Deep earthy browns, oranges and reds. Strong bold letters celebrating both history and culture. Elegance and beauty displayed in the gold detailing. Tradition. Pride. After 30 years of being a closed culture under Franco, it is of no surprise that their labels express both their deep roots to their past, as well as their desire to reach out towards the future.
Spanish wines have a mysticism and a beauty that both elicits curiosity and intimidation in one fell swoop. More practically, most of the bottles are in Spanish. And if you are anything like me, and chose to skip out on 7th period Spanish class in hopes of making a quick run to the 7-11 for a slurpy, you may be a bit in the dark when trying to decipher a Spanish label. Hopefully, you can keep your 20 year old dictionary in its dusty battered box and still feel slightly more confident, after reading this article, when choosing which wine would pair well with a sharp Manchego or Chorizo.
Generally, the labels are intended to convey information about the contents within the bottle; however, the majority of the jargon on the bottle has little to do with what you will actually be drinking – tending to confuse the average wine-buyer more than helping them. Additionally, in the age of marketing and information overload, it is far too easy to get swept up in the image, losing sight of the wine itself. Therefore, let’s us join hands and start at the ground level.
The Basic Wine Label
“Reading Between the Lines” by W.R. Tish, describes two basic types of wine labels: geographic and varietal based. Geographic is a characteristic of Old World (European) countries, whereas, New World varietals encompass all of the remaining wine producing countries such as Australia, Chili or Iceland. Although, both labels include the producer, vintage, and region of origin, the New World labels will also include the grape varietal.
Quality: The type of grape maturation.
Bodega: The name of the vineyard.
Region: The location where the grapes were grown.
Varietal: The grape used to make the wine.
Vintage: The year the wine was made.
Wines in Spain are classified into three distinct categories: 1) vino de mesa – table wine, 2) vino de la tierra – regional wine, and 3) vino de calidad – quality wine.
Quality wines are further divided into Denominaciones de Origen (DO) or Denominaciones de Origen Calificada (DOC). DO define specific wine growing areas such as La Mancha, Ribera del Duero etc, whereas DOC are regions rated of the highest quality over a long period of time and currently include only Rioja and Priorato. However, it is worth noting that although many Vino de la Tierras are of excellent quality, not all Riojas are of equally high quality.
Age of the Wine
Joven: means ‘young’ and for immediate drinking. The bargains here tend to be found in wines that are soft in the mouth and food friendly.
Semi-crianza, roble, fermentada en barrica, ‘x’ meses en barrica: are all terms used to describe wines that have been placed in oak barrels for a few months less than the regulatory requirements. This can be a good indicator of a well-made wine, though nowadays, the movement away from oak has opened up a wide range of fresh vibrant wines to the market.
Crianza: aged for 2 years with a minimum of 6 months in oak and 18 months in the bottle before being sold. These wines tend to have more body and strong acid helping them to pair well with your heavier foods – think roast meats and rich sauces.
Reserva: aged for 3 years with a minimum of 12 months in oak and 24 months in the bottle. Increasing in age, you can expect to find rich and concentrated wines tending towards a silky flavor after softening with age. We like these wines with delicately roasted meats like the renown suckling pig from Segovia.
Gran Reserva: aged for 5 years with a minimum of 24 months in oak and 36 months in the bottle. For many, these are perceived as the pinnacle of Spanish wine – even though in the past, they were often overly oxidized and woody. Today, we are starting to see more care used in the crafting of these wines and as a result, there often is a magical blending of both the oak and the fruit. At their best, Gran Reservas can develop in your mouth bringing forth new and exciting flavors with every sip.
The majority of regions follow these guidelines proudly, however the specifics can change slightly from one to the next. Additionally, with the surge of new-style wines hitting the market – choosing to adhere to their own aging processes, traditional methods have occasionally taken back seat to innovation and technology.
The Back Label
The back label contains additional information, normally in Spanish, which may give further details about the wine, such as:
How the wine was made
Recommended serving temperature
Suitable food to accompany the wine
Whether the wine contains sulfites
Now that you are well armored to walk into the store with confidence and savvy, let’s make sure you can actually decipher the language itself. Plus for the first time here we also are including audio files of what these words sound like from a native Spanish speaker. With time we hope to have a whole page full of Spanish and Portuguese terminology pronounced by native Spaniards.
Ready, Set, Go!
With a bit of wine knowledge under your belt, reading a wine label becomes easier with practice. Take a moment to learn the basic regions, grapes and producers of Spain. Although several of these names will be completely foreign to you, not only due to the obvious language barrier, but also because the lack of Spanish wine knowledge circulating in the media. There are several sites, this one being no exception, that can offer you a plethora of information from grape styles to aging processes. In the end, each wine should be based on what you the consumer personally likes, not necessarily its ratings. The wine label itself can help you understand and differentiate the wines as it reveals a lot about the flavors that should be expected.
If you have a questions, never hesitate to ask.
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