Part one of our look at Spanish wines explored the rich history of Spain’s wine. Now we look to one of Spain’s particular wine regions and how the wines evolved there. Spain had developed an appellation control system to help ensure the quality and regional heritage of wines. Only one of the Spain’s regions has attained the highest ratings: Denominacion de origen Calificada.
This rating denotes a wine region that meets a “supper category” for quality and consistency. It was granted, in 1991, to the best-known wine region in North Central Spain, La Rioja. This region is known around the world for its rich Tempranillo wines.
The core of the name “Tempranillo” means “early.” This red grape ripens weeks earlier than Garnacha. Early Tempranillos were not oak-aged and were big fruit bombs, “fat” (low in acidity) and had to be consumed young. In the mid-1800s, a Spanish winemaker returned from a stay in Bordeaux, bringing with him French winemaking methods, new oak barrels, and a couple of well-known French grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These French grapes are still considered experimental but contributed greatly to the complexity of the mostly Tempranillo-based wines.
The main grape, blended in the smaller quantities with Tempranillo to add the acidity it needs for long life, is Garnacha, known in France as Grenache. The addition of this grape, along with aging in new oak, elevated Rioja wines to a new level of quality. The wine’s name tells the story.
“Crianza” requires a minimum of six months of oak aging, and must not be released earlier than two years from harvest. “Reserva” needs a minimum of one year in oak, and three years before release. “Gran reserva,” only allowed in the best years, requires a minimum of two years in oak, with its earliest release coming in the sixth year after three years in bottle aging.
There are many inexpensive Tempranillo wines, expensive Gran Reserva and many great bottles in between these extremes.