Spain has been marked by the struggle between what is native and what is foreign. Going back nearly 30,000 years, native cultures sprung up on the Iberian Peninsula (the peninsula southwest of France that is home to Portugal and Spain). Much of modern-day Spain was ruled by the Roman Empire for centuries, where viticulture was widely practiced. When Rome fell in the fifth century, Spain underwent a period of Germanic occupation and then was conquered by the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate. Even though the Caliphate abstained from alcohol consumption, they introduced many of the technologies that fueled centuries of Spanish viticultural practices: distillation, irrigation techniques, vine training, soil analysis, etc. The Umayyad Caliphate ruled until the Capitulations of Santa Fe were signed in 1492, which relinquished all Moorish control in the Iberian Peninsula to the Catholic monarchy led by Fernando and Isabela. The period when the Catholic monarchy reconquered Spain was known as the “Reconquista.” This monarchy persisted until 1936 when Francisco Franco usurped power and instituted a dictatorship that nationalized industries across Spain, including winemaking. When Franco finally died in 1974, the country was opened and democratic and Spanish winemaking took off in new and innovative directions.
A major source of world-class wines, Spain ranks third in overall production behind France and Italy, but quality, value and diversity are maintained as significant aspects of its wine industry. The country has recently seen an influx of capital and expertise, an increase in the use of state-of-the-art equipment, and a new generation of talented, highly educated winemakers who have artfully succeeded in balancing innovation with tradition. They continue to give preference to indigenous grape varieties and clones, each producing vintages of unique, authentic character that are, at the same time, undeniably Spanish.
Spanish wine regions are first organized by autonomous regions (as Tuscany or Veneto are considered in Italy), and then by appellations - places of controlled origin, which are known as Denominaciones de Origen (DOs). Spain has twenty different autonomías, each with its own cultural flair and personality. Some of the more famous autonomías include Galicia ("Green Spain"), La Rioja (home of Spain’s heavily exported Rioja wines), Valencia (famous for oranges), and Andalucia (the colorful region where Sherry is made).
Spain shares the Iberian Peninsula with Portugal. It is separated from France by the Pyrenees to the north and from Africa by the Strait of Gibraltar to the south. Much of Spain is comprised of elevated plateaus crisscrossed by mountain ranges and majestic, long-winding rivers. Spain is, in fact, home to Europe’s highest capital, Madrid, at 2119 feet. Because of this elevation, and despite its southerly, warm climate, many vineyards are planted at a height that slows down the ripening process and creates refreshing, flavorful wines.