Just as Spain has 68 wine regions, so, too, does it boast dozens of grape varieties. In fact, the Peñín Guide to Spanish Wine says that Spain has 50 native varieties, not including international grapes such as chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon.
Rather than drone on about 75+ varietals, I’ve chosen to focus on the most commonly planted native grape varieties. Most of the wines that come from these varieties are readily available outside of Spain.
White Grape Varietals
Airén is planted in more Spanish vineyards than any other native white grape. In fact, about 30% of Spanish vineyards are planted with Airén vines. Airén grapes are disease-resistant and tolerate drought well. Airén originated in La Mancha and is very heavily planted there.
A Galician grape, Albariño is the main grape variety used in Rías Baixas DO wines. This grape is called Alvarinho in Portugal, where it is used to create Vinho Verde wine. Albariño, known for its fruity aroma, is growing in popularity as Rías Baixas wines become more readily available.
Listán Blanca is grown in the Canary Islands, particularly on Tenerife. Sometimes called Listán Blanco or Palomino fino, Listán Blanca grows well in the islands’ volcanic soil.
Macabeo, also known as Viura, is heavily planted in the Rioja DO region. Macabeo is also one of the key grapes used in cava production. Because Macabeo ages well in barrels, it is well-suited for use in Rioja’s high-quality white wines.
Moscatel, or Muscat, is cultivated world-wide. In Spain, Moscatel is used in dessert wines and sherry. Four Spanish wineries, one each from Valencia, Alicante, Zaragoza and Navarra, took home silver medals in this year’s Muscats du Monde (“Muscats of the World”) competition, held in France.
Without the Palomino grape, sherry would not exist, as Palomino fino is one of the three grape varieties necessary for sherry production. Palomino grapes produce excellent fortified wines but don’t fare as well in the table wine category.
Pedro Ximénez is used in some sherries as well as in Montilla-Moriles wines and dessert wines. The grapes, known for their high sugar content, are sometimes sun-dried as part of the production process. Valencia and Málaga wines often contain Pedro Ximénez grapes.
Verdejo wines, such as those from the Rueda DO, are becoming more and more popular. This high-quality white grape is known for its fruity aromas and grassy overtones. Verdejo blends well with other varietals and is often combined with Sauvignon Blanc under the “Rueda” designation.
Xarel.lo, grown in Catalonia, is one of the essential cava grapes. Under the name Pansa Blanca, Xarel.lo is also used in Alello DO wines.
Red Grape Varietals
Bobal wines are famous for their rich color. While Bobal grapes consistently produce good-quality rosé wines, reds made from Bobal grapes are usually low in alcohol and can also be uneven in quality.
Cariñena, known as Mazuelo in the Rioja DO, is grown in Catalonia and Aragón. Several other DO’s, including Tarragona and Penedés, use Cariñena grapes in their wines. Cariñena is the third most widely-planted grape variety in Spain. Wines made from Cariñena grapes age well.
Garnacha is grown throughout Spain because it yields well and produces high-quality wines. Garnacha, known as Grenache in France and Cannonau in Sardinia, is popular around the world. Garnacha is used in many Spanish DO’s, and it is planted in Rioja, Tarragona, Zaragoza, Madrid, and many other parts of Spain. Garnacha Tintorera, or Alicante, is a different, probably hybrid, grape.
Listán Negra (or Negro) is the Canary Islands’ red Listán. This variety produces good young reds with low alcohol content. The wine industry in the Canaries is not yet well-developed, so distribution of Listán Negra wines is limited.
Grown in northwestern Spain, Mencía grapes are known for fruity bouquets and produce well-regarded, young reds. Recently, Galician wineries have been limiting yields and trying new aging procedures to improve the quality of Mencía wines, with good results.
Monastrell grapes, grown in southeastern Spain’s Alicante, Jumilla and Yecla DO’s, are sweet grapes originally used in dessert wines. Wineries in Jumilla and Yecla have rediscovered this high-yielding, fruity grape. Today, Monastrell grapes are used in several DO wines, including Almansa, Penedés, Valencia and the regions previously mentioned.
Considered Spain’s most noble grape, Tempranillo is widely planted throughout Spain. This grape bears several names, including Tinto Fino or Tinto del País (Ribera del Duero), Cencibel (La Mancha) and Ull de Llebre (Catalonia). Spain’s “star” grape ages well and produces fruity, excellent-quality wines. Many of Spain’s famous Rioja reds feature Tempranillo grapes.
Tinta de Toro
Debate continues over Tinta de Toro’s origins. Many believe this grape is a variety of Tempranillo that has adapted to the climate and terroir of the Zamora region, where it is heavily planted. As its name suggests, Tinta de Toro is the main grape used in Toro DO wines.
Start Your Tasting Adventure
As you discover Spanish wines, you’ll find they’re as fascinating and diverse as Spain itself. Spain’s climate, culture and terroir combine to create some of Europe’s tastiest foods and most important wines.