Rioja, Spain's oldest and most famous wine region, became the first DO when the system was set up in 1926. When the system was refined in 1991, Rioja became the first region to be promoted to DOCa status. Tempranillo is king in Rioja. Other grapes — Garnacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo — are used for blending, but Tempranillo takes center stage.
The wines range from delicate to big and alcoholic. The traditional method of production includes significant aging in oak barrels. Reds aged for one year in barrel and some time in bottle may be labeled crianza. After one year in oak and at least one full year in bottle, they may become a reserva. A gran reserva is made only in the finest years, and it must be aged for a minimum of two years in oak and three years in bottle before release.
After the phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century, France imported wines from Spain to make up the local shortfall. The wines were not exactly up to French standards — so French winemakers went to Spain and introduced their winemaking practices, which included aging in oak barrels. Instead of French oak barrels, Spanish winemakers chose American oak, which impart a stronger flavor to the wine.
Other Spanish Winemaking Regions
Rioja used to be the only game in town. In 1999 it was joined by another DOCa, Priorat, located not far from Barcelona. The red wines of Priorat are largely made from Grenache and Carignan grapes. Wine lovers should also be on the lookout for these regions:
Penedés is home to most of the Cava (sparkling wine) producers. Whereas Champagne is made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, Cava is made from the white grapes Xarello, Macabeo, and Parellada.
Navarra is best known for its rosés but has recently complemented them with red wines made from Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
Rías Baixas is producing the much-acclaimed Albariño — the rich and complex white with high levels of acidity and alcohol.