Spain has a history of wine making that is over a thousand years old, so there is a lot to know about Spanish wine. However, here is a simple overview to help you get acquainted with the main categories and types of wine, as well as terms you will encounter.
Spain is well known for rich red wines, crisp white wines, sparkling wines or “Cava”, and the unique fortified Sherry wines or “Generosos”.
Red Wines or Tintos – In Spanish, red wine is called “tinto” or tinted wine, or “vinos tintos”.
White Wines or Blancos – In Spanish, white wine is simply called “blanco” or white, or “vinos blancos”.
Rosé Wines or Rosados – In Spanish, rosé wine is called the same, or “rosado” or “vinos rosados”.
Cava and Sparkling Wines or Espumosos – In Spanish, sparkling wine is referred to as “espumoso” or “vinos espumosos”. However, that is a general term. Spain is famous for its sparkling white wine, similar to Champagne, which is called “Cava”. (It is “el Cava” in Spanish). Mostly when talking about sparkling Spanish wine, it will be in reference to Cava.
So, if you see one of those terms on a label, you will know what it means. Next, you may see the grape variety listed and the level of ageing it has received. The ageing is strictly controlled by each region’s or D.O.’s Consejo Regulador, or Regulating Authority. Levels of ageing for red, white, and rose still wines are: Joven, Barrica or Roble, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva.
Joven – This mean “young” in Spanish. Joven wine usually sees not oak barrel treatment, or very little oak ageing, and is usually fruity and meant to be drunk within a few years of release.
Barrica and Roble – These are new terms that have developed. Barrica means “barrel” and comes from the French word for barrel or “barrique.” Roble simply means “oak”. These terms indicate that a wine has seen some oak barrel ageing, but not enough for the wine to be labeled a “Crianza”. Usually, this means around 4 months of oak ageing. These wines are meant to be drunk within a few years of release.
Crianza – The exact translation of Crianza is “nursing” or “caring for”, which means the wine has been aged in oak for a while. In some regions, this can be a little as 6 months in oak barrels. Often in more prestigious wine regions in Spain, a Crianza wine has been aged for 12 months or so in oak barrels. A Crianza must be aged for a total of 24 months, either in oak or in bottle before release. Crianza wines are generally ready to drink when released and can last for say 5 years or so. Often they have good fruit character with the smoothness of oak ageing. A wine maker will select better grapes generally for a Crianza than for a Barrica or a Joven.
Reserva – An easy one to translate, “reserve”. Selected, held back, and aged longer. Reservas are usually the highest quality grapes the wine maker has, and the wine sees long oak ageing. Generally a Reserva is aged 12-24 months in oak barrels, with a minimum of 36 months of ageing before release. If a vintage is not very good, the Consejo Regulador of the D.O. may not permit producers to label wines Reservas that year. Reservas are generally very smooth, full, complex, and capable of lasting up to 10 years or so.
Gran Reserva – Only made during good vintages, these wines are the pinnacles of their genre. They are made from the best selected fruit a producer has, usually in small quantity. They are aged for at least 24 months in oak, often even longer, and must be aged for a total of 60 months before they can be released! They are very complex and capable of lasting even longer than Reservas. The best last for decades.
Cava – the sparkling wine of Spain. It is generally a blend of 2-3 white grapes. The term “Cava” refers to the cellar or cave or “cava” where the wine is made. The term has obviously evolved over time. There are different levels of sweetness and ageing with Cava, as well. Semi-seco (semi-dry or sweet), Brut (dry, but a hint of residual sugar), Brut Extra or Brut Nature (totally dry). Then, there is Reserva and Gran Reserva Cava, meaning it has been aged longer to give it more complex character.
Sherry Wines – The word Sherry comes from the Spanish region that produces Sherry or “Jerez” (pronouned, hair-eth). The general term for these types of wines is “Generosos” in Spanish, meaning they are generous or fortified with extra alcohol. They ranged from bone dry to cloyingly sweet and are really a whole subject on their own. We will cover them in a separate section.
Next, you will probably want to get acquainted with the various Spanish grape varieties, then different regions and the wines they produce.