climates.

Northwest “Green” Spain - Galicia, very unlike the rest of Spain, is where lush green valleys are plentiful and the common cuisine includes lots of fresh fish. Albariño is the champion grape of the sub-region called Rias Baixas (RYE-us BYE-shus), which skirts the coast. The area specialises in zesty white wines and a few aromatic red wines made with Mencia (MEN-thi-yah).

Andalucía, a very hot and dry region is famous for Sherry. Stark white albariza soil makes Palomino Vineyards in Cádiz look like a moonscape. The even hotter, Montilla-Moriles produces fortified dessert wines that are called “PX“. An aged PX, such as Bodegas Toro Abala, have similar nutty-date flavors like Tawny Port.

Ebro River Valley, The sub regions of La Rioja and Navarra are found in the Ebro River Valley. Here, Tempranillo is king and long-standing bodegas such as Lopez de Heredia and Marques de Murrieta make age-worthy wines. Navarra produces a large volume of rosado (rosé) wine of Garnacha. The region also produces oak-aged white wines of Verdejo and Viura (Macabeo). In Basque country, zesty white wines called Txakoli (‘CHALK’olli ) are common.

Rioja is Spain in a glass of red wine

When we think of Rioja we also immediately picture Spain’s other famous culinary delights: slices of Jamon Serrano (Spain’s version of prosciutto), salty chunks of manchego cheese and a bowl full of ripe green olives. One sip and we’re transported. The wine is known for its structure and tannins, similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but it also has a fruity characteristic. This is a wine perfect for those who love Cabernet but are also looking for the dominant cherry flavor that’s often present in a wine like Pinot Noir.

Great Reservas are a steal! One can find incredible Reserva wines in the $15-$30 range. The most famous Spanish wine on the Australian market, Rioja is made from a blend of grape varieties, with Tempranillo the dominant grape (Garnacha) is typically included in the blend to add some fruitiness. Mazuelo and Graciano may also be included). The blend takes its name, like many other wines made in the Old World, from the Rioja region where it is produced.

Spain is very proud of its indigenous Tempranillo grape, they have been making it into wine for over 2,000 years. Unlike other countries who have adopted grapes that were originally indigenous to France or Italy, Tempranillo was born and cultivated in Spain, and there is no region they are more proud nor take more seriously than Rioja.

Rioja is as age-worthy as the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, yet it flies under the radar compared to its more well-known peers. This means a stellar bottle of age-worthy Rioja can be procured for far less than a similarly rated bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy. It is the great “deal” wine. In fact, the 2013 “wine of the year” as determined by Wine Spectator was a Rioja that can be found for only $63 a bottle while its peers who were further down on the list fetched in the $100’s. You will find the same quality for half the price or less. The same is true for Rioja versus Bordeaux.

When choosing to buy a Rioja, the most important thing to know is that the wine separates into four levels of classification, which depends on the amount of time the wine spends in oak, and is similar to the Burgundy Cru classification system. The classification of each Rioja will be labeled clearly on the bottle.


The four classifications are:

Rioja: This is the basic form of the wine. It has been aged for only a short amount of time in oak, potentially only a few months, and then the wine is bottled and sold. It is in this wine where the juice will taste the “ripest” because the wine is very young.

Crianza: For a wine to be labeled a Crianza, it must spend a minimum of 1 year in oak. Following its removal from oak, the wine must spend at least another few months in the bottle, before being sold. This is the level of Rioja that is most widely available on the Australian market because it’s incredibly affordable, at prices usually around $15 or less.

Reserva: This is a Rioja made from the best grapes of the harvest, and is only made during years that were considered to have a good growing season. A Reserva must be aged a minimum of 3 years, with at least one year being in oak, and the rest in the bottle. One can find incredible Reserva wines in the $15-$30 range.

Gran Reserva: This is a Rioja that is only allowed to be made in years with exceptional growing seasons from the most exceptional grapes harvested. Gran Reserva’s must be aged in oak for at least 2 years, and then must spend at least 3 more years in the bottle. Gran Reservas bring out an immense amount of passion in those who drink them, and it was a Gran Reserva that received the “wine of the year” honor in 2013.

While Rioja goes well with almost anything, the wine pairs best with savory flavors, meats and strong cheeses that stand up to the strength of the wine, a pairing  similar to its peer, Bordeaux.

Both the Ancient Kingdoms of Spain & Portugal and the Spain & Portugal in Castles and Palaces tours include tasting your way through both countries regional wines daily at the tables of our hotels and specific wine tour and tastings as per itinerary.