Spanish wine laws created the Denominación de Origen (DO) system in 1932 and were later revised in 1970. The system shares many similarities with the hierarchical Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system of France, Portugal’s Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) and Italy’s Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) system.
As of 2009, there were 79 Quality Wine areas across Spain. In addition there is Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa or DOQ in Catalan) status for DOs that have a consistent track record for quality. There are currently two DOCa/DOQ regions: Rioja and Priorat. Each DO has a Consejo Regulador, which acts as a governing control body that enforces the DO regulations and standards involving viticultural and winemaking practices. These regulations govern everything from the types of grapes that are permitted to be planted, the maximum yields that can be harvested, the minimum length of time that the wine must be aged and what type of information is required to appear on the wine label. Wineries that are seeking to have their wine sold under DO or DOC status must submit their wines to the Consejo Regulador laboratory and tasting panel for testing and evaluation. Wines that have been granted DO/DOC status will feature the regional stamp of the Consejo Regulador on the label.
Following Spain’s acceptance into the European Union, Spanish wine laws were brought in line to be more consistent with other European systems. One development was a five-tier classification system that is administered by each autonomous region. Non-autonomous areas or wine regions whose boundaries overlap with other autonomous communities (such as Cava, Rioja and Jumilla) are administered by the Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen (INDO) based in Madrid. The five-tier classifications, starting from the bottom, include:
- Vino de Mesa (VdM) – These are wines that are the equivalent of most country’s table wines and are made from unclassified vineyards or grapes that have been declassified through “illegal” blending. Similar to the Italian Super Tuscans from the late 20th century, some Spanish winemakers will intentionally declassify their wines so that they have greater flexibility in blending and winemaking methods.
- Vinos de la Tierra (VdlT) – This level is similar to France’s vin de pays system, normally corresponding to the larger comunidad autonóma geographical regions and will appear on the label with these broader geographical designations like Andalucia, Castilla La Mancha and Levante.
- Vino de Calidad Producido en Región Determinada (VCPRD) – This level is similar to France’s Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) system and is considered a stepping stone towards DO status.
- Denominación de Origen (Denominació d’Origen in Catalan – DO)– This level is for the mainstream quality-wine regions which are regulated by the Consejo Regulador who is also responsible for marketing the wines of that DO. In 2005, nearly two thirds of the total vineyard area in Spain was within the boundaries a DO region.
- Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa/DOQ – Denominació d’Origen Qualificada in Catalan)– This designation, which is similar to Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation, is for regions with a track record of consistent quality and is meant to be a step above DO level. Rioja was the first region afforded this designation in 1991 and was followed by Priorat in 2003. In 2008 Ribera del Duero was approved to receive DOCa classification, but acquiring the status was never pursued and Ribera del Duero remains a DO today.
- Vino de Pago Additionally there is the Denominación de Pago (DO de Pago) designation for individual single-estates with an international reputation. As of 2013, there were 15 estates with this status.
Spanish labeling laws
Spanish wines are often labeled according to the amount of aging the wine has received. When the label says vino joven (“young wine“) or sin crianza, the wines will have undergone very little, if any, wood aging.
Depending on the producer, some of these wines will be meant to be consumed very young – often within a year of their release. Others will benefit from some time aging in the bottle. For the vintage year (vendimia or cosecha) to appear on the label, a minimum of 85% of the grapes must be from that year’s harvest.
The three most common aging designations on Spanish wine labels are Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
- Crianza red wines are aged for 2 years with at least 6 months in oak. Crianza whites and rosés must be aged for at least 1 year with at least 6 months in oak.
- Reserva red wines are aged for at least 3 years with at least 1 year in oak. Reserva whites and rosés must be aged for at least 2 years with at least 6 months in oak.
- Gran Reserva wines typically appear in above average vintages with the red wines requiring at least 5 years aging, 18 months of which in oak and a minimum of 36 months in the bottle. Gran Reserva whites and rosés must be aged for at least 4 years with at least 6 months in oak.
Spain’s Focus on Oak Aging
Despite the changes, the focus upon time in oak, learned from the Bordelais and habituated in the twentieth century, remains enshrined in Spanish wine law. Compared to other countries’ rules, this concentration on oak aging has sometimes overshadowed other critical factors such as the contribution of the site and vineyard.
The terms meant to connote quality, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva, really offer only a guarantee of time in barrel. Theoretically, Reservas and Gran Reservas are also better wines because they have been chosen for extended aging. But they are not necessarily richer or more powerful wines. Indeed, they may be less powerful wines precisely because they have been aged a longer time in barrel.
How long? It depends. Rioja and Ribera del Duero, viewed as top, traditional areas, require that Crianza wines be aged a minimum of two years, of which one year must be in barrel. Navarra, with its hopeful pretensions of comparable quality, asks the same of its Crianzas. The rest of Spain requires two years aging with a minimum of six months in oak. In Rioja Reserva wines must be aged a minimum of three years, with one year of that time in barrel. Gran Reserva wines must be five years old before release, and two years in barrel is the minimum, a standard often exceeded by traditional producers. The rest of the country has shortened the minimum barrel time to 18 months.
The Reservas and Gran Reservas of Spain represent some of the greatest values in the wine world; no other regions offer similarly aged wines at these prices. Their competitors at the top of the wine chain, 10-year-old or even 15-year-old wines from Napa Valley or Bordeaux, are prohibitively expensive, whether purchased from the wineries, châteaux, or auction houses.
Even today, a visit to the storied bodegas of Rioja may result in an extended tour of barrels and bottles. The visitor is supposed to understand from this wealth of glass and oak that the bodega is genuinely committed to aging its wines for as long as it takes for them to become smooth and supple. That philosophy speaks to the soul of traditional Spanish winemaking. The idea is to sell a wine when it is ready to drink—a rarity in the world’s wine market.