SPAIN is a big country, we all know that.
At over 500,000 km2 it’s over twice the size of a country like Great Britain but with about 20 million fewer people. With big chunks of the population concentrated on the coast, that means the Spanish interior is full of wide open spaces and not that many people.
There’s also a lot of vines.
In pure numbers, it’s got more hectares of vine planted than any other country in the world – close to 1 million hectares at the last count. That means Spain is one the world’s big wine-producing countries; every year it can churn out about 44 million hectoliters of wine, which is about 6,000 million bottles to you and me.
So all those stats are interesting, but what is it about Spanish wine that makes it special?
Well for us here at Simply Spanish Wine, one of the key things that makes Spain so different is diversity.
First of all there is diversity of landscape. Remember, Spain is a very high country. With an average altitude of 600 metres above sea level it’s the second highest country in Europe just behind Switzerland. That means you can find grapes growing in all sorts of different places: from way up high at above 1,500 metres in the Canary Islands, to right down by the seashore in Galicia.
With climate change forces up average temperatures pretty much everywhere, for winemakers being able to grow grapes at altitude is a good thing. As the temperature drops the higher up you go, planting grapes at higher altitude helps ensure the grapes have longer to ripen which helps make for fresher, more balanced wines.
These changes in altitude mean Spanish vineyards can also have really diverse climates, from the wet, damp North-West, where fighting off diseases like mildew and getting grapes to ripen properly can be a challenge, down to the hot, dry South-East where as we all know temperatures can reach over 40ºC in the summer months. All those different climates have a real impact on how grapes are grown and wine is made and ensures Spain has a fascinating range of different wine styles which few other countries can match.
Another thing the Spanish wine scene has really got going for it is its people.
We’ve spent many years driving round Spanish meeting winemakers from all over, and we’ve always been struck by what a diverse bunch they all are. Lots of them are surprisingly young.
There’s a big demographic change going on, as the next generation takes over vineyards and bodegas from their parents, or sometimes even their grandparents.
In lots of cases, this a conscious career choice – we’ve met lots of young Spanish winemakers in their thirties, for example, who faced with a choice between city life or going back to their family’s more rural roots, chose the latter to pursue their winemaking dream.
There are also lots more women winemakers on the Spanish wine scene now than there used to be. Sometimes they are carrying on the family tradition managing famous, well- established wineries, like Maria José López de Heredia at Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia in Rioja, while others like Paola Medina Sheldón at the Williams & Humbert sherry house in Jerez de la Frontera oversee the winemaking process on a daily basis.
Between them, these new winemakers are shaking up the Spanish wine scene. They might be recovering ancient vineyards plots, rediscovering native grape varieties, or experimenting in the bodega, reworking traditional practices like whole bunch fermentation – stalks and all – to get fresher, more complex wines, ageing their wines in concrete eggs or clay amphorae instead of wooden barrels, or focusing on organic or biodynamic winemaking.
Wherever you are, there’s a huge amount going on and loads to discover. If you’re a fan of wine, you’re living in the right country!