Understanding Spanish Wine Labels

(Originally published December 2001)

Admittedly, Hanes has of late slammed his formerly most beloved Spanish wines as not offering the fantastic value they once did. Yet, Hanes has noticed that of late he has begun slowly to drink more of them. This may not necessarily be due as much to their prices going down as it is to the prices of value wines from other regions around the world going up, for better or worse leveling the playing field. So, as more Spanish juice graces Hanes's gullet, it seems beneficial to his readers to continue his ongoing world label tour and say a few words on how to unravel the mysteries of Spanish wine labels.

Spanish wine labels are notorious to Hanes for doing everything within their power to hide the winery's actual name. As with so many other European producers, they seem so shy! They hide the identity of the producer with the utmost of humility. So, don't automatically trust that the largest letters represent the winery's name. More likely, they represent the wine's regional designation or the "blend name." For example, there is one wine that says in big letters "Prado Rey." If you are light on the lingo, you'd assume this is the producer's name. Only in tiny letters at the bottom does it say "Bodegas Real Sitio de Ventosilla," which is the producer's real name. "Prado Rey" means something like "king's meadow" and is the wine's "brand name" or some such. Any wine store worker who tries to look up Prado Rey in the industry wine guide will find a whole lot of nothing. Same situation with the increasingly popular cheapie wines that say "Borsao" on them. Borsao is not the producer, Agricola de Borja is. Locate that information on the label if you can! If you find a Spanish wine you like, and want to buy it again, chances are you will have to do a good bit of searching to find the information you need before you go asking for it at a wine store.

To start with the information you need, we must first focus on the words that tip you off to the actual winery name. These words can either be the literal Spanish equivalent of an English word like "winery" or "cellar" or be certain honorifics that denote some fancy-schmancy status. A short list of them are:

Bodegas - means a cellar, a winemaking company/winery or a wine shop (this is probably the most common word to let you know it's the winery's name, e.g., Bodegas Muga)
Agricola - farm, farming, means something like farming operation
Cooperativa - cooperative
Finca - farm, farmhouse
Cava(s) - an underground cellar, cave, excavated place
Casa - house, home
Hacienda - ranch
Viña - vineyard
Vinícola - wine company
Vega - fertile valley
Pago - an individual or single vineyard
Campo - field, land
Dehesa - pasture, grassland
Castillo - castle
Adega - another word for Bodega, especially in Galicia

And some honorifics and such that sometimes appear in names...

Marqués - marquis
Barón - baron
Cosecheros - harvesters
Hermanos - brothers
Herencia - inheritance, heritage
Nuestra/o - our, as in our lady/dude of...

A further clue as to the winery's name is that it may be preceded by the words "Elaborado y Embotellado" or "Embotellat." These mean "Estate Grown and Bottled" and "Bottled." Increasingly these words are appearing in English on Spanish wines exported to the American market.

Also, there are usually some abbreviations that either precede or follow the winery's proper name. Hanes last took Spanish in high school and what research he could muster when not drunk did not secure the full words represented by these abbreviations nor their meanings. Nevertheless, these abbreviations are major clues even if they remain for now empty signifiers (cf. Derrida). They are VC, SL and the most ubiquitous, S.A. Hanes can make the educated guess that VC means "Vinícola" and that S.A. probably means something like "Sociedad Agricola," that is, agricultural society. Close enough!

After you've figured out just who made this fine bottle of wine, there are some other things the label can tell you about what's sloshing around your mouth, throat, stomach or the shoes of the person next to you. Basically, this information is (a) what type of wine is it; (b) what level of quality is it; and (c) what grape(s) is it made from. If you need to know anything more than this, you gotta ask Ricardo Montalban or some other wine expert...

The basic categories of wine in Spain are the same as anywhere else. Just the words are in Spanish. So, red wines are called tinto. White wines are called blanco. Rosé wines are called rosado. The sparkling wines made by the same method as Champagne are called Cava. It's just as simple as that. Your eyes didn't lie when you saw what was in your glass.

As for the quality level of the wines, here's the deal. First, there is the classification system that sets regional rules and standards called Denominación de Origen (DO). The wine region/zone name (such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Priorat) will appear with this DO designation so once you see the "DO" next to the words that tell you the region, don't confuse the region for the winery. This designation pretty much means the wine has been overseen by quality control inspectators from start to finish. For what it is worth, there is a higher designation called Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) but so far only Rioja has tried to achieve it. And they did. Three cheers for Rioja!

The DOs have set basic standards for the quality level of wines. These more or less run in parallel with the aging of the wine, the longer the purported better. Aging means a lot to Spanish winemaking. To be aged in Spanish is to be "añejo." The vintage year is designated with the words "cosecha" (or harvested, vintage year) or "vendimia" (or vintage year, date of harvest). These people are very serious about the year a grape is harvested.

The most basic quality level for red wine is called Vino de Mesa. This wine is so simple and cheap that Hanes doesn't even think -- given current currency exchange rates -- that much of this gets exported. Instead, it serves as local everyday wine in Spain. The next step up is "joven" or young wine. This type of wine is basically aged for about a year after harvesting and then foisted on the masses. Most of the really inexpensive Spanish wine you drink is joven. Light, simple, fruity, made for immediate quaffing or maybe even that sangria bowl of yours.

After joven, we have "crianza" wines. These wines must be aged for two years prior to release, with a minimum of six months in oak cask. Crianza means upbringing or raising. Thus, the aging process of wine is like teaching little Johnny reading and 'rithmatic. Spanish winemakers luv thems some oak casks so many of these wines see more than the minimum six months in cask required.

A big qualitative leap is made up to the next level, "reserva" wines. These must be aged for three years prior to release, with a minimum of one year sucking up the oak and one year in bottle. That leaves one year of aging to the winemaker's discretion, to do it in oak cask, stainless steel or concrete tank, bottle or whatever. This is where the genius of winemaking comes in!

Now, "gran reserva" wines are the mack daddies of Spanish wines. These must be aged for five years prior to release, with a minimum of two years in oak cask and three in bottle. The best grapes go into a winery's gran reserva and so they deserve and get the best aging schedule possible. Gran reservas are not made every year but only if the vintage is a good one or better.

Hanes should note that these aging guidelines are minimums, that is, for example, a reserva wine does not *have* to be released after three years but can be kept in the winery cellar indefinitely and released whenever they damn well feel like it. We shall serve no wine before its time...

Oh, yeah, white and rosé wines! These are only required to spend six months in oak, if that. They can pretty much be released whenever. Although many times tasty, it seems these wines don't get no respect. But Hanes sometimes likes them. And that's enough.

Just in case his kind and gentle readers might get confused by their names, Hanes will now mention the main grape varietals of Spain. These are not wineries, nor regions, nor aging levels. These are grapes. Please do not confuse these. Note that the following is not exhaustive.

Grapes that make red wine:

Tempranillo - the main grape of Spain, also goes by a 101 other local names throughout Spain including Tinto del País, Tinto de Toro, Tinto Fino, Cencibel, and Ull de Llebre (and known in Portugal as Tinto Roriz)
Garnacha - known elsewhere in the world as Grenache
Monastrell - known elsewhere in the world as Mourvèdre or Mataro
Cariñena - also called Mazuelo in parts of Spain and known elsewhere in the world as Carignan

Grapes that make white wine:

Albariño - known in Portugal as Alvarinho
Viura - also called Macabeo in parts of Spain
Xarel-lo - also called Pansà Blanca in parts of Spain
Garnacha Blanca

Grapes used to make dessert wines and/or sherry:

Moscatel - known elsewhere in the world as Muscat
Palomino - also called Listán in parts of Spain
Pedro Ximénez

Note that other, non-indigenous, grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc. usually go by their original names when grown in Spain and are not translated into Spanish.

In concluding his discussion of the wine labels of Spanish wines, Hanes would like to share his fascination with the back labels. They are fun! Not only will you learn that wines contain sulfites, you will get to see neat things like the "garantia d'origen" bottle number (each bottle is numbered individually). This guarantee number is usually on a small band that also notes once more the DO name (Tarragona, Somontano, Navarra, etc.) -- this is another way of making sure you do not confuse the region name with the winery name. Hanes is also a sucker for those cute little maps of Spain that sometimes grace the rear label, showing you where in Spain your wine comes from. It just makes you feel like you were there!