In September 1565, Spanish settlers arrived on Florida’s eastern shores bringing their most treasured product: wine. Exactly 450 years later, Spanish wines continue their popularity in the New World and are the fastest growing segment of the American wine market.
When Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived in the area now called St. Augustine, with him were 800 colonists who settled the New World for Spain. They carried survival provisions, and historians are certain those first settlers carried along plenty of Spanish wine.
For more than 4,000 years, Spain cultivated grapes to make wines that even the Romans desired and exported throughout their Empire. Today, Spanish varietals remain the most popular wines in Europe because of their taste and affordability. Spain actually surpasses Italy and France as the world’s top wine exporter.
Spain grows more than 400 grape varieties, but the most widely planted are airén, a white wine grape used mostly for brandy and simple white wines; tempranillo, a favorite among Americans; and garnacha, known as Grenache in other parts of the world, although it originated in Spain. Buying a good Spanish wine can get tricky because the country’s 78 wine regions produce wines of varying quality.
Only two regions—Rioja and Priorat—met the stringent requirements for the Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC) designation, which signifies the highest quality. For two centuries, vineyards in Rioja were the benchmark for Spanish wines. The region’s mainstay grape is tempranillo, but the oxidative red wines may not be to everyone’s taste. Priorat, near the Mediterranean Coast, has created Spain’s most expensive wines, primarily blends using garnacha grapes.
Local wine merchants recommend their favorite Spanish wines
Joyce Huey, Owner, Two Old Hags Wine Shoppe, Leesburg
An organic wine that is night harvested, Lobetia Tempranillo is one of La Mancha’s most popular wines. Aged in oak barrels, this complex wine exhibits flavors of cherry, clove, and plum. Huey also recommends the Bubbles by Lobetia, a sparkling wine that is made with chardonnay grapes.
Her favorite: Lobetia Tempranillo 2014 (about $13)
Monastrell is a native Spanish grape known in the rest of the world as Mourvèdre. This 100 percent certified organic wine is full-bodied and similar to a cabernet. Produced in Spain’s Alicante region, EKO Monastrell has aromas of deep red fruit, with touch of vanilla and mocha. Hitson also recommends Marina Alta Bianco 2014, a dry white from Alicante, that pairs well with seafood and sells for about $11.
Her favorite: EKO Monastrell 2012 (about $12)
Other regions produced some excellent wines as well, but do not receive the attention drawn by Rioja and Priorat. After all, it was the Spanish wine from the Terra Alta region, near Barcelona, that was considered the muse for artist Pablo Picasso. Personally, I found the wines from La Mancha more than acceptable, especially from Bodegas Real, a winery in the picturesque region of Castilla-La-Mancha. The wines were intense, well structured, and easy to drink, especially the winery’s flagship product, a Vega Ibor Tempranillo.
“A lot of Spanish wines are coming from the regions of Alicante and Tora,” says Heather Hitson, wine consultant for ABC Fine Wines in Lady Lake. “People are often surprised at how good they are.”
Like Priorat, the region of Alicante is on the Mediterranean Coast, and talented winemakers are beginning to create balanced wines from grapes grown in hot, sandy vineyards. Toro, located in the Duero River Valley, is exploding onto the wine scene with its elegant and well-structured wines that are priced affordably.
If you are still unsure which Spanish wine to buy, you can sample hundreds of them at the 4th Annual Spanish Wine Festival in St. Augustine, Sept. 9-12.
“St. Augustine’s Spanish Wine Festival is an opportunity to connect with our founders through a product that is as good today, as it was when the early Spanish explorers came to America. Wine defies space and time,” says Charlie Seraphin, festival president. “The festival and all its events are designed to make St. Augustine the ‘Spanish Wine Capital of America’.”