The red wines of Spain are some of the best wines in the world. Spain is the third largest producer of wines with a staggering 4 million liters of wine produced annually. The climate of Spain is varies from rainy and cold to arid and desert-like. Spanish wine types range from young and fruity red wines to bold and tannic full-bodied reds that can age for decades. The red wines of Spain make up most of the wine production in the country.
There is a Spanish red wine for every palate and every price range. I’ve included famous Spanish reds like Tempranillo from the Spanish wine regions of Rioja, Toro, and Ribera del Duero but also rare Spanish grape varieties like Listan Negro from the Canary Islands. Read on to find the best Spanish red wine that delights your taste buds.
Skip to the Red Wines of Spain
Wine Geography of Spain
Spain is located in the south western part of Europe and shares the Iberian peninsula with Portugal. To the north are the Pyrenees Mountains that separate Spain from France. Unsurprisingly, southern France and Spain share many of the same varieties but have different names, ie Garnacha is Grenache, Monastrell is Mourvedre. The wine regions of the northeast are Catalonia, Aragon, Navarra, and La Rioja.
Spain has a huge coastline with the Mediterranean sea from the northeast to the southwest and enjoys the warm and arid Mediterranean climate. The wine regions along the Mediterranean coast are Catalonia, Valencia, and Andalucía.
North central to northwest Spain borders the Atlantic ocean with a much cooler maritime climate with tons of rainfall. The Spanish wine regions of this lush green area are Galicia, Castilla y Leon, and the Basque region.
The center of Spain has two wine regions Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura. This high elevation plateau has a warm continental climate, meaning hot summers and cold winters. It’s also the driest region of Spain with very little precipitation. Most of the region makes bulk wines but there a few Spanish red wines carefully made that are worth a look.
Spanish Wine Classification System
Before we get into the best Spanish red wines, we need to understand how the Spaniards rate and regulate their wines in the classification system. Classification systems are rigid and sometimes problematic but their intention is to provide a baseline to protect tradition and guarantee quality. The Spanish wine classification system has 5 levels.
Vino de Pago (VP)
The Vino de Pago category is unique in which it does not cover appellations but rather single vineyard sites. The vineyards are owned by individual wineries and must be estate wines. There are currently 20 single vineyards that have Vino de Pago status. VP has the strictest regulations.
Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa)/ Denominació d’origen Qualificada (DOQ)
The DOCa/DOQ category only has two appellations; Rioja in 1991 and Priorat in 2003. The name is slightly different since Priorat is in Catalonia and they speak Catalan, not Spanish. In order to qualify for this quality level the appellation must be a DO for at least 10 years and show superb quality standards. I suspect more appellations will join this status in the next few years.
Denominación de Origen (DO)
The Denominación de Origen (DO) category is the most common level for quality Spanish wines and has 68 appellations. The category is still strict and regulates what grapes can be used, how the wines can be made, and minimum ageing requirements in each DO.
Vino de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VC)
It’s unlikely you’ll come by many wines with a Vino de Calidad qualification level. Only 7 appellations have this status and most are waiting in this category for the minimum 5 years necessary in order to be promoted to DO status.
Vino de la Tierra (VT) or Indicación Geográfica Protegida (IGP)
This is an interesting category because you’ll find some great Spanish red wines that winemakers have purposefully declassified in order to go outside of the rules of the DO ie using different grape blends or not adhering to ageing requirements. There are 42 IGPs in Spain and pretty much are your very basic wines unless it’s from a famous producer getting creative.
Ageing Requirements for Spanish Red Wines
Now that you know the Spanish wine classification system, let’s take it a step further to understand the ageing requirements for the red wines of Spain. These are the minimum ageing requirements to include on the label. As you can imagine, the price goes up as the ageing time increases, but it’s also important to figure out what Spanish wine types you like. Personally, I like to stick around the Crianza and Reserva levels; the Goldilocks of Spanish red wine ageing!
The Red Wines of Spain by Variety
Spanish red wines are often labeled with their region and their variety unless it’s a traditional blend in which case it’ll likely just use the region.
Tempranillo Wine Grape
The best Spanish red wine is Tempranillo, sorry not sorry, but it’s true. Tempranillo is the king of the red wines of Spain. Tempranillo is grown throughout the Spain and has several different names depending on the region.
Tasting Notes for Spanish Red Wine Tempranillo
Tempranillo is a versatile Spanish red wine. It can be made into medium bodied fruit-forward wines but also bold spicy wines. The dominant fruit aromas and flavors are cherries and berries. The addition of oak, generally American oak, give Tempranillo cedar, coconut, and dill flavors as well. Tempranillo has a lot of acidity and can have high tannins which makes it a great wine with food.
Spanish Wine Regions for Tempranillo
These are the most famous and revered Spanish wine regions for Tempranillo. Of course, Tempranillo is found throughout the country but these are the best for this grape and among the best Spanish red wines.
Rioja Wine Region
The Rioja wine region is located in northcentral Spain across the regions of La Rioja, Navarre, and parts of the Basque country. It has the highest Spanish wine classification; Rioja DOCa. Rioja is divided into three sub regions; Rioja Alta, Rioja Oriental, and Rioja Alavesa.
The wines are mainly Tempranillo but Garnacha, Cariñena, and Graciano are also blended in. The wines are typically blended across the region. There’s a preference for American oak and the wines get their labeling based on the amount of time they are aged. The wines of Rioja range from light and fruity wines to full-bodied powerhouses.
Rioja Alta is the highest elevation subregion, hence the name alta meaning high. This is the coolest climate region within Rioja. This region is dominated by Tempranillo but many of the wines are blended with Garnacha as well. The wines from Rioja Alta are fruitier and lighter.
Rioja Oriental is just down the hills from Rioja Alta, was once called Rioja Baja, baja meaning low. This is the warmest sub region which can bring lots of alcohol and tannins to the blends.
Rioja Alavesa is the region in Basque country around the province of Alava. The wines produced from here are full-bodied and flavors of sour cherry.
Famous Rioja producers are Lopez de Heredia, Muga, Castillo Ygay, and Faustino.
Toro Wine Region
Toro means bull in Spanish and these wines are bullish! Toro is located in Castilla y Leon, close to the Portuguese border. Tempranillo in called Tinta de Toro- the red of Toro and is the dominant grape variety making up 98% of the wines produced. Tinta de Toro wines are full-bodied, tannic, yet very fruit forward with lots of cherry, fig, and dark berry fruits. Some of the most famous wineries are in Toro like Bodegas Elías Mora and Numanthia.
Ribera del Duero Wine Region
Smack dab in the middle of Spain is Ribera del Duero, on the Duero river. The Tempranillo wines from this area are similar in boldness to Toro wines. Like many Spanish wine regions, they have their own name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero as well, Tinto Fino. The most famous Spanish winery is located here, Vega Sicilia. Their Unico wine is generally considered the best Spanish red wine, ever. Wines from Ribera del Duero are full-bodied with firm tannins and can age for many many years.
Garnacha Wine Grape
Garnacha is the second most important quality red wine of Spain though it’s due for a revival. Over the last decade in regions like Rioja, old vines of Garnacha are being replaced with Tempranillo. It’s a shame since Garnacha is a terrific grape that’ll help the southern Mediterranean wine climates adapt to global warming and climate change. Garnacha is originally from Aragon in northeast Spain. The vine made it’s way over the Pyrenees where it is called Grenache and makes the best wines of southern France.
Spanish Garnacha is concentrated in the warmest regions along the eastern coast. To achieve ideal ripeness it needs a long warm growing season and it doesn’t need much rainfall to thrive.
Tasting Notes for Spanish Red Wine Garnacha
Spanish Garnacha is thin-skinned variety with high alcoholic potential. The wines of Garnacha tend to be low in tannins but high in primary red fruit aromas and flavors. A basic Spanish Garnacha has mellow acidity and is generally a very juicy pleasant wine to drink. Garnacha from Priorat, considered one of the best red wines of Spain, is intensely aromatic and concentrated.
Spanish Wine Regions for Garnacha
The most famous Spanish wine regions for Garnacha are Rioja and Priorat. As discussed above, in Rioja, Garnacha is blended with Tempranillo and is its perfect complement. Priorat, in Catalonia, is where Garnacha shines. Priorat, like Rioja, has the highest Spanish wine classification, DOQ (it’s the same as DOCa but in Catalonia they speak Catalan so it’s written this way). Wines from Priorat are Garnacha dominant with the addition of Cariñena though some producers use only Cariñena in their Priorat wines. Priorat has some of the lowest yielding regions which usually translates to higher concentrations of flavors. The low-yields is in part to the very old vines and the nutrient-poor soils. In the glass, Priorat wines are thick and smell like licorice, chocolate, and tar.
Monastrell/Mataro Wine Grape
The Spanish red wine grape Monastrell, or Mataro, is the same as Mourvedre. Spain is the origin of the grape, not southern France as one might assume. Wines of Monastrell are monsters! They’re full-bodied, spicy with lots of tannins and dark fruit. It was a red wine of Monastrell that got me hooked on Spanish wines years ago. They are powerful wines yet approachable. Monastrell is an important grape variety for the warm climate wine regions of Spain as it is adaptable to heat and grows well in arid conditions.
Jumilla DO is the best region for Monastrell. It’s located in south east of Spain and belongs to the Castilla- La Mancha region.
Bobal Wine Grape
Have you ever heard of Bobal? Unlikely. So you’ll be surprised to know that it’s the second-most planted Spanish red wine after Tempranillo. Bobal is native to Valencia and makes up most of the blend of Utiel-Requena DO. Bobal is mostly used, somewhat namelessly, to make bulk wines across the plateaus of the center of Spain but recently there’s been a push to make better quality Spanish wines from this grape. Wines of Bobal are juicy, clean, and dark in color.
Cariñena/Manzeulo/Samso Wine Grape
Cariñena is the grape Carignan which originated in Aragon, where there’s a Cariñena DO. Now it is mostly called Manzeulo or Samso, likely to differentiate it from the DO. Carinena is essential to the blends of Rioja and Priorat. So while it helps create the best Spanish red wines, on it’s own it’s not so great.
It’s a high productive grape that is drought resistant and easy to grow. These characteristics in a wine often mean that it’ll be used for low-quality bulk wines. Fortunately, some producers are doing their best to minimize yields and make delicious Manzeulo/Samso wines with tart cranberry, black fruits, and spices from barrel ageing.
Mencia Wine Grape
Mencia is a great value Spanish red wine. It’s only grown in western Spain and parts of Portugal. Mencia wines are aromatic, tart and fruity, and full-bodied. Even though their tannin levels can get quite high, the wines are easy to drink and great with food. Mencia wines smell like strawberries, cherries, and raspberries. On the palate it can be a little spicy with black pepper and cinnamon flavors. The best regions for Mencia are Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra.
Garnacha Tintorera Wine Grape
Garnacha Tintorera is the Spanish name for Alicante Bouschet. It is part of a unique group of red grapes created by Frenchmen Henri Bouschet called teinturier where the pulp of the grape is not clear but purply red. Generally, red wines get their color from grape skins, not the grape pulp. Garnacha Tintorera is a cross between Garnacha and Petit Bouschet.
Garnacha Tintorera grows throughout Spain but is also concentrated in Galicia and central Spain. The wines of Garnacha Tintorera are full-bodied, very fruity, and as you can imagine have very deep inky colors.
Hondarrabi Beltza Wine Grape
I know it’s a mouthfull but Hondarrabi Beltza is the most imporant red grape of Txakoli in the Basque region of Spain. Txakoli is a tiny region with a long history of winemaking. Txakoli is renowned for their white wines of sister grape Hondarrabi Zuri. This Spanish red wine grape can be a bit of a chameleon as it not only makes dry reds but is often pressed off the skins immediately to make white Txakoli wines as well. It is also used to make the rose wines of the region. The red wines are light and fruity and meant to be drank young.
Listan Negro and Listan Prieto Wine Grapes
Listan Negro and Listan Prieto are the main red varieties of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands are a group of islands off the coast of northwest Africa but belong to Spain. The Spanish grapes likely originated in the mainland in Castilla-La Mancha but no longer exist there. They may also be the original Mission grapes that the Spaniards took to the Americas.
The grapes do particularly well in the volcanic soils of Tenerife. The wines are often made using carbonic maceration to make very juicy, fruity red wines that taste of cherry, raspberries, and bubble gum. Listan Negro and Listan Prieto are also used to make the roses of the islands where they smell like bananas and flowers.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Red Wines of Spain
What is Spanish red wine called?
In Spain, wine is called vino, red wine is called vino tinto and white wine is called vino blanco. Usually the red wines of Spain are named after the region they come from but may also list the variety on the label.
What is the best wine in Spain?
Of course, there is no one best wine of Spain but the best Spanish red wines are from the regions of Rioja, Toro, Ribeira del Duero, and Priorat.
What is the best Spanish red wine in your opinion. I’d love to know!