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  • Writer's pictureClaire @ fromthegrapevine

Viva el vino! Wines of Spain and Portugal

Graphic of Spanish and portuguese wines

On a sunny May day, a group pf tasters gathered in the community centre at Christ Church in Old Town for a tasting of Spanish and Portuguese wines. As there are so many varied wines across the Iberian Peninsula, we tried a new format of tasting - by offering a full set of white wines (and sherry) and a full set of red wines (and port) in separate sessions. Guests could book onto either, or both sessions.

Spain and Portugal are quite different in their climates, as much of Portugal is affected by the maritime influence of the Atlantic Ocean. It does become hotter and drier inland, but many of the vineyards feel the affects of high rainfall and humidity. Spain has differing regions in terms of climates. Whilst the Northwest area of Rias Baixas in Galicia has a similar battering from the Atlantic, the inland vineyards have a drier continental climate, bringing baking hot summer days, cold nights and harsh freezing winters. If the vines can withstand the winter conditions, the grapes will benefit from the differences in temperatures during the summer by being able to maintain their acidity from the cool nights, but also fully develop the ripe fruit flavours from the heat of the day.

We started with the white wines, and what better way to start a tasting than with a sparkling number.

Bottle of Freixenet Ice cava

Wine One - Freixenet ice cava (Morrisons, Asda, Tesco £10 - £12)

Cava means "cave" in Spanish, and unlike Champagne, Asti and Prosecco, it's production isn't limited to a geographical area of Spain. There are pockets of Cava production in many parts of Spain, but a great deal of it (95%) is in the Penedes region near the north east coastline.

Also unlike champagne, there isn't a set rule about which grape varieties can be used for Cava production. This example uses local grape varieties including Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel. There was a controversy in recent years when some producers decided to stick with the traditional Champagne recipe of chardonnay and pinot noir, arguing that those grapes give it a high quality taste (and ageability). However, others argue that Cava should simply reflect its local heritage, and stick with local grapes.

One thing that is not negotiable in the production of Cava is that it must be made by the traditional (champagne) method of production (the second fermentation in the bottle, not a tank). This is labour intensive, and adds to the price, but you'll find Cava much more reasonably priced than Champagne. This is purely down to brand snobbery, market forces and marketing.

This is a delicious 'semi seco' cava - meaning it is slightly sweeter and richer to balance the chill of ice so that the taste of the wine is not diluted. The cava had fine and creamy bubbles, with peach and ripe pear flavours, flower notes and hints of tropical fruits. We tried it with ice and strawberries (as recommended by the producer) but felt it was quaffable enough on its own.

Viñas del rey albariño

Wine two - Vinas del rey albariño. Tesco £8.

We headed to Spain's North West coast for our next wine. Cultivating Albariño Grapes in Spain's rainy Rias Baixasrequires dedication and patience. The wet, cool climate puts the vines at risk of fungal diseases, but fortunately the albariño grape is thick skinned so better able to resist disease, and the vines are trained on horizontal pergolas to maximise sunlight and let the air circulate better to reduce the risk of disease.

The grape is also highly in fashion currently. With its refreshing, crisp taste, it is great with seafood, so we tried it with some prawns. The winemaker can make Albariño richer by fermenting the wine in oak, or ageing slightly on the lees (dead yeast cells), but this one has neither and remains fresh.

The grapes are hand harvested (to maintain the grape's integrity), resulting in an elegant wine, with aromas of apricot, honeysuckle and notes of fresh grapefruit and mandarin.

Bottle of Alvarinho

Wine three - Casal de Ventozela Alvarihno (Majestic wine, £11.99)

The third wine was poured before the tasters had finished the Spanish albariño as this was the same grape, but vinified further south in Portugal. Grown in the Vinho Verderegion, which is also wet and humid (even more so than Rias Baixas) so the Portuguese have moved away from the pergolas to use spur pruned vertical shoot positioning. This creates air flow and also allows for mechanism at harvest time rather than hand picking the grapes.

Most wines in the Vinho Verde region are a pale lemon coloured fresh acidic wine with low alcohol (look out for "vinho verde" on the label) but the alvarihno was higher alcohol and came with a more golden colour and riper fruit flavours of citrus and apple.

Complexity and depth are added by ageing in oak barrels and time spent on its lees (the dead yeast cells). Like the Spanish counterpart, this is great with any seafood especially if cooked with a touch of chilli.

Wine four - Arnegui White rioja (Waitrose, £7.99)

Bottle of white rioja

For the next wine we travel to the Rioja region of Spain. I made the decision not to put any red Rioja wines in the tasting, as there is such diversity it becomes impossible to choose which red Rioja to use. However, people are generally less aware that a small amount of wines from Rioja are white. This example is made from 100% Viura grapes. The grape variety is also known as Macabeo in much of its homeland Spain, and is also commonly found in Cava.

The region of Rioja is inland, and therefore has a continental climate whereby the summer days can be scorching, and the nights cooler, with harsh winters. There is elevation in the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains, plus the river Ebro winds through the region, providing some important regulation of temperature to the vines. A diverse range of wine styles come out of Rioja from young zesty whites, to oaky, smoky aged reds. For the red wines here it is a Tempranillo grape heartland.

This wine from Waitrose is a fresh and vibrant unoaked white Rioja with a delicately expressive peachy palate. Very versatile. Our tasters were impressed, and found it to be good value for money.

Bottle of Jordi Mio garnacha blanca

Wine five - Jordi Miro Garnacha Blanca (M&S, £10)

Travelling back to the North East corner around Barcelona, the next wine was from Terra Alta. Terra Alta means "High Land" in Spanish, giving an indication that the region contains high mountains that tower at 950m above sea level. The vineyards are found on the lower slopes and plateaus and valleys. The "El Mestral" wind blows up from the river Ebro, keeping humidity low and reducing the risk of disease. It's a fairly remote area and used to produce wines for local consumption, but has more recently started to gain recognition further afield.

Grapes grown in the region include Garnacha blanca, Parellada, Macabeo, Moscatel, Chardonnay, and experimentally, Chenin blanc and Sauvignon blanc. For the red wines, the popular grapes are Carignan, Grenache, Garnacha Peluda, Morenillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo.

This wine from Marks and Spencer's is 85% garnacha blanca with a dash of viura. The guests enjoyed this crisp, rounded and fruity white wine with flavours of citrus, mango and spice. A surprise hit.

Wine six - Fino Sherry

Bottle of Fino sherry

Spain's "Sherry triangle" is an area in the province of Cádiz in southwestern Spain. The cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María are at the vertices of the triangle. This is Andalucía territory; heartland of flamenco, bullfighting and scorching hot temperatures. To be called "sherry", the drink has to be made within the triangle.

Like Rioja reds mentioned earlier, it is perhaps difficult and unfair to try and pick a sherry to represent all sherry. I chose Fino sherry as an example of this area; it is the drink of choice of the Spaniards as they head out for an aperitif before dinner or an accompaniment to tapas. Fino sherry is made from Palomino grapes grown in Jerez.

I warned that this would probably be the marmite drink of the afternoon - people either hate the dry taste of fino (having been used to sweeter styles) or they love it. The Waitrose blue label range aims to demonstrate the best example of the style and they describe this as "dry, light and refreshing sherry, with flavours of apple, almonds and just baked bread."

Half of our tasters hated it and poured it away. The other half managed to drink it, but said they wouldn't hurry out to buy a bottle. One guest commented that it grew on her the more she drank.

Votes for the whites

The guests were invited to nominate their favourite wine of the session, and there was no clear winner. The votes were spread as follows:

1st place:

  • Jordi Mio Garnacha Blanc

Joint 2nd place

  • Albariño

  • Alvarinho

  • White Rioja


Red Wines

Bottle of Ramos Reserva

Wine 1 - Ramos Reserva (Majestic, £8.99)

To kick off our red wine selection, we started in the Alentejo region; a large portion of Portugal to the east of Lisbon. The territory takes up over a third of the country and is a sparsely populated area known for its cork production. The wider region is labelled as AlentejanoVR on the bottle - this is the equivalent of a French "Vin de pays" classification, but nonetheless, this is a decent enough wine.

From producer Jao Portugal Ramos, he started growing vines in 1990 and was one of the few wineries to tread the grapes by foot. Local grapes trincadiera and aragonez make up this robust ruby red wine, with dense aromas of red berries and pudding spice. It was quite light, and a Portuguese guest felt that this was a good representation of the young fresh wines of her homeland.

Wine 2 - Duoro (Morrisons, £8)

Staying in Portugal the next wine was from the Duoro region, a wild mountainous and rugged territory that surrounds the river of the same name.

At the mouth of the river lies Porto, the rainy town famous for port production, but further inland, the steep slopes are home to the grapevines. It's hotter inland and gets increasingly desert-like as the land crosses the border with Spain. The vineyards are planted on terraces divided by dry stone walls on poor soil (vines can do better when the soil is more challenging - read more in my earlier blog) and the area was named a UNESCO world heritage site.

One sip took our Portuguese guest on a nostalgic trip back to her home. The local grape varieties are blended into the Douro wines; tinta roriz, touriga franca, touriga nacional, tinta barroca and tinto cão.

This wine was a popular choice with our guests - rich and fruity with plum and black cherry flavours and a hint of spice.

Wine three - Conde de San Cristobal (Majestic, £16.99)

Over the border into Spain, the river Duoro is known as the Duero. Ribera del Duerois a wine region surrounding the river inland, half way between Madrid and the north coast. The region was named 'wine region of the year' in 2012 by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

The area is generally flat and rocky with vineyards occupying 120 square kilometres. Without coastal cooling breezes, the region gets roasting hot summers and freezing winters. The grapes don't mind at all. This is tempranillo land, the grape most dominant in rioja. Producing almost exclusively red wines, you sometimes find tempranillo blended with cabernet sauvignon, malbec or merlot.

The Conde de San Cristobal combine native and international grape varieties, in the modern signature style of Ribera del Duero. It was praised by Michelle Obama when served at a lunch with the Cuban president. Described as a rich, generous yet elegant wine, displaying intense flavours of ripe blackcurrant and summer fruits, accented with hints of exotic spice. Plush and silky.

Our guests weren't blown away for the price - this was the most expensive of the reds.

Wine four - Frares Priorat (£13.50, M&S)

Staying in Spain, we moved to the North East corner where we tried a wine from Priorat. Along with Rioja, Priorat is only one of two Spanish regions with DOCa status (or DOQ in Catalan). This basically means the wines bearing this classification are awarded the highest wine status in Spain.

What makes Priorat different is its mineral rich black slate soils known as Licorella, which reflect the heat. The vines are planted on the steep terraces of the craggy hills, and this combination of low-yielding vines, soil and oak ageing produces wines of real depth and complexity.

Because of the elevated quality and low yields, Priorat wines can be expensive. This example from M&S is a 50/50 blend of garnacha and carignan, and reasonably priced for its quality.

Wine five - Papa Luna (Majestic, £9.99)

300km west of Priorat is the region of Calatayud where wines are made form old, low yielding vines.

They are made in the Cotes du Rhone style of blending grenache (garnacha), syrah and mourvedre (monastrell).

The river Jalon weaves through the region, which is mountainous with rolling hills. It is generally parched, and well known for growing almonds, cherries and olives as well as grapes. A combination of the elevation and regulating effect of the river means that the grapes enjoy the sunshine of the hot summers whilst remaining cool enough to maintain acidity and balance.

Majestic describe this wine as "lifted aromas of raspberry and black cherry are enhanced on the palate by complex notes of pepper, herbs and vanilla. Drink this wine with fairly full dishes, such as coq au vin or barbecued dark meat."

This was the most full bodied of the red wines, but the tasters were still looking back fondly to the Duoro.

Wine six - Waitrose tawny port

To round off the evening and complement the stilton on the cheese board, we brought out the port. Port is made elsewhere, but can only be called Port in Portugal under EU law. In the USA, they stick two fingers up to EU law and call it port.

But back to Portugal, the grapes are grown in the Duoro valley and made into a base wine. A neutral grape spirit is added to stop the fermentation whilst there is still residual sugar left in the wine, whilst boosting the alcohol content.

Waitrose Blueprint wines are crafted to reflect the world's classic regions and styles. Velvety smooth, this has notes of raisins, nuts and caramel. Made by the revered Symington family, this is a benchmark tawny port. The difference between tawny port and ruby port is found in the amount of time both has spent aging in casks prior to blending and bottling.

Bottle of tawny port

Ruby Port is younger, has spent less time in the cask, perhaps only a few years, and has retained more of its natural color, and sweet, fruity characteristics from the grapes. As a result, its colors are more of a deep, ruby color. Tawny Port has aged longer in the cask, and as it matures and combines with oxygen, more of its color fades to a brownish, tawny color. In addition, its flavors are less sweet, have have deeper, more complex, nutty characteristics.

Votes for the reds

The guests were invited to nominate their favourite wine of the session, and there was one clear winner. The votes were spread as follows:

1st place:


Close 2nd place

Tawny Port

Joint 3rd place - Priorat and Ribera del Duero



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