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Known for bold reds, crisp whites, and distinctive sparkling and fortified wines, Spain has embraced international varieties and wine styles while continuing to place the primary emphasis upon its own native grapes. Though the country’s climate is diverse, it is generally warm to hot. In the center of the country lies a vast, dry plateau known as the Meseta Central, characterized by extremely hot summers and frequent drought. Because of its location on the Iberian Peninsula, many of Spain’s wine regions are located on or near the milder coast, either of the Bay of Biscay to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the northwest, or the Mediterranean sea to the south and east. Each of these regions has its own unique soil, climate, and topography, as well as principal grape varieties.
In the cool, damp northwest region of Galicia, refreshing white Albariño and Verdejo dominate, though elsewhere the most popular wines are generally red. Rioja is Spain’s best-known region, where earthy, age-worthy reds are made from Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache), as well as rich, nutty whites from Viura. Ribera del Duero produces opulent, fruity, top-quality wines from almost exclusively Tempranillo. Priorat, a sub-region of Catalonia, blends Garnacha with Cariñena (Carignan) to make bold, full-bodied wines with a hint of earthiness. Catalonia is also home to Cava, a sparkling wine made in the traditional method but from indigenous varieties. Sherry, Spain’s famous fortified wine, is produced in a wide range of styles from dry to lusciously sweet at the country’s southern tip in Jerez. Since the 1990s, international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc have been steadily increasing in importance in several regions.
Most sherries are dry and meant to pair alongside food but Americans have traditionally focused on the sweet ones. Sherry comes from only one place in the entire world, Andalucía, where the soil and unique seasonal changes give an unsurpassed character to its wines. The many styles change with the process of production, not really the grape, though certain styles are reserved for different grapes. The main grapes are Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Muscat of Alexandria.
Pedro Ximénez can make some amazing sweet sherries. Cream Sherry is technically the sweetest, darkest style of Sherry, except sometimes Pedro Ximénez can be sweeter. The rest of the styles are dry and dependent on the action of flor, which are benevolent film-forming yeasts that make a floating veil on the surface of the wine and protect it from oxidation.
Fino, from Jerez, and Manzanilla, from the humid and cool coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, are the lightest styles and are meant to be drunk young.
Amontillado happens when a Fino’s layer of flor fades and the wine starts to oxidize. Quite simply it is an aged Fino that has a darker color and richer palate.
When flor yeast dies unexpectedly, the result is Palo Cortado. Palo Cortado Sherries can behave like Amontillado on the palate but often show a greater balance of richness and delicacy.
Oloroso never develops flor but is oxidized for five to twenty five years and become aromatic and strong like a fine bourbon.