Not all grapes are created equal. Though Spain is home to hundreds of wine-grape varieties, three stand out: Albariño, which produces boldly refreshing white wines in Galicia, on the northwest coast; Garnacha, the premier red grape of Catalonia, in the northeast; and Tempranillo, historically the country's most significant red grape, which reaches its heights in the famous Rioja region of north-central Spain. Here's a primer on these wines, the greatest producers and—from Janet Mendel, most recently the author of Cooking From the Heart of Spain—terrific recipes for pairing.
Stuffed Fried Sardines
2006 Do Ferriero
Galician Fish Stew
A foggy, cool strip of land between the Montes de León and the Atlantic on Spain's northwest coast, Galicia is defined by the ocean. And because of that, its most coastal wine region, Rías Baixas, the home of Albariño, is one place in Spain where women traditionally made most of the wine. They had to. The men were out on the ocean, hauling in the bountiful mackerel, hake, turbot, octopus and sardines that have long defined Galicia's economy.
That wealth of seafood also defines much of Galician cooking, in dishes like sardines stuffed with bread crumbs and serrano ham and Galician fish stew—a dish that got its start on fishing boats, where potatoes boiled in seawater were mixed with the day's catch. If the fishermen were smart, they drank Albariño with their supper (wise advice, too, for travelers visiting the beautiful cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia's capital). Typically made without the use of oak barrels, to keep flavors fresh and vibrant, Albariño's seashell minerality, bright pineapple–to–green apple fruit and zesty acidity make it an ideal partner for almost any fish or shellfish.
Top Albariño Producers Bodegas Terras Gauda, Condes de Albarei, Do Ferreiro, Fillaboa, Lusco, Pazo de Señorans
Chicken with Catalan Picada
2004 Celler Capcanes Mas Donís
Aromatic Braised Lamb with Prunes and Pine Nuts
2005 Mas Estela Quindals
The inland parts of Catalonia, the province of Spain that stretches along the Mediterranean coast from the French border south past the city of Tarragona, are known for a cuisine that includes earthy combinations of fruit and meat (or poultry)—dishes that go amazingly well with the equally distinctive and delicious Garnacha-based wines of Catalan regions like Priorat, Montsant and Empordà–Costa Brava. Here, Garnacha (known by its French name, Grenache, outside of Spain) produces some of the most sought-after, expensive wines in the country, like Álvaro Palacios's rare L'Ermita bottling, as well as some of the best bargains Spain has to offer. No matter the price, Catalan Garnacha produces sultry, lush wines that combine flavors recalling ripe raspberries and sweet cherries with a velvety texture.
That generous character makes Garnacha-based wines suited to dishes like juicy braised lamb with prunes and pine nuts, or chicken with Catalan picada, one of the central sauces of Catalan cuisine. Made from nuts, chocolate, toasted bread, parsley and various spices, picada adds a luxurious sweet-savory richness to what's essentially a very basic braised chicken.
Top Garnacha Producers Álvaro Palacios, Castillo Perelada, Celler Capçanes, Clos Erasmus, Laurona, Mas Estela, Torres
Pork with Grilled Vegetable Pisto
2000 Cune Viña Real Reserva
Rioja-Style Potatoes with Chorizo
2003 Loriñon Reserva
For decades, Spanish wine essentially meant Rioja, at least to wine drinkers in the United States. The long-lived red wines of this north-central Spanish region just felt like Spanish wine. They were dry, slightly dusty, a bit sunbaked; Old World in a creaky, genteel way.
All Riojas owe their character to the region's principal grape variety, Tempranillo. Tempranillo-based wines are usually characterized by cherry flavors, shading to blackberry in warmer years; tart but not aggressive acidity; and fine-grained, firm tannins. These days Riojas come in a wide range of styles, from the reserved, somewhat austere wines of old-school producers like Marqués de Riscal to flamboyant, powerful reds like those of newer cult producers such as Artadi.
Rioja's cuisine offers rustic dishes like potatoes sautéed with chorizo or succulent fried pork loin with grilled vegetable pisto, a kind of Spanish ratatouille. Both are perfect partners for red Rioja, which in general seems almost designed to accompany the region's hearty main ingredients—roasted or grilled lamb and pork, spicy chorizo, potatoes, wild mushrooms and always plenty of Spanish olive oil.
Top Rioja Producers Artadi, Bodegas Montecillo, Bodegas Muga, Cune, Loriñon, Marqués de Murrieta, Marqués de Riscal