Get to Know Western Spain's Top Grape Varieties
Iberian grapes make phenomenal wine. Varieties like Tempranillo, Albariño, Mencia, and more capture the essence of quality Spanish wine while offering all us wine lovers fantastic options for every occasion.
If this is your first time delving into Spain's wines, these are some of the grapes varieties to know from the western half of the country.
When we think of Spain, Tempranillo immediately leaps to mind. For many of us, it's our gateway to Spanish wine. Tempranillo can range in flavour from juicy sour cherries and red plum to a more savoury earth and leather. There's typically a spicy note to it that helps make Tempranillo brilliant for any of your favourites meat dishes (personally, we love it with anything off the grill).
If you're partial to Cabernet Sauvignon, odds are you'll quickly become a fan of Tempranillo. It's sometimes blended with other grapes like Mazuelo (aka Carignan) and Garnacha (aka Grenache), but some winemakers do blend in a cheeky bit of Cabernet Sauvignon in certain regions where it's allowed by law. Look to Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro for the best examples of Tempranillo.
One final note about Tempranillo. In Rioja and Ribera del Duero, you'll come across different ageing terms which are quite useful for picking out the right style for your mood. You'll find the terms listed below:
- Crianza: minimum 2 years of ageing for reds, including one in oak.
- Reserva: minimum 3 years of ageing for reds, including one in oak.
- Gran Reserva: minimum 5 years of ageing for reds, including 2 in oak and 3 in bottle.
Tempranillo is perfect for anyone who enjoys drinking wines with a touch of age on them, whether you're picking up a bottle of Reserva or Gran Reserva, or choose to age it yourself.
In recent years, Mencia has become the face of Bierzo DO, Galicia, where it dominates many of the vineyards. It's lighter like Pinot Noir but is more flamboyant in its fruitiness, reminiscent of certain Cabernet Francs. Everything from cherry and strawberry to blackberry and pomegranate, Mencia also tasty black liquorice notes and a stony minerality.
While can't get enough of this vibrant, fruity style, there are more serious Mencias available, produced from older vines and thus more complex. These old vine Mencias are wonderful expressions of the unique terroir of Bierzo, so anyone who appreciates a high-quality, terroir-driven wine should add a bottle of Mencia to their shopping list.
This lovely white grape helped pioneer the cause of Spanish white wine among the wider wine drinking public and has opened the way for other indigenous Iberian grapes. The main outpost for Albariño is in Rias Baixas, Galicia, located in the northwestern-most corner of Spain. The region can be quite wet, but thanks to a thicker skin, Albariño performs beautifully in Rias Baixas' verdant vineyards.
Albariño produces marvellously aromatic dry wines with plenty of peach, apricot, grapefruit, and an intensely satisfying saline minerality. Most tend to be unoaked, but a few winemakers do let their Albariño spend time in oak, in contact with the lees for a richer style.
Like Albariño, Godello calls Galicia home, this time in the so-called 'valley of gold,' or Valdeorras DO. While not as well-known as its neighbour next door, Godello offers up pretty floral aromas, with citrus and apple notes with a profound minerality. Some compare it to Chardonnay. Like this popular international grape, Godello takes to oak well but can also be made in a focused, unoaked style. It has a pleasant, rich presence on the palate, making it a fantastic option for those moments when you simply want to relax with a glass of wine.
The newest Spanish white wine to enjoy a moment in the limelight, Verdejo is the grape every Sauvignon Blanc lover needs to try now. Verdejo is responsible for the zesty, citrusy, slightly herbal wines of Rueda DO in Castilla y Leon.
Verdejo is also able to age and will improve if you stow a few bottles away in your cellar for a couple of years. If you do decide to age Verdejo, be sure to look for oaked versions – this style holds up better to ageing and will reward you with a nutty, slightly smoky, rounder wine. As it comes in these two different styles, you can count on Verdejo as a pairing for a variety of dishes. Fish and chicken? Brilliant with the citrus-driven Verdejo. Pasta in a cream sauce? An oaked version will complement the creaminess to a 'T'.
Naturally, there are many more native Iberian grapes grown in Western Spain, but in our opinion, the varieties we've listed here are a stellar way to start your tasting tour of the country. From age-old classics to exciting new up-and-comers, one thing we can promise you – these wines won't disappoint!