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.


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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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