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Finding your way among Spanish wines Part I: Location

Article by Ana Cuesta

So, you have asked for the restaurant’s wine list (or were handled one by default) and now need find your way on it… not that hard, really.The first thing you’ll notice is that the list is divided, after the gross Blancos/Tintos (white/red), in sections headed by a name that seems to be some sort of geographical indication, and indeed it is (some sort).

They are what we call Denominación de Origen (Designation of Origin). In this regulated world, for a wine to be ascribed to a particular Denominación de Origen, it has to come from within precise geographical boundaries and also abide to some rules set by the regulating council that controls the DO.

These indicate which kind of grapes can be used (the varieties of grape are not always indicated in the label, probably because they can be easily inferred from the DO), the techniques and processes allowed or not to grow the grapes and produce the wines, etc. (they go as far as to put limits to the yields achieved, so excess wine cannot be labelled under the DO). That way, a certain homogeneity in quality and style of the wine can be assured so you know what to expect when ordering a Rioja or a Ribera del Duero (often called in short a Ribera). Real aficionados rely more on the producer than on the DO, though.

Rioja and Ribera del Duero are probably the best-known Spanish DOs. Rioja used to be almost a synonymous of Spanish quality wine, and Ribera del Duero has grown in the last 25 years as a solid alternative. Both use basically the same red grape, called Tempranillo in Rioja and Tinta Fina en Ribera del Duero. Between the two of them accumulate a myriad of prices and recognitions and host already mythical wines such as Vega Sicilia Único (R. del Duero), Marqués de Murrieta Ygay (Rioja) or Pingus (R. del Duero, the Spanish wine with the most expensive tag).

They are certainly not the only ones, though. Spain counts 64 Denominaciones de Origen in which mainly red but also white wines (as well as some rosés) are produced.

Some may be less widely know because of their smaller production but give wines of the greatest quality which have merited international awards and top points in the ranking of all-mighty critic Robert Parker (L’Ermitá, D.O. Priorat; Termanthia, D.O. Toro; as for whites Pazo de Señorans, D.O. Rias Baixas often called after the predominant grape Albariño; Palacio de Bornos, D.O. Rueda; not to forget sparkling wines such as Juve & Camps Milesime, D.O. Cava, or sweet wines such as Alvear PX 1927, D.O. Montilla-Moriles but most often referred to, as far as sweet wines go, by the name of the grape Pedro Ximenez). Others lack such prominent names in their ranks and have as best selling point their offering good value for money.

Wine producers who cannot be bothered or don’t have the means to follow the tight rules of a DO may choose to sell their wines as ‘Vino de la Tierra’ (country wine), so you can find Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León or Vino de la Tierra de Aragón, for example. These wider umbrellas have more loosen requirements but still offer some sort of quality-assurance for the buyer.

On the opposite extreme, some really fine wines are produced outside any DO because their designers decided the conditions set by the regulating council were not optimum to produce the wine they had in mind, or because the vineyards happen to be located just outside the geographical boundaries of the DO. As a notable example, the marquis of Griñón has recently managed to be granted a “Denominación de vino de pago” (sort of a microDO for his own vineyard) under the name Dominio de Valdepusa.