How to Find the Best Wines from Spain

With over 400 grape varieties, Spanish wine is about much more than Tempranillo.

Wine region of Rioja, Spain

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While we often think of Tempranillo or Garnacha when it comes to Spanish wines, the country is home to more than 400 grape varieties planted over nearly 3 million acres, and is divided into more than 100 appellations. Wine has been produced on the Iberian Peninsula for thousands of years, and long before the Romans arrived, Spanish colonizers brought their wine grapes to the Americas, and wines such as sherry, cava, Rioja, and Priorat have been enjoyed throughout the world for hundreds of years. With such a long history and vast production, it’s important to have a cheat sheet to help you find some great Spanish bottles.

There are two important concepts to understand when looking at Spanish wine labels. First, look for the D.O. (or denominación de origen) which tells you where the wine is grown and produced, ie. Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rias Baixas, etc.  Spanish red wines are traditionally classified by the amount of oak aging the wine has; Crianza means a red wine has been aged for two years, with one year in oak. Reserva means a red wine has been aged for three years, with at least one year in oak. Gran Reserva must be aged for five years, with at least two years in oak. Wines with little or no oak are called joven or roble. All that said, the tradition of long oak aging is changing in Spain, with many among the newer generation of winemakers eschewing this classification and choosing to bottle their wines with less oak.

Now, let’s look at four of Spain’s top wine regions.


Rioja has long been Spain’s most well-known and prestigious wine region, and it’s one of only two regions to be a denominación de origen calificada (D.O.Ca.), the country’s top-quality designation. Its reputation was built in the late 19th century, when the phylloxera plague hit France and Bordeaux producers who needed wine looked south to Rioja. During this era, wineries such as López de Heredia, Muga, CVNE, and La Rioja Alta were built near the train station in Haro, to make exporting easier.

Now, Rioja is big business, churning out 270 million liters of wine each year, with more than 600 wineries spanning over 66,000 hectares. While 40 of those wineries produce 80 percent of Rioja’s wine, there is a new generation of winemakers, such as Artuke, Sierra de Toloño, and Pujnaza, who are challenging conventions by using less oak and planting higher altitude vineyards, which means lower temperatures, better ventilation, and more concentrated sunlight, which means slower ripening, and more acidity and freshness.

Rioja is a mountainous region that is influenced by both Atlantic and Mediterranean climates. The Ebro River cuts through the area, dividing the subregion of Rioja Alta in the southwest from Rioja Alavesa on the Basque side to the north.  Rioja Alta has  a mix of soils, and the best vineyard contain a mix of clay and limestone. Further north, in Alavesa, the soil is chalkier and the terrain becomes more steeply sloped, with more vineyards being planted at higher altitudes.

When people think of Rioja, they tend to think of the Tempranillo grape — but there is also plenty of Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo (also known as Carignan), much of which is blended with the Tempranillo, though there is a growing number of single-varietal bottlings. There’s a surprising amount of excellent white wine made in Rioja as well, usually from Viura, but also from Malvasia, Tempranillo Blanc and others.


Catalonia’s best-known wine is Cava, a sparkling wine produced close to Barcelona around the town of Sant Sadurni and the region of Penedès. The best iterations from here come from the Xarel-lo grape, which is being used more often for still whites, the best of which hail from the Penedès D.O.

Still, the top wines of Catalonia are reds from Priorat in the province of Tarragona, with its hilly terroir and unique llicorella soils that blend black slate and quartz. The resulting intense wines are made from Garnacha and often blended with Carignan. Priorat was named a D.O.Ca. (or D.O.Q. in Catalan) in 2000, the only region other than Rioja to attain Spain’s highest designation.

Priorat is surrounded by its neighboring appellation, Montsant, whose Garnacha- and Carignan- based wines from high-altitude vineyards are growing in reputation. The number of producers in Montsant has doubled in the past two decades to almost 60. 

Castilla Y Leon 

Ribera del Duero, is the most famous appellation in Castilla y León, and is home to hallowed estates including Vega Sicilia, Emilio Moro, Tinto Pesquera, Dominio de Pingus, Abadia Retuerta, and others. Named for the Duero River and situated on the plains stretching from Valladolid to Soria with nearly 60,000 acres of vineyards, Ribera del Duero has a hot Mediterranean climate with little rainfall. Tempranillo (locally called tinto fino) is king here, with a focus on bold reds with potential for long-aging.

A little to the southwest of Ribera del Duero is Castilla y Léon’s most famous white wine region, Rueda. Verdejo is the main grape here, grown mostly on sandy-clay soils over nearly 40,000 acres. Due to the heat here, many growers harvest these grapes at night to retain their freshness and acidity. Much of Rueda is high-yield, mass-market wines — nearly 40 percent of white wines sold in Spain are Rueda — but the best grow on old vines. In 2019, a new designation called Rueda Superior was created to denote Verdejo that has been grown on vines that are more than 40 years old. 

Even further west in the province of Zamora sits Toro, a smaller (15,000 acres) and relatively newer D.O.  that is also famous for its Tempranillo (locally called tinta de Toro). Toro has very hot summers and very cold winters, and these extreme temperatures create powerful, intense reds. The potential of Toro has caused top producers from other regions to establish wineries here, such as Numanthia (owned by LVMH) and Pintia (owned by Vega Sicilia). 

Traveling further northwest, in the province of Léon, is Castilla y Léon’s wildcard region, Bierzo. This has become one of Spain’s most exciting wines, with visionary winemakers such as Raúl Pérez. Here, the focus is on the red mencía grape, grown on quartz and slate soils. Its climate between the cool Atlantic influence and the hot, dry plains of the rest of Castilla y Léon, creating red wines with great tension and freshness, very different than Rioja or Ribera del Duero.


In the far northwest corner of Spain sits Galicia. Its most famous wine region, Rias Baixas, is Spain’s white wine capital, where the Albariño grape thrives along the Atlantic coast’s cool, rainy climate. Crisp, aromatic, high-acid whites are the signature here. Rias Baixas has five subzones, and Val do Salnés and O Rosal along the coast are the most important. While the wines here must be 70 percent Albariño, they often include local grapes such as Treixadura, Loureiro, or Torrontés in the blend. 

Moving inland to the east and up into the hills is the region of Ribera Sacra, with its steep, terraced slopes. Though it only became a D.O. in 1996, winemaking here goes back to Roman times. It’s drier and warmer in Ribera Sacra than along the coast, and Mencía thrives as the signature grape. As with Bierzo, the reds of Ribera Sacra are among Spain’s most exciting wines.

Between Ribera Sacra to the west and Bierzo to the east, sits Valdeorras (the “Valley of Gold”), another of Galicia’s top white-wine regions. The signature grape here is godello, which can make stunning, full-bodied whites with aging potential.

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