Vineyards of Spain and Portugal

The barcos rabelos that were once used for transporting the wine from the Upper Duoro to the Port lodges

In modern times, the red wine of Spain in particular has been the symbol of a Mediterranean sunshine holiday. The wine consumed in that country and brought back home has become a symbol of a good time abroad and an introduction to wine , for many the first tastings.

That has proved a double-edged sword, as the wine consumed in most cases has been delivered to the table or bar without much, or any knowledge of what is being put in front of them and as the majority little care either, so for many Spanish holiday makers, the first impression formed about wine can go in several directions and determine future wine drinking for good or for bad.

Spain has got away with foisting some pretty awful wines on unsuspecting holiday makers for what seems like forever simply because they either don’t know or care enough to discriminate, and it’s all unnecessary as good wines abound in the country if you can be arsed to make a little effort, for they are all around.

Advertisement on the side of a building Oporto

Even the big producers and co-ops that sell wine in bulk from the barrel to customers who turn up with 20ltr plastic containers can be a bargain for everyday plonk if you bother to taste – and you can – something above the 50p leel. lt’s stuff that everyone makes a beeline for, a few pence extra will normally suffice in getting a perfectly drinkable red.

The one name that everyone knows when Spanish wine is mentioned is Rioja – it has been the mainstay of the country’s wine industry forever, but suffered years ago from marketing barrel aged wines long past their sell by date. It still goes in many supermarket half price offers as Gran Reservas of ten years or more age.

Seems like a good deal, and in fairness a few are but many as in the past have seen better days. It’s a shame because some very good wineries are responsible for putting these out on the market.

Nonetheless the silky smooth Rioja that everyone desires is readily available and you are less likely to get a “wrong un” than you were a couple of decades ago. It was the international discovery of Rioja in the early eighties that started the change.


Up to that time, sherry was the only internationally recognised Spanish wine, and with that recognition came the opening up and rise of Penedes in Catalonia. Rioja’s rivals were a scattered number of estates which began to produce wines that in many cases surpassed Rioja.

Changes in the regulatory controls’ improvement in techniques have all gone a long way in improving the wines, controls as in France with its appellations whilst guaranteeing origin and content do not, as in any country, guarantee quality.

With the upsurge of these regions, the big La Mancha area south of Madrid and its neighbors have suffered and this became another of those areas filling up the European wine lake with its over-alcoholic offerings that fewer and fewer people wanted and now in its slimmed down form still has a long way to go.

Vineyards on the Upper Douro

So broadly, the north produces the quality wines, the middle area the bulk wines and the south apertifs and dessert wines – sherry being the foundation wine. Sherry is still in slow decline, its best offerings are now a snip in the league table of the world’s best wines.

A recent auction showing a wine list from the pre-war Cunard Queen Mary shows a good sherry listing at more money than a Ch Lafite – how times have changed.

With sherry, its worth remembering that the Finos and Manzanillas which can be consumed with tapas in Jerez and Sanlucar de Barrameda should always be consumed young. Manzanilla in particular should not be kept and in the case of Fino, it changes to another form of sherry in time.

Variety in sherry, with its declining popularity, is not easy to come by on the high street. The sadly now defunct Oddbins used to stock a huge range of Finos and Manzanillas at one time, with the company Barbadillo alone having a range of about ten on offer, but Oddbins and all it stood for, the best of the high st outlets by far, with staff to match, was ruined by the last owners Nicolas the French wine chain and went under – a classic case of the accountants coming in and failing to grasp the reason for a company’s success is not just the bottom line, but I digress.

A modern winery at Evora Portugal

In line with international market wants, Rioja to a large extent has lightened its wines with many Bodegas – less time in oak and more time in bottle before release and this has widened their appeal.

Catalonia, as the people there keep telling everyone, is really another country. The wine region is influenced by France with whom they share a border. Spain is like Italy in having a huge range of indigenous grape varieties, Catalonia has supplemented these with a growing number of classic French and German grapes, with the Torres family leading in the blending of the old varieties and with the new imports having great success.

Catalonia also produces around 90% of Spains sparkling wines, with Codorniu being the biggest sparkling wine producer at the last count in the world.

Other regions of note include Navarra to the east of Rioja. At one time rated to become a high class exporter of wines using more international grape varieties but seems, after a promising start to have stalled, Valdepenas in the south of La Mancha that seems to be raising itself above the bulk producing areas around it, and the Rueda and Duero area that includes the sublime and hugely expensive Vega Sicilia estate, again using Bordeaux grape varieties with the native ones.

This is Spains most prestigious winery.

Bodegas of Muga in Rioja Spain

I haven’t mentioned white wine for a very good reason. Very little of it except for the products of Torres and a small number of others makes it worth the effort. The old oxidized and frankly awful wines of the past have gone but the majority of the successors are quite average but better value and wines are available elsewhere.

Yes, I know somebody out there will defend a wonderful Alvarinho or such he found to be the equal of anything available on the planet and yes good whites do exist but not so as one would notice.
Portugal has gone its own way. Even up to the end of the 20th century, they were growing and making wine as they had always done to suit themselves and the country.

The Douro is ideal wine growing land, Dao and Bairrada areas are well established and good wines are found there but the area south the Ribatejo is where its all happening at this time with the Tagus river and areas south being the focus of new development.


In many of these areas, it’s the non demarcated wines that are where the stars are unshackled by the laws governing the traditional make up of demarcated area rules. Wines that meet approval world wide are appearing in increasing numbers.

White wines in Portugal are not dissimilar to Spain’s when it comes to world approval, apart from a small number of increasingly good vinho verdes and new plantings of French grapes plus the very rare appearance of an indigenous grape from a producer who cares.

It’s easier to forget than to promote them.

Port of course is a different matter all together, made by the running of partially fermented red wine, while it contains half its grape sugar and putting it into a barrel a quarter full of brandy.

The immaculate cellars of Vega Sicilia

Port is made in the the upper Douro but not kept there, it is transported soon after it is made to complete its processing in the Vila Nova de Gaia area of Oporto. Anyone who has been to Oporto cannot but see the port lodges with the owners names above in huge lettering rising up the hillside on the opposite shore and I can recommend this is well worth a visit should you be there.

Portugal is reaching the stage where, if it keeps going in its current direction, it will start to make inroads on Spain’s domination of the peninsula’s wine production, not in quantity but quality, at all price levels.

The days when Mateus rose was the only Portugese wine that anybody knew of is not yet over but things really are getting better.

Gonzalez Byass in Jerez

16 comments for “Vineyards of Spain and Portugal

  1. July 3, 2012 at 18:55

    Very interesting. It is very difficult to get decent Sherry these days. It can be obtained in the supermarket, but in smaller bottle and at more expense. I am still able to get the ones I like from a local wholesale outlet.

  2. July 3, 2012 at 18:57

    Never really was a sherry person. It was my mum’s tipple.

  3. JD
    July 3, 2012 at 20:24

    ………..don’t know about the holiday areas of Spain coz I have never been to any of them (not for long anyway) but in the cities the lunchtime plonk on the table is always more than acceptable. Out and about for the evening in Madrid I would usually ask for Valdepeñas rather than Rioja but that might just be personal preference.
    I think they also keep the best for home consumption rather than export.

  4. dearieme
    July 3, 2012 at 23:09

    They’re pricey but there are some lovely Madeiras around.

    As for sherry, Tesco had a very attractive Oloroso a few months ago.

  5. July 3, 2012 at 23:13

    @ James

    The best Sherries are not a tipple they are part of a dining experience. My favorite type is dry Oloroso.

    @ JD

    Do I detect a touch of nostalgia there…

  6. July 3, 2012 at 23:26

    @ dearieme,

    Yes a very nice dry Oloroso but the supermarkets have upped the price (see my comment above).

    What I didn’t mention is that the taste of the supermarket vintages isn’t quite the same as the original labeled vintage…

    To my palate the supermarket variety is a little bit inferior (sweeter) (and more expensive)…

  7. Rossa
    July 4, 2012 at 07:30

    JD, the French are also notorious for keeping the best for themselves and exporting their rubbish.

    My favourtie ‘sticky’ is a Pedro Ximinez sweet sherry which is very viscous and tastes of liquid sunshine and raisins. Brilliant with Xmas Pud.

  8. wiggiatlarge
    July 4, 2012 at 09:45

    The sherry comments are very interesting as it has indeed lost favor over the years, I was going to write more on sherry but did not think the interest was out there I was mistaken.
    My remarks re Oddbins give an idea as to what was available but those days have gone, I concur with about the status of Amontillados and Olorosos, Gonzales Byass still make some superb wines in those categories and Tio Pepe may be old hat but is still as good a fino as is generally available and the Tesco own brand fino was way above its class in its last incarnation when it was supplied and made by Lustau one of the reall good producers but they have changed suppliers -price – and its not as good.
    The solera system whereby sherry is blended and the different forms are realized is interesting resulting in with aging rarities such as Palo Cortado and others.
    But in the sherry towns it is fino and manzanilla that is drunk with tappas or alone.

  9. July 4, 2012 at 10:03

    Well I’d appreciate info on sherries as I never thought they were more than a bit of plonk mothers drank. Sorry me. I’m here to be educated.

  10. dearieme
    July 4, 2012 at 11:19

    I agree that Lustau sherries are often very good: Waitrose stock some – it’s my impression that they stock more in the months before Xmas.

    I also agree that Palo Cortado can be delicious – Tesco had a good ‘un a few years ago.

    We prefer 375ml or 500ml bottles because we find that 750ml bottles are too big – the sherry has deteriorated a bit before we finish it.

    In summer, a cold soup with a cold sherry can be delicious.

  11. wiggiatlarge
    July 4, 2012 at 12:09

    I’ll see what I can do James, I will do a separate piece before my next vineyard item.

  12. July 4, 2012 at 13:10

    Gosh, might start getting into sherry.

  13. July 4, 2012 at 20:15

    Following on from the comments. It is Lustau Sherry that I like, in particular Don Nuno and Los Arcos. If those or something similar aren’t available, I choose the trusty Tio Pepe.

    Part of the reason that Lustau Sherry is difficult to obtain in this country is because the company insist on a large volume of each type being purchased at a time (unless the have changed that policy), which makes it uneconomic for the seller.


    I think you would enjoy a good dry Oloroso.

  14. July 5, 2012 at 00:06

    Shall look out for it.

  15. dearieme
    July 5, 2012 at 10:48

    Now then, Hob, here’s a recommendation from Jancis Robinson in the FT on 23/06/2012.

    Barbadillo, Tesco Finest Manzanilla £5.99 for 50 cl.

    “… lightest, palest, driest, most appetising style of sherry.”
    “… tingling fresh and superlative value …”

    15%, so only a little stronger than some Aussie Shiraz.

    I recommend it too as an alternative to Tesco’s lovely Oloroso. Try ’em both when circs allow.

  16. July 5, 2012 at 11:07

    Shall do on the weekend.

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