Vino in the Iberian Peninsula predates even the Romans, the Greek colonies before them, and the Phoenicians before them. But the phylloxera plague of the mid to late 19th century and political instability (including the devastating civil war) in the early 20th were devastating to local wine industry, with the exception of Andalusia’s sherry producers.
Now, after recovering and a postwar phase of churning out bulk wine, in recent decades many Spanish wine producers have soared way beyond plonk to consistent vintages ranging from decent to divine. One of the best-known regions is of course Rioja in the north, but there are 67 DO‘s (“denominations of origin”, like France’s appellations) spread across the peninsula and the islands, with 14 of these considered elite regions. Some are better known abroad, while others aren’t exported, remaining mostly for local consumption. Here’s a “quick-‘n’-dirty” guide to the top regions and wines you’re likely to encounter on your visits.
Andalusia is of course home to Spain’s most iconic wine, the heavily fortified sherry, produced around Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María, and made mostly from the Palomino grape, as well as sometimes Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez. There are various subtypes of sherry, such as fino (light/delicate), manzanilla (light, with a slightly salty touch), amontillado (dryer), and the heavier/sweeter oloroso, cream sherry, palo cortado, and Pedro Ximénez. The other best known local wine, Málaga, hailing from the province, is also sweet, and made from Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez.
Balearic Islands Pretty much all the action is on Majorca, where native grape varieties include Manto Negro, Callet, Fogoneu, Moll and Prensal Blanc. The Binissalem DO in the island’s centre yields full-bodies red wines using mostly Manto Negro, but also Callet, Tempranillo, Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot; the whites tend to be light and herbal, with primary varieties including Moll and Prensal Blanc, along with some Macabeo, Parellada, Chardonnay and Moscatel; there’s a similar but less well known DO on the east of the island called Plà i Llevant.
Basque Country/Navarre The Basques are known more than anything else for their Txacoli – young, crisp, slightly acidic whites, divided into three DO’s, Álava, Bizkaia, and Getaria. There’s also a Navarra DO covering vineyards on the lower slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains; once focused mostly on rosés, they’re also producing more excellent reds these days, with vines including mostly Grenache, Tempranillo, Cabernet