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The history of Spanish wine

In partnership with ARAEX Grands

Ever considered the origins of Spanish winemaking? Learn about the history of this region...

In partnership with ARAEX Grands

Spanish wine history

As is the case with the many countries that ring the Mediterranean Sea, winemaking initially arrived to Spain with the Phoenicians around 1,000 BCE, but took hold more seriously with the Romans. Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century CE made special note of the wines coming from around Tarraco, modern day Tarragona in the Catalunya region.

While the Visigoths occupied Spain after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was their overthrow by the Moors in the 8th century CE that led to a general decline in wine production that didn’t start to grow again until the Reconquista of Spain in the 12th century. The higher alcohol content (as well as the eventual advent of the fortified wines of Sherry fame) allowed the wines to travel well and Spain beginning a tradition of exporting that continues to this day.

Growth in exports raised steadily throughout the following centuries and saw massive expansion during the 17th and 18th centuries to Spain’s colonial holdings.

In the mid-19th century, Rioja, while producing wines of note for some time became a power to reckon with as shown by the founding of several of today’s well-known estates.

The second half of the 19th century was a boom for Spain as France’s wine industry had been crippled by the onset of the root louse, phylloxera and they were readily buying Spanish wine in bulk to bottle in France, a practice that continues in earnest in the 21st century and is fomenting conflict with Southern French winemakers. But, 160 years ago it was the French winemakers who crossed the border and brought with them more advanced winemaking techniques which greatly improved the quality of Spanish wine, with a heavy emphasis on Rioja.

In a mere 20 years after the founding of these still highly-regarded estates, some 16,000ha of vineyards were planted and in 1880 a rail link was completed to Bilbao from the village of Haro. The made Haro the de facto centre for shipping wine up to France and, despite the sleepiness of the town today, it was a key economic centre for the region during this time.  Tribute is paid to this time in the annual La Cata del Barrio de la Estación which features all of the wineries in the historic neighbourhood around the train station.

Spanish wine history

Villa Conchi cellars, Cava. Credit: Araex

This initially excellent time for Spanish wine quickly turned sour as first powdery mildew crossed the Pyrenees in 1850, followed by phylloxera a few decades later on the eastern shores. Rioja managed to avoid the ravages for some time, but phylloxera finally arrived in 1901 and while the solution of grafting on to American roots had long been known, it was a massive financial undertaking. Many of the French winemakers who had established themselves in Rioja returned back to France.

In many other regions, countless viticulturists emigrated from the Spain in general to find their fortunes elsewhere in the world. Those who stayed replanted and fully changed the face of the vines grown as countless old varieties were lost in favour of more uniform and more productive selections, such as what have become the core white grapes used in Cava.

The magnitude of the Spanish Civil War impacted wine production and a great deal and in the second half of the 20th century another quality revolution in Spain washed over Spain. For Rioja, the start of the 1970s and specifically the vintage of 1970 put the region back on the maps of the wine world from which is has manage to stay firmly upon for generations of wine drinkers now.

In other regions, such as Penedès, winemakers began to introduce more scientific and clean winemaking. The consistent quality of these news wines has led to Spain’s being one of top three wine producers in the world.

But, in addition to the ability to produce huge quantities of wine, every year we see more singular, icon wines emerging showing that Spain is readily capable of finesse in addition to creating well-priced wine for the masses.


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