Spain & Portugal


It was the Romans who first planted vines in this beautiful mountainous region in north-western Spain. However, its real origins as a wine region began in the ninth century with the arrival of the Catholic pilgrims. At that time Bierzo was becoming a famous waypoint on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and Cistercian monks had started settling in the region, affirming it as a place of religious significance. Before long, they had identified the best vineyard sites and begun producing wine for their own consumption. This religious, peasant existence, continued for centuries.

Come the mid-nineteenth century, the famous phylloxera crisis was beginning to really hurt the French, and it was at that time that vignerons from Bordeaux and Southern France ventured south to Bierzo in search of wine – the first outsiders to take it seriously. Sadly, phylloxera was already en route to Spain and would eventually catch them up, but, unlike in France, noticeable pockets of vines withstood the crisis thanks to their well-draining sandy soils, particularly in the historic village of Valtuille del Abajo. Others were either grubbed up or replanted on to new rootstocks in a programme that lasted well into the 1930s. Mencia was then, and still is, the darling grape of Bierzo, being higher yielding and more resistant to disease pressure than other indigenous varieties (although this comes with its own challenges in the winery). Within a few years of the replanting though, the Spanish Civil War broke out and the country was left destitute. Bierzo, and Galicia more widely, faced decades of economic and political isolation after the war, and vineyards lay abandoned as the local populace migrated toward more stable and less arduous work in the cities. It was not really until the early 1990s that locals began to refocus on wine as a legitimate economic prospect, and even then it was a case of “little acorns”. Thankfully, the 21st century has seen a revival and, although it’s a long way from the finished article, the region is endowed with an extremely high proportion of mature, low-yielding vines, as many pre-phylloxera plots and early 1930s plantings continue to yield fruit today.

Despite its history though, the character of Bierzo wine has not been shaped purely by religion and politics. In fact, Bierzo is one of few wine regions in the world that actually sits at the convergence of two different macro-climates: the maritime and the continental. Administratively in Castilla y Leon, but pressed up against the eastern border of the more Atlantic Galicia, Bierzo is, in reality, a sibling of Galicia and many of the people identify as such. The mountains and countryside in Bierzo, as in Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro, Valdeorras and Rias Baixas for example, are verdant and dramatic – a far cry from the plains of Leon or the intensely hot villages that flank the Douro, but with sufficient, steady summer warmth and day-night swings to ensure ripe flavours are met with jostling acidities. Although near-enough uninhabited, the village of Valtuille del Abajo is the centre when it comes to wine, and here the soils are primarily clay and sand atop hard underlying bedrock. Valtuille is one of the warmest villages and highly regarded for its spread of ancient vineyards of differing altitude (between 500-700m), steepness, exposition and varietal composition. As a whole, the terroir here is complex and fragmented, and of the approximately four thousand hectares that qualifies for appellation DO Bierzo, Valtuille comprises just five hundred. Other important villages include Vilafranca del Bierzo, Corullón, Arganza and Cacebelos. Each has its own identity. Increasingly though, grapes from the cooler, windier climes and clay-schist soils around Ponferrada (the principal local town) are finding favour as a way to balance riper expressions from elsewhere. Vineyard ownership is still immensely scrappy, with over 2000 grape growers exploiting miniscule, often inherited, parcels of vines; tended only at the weekends and consumed by local families. Co-fermentation with indigenous red and white varieties is commonplace and this brings complexity and freshness, despite appellation laws insisting that no red grape other than Mencia can be listed on the label. The overall composition of the vineyards is roughly two thirds Mencia, co-planted with Bastardo (Trousseau), Garnacha Tintorera, Godello, Dona Blanca, Palomino and Malvasia, amongst others. 75% of production is red, whilst whites are usually based on Godello. Currently, a mere 25% of the total production is exported, although increasing investment from more established producers and widening international attention may see that figure grow. The emblematic producers of Bierzo wines are Raul Perez and Decendientes J. Palacios.
The Canary Islands (or Las Canarias) archipelago is located 70 miles off the coast of Morocco. The wine from this Spanish region is not especially well known - especially in comparison to the famous exports from the mainland - but there is actually a rich history of wine-making here.

The regions most famous wine is it's sweet Malmsey wine, made from the Malvasia grape. It was hugely popular with the English, Dutch and Germans in the 15th century, but its popularity didn't last. Today, very little of the local wine is exported, due to strong local demand and an ever-thriving tourism industry.

Ten areas were officially granted DO status in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Canaries' largest island, Tenerife, houses half of the region's DOs: Abona, Tacoronte-Acentejo, Valle de Guimar, Valle de la Orotava and Ycoden-Daute-Isora. The remaining designations cover the islands (in their entirety) of El Hierro, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, La Palma and Lanzarote. Each area has a unique microclimate and soil composition, lending to distinctive wines with signature mineral notes.
Castilla y Leon, the land of castles, is a large region that covers most of North Central Spain. It nears Madrid on its southern boundary, neighbours La Rioja and Navarra to the east, and stretches as far as, and includes, Bierzo at its north western edge. Perhaps not surprising then that the heartland of Castilian Spain has nine sub-provinces, the most of any Spanish region, and five classified DOs. Yet, this hot, dry part of the world was for most of the 20th Century associated only with hearty, rustic, basic wines, to be consumed locally. That was until the 1990s; a decade which witnessed a boom in quality, plantings, investment and international attention, led by the silky, perfumed reds of Ribera del Duero. It can now count Spanish luminaries Vega Sicilia, Bodegas Aalto and Sei Solo - Javier Zaccagnini’s latest venture - as residents. This means that, with Rioja and Priorat, Ribera del Duero is now rightly considered one of the leading fine wine regions in Spain. Of the four remaining DOs, Toro and Cigales are both regions that produce powerful, intense wines and remain somewhat underexplored, while Bierzo is an area experiencing a steady rise in popularity and international interest, particularly in Mencia, the indigenous local variety. Credit for much of this must go to the Decendientes de Palacios estate; the flagbearers of the region. Finally, and not widely appreciated, Rueda has the potential to produce top-notch whites from the Verdejo grape, given the right vineyard sites and skilled winemaking. Bodegas Ossian, located in the village of Nieva are leading the charge for quality - producing ripe, age-worthy wines with finesse and minerality thanks to some uniquely sandy soils. Sand provides a natural defence against the phylloxera pest and allows Ismael Gonzalo and his team to work with the very best old vines in the region (up to 160 years old).
Catalonia (or Catalunya) is a region in northern Spain made up of 10 sub-regions plus one overall appellation - D.O. Catalunya - and a separate recognised appellation for the Catalan sparkling wine, Cava.
The sparkling wine Cava was born in Spain in 1850. It eventually took on its modern form in 1872 when Jose Raventós of Codorníu introduced the método tradicional, the technique with which Cava is imbued with carbon dioxide bubbles. D.O. Cava was first created as a denominación específica, applied to sparkling Spanish wines that complied with certain production methods and expectations and standards of quality. Now, it is also used to define the areas in which Cava may be made. This area spans eight regions within Spain, although 90% of Cava is produced in Catalonia, with 75% made in San Sadurní d’Anoia in Penedès, where Cava was first created.
The Douro valley is the home of Port production and is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world. The vineyards follow a band of Schist along the valley rising up in steep terraced slopes from the river. Upstream lies Spains Ribera del Duero. Increasingly, unfortified wines are produced here, but it is really for great vintage port that the region is known.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia. Produced in a variety of styles, Sherry is primarily made from the Palomino grape. It ranges from light versions similar to white table wines, such as Manzanilla and Fino, to darker and heavier versions that have been oxidised and aged in barrel, such as Amontillado and Oloroso. Sweet dessert wines are also made from Pedro Ximenez (a.k.a. PX) or Moscatel grapes, and are sometimes blended with Palomino-based Sherries.
Madeira is a beautiful island located off the coast of Portugal famed for its dazzling array of fortified wines. Discovered by happy accident, it undergoes a fairly brutal ageing process which bizarrely renders the final wine not only highly delicious, but also as age-worthy as just about any wine in existence. 18th century trans-Atlantic voyages saw barrels of astringent wine fortified with a bucket or two of local brandy, a process these days replicated with long barrel ageing in specially constructed hot stores called Estufas. This process of repeated heating and cooling, a sure death knell for any other wine, produces wines that run from aperitif to digestif, with broad swathes of intense flavour always tempered by a keen blade of uplifting acidity.
Its own DO as of 2001, Montsant is in the Cataluna region of north eastern Spain. Old vines Grenache and Carinena vines predominate and the wines produced can bear striking similarities to those of neighbouring Priorat.
Navarra is a Spanish Denominación de Origen (DO) for wines that extends over practically the entire southern half of the autonomous community of Navarre (Spanish Navarra, Basque Nafarroa). The vineyards are on the lower slopes of the Pyrenees as they descend towards the basin of the river Ebro. The region used to be renowned only for its rosado (Rose) wines but in recent years has been producing quality reds and whites as well.
Whilst you may think almost exclusively of Port when you think of wines from Portugal there's actually there’s plenty more on offer. Rich reds, adventurous whites and a sweet wine here and there can all be found coming out of this wonderful country.
Having seen a total revolution in the past twenty years Priorat now makes some of the worlds finest grenache based wines, making use of a particular slate and quartz soil type known locally as llicorella. And some incredibly old vines. Single vineyard sites have been identified, winemaking techniques have undergone a revolution and Priorat can now justly identify itself as one of the world's most exciting wine making appellations.
Rias Baixas sits in Galicia to the north-west of Spain. Production centers around the hugely popular Albarino grape.
Ribatejo can be found in central Portugal, just inland from the major city of Lisbon. A warm, dry area, it is also Portugal's only landlocked region – although it's climate is influenced considerably by the nearby Tejo river.
One of the leading wine regions in spain, Ribera del Duero specialises in the production of powerful red wines from the local variety of Tempranillo, Tinto Fino. A real challenger to Rioja in terms of quality this is an area that at first sight looks like a hostile place to grow vines. The vines are grown at altitudes of between 700 and 850m and searing day time temperatures are followed by extremely cold nights. The wines that emerge are firm, deeply coloured, ageworthy, and some of Spains most exciting and longlived.
Spains most famous wine growing region is seeing something of a revolution. A band of new producers are shunning the traditional methods of production in a effort to gain greater purity of fruit, less dominant oak influence, and individual terroir characteristics. The results are wines that have the ability to age and improve in bottle, that have finesse, character and real elegance.
One of Spain's prime regions for white wine where the sand and limestone soils and an altitude of at least 650 metres above sea level produce wines of vivacity and character.
The Sierra de Gredos is the mountain range that lies ninety minutes west of Madrid and widely regarded as one of Spain’s most exciting wine regions, albeit one that is still relatively undiscovered. Old bush vine Garnacha is the name of the game here and vineyard altitude ranges from about 500m of elevation, climbing as high as 1200m, ensuring huge day-night temperature swings – perfect for the later ripening Garnacha grape. The wild, untrammelled nature of the mountain range and remote pockets of vines means that it is common to find around 5-10% of other local varieties naturally co-planted in the vineyard, adding extra complexity and freshness. The soils are primarily granite based. White wines, although a significant minority, are based on a local variety called Albillo Real. It is an early-ripening richly textured variety that takes well to barrel ageing thanks to the stony, mineral character that comes in part from elevation and poor soils. Administratively the Sierra de Gredos sits on the border between three separate zones: Madrid, Castilla y Leon and Castilla La Mancha. Most wine is therefore designated Vinos de Madrid or the (unofficial) Garnacha de Gredos.

The upshot of all this is that there is a small cohort of dynamic producers turning out jewel-like Garnacha that has a unique, almost tremoring, ethereal character. When successful they are wines of presence and rocky structures with a bright, crystalline feel. If the Garnacha of Priorat is deep, rich and slatey and Chateauneuf-du-Pape spicy, savoury and glossy, then Gredos Garnacha is something completely different.
Up and coming region in Spain with the potential produce some of Spain's most glorious red wines. To the west of Ribera del Duero, a similar style of wine is created but perhaps with less tannin but
Vinho Verde is the biggest DOC of Portugal, up in the cool, rainy, verdant north west. The vines grow in fertile, granite soils along rivers that flow from the mountains of the east to burst out into the ocean between golden surfing beaches.
Yecla was granted official DO status in 1975. It is surrounded on all sides by other DO: Jumilla to the west, Alicante to the east and Almansa in the north. The classic Yecla wine is a rich, dark, fruit-driven red made from Monastrell grapes (better known in France as Mourvedre).