In-Depth: Deciphering Spanish Wine Labels

May 24, 2011

Wine labels from New World wine countries (i.e. the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa) are fairly easy to read. They offer wine consumers little if no trouble in navigating the script as you'll easily find the name of the producer, where the grapes were grown, the year and the variety right there in front of you.

Clear and simple.

Such is not the case in the Old World. For many producers in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the region plays a prominent role in wine labeling while the grape (or grapes), often viewed as the vehicle in which the wine expresses itself take a back seat making the buying experience a bit more confusing.

Of all the Old World countries, I find Spain (and to a certain extent Southern Italy) the most customer-friendly.

Here's a label from a premium and popular producer in the Rioja region, Marqués de Cáceres Cáceres, like many bodegas in the region make a blend of Tempranillo (in this case 85%) with Garnacha Tinta and Graciano (15%). The former is the staple variety of Rioja while the latter two are used to add alcohol and tannins to the wine.

Just below the bodega's name we find Vendimia Seleccionada which translates as 'Vintage Selection'.

2005 is the Vintage and an excellent one in Rioja. 

Then we find Denominación de Origen Calificada or DOC (or DOCa). 

Spain, like France, Italy and German have what is called an appellation system that ensures quality. The larger  controlled appellation system of Spain is called  Denominación de Origen (DO) and is governed by a Consejo Regulador. This latter organization is comprised of representatives from the regional government along with vine-growers, winemakers and merchants in the DO's area (i.e. Bierzo, Calatayud, Yecla, etc...)

DO regulations stipulate the boundaries of the region, the varieties allowed in wine production, yields and alcohol strength. If a wine doesn't meet these standards it can be either labelled Vino de Mesa (i.e. Table Wine) or Vino de La Tierra. The former often indicates basic if not low quality but the latter can simply mean the grapes making up the wine came from a larger area. For instance, Vino de La Tierra de Castilla indicates the wine has been sourced from vineyards throughout New Castile.

Just above DO is DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada) indicating the highest quality region. At this point only Rioja and Priorat have been given such a status. 

Here's another label from a Rioja bodega, Lan. (In this instance the wine is 100% Tempranillo - one can always check the company website for product details.)

We know already it is the 2006 vintage but what does Crianza mean?

In many New World countries, labels will read 'reserve' or 'proprietor's reserve'. These are often empty, blanket statements because in Canada or the USA, there is no law controlling their appearance on a bottle. It is often a marketing tool and the savvy consumer over time will undoubtedly have to learn how to distinguish the plonk dubbed 'reserve' from the more premium wines with the same title.

However, Spain, like Italy, do use such words and they have a purpose beyond superficial sales rhetoric. 

The DO or DOC not only guarantee quality and certify the region of origin but also indicate aging

Vino Joven (or 'young wine') may or may not have spent time in a barrel and wines are typically released a year after vintage.

Crianza (sometimes translated as 'breeding') are wines aged for at least two full years after harvest. Of those two years, the wine must have spent a minimum time of six months in oak casks. In Rioja, the time in oak must be one year.(NOTE: You may encounter 'Semi-crianza' or 'Roble' which are not official terms but will give some indication of oak aging).

Reserva and Gran Reserva grant the wines have been aged three years (at least one in oak) for the former and five years (of that time, two in oak) for the latter. 

Other phrases you may encounter in the Spanish wine section are Noble, Añejo and Viejo

Noble solely means the wines were stored a year in larger oak vats (no more than 600 litres) which will impart a slight oak character. Añejo indicates the wine is 'mature' after spending two years in cask or bottle while Viejo, meaning 'old', the wine is three years old and can very well show oxidative aging.

I mentioned that some Spanish wines have a bit of the New World influence.

Here's one more label we can look at.

Bodegas Castaño is the producer and I must say,  fairly modern in their approach. 

Though Lan and Marqués de Cáceres are popular brands and well-known and lauded amongst critics and connoisseurs, 'La Casona', the wine displayed here is meant to appeal to a younger, more novice wine market.

Moreover, this is a wine focused on grabbing the attention of consumers already familiar with such branded wines as Yellowtail and Berringer. 

The vintage is 2007 and the grape is Monastrell, the leading variety of The Levant or Spanish Mediterranean

Yecla is the DO and like Jumilla and Valencia produce full-bodied reds that can be high in alcohol and rich in black-berry and black licorice flavour. 

Because Spain belongs to the Old World and is regulated by their appellation system, many labels will adhere to quality guidelines. 

However, Spanish wine is continuing to experience what many industry writers have called a 'revolution' and their wines are showing a New World influence, both inside and outside of the bottle. 

The combination of old and new not only ensure quality but will help consumers buy with confidence. Either way, the label should never halt your curiosity - in fact, it should stimulate it.

Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


Getting to Know... Spain

May 23, 2011

I've been thinking about the wine knowledge I've acquired along the way and how easy it is for me to navigate the Vintages section at the LCBO. The solid foundation I have is a result of appreciation courses as well as numerous hours spent poring over related books, articles and of course educational glasses of wine. (Check out of my Wine and Words: Books for Imbibers for great reads.)

And so I thought, considering there seems to be few blogs devoted to wine basics I would create a new series entitled 'Getting to Know...' as an introduction with accompanying links to more in-depth posts I've written.

Spain has been several countries spanning several centuries.

From Galicia in the North West to Catalonia in the east to Jerez in the south, Espana has been the harbor for sea-faring Phoenicians and Greeks, the land of loot for Roman legions and the humble birthplace of two Ceasars, Trajan (AD 98-117) and his successor, Hadrian (117-138). 

With the fall of Rome, Spain accommodated the invading Visigoths until newer visitors, some 7000 Berbers, under Arabic military leaders, landed at its southern tip in 711. Their main commander, Tariq, would give the Rock its name – Gibraltar (Gebel al-Tariq  – ‘mount’ of Tariq) and begin a great era of Muslim rule, a kind of Medieval Renaissance.

Spanish Moors controlled the Iberian peninsula with a tolerant fist and their domination  is romantically considered a period of relative peace, prosperity and innovation. The art, architecture and Castilian language of Spain began to take shape during these formative years. The Moors developed irrigation and introduced Spain to citrus fruits. 

Following Columbus' discovery of America and the last ousting of Muslim rule, the country became a world power comparable to then rising British Empire. 

But the mighty fall and Spain tumbled hard throughout the next three hundred years. For a moment, after numerous royal feuds there seemed to be a period of recovery in the early twentieth century but General Franco would put a halt to that. 

Wine grapes in ancient times were often fermented in large stone tanks and then further aged in amphorae (i.e. Greek vases). In Spain, there is archeological evidence of these tijanas as well modern ones in more traditional wine making regions. 

In the 1950s and 60s, the wine world, after years of antiquated winemaking, discovered new stainless technology technology and Spain, with some inspiration from France and Australia began to reinvent itself. 

Today Spain is experiencing a modern wine revolution. Influenced by both New and Old World viticulture and vinification practices, the country has come into the twenty-first century.  

In terms of wine production, Spain is third behind France and Italy (or Italy and France depending on the year). 

In terms of land under vine, however, Spain has the most with some 1,154, 000 ha/2, 851,600 acres. The reason for this discrepancy between production and parcels of land is that in such inhospitable landscapes such as La Mancha, the vines are planted several meters apart compared to the typical vine training systems of France and Italy.

Overall, this means less bunches per acre.

But being third is nothing to be ashamed of. Spanish varieties offer the wine consumer some beautiful alternatives to Chardonnay and Sangiovese. 

Tempranillo is grown throughout the Iberian peninsula and finds its roots in the majority of regions; it is rightly the flagship variety of Spain. 

Tempranillo has numerous aliases from Tinto de Pais to Cencibel to Tinta Roriz in Portugal (used in blends and in Port). The wines from the dark-skinned grape can make heady rich wines of black currant and plum in Ribera del Duero and Toro but finds its foremost expression in the Crianzas, Reservas and Gran Reservas of Rioja where it is made with minor percentages of Manzuelo and Graciano. The wines of Rioja tend to have a spicy-strawberry scent with lovely acidity.

Garnacha, known as Grenache in France, Australia and the United States is just behind Tempranillo. The variety is often utilized to add alcohol and body to blends. As a varietal, I find Garnacha wines have a certain brown-sugar blackberry character. 

Monastrell (known as Mouvedre in southern France) and Bobal are the main grapes of the The Levant on the Mediterranean coast. Both grapes make big, bold, full-bodied wines ideal for summer backyard barbeques. 

As for whites, Spain makes a substantial number of quaffable if not high-quality wines (unlike Italy where a large portion of whites are little more than mundane).  

Viura (or Macabeo) is used to make lemony-light varietals but is also blended with Parellada and Xarel-lo to either make white Rioja or the sparkling wines of Cava

In the north, especially Rueda and Rías Baixas, whites dominate. 

Verdejo from Rueda in Old Castile is lush and seductive with melon and mango character while Albarino of Galicia is the perfect wine to pair with seafood - crisp, mineral-citrus. 

The majority of Spanish wines you'll find in the LCBO will come from a specific DO (Denominación de Origen) or DOC (Denominación de Origen Calificada). Like the French AOC or appellation system, these DOs indicate quality and indicate place of origin.

Here's a list of the most popular DOs and DOCs at the LCBO with prominent grape varieties utilized by the region in brackets:

Rías Baixas (Albariño, Loureira)
Bierzo (Mencía - a lighter red)
Ribero del Duero (Tempranillo or Tinto de Pais)
Rueda (Verdejo)
Toro and Cigales (Tempranillo)
Rioja (Tempranillo, Viura)
Calatayud (Garnacha)
Priorato and Monsant (Blend of French and Spanish red varieties)
Cava (Sparkling and still whites - Parellada, Macabeo and Exarel-lo)
Valencia, Jumilla, Yecla (Monastrell and/or Bobal)
La Mancha (Tempranillo)

This is a great list to begin with and please use the links to discover more about Spanish wine and build your confidence in the Vintages section.

RELATED LINKS: In-Depth: Deciphering Spanish Wine Labels

Crow, John Armstrong, Spain: The Root and The Flower, Berkley, University of
California Press, 1985.
Jeff, Julian, The Wines of Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2006.
Radford, John, The New Spain. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2007.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


German Tasting at the Top of the CN Tower - Riesling & Company 2011

May 18, 2011

The Canadian and German wine industry share some common but equally unique elements. Firstly, we are both countries on the fringe of where wine grapes can be grown. Secondly, our love affair with Riesling, a cool climate varietal that can often find its best expression in Mosel slate and Niagara Bench limestone. 

Beyond that, we Canadian wine imbibers have to recognize and be thankful for Germany's contribution to our industry. It was a German immigrant, Johann Schiller in 1811 who made the first vintage near present day Mississauga.

Though the 'urban legend' is being is disputed by York University Professor, Richard Jarret, it's still nice to have something to believe in, a mythical father figure and hey, he's German,and that can't be in bad in consideration of the recent tasting at the top of the CN tower on May 17th.

An impressive showing of German wine to say the least with an outstanding view of downtown Toronto to compliment the tasting.

There were 20+ stations to choose from matched with a wide assortment of traditional German and Indian cuisine to try with the right wine.

I will admit, the aromas from the food stations wafting through the room made it difficult to appreciate the delicate bouquets of several German Rieslings. A minor complaint on my behalf considering where we were tasting but I know some wine lovers in the crowd found it trying to indulge in these sensations.

Aside from that, it was less crowded than I expected and thankfully so as the majority of stations were placed in restaurants spaces best reserved for intimate dinners. The tasting often felt confined, sometimes claustrophobic making spitting difficult as wine critics and connoisseurs had to contort themselves to get to spit buckets. 

There was much German conversation and intense discussion. From business cards and appealing deals between wine agents and potential buyer and restaurant representatives, to the casual joking and ever-perennial wine tasting notes, yesterday's offerings were gut to say the least. 

Personal favourites included Dr.Loosen wines of the Mosel and Pfalz, especially the Villa Wolf 2009 Gewürztraminer and the Blue Slate 2009 Riesling Kabinett, the latter wine offering a mineral tingle of apples and pear acid. Their 2009 Villa Wolf Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder) had the right balance of smoky-ash and red cherry.

Another couldn't-miss table featured the wines represented by Churchill Cellars of Toronto. I especially loved the Weingut Rappenhof 2009 Grauer Burgunder, a great example of German Pinot Gris from the Rheinhessen.

And the table just over, Weingut Georg Müller Stiftung with several excellent Rieslings, from dry to sweeter Auselese. Their two Pinot Noirs, however, the 2008 Edition PW and 2008 'Daniel' were phenomenal (ausgezeichnet!). The latter was outstanding and made the trip to T.O. all the more excellent. I've encountered Spätburgunder from Baden before but its to the Rheingau's credit that these two beautiful offerings have changed my opinion on German Pinot Noir. Both were smoky cassis with brooding spice and silky vanilla. The acidity on both made the wines closer to succulent and would have paired equally well with the ham they were serving two stations over.

Other highlights included Weingut Balthasar Ress 1998 Riesling Spätlese from Hattenheim Nussbrunnen - simply a gorgeous example of how Riesling can age intensely into the liquid gold nectar of orange-peal-apple-honey.

There was also Weingut Markus Molitor; their 2002 Riesling Auslese from Zeltlinger Sonnenuhr (i.e. Zeltling's vineyard 'Sonnenuhr'), a caramel candy and apple expression that would have effectively paired with the creamy German dessert - which I was far too full to approach.

Weingut Studert Prüm and Max Ferd Richter over-delivered with their selection of Rieslings. I fell in tender love with the 2009 Riesling Kabinett Graacher Himmelreich of the latter producer, that mineral-stone-apple I have come to associate with the best of the green bottle Mosel wines.

Everything in order but things must end.

I missed several tables for lack of time and lack of energy. A moody, overcast day made for a strange light at the top of the CN tower. A pensive but philosophical light ideal for the German philosophers of old but also to give one a sense of the light in such places as Southern Germany where the best white wine in the world is made.

White wine made for the top of the world.


About This Blog

My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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