Three Misunderstood Topics in Spanish Wine

On the surface, Spain seems relatively straightforward as compared to the other top producers of wine worldwide. It has just 97 DOP-level regions—nothing like the nearly 400 appellations of France. Unlike Italy, which claims as many as 2,000 native varieties, Spain makes 88% of its wine from 20 core varieties.

For consumers, the country’s wines appear easy to understand. This was, in fact, somewhat intentional. In the Franco era, marketing and sales were not robust, so to sell to the hordes of beach tourists descending upon Spain, single brands, revolving around regions, became all important. Red wine was Rioja. White wine was Penedès. Rosé was Navarra. Sparkling was Cava. “Sherry” has always been Sherry—but that's a world unto itself.

It's taken nearly half a century, but the simple boxes in which Spanish wines were conveniently compartmentalized have fallen apart with time. To understand the true intricacies of Spanish wine, beverage professionals should pay close attention to the various directions in which these previously staid contents are drifting. Commonly misunderstood topics include Spain’s increasingly complex sparkling wine categories, regional quality pyramids, and the availability of cooler-climate areas for grapegrowing. 

1. The Four C’s of Spanish Sparkling

Cava was perhaps the easiest category of Spanish wine to understand. It's never had the complexities of French sparkling wines, for which one has to remember the subregions of Champagne and crémants in places such as Burgundy and Alsace. For Spain, sparkling was simply Cava: bubbly, fresh, affordable to a ludicrous degree, and mostly produced in Catalonia's Penedès region.

Prosecco, however, has taken over in the "budget bubbly" sector, and Cava has been fumbling to find its place, which has in turn led to the largest upheaval in its existence. Cava's Spanish market share competitors, Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, and Conca del Riu Anoia, all came about in response to what have been seen as the failings of Cava as a whole. The first group to break away from Cava was Clàssic Penedès, which was formed as a subclassification of DO Penedès. It's important to note that this is not a separate DO, as many believe. This wouldn't be possible with that name, as Penedès can only be used by those who are part of the DO.

While Clàssic Penedès launched in 2013, its founders had been formulating the concept for several years. In 2012, however, Pepe Raventós of Raventós i Blanc winery beat them to the punch by promoting his new Conca del Riu Anoia (meaning "the Anoia River Basin") as a so-called future DO. This received a lot of coverage at the time, given that it was a shock to see Raventós i Blanc, a well-known, high-quality producer of Cava, leave the DO. But, despite the shock factor, the region had and continues to have no legal recognition.

As for Clàssic Penedès, though 18 producers make use of it, it's not a well-known term outside of Catalonia. Despite the growing discontent with Cava, a number of winemakers stayed within the DO at the time rather than using the new classification. Many felt that Clàssic Penedès was too permissive—for example, its growing area is large, and the range of grapes extends well beyond the traditional varieties for Cava. 

Those with this viewpoint instead pursued another designation, Corpinnat, which was officially launched in April of 2018. While designed to be DO agnostic, Corpinnat is at its core an extremely stringent redefinition of Cava's original guidelines. Its requirements include the following:

  • Organically grown grapes.
  • Manual harvest.
  • No base wine purchases.
  • Sourcing from the geographic core of Penedès (Cava is spread across seven autonomous regions in Spain; Corpinnat means "heart of Penedès").
  • Focus on the native varieties of Penedès.
  • Minimum-pricing standards for grapes.

Once released, Corpinnat received no end of praise from local journalists up to the head sommelier of the three-Michelin star Celler de Can Roca. DO Cava, however, was not pleased and told these cellars that they not only couldn't list the Corpinnat name on any bottle of wine that was to be certified as DO Cava but also needed to stop any and all promotion of the concept, lest their cellars be disqualified from the DO. Given this ultimatum, in January of 2019, six wineries left, and they have been joined by four others to date. There are rumors that more departures are in discussion.

Corpinnat, like Clàssic Penedès, is not a DO, but it's also not a vague marketing concept like Conca del Riu Anoia. While the wines of the Corpinnat producers are certified under Spain's general Vino Espumoso de Calidad category, they do have a set of guidelines enforced by the European Bureau Veritas auditing agency. Further, the term Corpinnat is a collective trademark under EU law.

DO Cava initially derided Corpinnat, elevating its own standards and prestige at an official press conference just after the Corpinnat producers left. Yet its tune has changed significantly, as in July 2020, the DO released a number of changes: 

  • Reserva Cava must spend 18 months on the lees instead of 15, bringing it in line with Corpinnat.
  • New, overarching classifications include Cava de Guarda (basic Cava with nine months on the lees) and Cava de Guarda Superior, which includes Reserva, Gran Reserva, and Cava de Paraje Calificado.
  • Cava de Guarda Superior must be organically certified, with a five-year transition allowed, starting in 2020 (again mirroring Corpinnat at this level).
  • Zones and subzones have been established, the latter of which can only be used on Cava de Guarda Superior.

Many of the new rules align with Corpinnat, reflecting a concerted effort by DO Cava to not only try and stop more of their producers from leaving, but also woo back some who did. A key issue that remains is the lack of regional traceability in Cava. Unless a producer is making use of the single-vineyard Cava de Paraje certification, there is no identification of the source of its grapes. This is where the brand-new zone and subzone breakdowns, developed over the past two years, come into play. People in Spain have found them a bit preposterous, especially given that the entire zone covering Catalonia is to be called Comtats de Barcelona, or "the historical counties of Barcelona." Further, while 90% of all Cava originates in Penedès, it will only have one subzone within Comtats de Barcelona, Valls d'Anoia-Foix. These are completely new terms, as Cava can't make use of familiar names such as Penedès that are already used for legally defined zones.

Will these changes be enough to bring wayward producers back into the fold? That's impossible to tell, but at the very least, recent history reflects the fluidity of the Spanish sparkling wine sector. In terms of approachability, these developments certainly provide new challenges to consumer understanding.

2. Building a Better Pyramid

Historically, Spanish growers understood where grapes grew best, but no official systems were put into place until 2002 and 2003, when the Vi de Finca and Vino de Pago single-vineyard classifications were created. The former is just for Catalonia and certified only regionally, while the latter is for Spain as a whole and has the legal definition of a DO. In fact, Vino de Pago exists at the same DOP level as the DOs and Vino de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG).

Despite over a decade and a half of additions, these systems remain largely unknown because top producers have eschewed them in favor of developing classification pyramids within established regions. Currently, there are five established DOs with some form of classification pyramid: DOQ Priorat, DOC Rioja, DO Bierzo, DO Rueda, and (debatably) DO Cava. 

To better understand how these pyramids work, it's helpful to consider them like those of France, with Burgundy as the archetype of this system. In the case of Spain, Burgundy's stand-in is DOQ Priorat, as it's the oldest and original testing ground for the premise. Priorat’s long history is often forgotten, but here, classification is not an entirely new concept. The Carthusian monks arrived to the region from France in the 12th century, and they did as monks do, which is to document everything around them. Partially, this was to catalog their holdings, but it was also to understand which grapes would grow best in which locations.

When the DO's governing council and a handful of producers started down this path, they started with the regional picture. One of the winemakers avidly supporting the development of this classification, as well as those in Bierzo and Rioja, was Álvaro Palacios. He explains, "When I was growing up in Alfaro, [Rioja], we knew very well which villages had better grapes and which vineyards made the better wines. The problem was that no one had the ability to project that, to sell it to an outside market, and so great amounts of excellent wines were sold off in bulk, often to France."

The first step in redefining Priorat was to look at the villages, and this allowed for the first level of classification, breaking the region into 12 parts, named Vi de Vila, which took effect in 2009. (Note that there are only 11 legally defined villages within DOQ Priorat's boundaries, but La Morera de Montsant was split into two parts, La Morera and Escaladei, due to its large size.)

To appease winemakers throughout Priorat, more specificity was required. The historic names of the region were studied, and 459 individual zones, or paratges, were identified and first presented in 2019. These follow the same concept of a climat in Burgundy; both Vi de Paratge and climat are legal definitions of a smaller portion of land than a village. From here, producers can apply for Vinya Classificada and then Gran Vinya Classificada. These are the equivalent of premier cru and grand cru in the Burgundy system. At least, that's the idea. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple, as in the three highest tiers of the system, there is overlap. For instance, a vineyard with at least 90% Grenache and Carignan that meets the strictest maximum yields requirement (3,000 kilograms per hectare) from vines of at least 35 years in age could potentially be classified as a wine of Gran Vinya Classificada. But it could also be Vinya Classificada or Vi de Paratge, all with the same name—for example, Mas de la Rosa, a named paratge within the village of Porrera. Thus, multiple wines can be classified under the name, but at different levels. 

While there are a lot of pieces that still need to come into place in DOQ Priorat, other regions have been working to replicate this model, including DOCa Rioja. It has implemented a three-tier system as well: Vino de Zona, Vino de Municipio, and Viñedo Singular. Here, however, Viñedo Singular wasn't designed to mimic a grand cru certification, and there are no levels of paratge/paraje or higher.

These other DOs all have some parallels to Priorat, but DO Bierzo is most similar. At the end of June 2020, it launched its full Vino de Villa and Vino de Paraje scheme. Unlike DOQ Priorat, which allows certification at all levels immediately, a wine must be at the paraje level for five years before it is eligible for Viña Clasificada; another five years are required before it can seek Gran Viña Clasificada recognition.

These extensive changes, which have added a massive amount of complexity to Spanish wine, will demonstrate their ultimate value a long way down the road, as they are judged by consumers, critics, and the industry at large.

3. Rising to Find Cool-Climate Spain

My Fair Lady did a great disservice to anyone wanting to better understand Spanish geography: the rain in Spain most definitely does not fall mainly on the plain. The Meseta Central, which comprises most of Spain's core, ranges from 600 to 750 meters in altitude, with a dry, continental climate. There are, however, other regions of Spain that offer cool conditions in an otherwise hot country—and this extends beyond Galicia.

Mountainous regions provide for many of Spain’s cool-climate areas. The thinking today is that the higher the elevation, the cooler the climate, the longer the ripening cycle, the higher the acidity, and the lower the alcohol—all commonly viewed as positive, compared to just a couple of decades ago. There are theoretical maximums, of course, especially in the case of Spain, where the varieties are more accustomed to warmer climates.

The highest-elevation region in Spain is also the country’s tallest mountain, Mount Teide on Tenerife, where vines grow at up to 1,700 meters. The area has received a great deal of attention, especially for wineries, such as Suertes del Marqués, that are making soft, gentle wines primarily in the DO Valle de la Orotava.

Moving to the mainland, Andalucía is most associated with Sherry production—and year-round sun and heat. But moving up into the mountains, the beach sprawl of the aptly named Costa del Sol, Costa Tropical, and Costa de Almería‎ drift away. The rural area around, for example, DO Sierras de Málaga offers higher elevation and much cooler conditions. But in the far east of Andalucía, nearly at the border with Murcia, there are pockets of vines that are nearly as high as those in Tenerife. Bodega Barranco Oscuro makes use of vineyards around 1,300 meters near the town of Vélez-Rubio. While the resulting wines aren't low in alcohol by a more Northern European definition, they are incredibly balanced and delicate.

Priorat, too, has a great wealth of hectarage at 500 up to 700 meters. Historically, there was little exploitation of north-facing slopes, which were deemed too shady for proper ripening. Now, they are in extremely high demand, especially for Grenache. Wineries such as Cellers de Scala Dei, Mas Martinet, Mas Alta, and Vall Llach all are sourcing from higher vineyards for their top, softer cuvées. Torres has an experimental vineyard at 710 meters on a peak called Els Tossals, where the winery has planted Grenache, Carignan, and a bit of Picapoll (unrelated to Piquepoul) to, as Miguel Torres Jr. puts it, "see what will happen."

Torres also has vineyards in the village of Tremp in the pre-Pyrenees at around 850 meters, investing in this high-elevation experimentation out of a commitment to prepare for a changing climate. Also in Tremp is Castell d'Encús, whose owner, Raül Bobet, has planted Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and a smattering of other northern, French grapes rarely seen in the area. Bobet is among those pushing the hardest on the boundary of viticulture in the region, with vines at 850 to 1,250 meters. However, he's been doing this for 25 years, dealing with extreme weather and hail, devoted to making exceedingly different wines. He explains, "I enjoy intellectual challenges, and here, I find constant pleasure in what I'm confronted with."

Other examples of higher-altitude wine production in Spain include Sierra de Gredos in Central Spain, Bierzo in Castilla y León, and smaller regions of Aragon and Navarra that reach up into the Pyrenees.

While the bulk of Spanish production will remain in its lower altitudes for some time, especially as plains are needed for vineyard mechanization in regions such as La Mancha, the move both upward and northward is inevitable.

The Complexities of Spanish Wine

Anyone who has closely followed the developments of Spanish wine in recent years was already well aware that an understanding of the category requires far more than memorization of Rioja’s aging requirements and the synonyms of Tempranillo. While some of Spain’s newer rules and classifications prove confusing, they reflect the fact that the country’s reputation for high-alcohol "wines of great value" (usually meaning cheap) is fading as producers strive to create and reach new quality standards. Many of the developments outlined here were a response to the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, and COVID-19 will most likely be even more devastating to the Spanish wine industry. Yet the ability of producers to refine their standards, practices, and wines offers a hopeful perspective on how Spain will respond as its wine industry continues to evolve and mature.

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