We brits love Spain, we love it so much that around 18 million of us visited the country in 2019, meaning we are the main country of origin for Spain’s tourism industry. So why do we love it so much? Firstly, it overdelivers on price with regards to everything really – beautiful beaches, top quality food and of course delicious wines can be found in Spain at all price points. Secondly, sun, Spain’s coastal areas receive more than 300 days of sunshine each year, perfect for the sun worshipping Brits and grapes. Thirdly, there are still hidden gems to be found. Such as the Galician port of La Coruna and the wine revolution that is still taking place, with renegades working outside the DO system in the pursuit of the next big thing. Oh, and finally, how can I not mention the food scene?! It is widely accepted that San Sebastian is the world’s best city for foodies, and great food deserves excellent wine. Lucky Spain has it in buckets, quite literally, as the country with the world’s largest vineyard area with almost 1 million Ha planted under vine, although the drier climate and poorer soils result in lower production levels than France and Italy.
As with much of the Mediterranean winemaking was introduced by the Phoenicians around 1,000 BC. But it took for the Romans to arrive before winemaking was taken seriously. Exporting has been important to the Spanish wine industry from very early on. The higher alcohol content of the wines produced from the local varieties in the hot summers allowed the wines to travel well and during the 17th and 18th centuries they boomed due to Spain’s colonial holdings.
Interestingly Spanish bodegas were traditionally places where wine was aged as opposed to where wine was made. Even to this day the practice of buying grapes and wine is much more common in Spain than elsewhere in the world. It was this set up with allowed Spain to help Bordeaux over the centuries. In fact, Benicarlo (now known as Bobal) from Valencia was once an important ingredient in Claret, but it was Rioja and Navarra who were most involved with Bordeaux during the Phylloxera years causing the boom in the Spanish wine industry during the second half of the 19th century. It was these French winemakers who crossed the border who brought with them more advanced winemaking techniques, improving Spain’s wine quality especially in Rioja. In 1880 a rail link was completed to Bilbao from the village of Haro effectively making Haro the centre for shipping wine up to France.
However, this boom sadly didn’t last. In 1850 the first powdery mildew crossed the Pyrenees and Phylloxera followed a few decades later hitting the Eastern shores first but eventually reaching Rioja in 1901. The solution of grafting onto the Phylloxera resistant American rootstocks was well known, however, this was a costly and timely task and many of the French winemakers who had established themselves in Rioja returned to France. Those producers who remained replanted and dramatically changed the face of the vines grown as native varieties were replaced by international and more productive selections.
For Rioja, the 1970 vintage returned the region to international attention and in other regions, such as Penedès, winemakers, notably Miguel Torres, began to introduce more scientific winemaking. The death of General Franco in 1975 and a return to democracy opened the economy and this, along with investment and increasing skills, lead to more consistent quality across the board from the huge volumes of bulk wine, right up to the icon wines which keep emerging across each region.