Spanish Wine: A Brief History

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 05-03-2012

Dare I refer to Spain as an up-and-coming wine region?

Spain has been around for a long, long time. It is believed that wines have been cultivated on now-Spanish lands for nearly 6,000 years. The Spanish wine industry is solid and well-established, no question. But today, most people associate Spain with its fruity, easy-drinking, cheap wines.

Believe it or not, Spain puts some serious stuff put into bottles — and the potential of the nation’s wine industry is still enormous.

The evolution of Spanish wine has certainly hit some snags since the ancient vines of 4000 BC. The Phoenician settling of Cádiz in 1100 BC was the first international boon, legitimizing Spanish wine as a viable export asset. During Spain’s time as a Carthaginian state, the wine industry grew, thanks in part to the writing of their own Mago, who penned a 28 book-long agricultural manual.

Following the Punic Wars, where Rome successfully conquered the Carthage empire, Spanish wine was traded throughout the new Mediterranean empire, with the wines from Tarragoña and Andalucía leading the way. Though quality was questionable, more Spanish wine was making its way to the rest of present-day Europe.

In 700 BC, the Moors took power of Spain. As followers of Mohammed, the Moors’ theology forbade alcohol, so the industry paused.

Fast forward to 1492, when Reconquista was completed and the Christians “recaptured” the Iberian Peninsula, and Spanish winemakers once again became excited to export their wines. The market rejuvenated, with production throughout the Peninsula expanding.

Around the same time,  Ferdinand and Isabella financed Christopher Columbus’s trip to the New World, which further expanded the market for Spanish wines. The most popular wine from Spain at the time was undoubtedly Sherry.

In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan, known to be a Sherry lover, spent more money on Sherry than he did on weapons for his round-the-world voyage.

And the new markets he opened proved to become a necessity for Spain. For one thing, political relations with England, Spain’s main trading partner, fell to pieces after the divorce of King Ferdinand’s daughter from Henry VIII.

Further, Spain’s own Inquisition forced many in the wine industry to be killed or to flea in fear. With such tensions arising, and markets withering, Spain forced its colonies to stop making their own wines, and to buy wines solely from the motherland. Colonial vines were ordered destroyed, impeding industry growth in the New World, in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

The next couple of centuries were relatively smooth for the Spanish wine industry. The supply of Sherry could not keep up with demand. This led to a few British seizings of Cádiz, the last being unsuccessful. After an assurance that Sherry could be acquired via wonted trade lines, southern Spain saw an influx of Britons. Their allegiance assured Sherry would make it to Britain.

Surprisingly, though, the biggest windfall to Spain’s winemaking culture was Phylloxera.

How could this root-sucking insect create such fortune?

Luckily for Spain, it infected the vines of France first. In the 1850s while massive replanting was taking place in esteemed locations like Bordeaux and Burgundy, experienced winemakers fled to nearby regions in northern Spain like Rioja, Navarra, and Ribera del Duero. They brought with them knowledge and technological advances such as their own varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), the 225 liter French barrique, and yield-reducing vineyard techniques, all to improve the final product.

Spain was not so lucky to avoid Phylloxera. This was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the industry. With all its newfound knowledge from France — and having witnessed French winemakers go through the same tribulations — the Phylloxera period around 1900 was one of well-thought improvements to the vines. Spain, however, was not immediately able to run with its assets.


Francisco Franco

Francisco Franco
The 1900s saw much political upheaval and worldwide unrest.

In 1923, citing an antiquated economy and a frustrated working class, Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a successful military coup upon the parliamentary rule of Spain. With wine, De Rivera was steeped in good intentions — he laid initial groundwork for what is now the D.O. system, Spain’s appellation tiers akin the AOC system in France.

But not everyone saw eye-to-eye with de Rivera, fueling a leftist revolution and the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939. Throughout Spain’s internal war, World War II, and the subsequent rule of Francisco Franco, vines were neglected, bombed, and uprooted.

While suppressing economic, personal, and religious freedoms, along with just being a general jerk, Franco’s belief was that wine should only be used for sacramental purposes, making white wine obsolete. So he ordered the removal of many vines across Spain’s top white-producing regions, like Viura in Rueda.

One of the few advances made during Franco’s tyrannical rule was the establishment of the Denominación de Origin system in 1970. These quality markers gave the international market a sense of quality assurance — consumers would know what to look for when they reached for Spanish bottles. This was a necessity for international consumers, as Spain was overrun with bulk wines, most of which were earmarked with meaningless names like Chablis and Sauternes.

The fall of Franco in 1975 — just 37 years ago — opened trade in Spain and abroad. Citizens could once again celebrate their backgrounds and enjoy wine. Winemakers could focus on quality, making the wine they knew the world wanted. And, perhaps most importantly, Playboy was allowed inside Spain’s borders.

Spaniards were happy. They were no longer ruled by Theoconservative National-Catholic Francoism. The importance of one’s own religion declined. Political feuds became more common than religious battles. Immigration and general tolerance led to a more diverse population. Spain was finally a democratic state.

It certainly has not been easy, but since its transition to democracy, the Spanish wine industry has been on an upward tear. A solid foundation in tradition and modern advancements has made Spain a force in both easy-drinking wines, and wines that command serious thought, regard, and prices.

I see great wines from the classic regions (Rioja, Priorat and Ribiera del Duero) as well as up-and-comers (Montsant, Calatayud and Toro) from young, motivated winemakers. We may be watching this industry in its infancy.

Will it rise to equal the prestige of Bordeaux, Napa Valley, or Burgundy?  Maybe not in our lifetime, but a tip of the hat and an open palate is in order for now.

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