Tapas and paella. Running of the bulls and Real Madrid soccer. Siesta and fiesta. Picasso and Gaudí. These are some of the things Spain holds renown for, but let’s not forget about its wine, all of its delicious, flowing vino.
When you think of Spanish wine, the Rioja region likely comes to mind. There you find tempranillo, Rioja’s reigning red variety, along with garnacha, graciano, and mazuelo (and less used but still fantastic white grapes like viura, malvasia, and garnacha blanca). And while Rioja claims some 600 wineries, Spain actually claims a few dozen wine-producing regions, classified as denominacion de origen (D.O.) and stretching from the northwest in Galicia to the southeast in Alicante. These national vineyards produce bold reds and an increasingly larger number of fresh, crisp whites, plus sparkling wines, natural wines, and rosés and sherries.
In fact, Spain is the world’s third largest wine-producing country (behind Italy and France), and while Rioja is undoubtedly its most famous grape-growing locale, you’d be remiss to skip its lesser-known but entirely remarkable wine regions. Here are four worth raising a glass to: ¡Salud!
People looking to pop a celebratory bottle often turn to champagne, but high-quality sparkling varieties can also be found just outside of Barcelona in Penedés, one of Catalonia’s most important wine-producing areas with nearly 150 wineries. Home to the largest production zone for cava—Spain’s answer to its more-expensive French counterpart—the Penedés region is accessible via a quick 45-minute train ride from Barcelona to the village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, a hub for Penedés exploration (where you’ll want to rent a car or hire a taxi to set out).
Greater Catalonia, in the northeastern part of Spain, is known for its gorgeous beaches, access to the Pyrenees, and gastronomic delights, but its Penedés wine region is where to go to get the party started. Sant Sadurní is the at the center for all things cava; standout cava houses to check out include Freixenet, Recaredo, and Llopart. Then visit the Vinseum in the region’s historical center, the small city of Vilafranca, about a 30-minute drive from Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, to take a deep dive into Catalonia’s wine history.
What to drink: Codorníu, the area’s oldest cava producer, makes classic wines in the traditional method using cava’s three main grape varieties—xarel-lo (pronounced “char-ello”), paraellada, and macabeo—along with chardonnay and pinot noir. This grand winery claims 17 miles of underground cellars, complete with its own tram system (hitch a ride on one of the winery’s tours). Try the Anna de Codorníu blanc de blancs reserve; with citrus and tropical fruit notes and creamy lemon curd, its tiny beads continue to dance while you sip it alone or with freshly caught shellfish.
Costers del Segre
Some of Spain’s most elegant garnacha-driven wines hail from Catalonia’s celebrated Priorat wine region, known for its mountainous, rocky terrain, where wineries like Scala Dei produce award-winning vintages (in this case, on the site of a priory dating back to the late 12th century). But go deeper inland, about 90 minutes north of the city of Lleida, or a two-hour drive from Barcelona, to find a tiny Catalonian D.O. really making a name for itself. Costers del Segre has nearly 40 wineries planting tempranillo and garnacha, as well as French varieties like cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Rent a car or sign up for a wine tour to set out and explore the designated Lleida Wine Route, with 18 official wineries along the trail.
What to drink: Producing wine sustainably since 1918, Raimat is one of the most sustainable wineries in Europe (if not the world), with solar panels, biomass energy sourcing, and natural pumps that pull down water from the Pyrenees—not to mention it’s moving toward becoming 100 percent organic. That commitment is reflected in its range of wines, including Rosada, a cab/tempranillo rosé with beautiful strawberry and red fruit notes, great acidity, and a super-long finish that rivals those favored pink juices from Provence. But if you like reds, don’t pass up Raimat’s Abadia, also a cab/tempranillo blend that shows plum, spice, and chocolate—at around $8 a bottle, it can’t be beat.
If you love albariño, but want to explore other Spanish white wine, look no further than Rueda, some 90 minutes from Madrid by car (or an hour by train) and 30 minutes from Valladolid, the closest city with plenty of restaurants, bars, and hotels. The region, perched between Ribera del Duero (another top wine region known for high-quality tempranillo) and Portugal, is home to nearly 70 wineries and is the capital of verdejo. This white grape thrives in Rueda where temps skyrocket in the summer and dive in winter, and vines are dug deep into limestone, producing acid-driven wines with lovely citrus notes that pair perfectly with shellfish, salads, and fresh cheeses.
What to drink: The grapes for Bodegas Hermanos del Villar’s 2018 Oro de Castilla are harvested at night to maintain freshness. The wine makes for a good substitution for Loire Valley sauvignon blanc, offering plenty of grapefruit and tangerine, balanced with tarragon and lots of minerality.
Due to its distance from Barcelona and Madrid, Galicia, known for its whites, may be one of the most-overlooked regions to visit in Spain. Tucked away in the country’s northwest corner, above Portugal, Galicia deserves more attention. It rains—a lot—therefore making the area incredibly green and lush. Plus, with its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, it offers a diet rich in seafood as reflected in the local tapas scene. Most importantly for oenophiles, the region consists of five D.O.s, including Rias Baixas, the best bet, for its mineral-driven, green apple–, and stone fruit–filled albariños that are turned out at some 60 area wineries and which account for 90 percent of all grapes grown in the region. Plant yourself in the town of Pontevedra—about an hour from both Vigo and Santiago de Compostela, the larger cities you can fly into or reach via a train ride from Madrid. Then you can rent a car or find a local tour operator to take you along the Ruta do Viño Rias Baixas.
But smaller regions, like Monterrei and Ribeira Sacra, about two hours and four hours, respectively, by car from Rias Baixas, are also gaining worthwhile attention for white wines made with godello, treixadura, and albariño, and a handful of reds, too (primarily with the sleeper hit mencia).
What to drink: From Rias Baixas, the 100 percent unoaked 2017 Forjas del Salnes Leirana albariño by winemaker Rodrigo Mendez is crisp and dry, with apple notes and a flavor profile just to the left of a great cider. With hints of honeysuckle and citrus, you can almost taste the sea air in this.