Spanish Wine 101 - A Guidebook for Spanish Wine | Catavino
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Spanish Wine 101- A starting point for Spanish Wine Lovers

Spanish WineWith more than two thousand years of grape growing and winemaking history, and as the country with the largest planted surface of vineyards in the world, approaching Spanish wines for the first time can be quite intimidating. Different regions, climates, varieties, regulations,… yield different styles that can gratify very divergent palates. Familiarize yourself with the main categories, regions and other terms through this short synopsis; yet be advised: this is only and introduction. There is a lot more to learn about Spanish wines!

Spain is known around the world for its lengthy list of red wines (vinos tintos), different styles of white wines (vinos blancos) and sparkling wines (Cavas or Espumosos).  Despite the fact that the most widely planted variety in the country is the white blending  grape Airén, Spain is recognized internationally as home to some of the best red wines made in the old world. (photo by Ryan Opaz)

The word “red” is used across the board when talking about wines made with red grape varieties (“rouge” is the word in France, “rot” is used in Germany, “rosso” in Italy, etc.) except in Spain, where we use the word “Tinto”. Tinto comes from the word “tinte” which literally means “dye”. The use of this word responds to, according to myth, the high taxes wine dealers were forced to pay for white wines, which at the time were considered better and more drinkable than reds. Some of the less scrupulous merchants would use red “dye” to color their white wines red in order to pay less taxes and the word stuck… Just remember, when in Spain, don’t use the term “vino rojo“!


Spanish wines are traditionally marketed using regions instead of grape varieties. The wines are classified according to the quality pyramid that regulates all wine made in the European Union. These terms, found on the label, establish certain quality requisites and protect the wines made in premium regions. 

Vino de Mesa: This is the base of the pyramid, with the lowest level of protection and regulation. They are divided into two categories:  Country Wines (made anywhere in Spain complying with viticultural and oenological standards) and IGP wines (Protected Geographical Indication) also known as Vinos de la Tierra (at least 85% of the grapes must be grown exclusively in the region where the wine is produced). There are 46 IGP regions in Spain, in the label you will find, for example: “Vino de la Tierra de Extremadura”.

Vino con Denominación de Origen:  100% of the grapes used to make the wines must be grown exclusively in the region. These wines are divided into three main categories: first, wines with Denomination of Origin accompanied by the name of the region (this is comparable to the AOC category in France, for example, D.O. Valdepeñas or D.O. Cigales). These are marketed with a degree of prestige as coming from the region stated on the label. These areas are regulated by a Consejo Regulador or administrative regulatory body, whose job is to certify that the wine complies with the region’s winemaking rules. Spain has 69 Denominations of Origin. 

D.O.Ca. wines (Qualified Denomination of Origin) are accompanied by the name of the region (for example, D.O.Ca. RIOJA or D.O.Q. Priorat) and must have complied with D.O. regulations for at least 10 years. They are generally made with native grape varieties to each region and are produced in highly regulated winemaking environments following strict rules regarding methods of viticulture, wine production and aging. Strangely enough, one of these requirements is that the wines from a DOCa region have to be sold at least at double the price of a wine from a DO. Spain has two DOCa regions: Rioja and Priorato.  

In order to supervise and classify some of the more experimental and forward looking producers, in 2003 Spain introduced a new tier in the classification with the “DO Vinos de Pago”, or Single Vineyard Estates. Spain has a total of 13 “Pagos” or estates. These can exist outside established regions and have total flexibility: they are allowed to set their own rules!     


Apart from the region figuring prominently on the label, Spanish wines also present five different levels of aging in wooden barrels (mainly oak).  (photo by Jason McConnie)

Joven (meaning “young”) or Cosecha/Cosechero (meaning vintage), are wines that have minimal or no oak aging at all. They are generally fermented in stainless steel and are all about fruit, designed specifically for fast and easy consumption. 

Barrica (meaning “barrel”) or Roble (meaning “oak”) are the next category. Also young, these wines have been lightly aged in oak (generally between 3 and 6 months). They are also fruit forward yet introduce some secondary toasted wood aromas. 

Crianza (meaning “aged” or “nursed”) are two year-old wines with at least six months aging in oak. The more premium DOCa regions require 12 months in oak for a wine to be labelled under this category. They are structured, clean, balanced and fruity on the palate yet also contain varying degrees of charred flavors from their aging in oak. They can last considerably longer than the previous categories.

Reserva (“reserved”) wines are aged three years with a minimum of one year spent in oak (although most producers frequently age them considerably longer). This style is more developed and introduces the famous tertiary aromas product of their longer bottle aging (earth, mushrooms, etc.) These wines have less noticeable fresh fruit yet more finesse and aromatic intricacy.

Gran Reserva (“gran” meaning “great”) wines are the top of the ladder regarding aged wines. The minimum requirement for a wine to be labelled so, is a 5 year old wine with at least two years in oak barrels (again, many producers age them for far longer). Gran Reservas are generally made only in the best vintages with the best fruit available. Designed to last for decades yet released only when ready to drink, these wines are the paradigm of the Old-World style: soft fruit, elegance, finesse, subtlety and highly developed tertiary aromas (tobacco leaf, leather, dried leaves and flowers, wet earth, … like a walk in the woods in the fall!).

Don’t feel daunted by Spanish wines or influenced by the labels, in the end, they are just vehicles for transmitting information; whether it’s a simple and quaffable Vino Joven or a concentrated Vino de Pago, the first rule when drinking Spanish wine is… I like it!    


John Perry

Custom Wine Tours Spain

  • Jose-Luis Gimenez

    Hi John,
    I do not agree with this explanation about spanish wines. Let me try to explain my point of view.

    Here and there we can see that through all Spain there’re zillons of vintners/wineries are quitting from the DOs and using any other legal labelling for their wines. Not only the kind of ‘alternative’ vintners, but many of the famous ones in Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Cava, for instance.
    This means that the pyramid mentioned is, from my point of view, and old overview on the state-of-the-art on spanish wines and there’re more than a bunch of superb wines out of this kind pyramid.

    Additionally, the kind of classification on the ageing of the wines is not a classification about the quality of them. It’s just about its ageing. It’s too common to relate these both concepts. Anyway, this classification of ageing is not valid for all the DOs. In fact I think it’s only valid for DOC Rioja and it’s just one among the myiriad of DOs and classifications that exist on spanish wine picture. Some DOs use different values and many others doesn’t use any at all. Not to mention for those wines out of any DO.

    Kind regards,


    • John

      Jose, first of all, thank you for your comment!

      Please keep in mind that this is a brief introduction to Spanish wine terminology and styles; not an overall review of the state of current affairs in the Spanish wine industry. Catavino’s audience is mainly based in the USA, where -especially in some secondary markets (think TN, KS, MO)- sometimes Spanish wine doesn’t exist as a category. If it does, it might include wines from other parts of the Spanish speaking wine universe like Chile, Argentina,… (I’m not the first Rioja winery brand ambassador to have been asked if “Rioja” was a grape variety… and I fear I won’t be the last!)

      You must agree with me in that understanding the D.O. pyramid (the European wine appelations system is profusely used, I don’t think it’s obsolete at all) and words like Barrica, Crianza, Reserva,… Are fundamental for someone approaching Spanish wine for the first time. Moreover, despite originating in the region, these words are not exclusive to the D.O.Ca. Rioja. Other strong Spanish D.O.s like Ribera del Duero, Toro, Valdepeñas,… have adapted them also. Perhaps as a reflection of Rioja being the first Spanish D.O. to reach international commercial success?

      I agree with you on the fact that the focus of the aging classification is on the winemaking process, not on the quality of the fruit; yet it is generally assumed by the consumer that a Gran Reserva wine will be better than a Cosechero wine. Wine lovers know the truth: one never knows, it all depends on the producer. This is why I’ve tried not to associate aging levels with quality and focused on speaking of wine “style” (Fruity and fresh vs. toasted and complex).

      As an end note, I agree with you on the fact that there are a great number of Spanish wine producers that want to feel free from the constraints product of the highly regulated D.O. environment (MAURO in Castilla y León is a prime example; maybe ARTADI will leave Rioja, but I don’t see this happening yet) Regarding many smaller producers leaving the Cava D.O., I beleive this responds to the low price-positioning of these wines by the large producers in the international markets, which has made it virtually impossible for other smaller wineries to compete under the CAVA umbrella.

      Thanks again for reading and participating with your feedback… I raise my glass of tinto to you… Cheers!

      John P.

      • Jose-Luis Gimenez

        Hi John,
        I cannot agree with you. Despite being an article oriented to USA audience from my point of view it’s wrong. As far as I know not more than a bunch of DOs follow the ageing schema depicted. Even those that use it doesn’t follow the same schema and Barrica, Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva doesn’t mean the same depending on DOs.

        I’m pretty sure that many places through USA have access to wines from DOs that doesn’t use this schema. Rias Baixas, Montsant, Priorat, Jerez, Rueda… I think it could be slightly confusing for a customer that goes to the wine shop with this in mind and… gasp… No sense? And anyway, if they customers would have access to wines from DOs and, morevoer, DOs that use this schema, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be right to explain this as an approach to the spanish wine. I mean, an explanation is not wrong or right depending on the audience (Hmmm… too many episodes laughing with Sheldon Cooper I dare 😉 )

        And DOs, sigh… They lost their main aim many time ago. They don’t look for best wine for customers. Their labels means nothing. Sad, but true. Oceans of oenocrap are labelled with DOs stamps while great wines are in doubt for the DOs council. Shame of them.

        It’s just the every day issue overhere. Just a merge of political and economical interests, quite far of the wine or the look for the quality.

        Kind regards,


        P.S. And regarding DOs it’s the same in France with AOCs. Loire and Beajolais issues for instance.

        • John P.

          The obsolescence of the DO/AOC system in today’s highly-competitive globalized wine industry is a possible debate, as well as its degradation due to political/economic interests -the system has certainly been under scrutiny within the European Union for decades, just look at the widely contested European Wine CMO- yet no one can deny that this is a model that has been successful for a long time and is still thriving in many European wine-producing regions. Those who want to make wine in Spain without the restrictions and regulations imposed by the DO environment are free to do it; surely, those who have flourished making wine within a DO/AOC/IGP will uncompromisingly defend their right to continue to do so.
          The regulations in the DOs you mention (Priorat, Montsant) officially include the terms explained in this post (click the link to the Priorat DOQ Rules –in Catalan- below). It’s up to the producers to use or not these terms (a simple Internet search will result in a good number of wines labelled “Priorato DOQ Reserva”, for example)
          The Rueda DO also includes the terms explained in this post in the fifth chapter (Capitulo V) of its regulations (clic the second link –in Spanish- below). The main factor for the producers not using these words is that -according to the DO’s 2009/2013 sales stats- over 60% of the wine they market is young (as “not aged in oak”) which would be called a “ vino joven”.
          The third chapter (Capítulo III) of the Rias Baixas DO regulation includes the word “barrica” for all wines that have been aged in oak vats, with the producer having to mention how long (how many months) the wine was aged. (Link to the rules below).
          These are some of the reasons why I simply cannot agree with you when you mention that the terminology contained in this post is not up-to-date or is wrong… Incomplete? Sure, it’s only an introduction, but certainly not wrong!
          Thanks again for your comments.

          External links: