Paella, sangria and siesta – Spain is a country whose stereotypes overshadow its true personality. The same happens with its winemaking tradition, which is all too often summed up in three words: Rioja, Priorat and Cava.
The reality is that Spain is composed of 17 regions, all of them so culturally different that they have their own languages, traditions and people groups. Spain’s wines share the same uber-regional markers, with grape varieties and winemaking styles shifting along with DNA and dialects.
The denominación de origen, or DO, is how Spain designates its official wine regions, a distinction that got its start in 1932 with the Second Republic’s Estatuto del Vino. This early edict recognised 19 regions and served as the basis for the DO designation’s creation in 1970.
Now there are 70 DOs, many of them among the wine world’s most famous names. But some of these DOs are less than 500 hectares in size and are nothing more (and nothing less) than hills and mountains where grape-growers cultivate local grape varieties not found anywhere else on the continent, and winemakers produce wine using techniques practised for centuries.
The ideal way to explore Spain’s tiny DOs is by car – they often lack the budgetary support that the bigger wine regions translate into public transport, wine routes and village-centric tourism.
That said, be prepared for spectacular, pristine landscapes, whether they be the scruffy, olive-hued mountainsides of DO Binissalem in Mallorca or the hairpin mountain roads of the 1,200m-high Alpujarras in DO Granada.
The joy of Spain’s smallest wine regions is as tangible as the wine itself – the winery tours are often conducted in person by the winemakers, which makes for extraordinary personal stories. And there is the chance to taste Spain’s wildly varied regional cuisine, paired, of course, with wines that exude terroir.
Whether 200ha or 20ha, Spain’s smallest regions are bursting with a richness of winemaking, culture and flavours that is just waiting to be enjoyed.
DO Arabako Txakolina
For centuries the Valle de Ayala, home to the DO Arabako Txakolina (also known as Txakolí de Alava in Basque, or Chacolí de Alava in Spanish), was virtually forgotten by all except its Basque inhabitants. Sandwiched between the historically important Castilla y León and the industrial Bizkaia (Biscay), its peaceful rolling hills and pine tree-lined mountains are mainly planted with vines of Hondarrabi Zuri (also known as Courbu Blanc in the French Pays Basque), a grape that has been used to make Txakoli wine across the Basque Country for centuries.
Txakolina, as it is called in the Euskera language, was a rustic wine until the first Txakoli DO (Getariako Txakolina) was formed in 1989, a move that was quickly followed by a refining of winemaking processes and a leap in quality.
The Alava (Araba in Basque) region founded its own DO in 2001. It differs geographically from the other Txakoli-producing areas in its landlocked nature, resulting in slightly rounder, less salty and more mineral wines than those of its counterparts. There exists a Txakoli Route (see spain.info) linking wineries, local tourism offices, lodging and restaurants, which is a good way to begin to plan a trip through the valley. However, in this tiny DO, just about everything is 10 minutes away, and it’s a joy in both sunny and (more likely) cloudy weather to coast up and down the A-624.
Head for the town of Okondo to Bodegas Astobiza, where Xabier Abando continues a family tradition of growing Hondarrabi Zuri grapes with an eye to refined, over rustic, wines. The guided visits, available through the winery or the local tourism office, offer you the chance to stroll through the micro-parcels responsible for Abando’s hand-harvested single-vineyard Txakoli. Concrete egg fermenters, employed to make as low-intervention a Txakoli as possible, are a rare sight indeed in the Txakoli world, as are the estate’s oak barrels – Astobiza has an eye for wines that will age, not a typical goal for this traditionally young table wine.
A 30-minute drive south, Bat Gara is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Rancher-turned-winemaker Txema Gotxi is doing everything you’re ‘not supposed to’ with Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratia and some Riesling grapes grown in the hills outside Lezama. From his garage winery in the valley, he was one of the first winemakers to experiment with an aged Txakoli and has an ongoing roster of rarities such as skin-contact Txakoli, an ancestral-method sparkling wine, and even a peppery red Txakoli made with the rare local variety Hondarrabi Beltza and Cabernet Franc.
For Txakoli served with a side of history, Torre de Murga, just 10 minutes’ drive away, makes for a wonderful afternoon visit. This tower was built in 1272 and thanks to its tucked-away location, and the fact it’s stayed in the same family for 24 generations, it has remained in perfect condition. Book a guided visit to walk around the vineyard with son-and-daughter duo Federico and Paz Verástegui before touring the stone tower’s grounds and tasting the family’s Txakoli Txikubin within its walls.
Stone farmhouses, or baserri, are the beating hearts of Basque culture and of the DO, and some have been converted into B&Bs. None of the small towns feels particularly wine-focused, so instead of basing yourself in one of the villages, seek out a beautiful baserri perched over the rolling green valleys, such as Caserío Iruaritz. This traditional Basque farmhouse dates back to the 1400s and its five rooms belong to a different era, with their period furnishings and original wood-beamed ceilings.
When in Basque Country, good eating is practically a given – and the Alava region is no exception. Be sure to reserve a lunch at Restaurante Bideko, a three-story Basque farmhouse in Lezama serving up classics such as salt cod in pil pil sauce (an emulsion made with salt cod gelatin, garlic, dried guindilla chilli and olive oil), tender roasted piquillo peppers and flaky battered hake. Pop into El Antojo in Respaldiza for pintxos in the evening, or have a sit-down meal of grilled txuleta steak (beef from older cows with a higher-than-usual fat content), porcini scrambled eggs or other traditional Basque dishes from the menu.
At a glance: DO Arabako Txakolina
Vineyard area 95ha
Number of wineries 7
Main grapes planted Hondarrabi Beltza, Hondarrabi Zuri, Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratia
How to get there Fly into Bilbao (BIO), which is only about 30 minutes by car
Source for all figures on vineyard area and number of wineries: Spanish Ministry of Agriculture (2021/2022)
On a map, Alella could pass for just another square mile of Barcelona’s urban sprawl. Before you’ve even noticed, you’re in the midst of its criss-crossing main streets, dotted with bars and bakeries, nestled among grand villas built in the Catalan ‘Modernista’ style popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – vestiges of a past when the area was populated by Barcelona’s summering wealthy. The DO Alella was one of the first in Spain – it was originally recognised in 1932 and officially registered in 1955 – and vines have been cultivated in the region since Roman times. The vineyards are a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean, on the Maresme coast, where mountains drop quickly to sea level, leaving small parcels of vineyards aerated by fresh, salty breezes.
White wine is the star of the region, made from Pansa Blanca, the regional name for Xarel.lo, the white grape traditionally used in Cava. The granitic sand that makes up the topsoil gives the grape a particular minerality that is typical in Alella’s white wines, but the nine wineries that make up the DO craft everything from Cavas to dessert reds.
This is not your typical sleepy rural wine region – cultural activities and wine routes abound. Activities include the Fiesta de la Vendimia de Alella, a harvest festival in its 50th year that takes place in the first or second week of September and includes grape stomping as well as a town-wide tapas and wine pairing contest. With easy access to the gorgeous natural park, Parc de la Serralada Litoral, it’s a dream destination for active types. Architecture calls, too: from the jaw-droppingly huge Cal Governador estate to the transformed farmhouse of Can Bonveí, Alella is a veritable treasure trove of Catalan modernist buildings.
If you’re travelling by public transport, Alella is by far the easiest DO to visit. A direct bus from Barcelona leaves you within walking distance of one of the DO’s most dynamic wineries, Alta Alella. The Pujol-Busquets family started the winery in 1991 with a small parcel of Pansa Blanca. They live among the vines in a 19th-century modernist villa, between the winery, Cava cave (which houses the top cuvée, Alta Alella 10 Gran Reserva 2012), and a sleek, single-level building devoted to wine tourism.
A visit to the vineyards – with the sparkling blue sea in the background – and winery, with a subsequent tasting of four wines with ham and cheese, is wonderful. You can also opt for a visit by 4×4, an off-road experience that takes you to the family’s highest vineyards. In summer months, Alta Alella opens a pop-up wine bar in the evenings with a guest DJ. Be sure to enquire about the winery’s other, more sporadic activities, such as yoga overlooking the vineyards, and micro-theatre performances.
Alella is a DO with a split personality – the wineries on the opposite side of the Serra Litoral mountains make up the Vallès Oriental, with a more extreme continental climate. Make the drive to Masia Can Roda, a 40ha country estate framed by woods and vineyards, and tour it with Pepi Milà, one of the owners (who are both also pharmacists). Accessible directly by train from the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona (getting off at the nearby Mollet-Sant Fost station), this traditional Catalan masia, or villa, built in 1864, feels a world away from the city’s bustling streets. Milà leads the two-hour visits around the vineyards, where you will be refreshed by a constant pleasant breeze, before offering a tasting of four of the estate wines, made with a selection of the Pansa Blanca, Moscatel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Garnacha grapes grown nearby.
Make a base at the 37-room Hotel Arrey Alella, the only real hotel in the village, which offers light, airy accommodation and a garden swimming pool. Or stay just a quick drive up in the hills, at Mas Salagros Ecoresort, a smart spa hotel with an organic ethos and impressive facilities.
Fill glasses and stomachs in the centre of town, just down the street from the Alella Vinícola, a Modernista-style cellar that was built in 1906. Both La Companyia d’Alella and Celler Jordana are examples of that wonderfully Spanish hybrid between general store and tapas bar. With their walls lined with bottles from Alella, you can tour the DO from a bar stool.
For a proper lunch, don’t let the fish-counter atmosphere of the white-tiled Casa de Menjars Vilanova 1989 in nearby Vilanova del Vallés fool you – this spot has a spectacular menu of the best shellfish and seafood around, including a gorgeous red shrimp Spanish omelette.
DO Alella: At a glance
Vineyard area 223ha
Number of wineries 9
Main grapes planted Garnacha Blanca, Garnacha Tinta, Moscatel, Mataró, Pansa Blanca, Pansa Rosada, Picapoll, as well as international varieties
How to get there If you fly into Barcelona (BCN), Alella can be reached by car in 20 minutes. Or take the bus from Passeig de Gràcia, also 20 minutes
Blue skies, dusty roads lined with hand-built stone walls, and olive-green everything – this is the backdrop of Binissalem, a tiny DO located in northern Mallorca. Few DOs can claim as long a history of winemaking as Binissalem, where vineyards were planted as early as 121 BC in the very villages in which they exist today: Santa Maria del Cami, Consell, Sencelles, Santa Eugenia and Binissalem itself. These villages line the Ma-13 country road, living double lives – as dusty, peaceful stone house-lined locales part of the week and bustling hubs for artisans and winemakers on market days.
DO Binissalem sits at the foot of the imposing Serra Tramuntana, whose silt and red clay soil with its gravelly limestone pebbles are tailored to the cultivation of native grape varieties such as Manto Negro and Callet. Mallorca being the destination it is, wine tourism is fairly developed despite the minute size of the DO. High season kicks off at the end of May with Wine Days, a weekend-long celebration of the area’s wines featuring everything from wine and flower pairings to poetry readings.
Start exploring at the classic Bodegas José Luis Ferrer, whose tours run daily. Visits to the winery, which was built in 1931, all feature the same sweeping vineyard views, access to a small museum with old viticultural tools on display and the option to taste a selection of premium wines, or pair wines with chocolate.
Mallorca itself has 28 different local wine grapes, and many of them find fascinating expression at this winery in the form of the traditionally made José L Ferrer range of wines, the monovarietal Ferreret range, a sparkling Manto Negro and the organically cultivated Pedra de Binissalem, an herbaceous 100% Moll wine. Just down the street is Ca’n Verdura, a relative newcomer to the DO whose rebellious wines work magic with Manto Negro. While visits are not available, it’s worth seeking out the winery’s bottles on nearby restaurant lists.
One of the more spectacular visits on the island can be had at Vins Nadal, another historic Binissalem winery, founded in 1932 and passed down from generation to generation. You can sample its wares on the Entreviñas Visit, a tour that snakes its way through the stone-excavated cellar and ends with a tasting in the vineyard, replete with old vines such as the 60-year-old ones used in the Albaflor Reserva, an award-winning blend of Manto Negro, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
Any trip to the Binissalem wine region would be incomplete without stopping by at Bodegas Ribas. Due to a disagreement about permitted grape varieties, Ribas is no longer an official part of the DO, but it is one of Spain’s 36 Grandes Pagos de España, or single-estate wineries. Wines have been made continuously at the winery in Consell since 1711, and guided tours include a winery visit followed by a tasting in the garden.
Perhaps the loveliest time to visit DO Binissalem is autumn, when it seems as if every weekend in a wine lover’s agenda could have something pencilled in. September marks the Festa des Vermar, a lively celebration of the completed harvest. Stretching for two weeks, this festival is a blur of parades, tastings and contests in which the Gran Batalla de Raïm, a 10,000kg grape fight, stands out as the messiest. Only slightly cleaner is the Concurs de Trepitjar Raïm, a grape-stomping contest done in pairs to see who can press the most juice. In November, in Santa María del Camí, Festa del Vi Novell offers the chance to taste the new wine from seven different local wineries. The wineries hang a pine branch on the door to indicate that the wine barrels of the vintage ‘vi novell’ have already been opened.
Hidden away between the olive groves and mountains in Montuiri is Finca Serena, the ideal base for wine tourism on the island of Mallorca. The vast 40ha estate has dreamy walking trails through lavender fields and vineyards, and the breezy charm of a 13th-century Mallorcan finca permeates the 25 Mediterranean-modern rooms and the aesthetic spa, voted Spain’s Best Resort Spa 2022 by the World Spa Awards.
Don’t forgo a dinner at the two-star Michelin Jacaranda, chef Oscar Velasco’s restaurant in the hotel, which offers al fresco dining experiences and a stellar wine list with a selection of Mallorca’s most in-demand wines, from Binissalem to Pla i Llevant. Another nice spot for dinner is the nearby Ca Na Toneta, a strictly seasonal, family-run gem. Or snack on luscious bread, olives and allioli, or frito mallorquín at the relaxed Sa Cuina de N’Aina in Sencelles.
DO Binissalem: At a glance
Vineyard area 565ha
Number of wineries 15
Main grapes planted Callet, Gorgollasa, Manto Negro, Moll or Prensal Blanca, Moscatel, Parrellada, as well as international varieties.
How to get there Fly into Palma (PMI) and rent a car to make the 30-minute drive (and the most of the scenery). Or get the train – just about every train on the T2 line from Palma stops in Binissalem village.
DO El Hierro
In its position as the westernmost Canary Island, El Hierro feels like the end of the earth. And, in fact, it was thought to be just that until the discovery of the New World by Spanish fleets in the 15th century. El Hierro is not just a tiny DO, it’s a tiny island – the smallest of the original seven Canary Islands at only 278km2. The Canary Islands are one of the only places on the globe never to have been affected by the phylloxera bug, meaning that ungrafted local grapes such as Verijadiego and Bermejuelo still survive, producing the island’s signature whites that make up the majority of the production.
El Hierro is unique in that, for such a small region that has only a handful of wineries, the number of grape-growers is high – nearly 250. The tradition of having a parcel of land to grow grapes for homemade wine is long held on the island, and the precipitous geography has created scatterings of tiny vineyards, surviving, and thriving, where they can.
Visiting wineries can mean navigating a maze of laurel and pine forests and windy roads on steep cliffs – organised wine tourism on the island is almost non-existent. That means visits are often marked by authentic conversations with the winemakers, but it also means that it’s always necessary to call ahead and reserve a spot.
That is most definitely the case with Bodega Uwe Urbach in the El Golfo zone of DO El Hierro. Urbach left his office job to make organic wines in El Hierro in 1996, right after the DO was formed. His vineyard sits at 700m above sea level. He conducts the tasting and tour sessions himself, passing through the vineyards before spreading out his wines and local snacks. Urbach’s vineyards are a mix of all the local grapes and yield some fascinating wines, such as the Clarete Barranco, a surprisingly dark pink blend of red and white grapes with a distinct blanc de noirs feel.
The same applies to Bodega HM Las Vetas in the isolated village of Sabinosa, 15 minutes down the coast. Its high-altitude vines, cultivated among challenging steep gradients and stone terraces, are an example of the heroic viticulture that sets the island’s wines apart. Call ahead to be shown around by Herminio Sánchez, who works by hand in vineyards with a gradient of up to 72% to make his rare, award-winning sweet wine from Verijadiego, Listán Blanco and Gual.
The Cooperativa del Campo Frontera is a co-op made up of hundreds of members that not only bring in grapes but produce wine as well. Run by Jennifer Quintero, it is one of the island’s largest businesses, and corrals much of its grape production into wines that range from traditional reds (made from Listán Negro and Negramoll) to more unique takes on the island’s autochthonous grapes, like the Baboso Blanco, a silky, barrel-aged, award-winning white.
The El Hierro Denominación de Origen organisation in La Frontera is a great place to pick up information on all the wineries. In addition to being incredibly helpful, they often offer tastings as well. In late April, the DO hosts an open-to-the-public Presentación de la Cosecha in La Frontera, in which the wines produced the previous year are tasted and food is served, and a fantastic idea of the overall wine landscape of the island can be formed.
Since this DO is all about extremes, stay at the ‘world’s smallest hotel’, Hotel Puntagrande. This former Guinness World Record-holder’s four cosy rooms are perched precariously on a slip of lava rock overlooking the Atlantic. Or for a base in the east of the island, the Parador de El Hierro is a gorgeous example of traditional dark wood-accented Canary Island architecture.
Be sure to taste the centuries-old fusion of island traditions and Latin American flavours, introduced on trading routes to and from the New World. Joapira (+34 922 55 98 03) is a casual, down-home spot where you can try Latin-influenced Herreño cooking. In La Restinga, book in at Casa Juan for its famous shellfish soup or El Refugio (+34 922 55 71 30), a restaurant with its own fishing boat that brings fresh shrimp and limpets daily. For gorgeous views, stop in at the Mirador de la Peña restaurant, designed by island darling César Manrique.
DO El Hierro: At a glance
Vineyard area 114ha
Number of wineries 13
Main grapes planted Baboso Negro, Bermejuelo, Gual, Listán Blanco, Listán Negro, Malvasia, Negramoll, Verdello, Verijadiego Blanco, Verijadiego Negro
How to get there El Hierro has a minuscule airport (VDE), with a few direct flights from Tenerife North and Gran Canaria. There is also a ferry from Tenerife that takes 2.5 hours
One of the most recent DOs to be created, established in 2018, Granada is still finding its identity as a wine region, but not for lack of history – there are records of winemaking and grape cultivation that date back to Roman times, amplifying under Moorish rule. Granada is mostly defined by its red wines, made from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Petit Verdot and Merlot. Vineyard elevations are among the highest in Europe, with half located above 1,000m, according to the local consejo regulador, and the average at about 1,200m. The sun is omnipresent here, seeming at times so close you can touch it, but the wild variation of temperatures from evening to morning make for fabulous winemaking conditions.
Many of the DO’s wineries are found to the northeast of Granada, in the area known as the Altiplano-Norte. Small, family-run wineries are the norm in this mini-region. One such is Bodegas Al Zagal, run by former politician and head of the DO, Pepe Olea. Start a visit to the DO at one of its powerhouses, Bodegas Muñana, the largest winery in Granada with its own vineyards. Since the Swiss Hess family bought the winery in 2018, Muñana has increased the variety and sophistication of the wines it produces, including a 75% Moscatel white, Muñana Blanco, that is all mineral florality with a wonderful acid bite. Standard visits are run regularly, although the winery also offers stargazing and wine tasting activities. Or you can take a hike-and-sip trip through the Geoparque de Granada, where you can see Chardonnay grapes cultivated at 1,188m before receiving a lesson in the traditional method (refermented in bottle) for making sparkling wine. Don’t head back into the city without stopping for artichokes and grilled chops at Casas Cueva Tío Tobas, a restaurant built into the hills of the countryside and a fabulous example of the cave houses for which neighbouring Guadix is known.
A visit to the sub-region of Contraviesa-Alpujarra is an absolute must to fully understand the Granada DO. Buckle up for the 1.5-hour drive and prepare to be wowed traversing the Sierra Nevada National Park to reach the southern slopes and their sky-scraping vineyards, some of them as high as 1,300m. It’s a winding, breathtaking affair where white-walled villages seem to dangle off steep slopes, alternately a dusty brown and a scruffy dark green. This is where some of the oldest evidence of winemaking in Granada can be found, including vino costa, a curious, rough homemade wine typically made from a mix of unknown grapes. Bodegas Barranco Oscuro, a champion of local grapes in the area, makes a refined version of this clarete-like wine (Vino Costa) from vines at 1,368m, just 10km from the sea.
Owner Manolo Valenzuela doesn’t offer tours, but you can drive down the road to Bodegas La Divisa, a young project started by architect Alejandro Vignapiano and businessman Juan Manuel Colomé, for a taste of what this sub-region has to offer.
There, in the overpowering sun, the views of the western tip of the Mediterranean intoxicate, along with the smell of thyme, lavender and holm oak baking in the heat. The pair have several vineyard parcels scattered throughout the area. Until recently they were custom crushing their high-altitude wines – a collection of limited-edition experiments, such as a carbonic maceration 100% Petit Verdot – along with their eight other references (all high-altitude). Visits here are personal, conducted by Vignapiano, and start in organic vineyards of Syrah and Petit Verdot, before visiting their new winery and finishing with a tasting.
For a lunch spot in this area, stop at Alqueria de Morayma, a winery with a restaurant and hotel that offers traditional dishes such as ajo blanco made with its own almonds and local cheeses, perfectly paired with a bottle of their monovarietal Vijiriega. Or enjoy an informal meal of grilled meats and platos combinados right off the A-348 at Venta el Puente (+34 647 20 61 51), where you can take a dip in the local swimming hole beneath the Puente de los Siete Ojos bridge to cool off in summertime.
Exploring DO Granada is best done from the capital city, using a car to navigate the surrounding mountains and valleys. Stay at Hospes Palacio de Los Patos, a stylish 19th-century mansion with a lovely flower-draped terrace and modern, design-led interiors, or Casa 1800 Granada for a more boutique-y feel in Granada’s ancient Albayzín district. Granada city is also where it’s at, gastronomically speaking – make a night of tapas at the city’s food institutions, starting with charcuterie and cheeses at top-rated wine bar Taberna La Tana.
Find fabulous fried seafood in a boisterous atmosphere at Los Diamantes and finish at the ancient Bodegas Castañeda, a buzzing spot dating back to 1927. If you have a few nights, consider staying in the countryside at Hotel La Almunia del Valle, a chic and special spot in the heart of the Sierra Nevada National Park.
DO Granada: At a glance
Vineyard area 263ha
Number of wineries 22
Main grapes planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Garnacha Tinta, Merlot, Monastrell, Moscatel, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Romé, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo, Vijiriega
How to get there Granada has an airport (GRX) though connections are very limited; another option is to fly into Málaga (AGP) and make the 1.5-hour drive
For more small-scale wine traditions…
To find more tiny wine regions in Spain, visit the Pequeñas DOs website. This initiative, started by a group of wine world professionals, has one mission: to draw attention to the hidden jewels of Spanish wines, saving indigenous grape varieties in the process.